[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Season 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been balancing a number of different storylines throughout its early episodes, though many of them have merged into the main arc concerning Ghost Rider -- such as his uncle Eli Morrow's history with the Momentum Alternative Energy facility, and how that connects to the ghostly beings haunting Los Angeles. The last episode, 'The Good Samaritan', finally pulled all the threads together and explained how Robbie Reyes became the Ghost Rider.
However, 'The Good Samaritan' also introduced a number of twists and cliffhangers -- prior to a four week break for the show -- including the fact that Eli was the person behind the original Momentum experiments. In the final moments of 'The Good Samaritan', he recreated the experiment with success, giving himself the power to create matter out of nothing. Meanwhile, the experiment also seemed to affect Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie, since they were nowhere to be found at the end of the episode.
Now, in 'Deals with Our Devils' -- written by DJ Doyle and directed by Jesse Bochco -- the remaining agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. discover their colleagues are missing and disagree on how to proceed, with some believing Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie are dead. Meanwhile, the missing agents themselves learn what happened to them during the experiment and try to figure out a way back home. Elsewhere, Simmons' secret mission is revealed.
The Lost Agents
As it's revealed early in the episode, Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie aren't dead -- just as Daisy suspected -- rather, they're trapped in between dimensions, similarly to the ghostly beings earlier in season 4. However, Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie are farther removed from their home dimension, making them incapable of appearing or communicating with their fellow agents. Unfortunately, this also causes problems with Ghost Rider, who abandons Robbie midway through the episode to inhabit the body of Mack.
'Deals with Our Devils' follows the timeline of events after Eli's experiment from two different perspectives -- that of the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (specifically, Mack, May, Daisy, and Director Mace) as well as the missing agents. This particular structure helps to distance Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie from their friends and surroundings, and helps to heighten the tension toward the end of the episode when they're in serious danger of being dragged into the dark dimension. The look and feel of their scenes -- with dimmed lighting and fainter sounds -- adds to the emotional drama and horror of Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie's situation.
Additionally, the slow unraveling between Coulson and Fitz as both men become more and more desperate to return to their home dimension is especially compelling. While Coulson is frustrated by May wanting to use the Darkhold to bring the missing agents home, Fitz's emotional state is exacerbated by the fact that Simmons was carted off on a secret mission during the previous episode and they fought when they last saw each other. Plus, in his between-dimensions state, Fitz learns that Director Mace has no idea where Simmons is and doesn't have any ability to let her know Fitz has disappeared. Fitz's tense emotional state leads to confrontations with both Coulson and Mace that have been a long time coming on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this season.
Meanwhile, once Ghost Rider abandons Robbie and takes over Mack, Robbie leaves Coulson and Fitz to hitch a ride with Daisy as she goes after the rogue agent. Though the storyline isn't necessarily a fit for the episode since it diverges from the central problem of recovering the missing agents, seeing Robbie interact with Ghost Rider is a highlight of the episode -- in addition to seeing Mack, briefly, as the Ghost Rider. Plus, since Robbie makes a new deal with Ghost Rider, this storyline subtly establishes a premise for that solo Ghost Rider series that may be in the works.
Aida & the Darkhold
One of the bigger revelations in 'Deals with Our Devils' is that Coulson and May are both let in on the knowledge that Dr. Radcliffe's assistant Aida is actually an android (a Life Model Decoy from the Marvel Comics). In the show's home dimension, May insists Radcliffe read the Darkhold to find a way to bring Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie home -- but, Radcliffe understands the book is too much for the human brain, and he's forced to tell May about Aida so that the android can read the Darkhold.
Then, in the in-between, Fitz comes to a similar conclusion -- that Aida is the only one capable of reading the book without succumbing to it -- and reveals to Coulson that he and Simmons have been working with Radcliffe on perfecting the android. While May looks shaken (she was, after all, used as a more intensive Turing Test while being cared for by Aida), Coulson is unhappy with Fitz for keeping the secret, leading to their confrontation over Coulson stepping down as director.
Now, with many of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team members in on the Aida secret, it remains to be seen what they'll do. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many are wary of robots and androids after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, so there will undoubtedly be some in S.H.I.E.L.D. who are uncomfortable with the idea of LMDs. Plus, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still wrapping up the Ghost Rider storyline -- Eli is still at large at the end of 'Deals with Our Devils' -- LMDs may be dealt with later in the season.
Simmons' Secret Mission
The most disparate storyline in 'Deals with Our Devils' is Simmons helping to study Senator Rota Nadeer's brother, who -- as we learned earlier in season 4 -- has been stuck in a Terrigenesis cocoon for seven months. Simmons uses her science/Inhuman expertise, as well as her ability to take control of a lab, to calm the Senator's brother down and get him out of the cocoon. However, once she reveals his face and he's able to introduce himself, Simmons is whisked away because he and the operation of removing him from the cocoon is classified.
This particular storyline doesn't have much impact on the show -- yet -- and is almost entirely removed from the main conflict in 'Deals with Our Devils' (with the exception of Simmons' absence exacerbating Fitz's emotional state). That said, it's clear Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is putting in the establishing work for when the season wraps up its Ghost Rider storyline. Considering Senator Nadeer's ties to the Watchdogs, and her political anti-Inhuman stance, it will be interesting to see how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings her brother back into the storyline.
That said, 'Deals with Our Devils' largely deals with the Ghost Rider storyline, with the season rolling toward a climactic battle between Robbie and Eli in next week's episode -- which also acts as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s winter finale. Considering the series has usually wrapped up storylines from the early episodes of its seasons in the winter finale, it's likely 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' may be Ghost Rider's last team-up with S.H.I.E.L.D. before going his own way.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 continues Tuesday, December 6 with 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' at 10pm on ABC.