Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may be the red-headed Marvel stepchild as far as the movie side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is concerned, but that hasn’t stopped the television series from becoming ground zero of the MCU, exploring the ramifications of the film-provided twists and turns in the greatest possible detail or introducing more connective tissue – even the kind that you wouldn’t think was needed before you saw it – than you can shake a comic-book stick at.
The third season took this approach to almost its logical extreme, fully integrating Hydra and the Inhumans into one cohesive whole – which meant that the only path forward for the showrunners was to take a hard right instead of attempting to march forward repeatedly into a wall. This juke landed S.H.I.E.L.D. into the hitherto unexplored territory of magic and mysticism, elements that would, at first glance, seem to be incongruous with the previous 66 episodes.
Did it pay off? Was the just-ended season 4.0 a worthy successor to the Hydra War, specifically, and an able multiplier to the greater MCU, generally – or was it something less, portending a possible slip in the overarching narrative?
The answer, it turns out, is both yes and no: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. accomplished both good and bad in this year’s half season. Let’s explore how.
The Good: Ghost Rider
Introducing a major Marvel character - one who has starred in his own, non-MCU films - was something of a major risk, given that (a) it was taking so much time away from the series’s main cast and its central set of storylines, and (b) it was with a narrative and thematic subject that has never even been referenced, let alone directly tackled, so far in the show’s run.
For the most part, it paid off in spades. Gabriel Luna was perfect as the haunted, resurrected-from-the-dead Ghost Rider, hunting down all those who are deemed to be guilty of one sin or another. His flaming skull effect, his ’69 Dodge Charger, the various hints at the original, Johnny Blaze Spirit of Vengeance, Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) cryptic references to the previous Rider incarnations – they all add up to a sum that is far greater than the whole of its supernatural parts. No wonder that there’s not only been talk of the character and actor getting their own, standalone series, but some narrative prep work being laid down, as well.
But this actually doubles as the Ghost Rider storyline’s biggest weakness, incidentally; although more-or-less organically sewn into the rest of the series’s overarching mythology, it can’t help but stand out as something of a separate entity, introducing new characters and new tones and heading off into new narrative territory before shutting the door pretty firmly on the whole enterprise in the mid-season finale – in short, it can’t help but come across exactly as the back-door pilot that it probably is.
The fact that Robbie Reyes is both neatly introduced and then written out in season 4.0 isn’t entirely – or, even, inherently – fallacious, however. There have been plenty of characters over the past three-and-a-half years who have been shuffled off the television screen to never be heard from again, whether intentionally or not: Deathlok (J. August Richards), Dr. Cal Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan), and the Agents Koenig (Patten Oswalt). Ultimately, by the end of the half-season, this is yet another page turning in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s book, with the Rider and Darkhold material coming across as just another Hydra War, or even Project T.A.H.I.T.I.
The bad: Lack of crossover connections
On the one hand, this past half-season has seen some pretty substantial references and connections to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Sokovia Accords are explored in greater detail, the United Nations bombing in Vienna is referenced, and the loss of Captain America (Chris Evans) on the world stage is keenly – even if briefly – felt. Although never the primary concern of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., such world-building and mythological navel-gazing has always been a major component of the show, and, in many respects, the tradition is carried along gallantly here.
And yet, on the other hand, there has been a conspicuous absence of such developments. This is the first introductory round of episodes to not feature a face from the film side of the MCU, whether that be S.H.I.E.L.D. leaders Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), S.S.R. Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Attewell) and her Howling Commandos, or POTUS himself, Matthew Ellis (William Sadler). There was the perfect opportunity to do so, as well, when the seemingly-flash-in-the-pan Watchdogs are returned to the forefront – given that their leader is none other than former agent Felix Blake (Titus Welliver), having his reappearance would have been a welcome sight and a shot in the crossover arm both.
The greater missed opportunity, however, was easily the coming – and going – of that rarest and usually most treasured of occurrences during the show’s season: the arrival of a new Marvel movie. Doctor Strange may have absolutely little to do with the newly-resurfaced S.H.I.E.L.D., but, then again, so did Thor: The Dark World (the last time that a Marvel big-screen adventure landed in November, during the front half of the show’s season), and the showrunners nonetheless still found a way to reference its story – and then, incredibly enough, worked the Thor series’s overarching Asgardian mythos into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s wider narrative. They even made Asgard into something of a mini-well that could be drawn upon time and again in the subsequent second and third seasons, showing just how smart and resourceful the writing staff can be.
With Doctor Strange, the series’s options were significantly more limited, and the best of all possible outcomes would have been for the filmmakers, and not the television writing-producing staff, to slip a Darkhold reference into Kamar-Taj’s library – it could have been one of the volumes that Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempted to steal when breaking into the mystical stronghold. And, furthermore, one could argue that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s showrunners did, in fact, pay homage to its cinematic sibling by even heading down the magical road in the first place (though such a position conveniently overlooks Daredevil’s supernatural forays over the past two years).
Regardless, Doctor Strange represents something that would have been unthinkable just a year earlier: the lack of any type of tie-in whatsoever.
Yet to be seen: LMDs
Actually, there is one final tip of the television hat to the filmic Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that has been put mostly on the backburner but now looks to be moved front and center come season 4.5: Life Model Decoys, those androids that are so lifelike, they can fool nearly anyone or anything into thinking they’re the real, flesh-and-blood deal.
What started out as a throwaway line in the first Avengers is now poised to not only become the major baddie for the rest of this year, but potentially a device that can pop back up in the movies, allowing for the “death” of a major character in, say, The Avengers: Infinity War to instead be revealed to be a valid get-out-of-jail-free card. There wouldn’t even have to be any mention of the rogue Dr. Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah) – just the fact that it’s an old, defunct S.H.I.E.L.D. program from way back when (Ant-Man’s opening flashback to the agency’s glory days at the end of the Cold War would only retroactively reinforce this simplified explanation, as audiences have already been groomed to accept that there is much in the past that they haven’t been privy to).
If this does, indeed, happen, then it would actually serve to be the new fundamental running thread of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., even replacing the Inhumans – since the LMDs are taking off as a major force thanks to their exposure to the Darkhold, and since that ancient tome was only uncovered thanks to the presence of Ghost Rider, everything comes full-circle, and the magical becomes a little less mystical and a little more commonplace in the Marvel version of the world.
Here’s to hoping that neither season 4.5 nor the filmmakers let us down.