The name of the premiere episode of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fourth season, “The Ghost,” isn’t a reference to the series’ new antagonist at all, despite all the hype given over to introducing the fiery vengeance-seeker revealed in the opening sequence. No, it’s something much more personal: It’s a reference to Daisy Johnson—now known to the world as “Quake”—who has become the unseen specter haunting her former teammates. She’s abandoned her makeshift family, and that loss resonates with all of them, standing in symbolically for the larger loss of identity they all suffered when the team was broken up. Mack says it out loud tonight: “She’s a ghost.” He meant it in the practical sense, given their failure to locate her, but it’s taken on a more significant meaning for everyone. She’s the living embodiment of the dissolution of our S.H.I.E.L.D. team. And it’s not only killing her—it’s making her want to die.
The return of the ABC show is a standard first episode back, in that it once again does a lot of table-setting, and not always in the most compelling manner. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at its best when it’s executing thrilling heroics and tossing witty banter among its leads, not when it has to bend over backwards delivering lengthy expository setup. This season especially, the weight of the narrative lag is noticeable. But as always, the show manages to work in some fantastic action among the morose complaints about the new boss and his heavy-handed leadership style, so those tuning in for the requisite ass-kicking were duly rewarded. (Even if some of said kicking was purely so that Melinda May could remind a new iteration of trainees just how badass she can be.)
Captain America: Civil War changed the stakes, and the Inhumans are now either outlaws or registered neutrals, unable to work with the team. Yo-Yo pops up briefly this week to acknowledge the difficult situation, and bemoan the new state of affairs, a topic on which everyone is in total agreement. S.H.I.E.L.D. is back above board, thanks to the Sokovia Accords, but it means no more demonstrations of power from those who want to stay in the good graces of the international community. Additionally, the new director broke up our team, scattering them among different sections and security levels, all in the name of dismantling the covert power base Coulson and company had developed. It was a power play, pure and simple, as Jemma Simmons tells May, and the idea that an aboveboard and public agency would allow such a group to conitnue as they had been was laughable. It’s why Simmons has fought so hard to get a position of power, and try to exert some control over the agency they used to run. It’s also why things with her and May are mega-awkward.
But the problems go far beyond the new official positions to which our protagonists find themselves relegated. Sure, Coulson is just another agent now—Mack’s addressing him as “sir” is met with a terse, “Stop calling me that”—but the bigger problem is the lack of trust running through his relationships with his former employees. Simmons can’t be told anything, for the simple fact she’s subjected to a daily lie detector, thanks to the new person in charge. (The actor stepping into that role has been publicly announced, if you care to know.) May is chafing under her new, reduced role as trainer and mission leader. Fitz is hobbled by the painful acknowledgement that he can’t tell his girlfriend about the astonishing new invention of Dr. Radcliffe: a robot that can mimic humans almost perfectly. And Mack, well, he doesn’t even have his shotgun-axe anymore. It’s enough to drive a person to demand an exploding pen.
But the show is so excited about its latest character, it can only shuffle among the downbeat team we know and love for so long. No, it wants to get to Ghost Rider—and get to him we do, in the very first minutes of the pre-title sequence. Fans of the comic already know all this, but it’s covered efficiently, if more ambiguously so far, in “The Ghost.” Robbie works at a car junkyard, but he’s possessed by some sort of spirit (we aren’t privy to the details yet) that judges whether the living are worthy of continuing to breathe or not—and woe be to those the spirit finds wanting. The reveal that Robbie isn’t the flaming skull being, but rather the vessel for its vengeance, was a fun one for those who didn’t know the story. Daisy’s realization that Robbie is, in some ways, a pawn, makes for a compelling nemesis, and demonstrates why the iconic Marvel character is such a popular one.
More importantly, Ghost Rider gives us a chance to see just how badly Daisy is hurting. We don’t yet know the reasons for her withdrawal from S.H.I.E.L.D., though it’s pretty clear the Sokovia Accords are only one part of it. She’s hurting badly—which is why, when Ghost Rider approaches her as she’s using her powers to prevent some metal shelving from falling on her, she suddenly begs for death. “Do it. I deserve it,” she pleads, and the full extent of her pain is revealed. Daisy (I’m guessing) blames herself for Lincoln’s death, somehow, and that hurt has forced her back underground. Last season’s finale let us know she’s still doing good, but she’s also exposed, now. The world knows her as a superpowered bank robber, not the self-sacrificing fighter we’ve seen her to be. She thinks she deserves a terrible fate, and as a result, she’s chosen a life that will set her on a collision course with that outcome.
Everything in this debut installment of the latest season was geared toward establishing the new status quo, all so that we can enjoy the ride as it gets almost assuredly ripped to shreds in the coming weeks. No one’s happy, and that discontent is going to end up churning up this new situation in fun ways, I’ve no doubt. We got some great Daisy action sequences, a few witty tête-à-têtes with beloved characters, and a whole lot of “this is going to be important later on, so let’s just flag it for now” moments. It’s unclear how Ghost Rider will factor in to all this, but the bigger bad guy right now is something much more mundane: It’s the paranoid regulations and stifling conditions of a new, accountable S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Sometimes, red tape can strangle you just as effectively as a superpowered villain.
- Mack’s point about getting an exploding pen is well taken: “You never wanted one?”
- Similarly, always fun to see Coulson get yet another hand with cool new abilities. X-ray vision will really come in handy when doing the team’s annual physicals.
- We got to see “the framework” tonight, a mental space created that replicates the material world exactly. It’ll be interesting to see the show incorporate that going forward—since, as Simmons notes, it’ll be a way for May to train her acolytes without them all ending up with bruised bodies the next morning.
- “It’s classified.” “Everything is, these days.”
- Also, loved Coulson’s description of the Aryan Brotherhood as “the value meal of hired guns.”
- There were a bunch of nice moments this week in which powers and abilities were demonstrated in little ways. Daisy holding the hospital door closed was one of my favorites.
- Also, her wrist stabilizers are gone! That looks painful.
- Should we talk about the ghostly woman in the box who makes people hallucinate creepy monster faces? More to the point, should we discuss how May is infected? Eh, let’s save it for next week.
- Welcome back, everyone, to the weekly reviews of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.! We had a lot of fun in the back half of last season, and I think this year promises to be even better. I’ll be around, in both the comments and on Twitter, to discus the ongoing adventures of our beloved band of good guys (well, scattered to the far reaches of S.H.I.E.L.D., for now), so join me, won’t you?