“We’re not a team that trusts. We’re not a team at all.” S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Jeffrey Mace has a knack for saying things that precipitate change. With those words, the clouds of mistrust and unease swirling around the agency’s former and current director dissipate, and the two are finally on the same page, having exhausted their respective wells of accusation and anger. They’re a team, after all—one that can march into battle and in a single salvo prevent a nuclear explosion, banish a villain to an alternate dimension, and restore Coulson’s team to full strength, Inhumans and all. Sometimes, you need to get everything into the open before you can see what needs to be done. Knowing the people around you is crucial when you’re executing a plan where almost every aspect happens in the course of one breath.
Yo-Yo Rodriguez is the unsung hero of “The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics,” the one who leads the charge against Eli Morrow with her initial reconnaissance (“If ‘recon’ means ‘look around,’ sure”) and executes the split-second maneuver allowing the team to defeat the matter-controlling scientist. The episode never takes a moment to acknowledge her contribution, but it was the linchpin to everything. She’s been sidelined for much of the first half of the season, but she’s proven herself one of the “big guns,” as Coulson refers to his Inhumans (and Robbie). Elena even gets her long-teased romance with Mack, as the big lunk finally overcomes his awkwardness and kisses her. It’s not the apology she deserves, but there’s plenty of time for that. Getting her back on the team was the first step, and by letting his guard down, Mack has brought back one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s (and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s) best assets.
It’s clear why action wunderkind Kevin Tancharoen was brought in to helm this installment. The kinetic sequences are all uniformly excellent, but Yo-Yo’s incursion into the showdown with Eli and his people is one of the more satisfying fight scenes the series has delivered this season. It’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s version of the “Time In A Bottle” scene from X-Men: Days Of Future Past, a smaller scale replication of watching someone rearrange an entire room in the space between heartbeats. Sure, it wasn’t flawless—Coulson sat there for a good while, just holding out his empty hand, so it’s a good thing the gang member with a pistol aimed at him decided not to fire while everyone else stormed the area prior to Yo-Yo’s move—but such quibbles are easily overlooked when the results are so much fun. It’s a good episode when Daisy blasting thousands of feet into the air to release her pent-up energy is only the fourth most striking image of the hour.
Heroism was in rich supply throughout “Inferno Dynamics,” and not all of it was of the physical kind. With a single sentence, Mace brought Daisy Johnson back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. fold. The season has teased his intentions from the beginning, first teasing him as some menacing bureaucrat before revealing his genial persona, then clouding his actions under an air of mystery. He’s been such a boy scout, it was hard to believe he was in any shady relationship with Nadeer; sure enough, when Coulson tries to bust him on Simmons’ secret mission, Mace tells them the truth. The senator had blackmail materials, and Mace did what he had to in order to protect S.H.I.E.L.D., which included Daisy, even if she’d rather it were otherwise. By the time he puts on his own superhero ensemble and knocks a guy 20 feet into the air, we’ve already remembered why the character was so much fun in our first introduction to him. He’s a man who wants to do the right thing, and do right by those whom he commands. There may not be a Captain America appearance any time soon on this show, but Mace has a similarly old-fashioned approach to, well, most things. Except for optics: He’s too much of a politician to not be a little grumpy about the news using an unflattering photo of him.
Robbie Reyes went out in a blaze of glory. (Not Johnny Blaze, though.) His talk with his uncle captured the essence of a strong dramatic conflict: His uncle was responsible for Gabe’s injury, but also for Robbie becoming Ghost Rider. Eli is full of rage, and although he stresses time and again he didn’t mean for anyone to be hurt, the one thing he can’t say is, “Sorry.” It’s a classically tragic arc, blinded by hubris as Coulson says, and ultimately ended by his own kin. Ghost Rider was an engaging and rich character, done justice by Gabriel Luna’s performance and given a satisfying conclusion to his mission of vengeance. We know he’s capable of returning from wherever he’s been sent—we saw him pop back from there at the end of last episode, without any android-assisted line drawings—so it’s a good bet he’ll be back at some point, once the show’s creative team has time to process how successfully he fit into the overall world of the series. Robbie and the spirit of vengeance have a deal, and there’s no way it’s been completed.
The fate of Dr. Radcliffe’s creation, in contrast, has taken a markedly sinister tone. From the moment the idea of Aida, the Life Model Decoy, was introduced, viewers have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And the show itself seemed to acknowledge just how obvious the idea of a malevolent A.I. robot was to even the most casual eye. “Does no one remember Ultron?” Mace sputters upon first learning of Aida’s true nature. The Avengers’ nemesis is the most logical reference point, and the elephant in the room for another Marvel story about heroes fighting an android. Sorry, two androids: May has already been replaced by another LMD, this one of Aida’s making. Given the next storyline of the series is called “LMD,” there’s only one place the chipper robot’s behavior can lead: To a fight.
But what keeps it from being just another good-vs.-bad showdown is the fun and engaging persona of Aida herself. Thanks to last week’s stinger, we already knew she was likely up to no good, and sure enough, this week’s conclusion was jarring, as she first kills Nathanson, then opens the door to reveal Melinda May’s bloodied body. Yet, the emotional dissonance was noteworthy. We had just watched Aida help save the day by creating another portal, and be rewarded with a couple of bullets to the gut for her efforts. And she was a being in pain: Radcliffe wanted her to be a perfect imitation of humanity, and that meant giving her the ability to feel hurt. Watching her writhe triggers an unavoidable empathetic response, not unlike the experience those currently absorbed in HBO’s Westworld have almost weekly as they watch artificial humans suffer beyond measure. She was a member of the team, and she was wounded. That’s a much more ambiguous and engaging antagonist than a weird A.I. who wakes up and immediately tries to murder everyone we care about. It’s a great set-up for future installments.
“The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics” even managed to give our team a rare moment of respite (albeit at the expense of Agent May). Everyone got to take a breather upon completing the fight against Eli Morrow. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. sometimes forgets dramatics are more rewarding when they’re not a perpetual churn of soap-worthy conflict, so a moment of light bonding goes a long way. The show would do well to recall this scene: Daisy, receiving her lanyard as everyone smiles, making an off-hand reference to a beloved minor character, while the team celebrates a hard-won victory. These chances to relax together are what deepens relationships, both theirs and ours, creating the very investment in their happiness that will soon see us holding our breaths, hoping they survive another impossible scenario. You deserve a moment of peace every now and then, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. And so do we. It makes the struggles all the more intense.
- As might be clear from this review, the only people a little underserved by the final confrontation with Eli Morrow were Fitz and Simmons. It’s not that they didn’t have a decent amount of screen time; it’s just that, even with Fitz solving the mystery of where Eli was drawing matter from, their appearances didn’t hold much resonance. Unless you count learning that Fitz has a fear of clowns holding knives in the dark.
- Jeffrey Mace, upon learning Aida is an android: “Okay, forget about the fact I was mildly attracted to her.”
- Making a plutonium bomb—that’s so Eli.
- Phil Coulson is always ready with a Plan B: “Anyone? Feel free to chime in.”
- R.I.P., Nathanson. You died just as people were starting to learn your name.
- It wasn’t very explicit, but the quiet rapprochement between Daisy and Fitz was a nice beat, and a needed balm for the icy tension between them prior to this episode.
- This is the first thing resembling the end of a story we’ve had all season. I said it above, but it bears repeating: This show could use the occasional moment of just letting its characters be themselves without imminent peril threatening all existence. Maybe every five episodes or so, all the agents go out to dinner together?
- Also, thanks a lot, ABC, for ruining that great Daisy leap with a damn Rogue One pop-up ad. Anyone else get stuck with this irritating image by some moronic advertising timing?