[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 14. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although the first run of episodes in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 focused almost entirely on the incorporation of Robbie Reyes, aka Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) -- with some spotlight on the anti-Inhuman movement -- the second batch of episodes has been more twisty. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently operating under the subtitle of LMD, short for Life Model Decoy, but the anti-Inhuman work of Senator Ellen Nadeer (Parminder Nagra), the Watchdogs, and their leader The Superior (Zach McGowan) has arguably been more of a focus in recent episodes.
That is, until last week's episode, 'Boom', killed off Nadeer and repositioned Anton Ivanov aka The Superior as the leader of the anti-Inhuman movement S.H.I.E.L.D. has been fighting since last season. 'Boom' additionally turned the main Watchdog -- Shockley (John Pyper-Ferguson) -- into an Inhuman, causing him to lead a suicide mission of sorts against Quake and S.H.I.E.L.D., though he was eventually captured thanks to Fitz and Simmons. However in return, Ivanov was able to capture S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Jeffrey Mace aka Patriot (Jason O'Mara), who he believed to be an Inhuman.
Now in this week's episode, 'The Man Behind the Shield' - written by Matt Owens and directed by Wendey Stanzler -- Phil Coulson follows the scavenger hunt of clues left by Ivanov in order to rescue Mace. Along the way, Coulson learns Ivanov's obsession with him is born from one of the agent's early missions that he went on with a young Melinda May (before she became The Cavalry). However, though Coulson is able to rescue Mace, Fitz and Simmons discover something went horribly wrong on the mission.
Cool Origin Story, Bro
Given this week's episode title and the fact that Mace was kidnapped by The Superior in 'Boom', viewers may think 'The Man Behind the Shield' is referring to the director himself. However, it's revealed early on in this week's episode that Ivanov is much more concerned by Coulson than Mace. In fact, Ivanov explains exactly what he thinks of Mace with a story about how men who idolize and impersonate filth are even worse than filth -- Inhumans being the filth in this scenario. Of course, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has dealt with villains zealously devoted to their causes, Radcliffe even referenced last season's big bad Hive in a previous discussion with Ivanov.
Hive and Ivanov are truly two sides of the same coin, with the former destroyed when he tried to eradicate humanity while the latter is striving to wipe out Inhumans. But, the major difference between Hive and Ivanov is the latter's obsession with Coulson, which causes him to leave a scavenger hunt of clues forcing Coulson to remember what he had done to hurt Ivanov. Coulson and his team travel all over the world, retracing his steps from an early mission he led to retrieve a mysterious item, only for his op to be hijacked by a young Melinda May.
The young agents - Coulson is only a Level 4 while May is still a Level 3 -- bicker about who is a more capable agent, offering insight into the early days of their friendship. It's a fun chance to see a version of Coulson that's closer in comparison to the character who first appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Plus, it allows viewers to see just how far back Coulson and May go - and teases what might have happened if May hadn't started dating Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood). Although Coulson has become an entirely capable S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and director, these flashback sequences go back to a time when he wasn't as skilled, offering a chance to see how far the character has come.
Of course, by now Coulson has been around the supervillain block once or twice -- this isn't the same agent that needed to be saved by May, after all -- and he approaches the so-called Superior with all the confidence he's earned. Ivanov may think he has Coulson all figured out, he may even believe it's his purpose to destroy Coulson and save the world based on his own conspiracy theories. But, Coulson recognizes Ivanov for the typical zealously devoted villain that he is. Certainly, while Coulson may not be physically up to the task of defeating Ivanov in hand to hand combat, he does have a much bigger and better team now.
So, while Coulson leaves Ivanov to find Mace, Quake takes on the head Watchdog himself in a fight she's been waiting for since before season 4 kicked off - and it's a fight that's equally satisfying for both Daisy and the viewer. Since losing Lincoln at the end of season 3, Daisy has made it her personal mission to bring down the Watchdogs and Ivanov has proven to be a frighteningly powerful and dedicated villain in his own right as the leader of the organization. Although McGowan has only been on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a short time, he has fit in well as the charismatic villain, and seeing him face off with Chloe Bennet's Quake proves yet again how well the show can pull off comic book action - especially with the hero winning out.
But, just as Ivanov reveals in 'The Man Behind the Shield' that he's more concerned with the threat he believes Coulson poses rather than Mace, the Inhuman pretender in front of him, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulls a similar shift in its own season's narrative. Although Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has focused more on the threat of Ivanov and his Watchdogs in recent episodes, 'The Man Behind the Shield' reminds viewers exactly why this particular section of season 4 is subtitled LMD. While Coulson's S.H.I.E.L.D. team is concerned with retrieving Mace and attempting to learn the whereabouts of May, Radcliffe and his LMD Aida are a few steps ahead of both Coulson and Ivanov. As a result, Aida is able to replace Coulson, Daisy, Mace, and Mack with LMD versions, allowing the LMD takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. to begin in earnest.
The True LMD Takeover Begins
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been previewing an LMD invasion/takeover since the show returned from its midseason hiatus. Although the midseason premiere seemed to demonstrate Aida had developed consciousness as she led a technological attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ in an attempt to retrieve the Darkhold, it was revealed Dr. Radcliffe was the puppetmaster.
Radcliffe's particular endgame hasn't quite been explained yet in season 4, with only his various goals established, like retrieving the Darkhold and replacing the top S.H.I.E.L.D. agents with LMDs - but it likely has something to do with the framework in which he trapped May. Additionally, it's been established that Radcliffe will use whatever and whomever is at his disposal, from his former partner in science Fitz to his more recently formed alliances with Senator Nadeer and The Superior.
That said, since it's unclear what exactly Radcliffe has planned for the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, The Superior - who is now gravely injured - and the framework for his new world, it remains to be seen what he'll do next. Thankfully, though most of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s top agents are LMD replicas - and LMD-Coulson even revived LMD-May to join in on the fun - Fitz and Simmons remain themselves. Now, they'll have to figure out how to save their friends and, presumably, the world from Radcliffe's LMD takeover.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 continues with ‘Self Control’ Tuesday February 21 at 10pm on ABC.