[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Ever since Inhumans were introduced partway through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2, the part-Kree/part-human powered individuals have been a focus of Marvel's first TV spinoff from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Inhumans took somewhat of a backseat in the opening episodes of season 4 with the introduction of Robbie Reyes, aka Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) -- though the threat of anti-Inhuman groups like the militaristic Watchdogs have been a throughline this year.
Still, recent episodes have put more emphasis on Robbie's origin story of becoming Ghost Rider, and how his uncle Eli Morrow's (Jose Zuniga) history tied into it. So, it's clear season 4 has been building to a winter finale focused on the final showdown between the Spirit of Vengeance and Eli -- whose recent experiment seemingly gave him the ability to create matter out of nothing. After last week's episode, 'Deals with Our Devils', featured Robbie make a new deal with Ghost Rider that seemed to strengthen their bond, this week's winter finale delivers the showdown with Eli.
In 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' -- written by Paul Zbyszewski and directed by Kevin Tancharoen -- S.H.I.E.L.D. assembles every single one of its assets in order to confront Eli Morrow. Director Mace allows Coulson to call in Daisy Johnson, Ghost Rider, and former Secret Warriors team member Yo-Yo, in addition to the Life Model Decoy Aida. Meanwhile, Mace has trouble managing the press as Eli's endgame proves more and more dangerous to the residents of Los Angeles.
A Team That Trusts...
Last week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. worked to highlight all the rifts that exist among Director Mace and his top agents. In the wake of their battle against Hive, Daisy's defection, Mace's appointment, the new S.H.I.E.L.D. order, Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy project, there have been organizational and emotional barriers between the team members. Although the majority of the main characters have dealt with Daisy leaving after Lincoln's death, 'Deals with Our Devils' saw other emotional rifts being opened and confronted, specifically between Fitz and the Director as well as Coulson and May.
Now, 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' puts the team in a situation where they must come together despite their emotional conflicts in order to prevent Eli Morrow from setting off a plutonium bomb in the heart of Los Angeles. For the most part, the team is able to move forward by adhering to Director Mace's oft-mocked adage: "A team that trusts, is a team that triumphs." Coulson displays his trust in the new Director early on by laying his cards on the table about Aida being an android. He does, however, admit later that it was to learn why the Director sent Simmons on a secret mission for Senator Nadeer in 'Deals with Our Devils' -- but it works and the Director finally admits his reasoning (and Nadeer's blackmail).
There are moments of doubt among the team, and as Director Mace admits at one point, "We are not a team that trusts." But, that has been the thematic throughline of season 4 so far -- S.H.I.E.L.D. struggling to come to terms with the new normal of the organization and their team in the wake of tragedy (both Lincoln's death and Daisy's departure). Trust, the loss of it, and the process of earning it back has been a theme of season 4, and that thematic arc reaches a conclusion of sorts in 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' when every member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is able to pull together and effectively execute their plan to take down Eli.
The resulting battle of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Coulson, May, Mack, Yo-yo and Director Mace -- the latter suited up as Patriot for the first time -- with Eli's lackeys is both exciting and too short. Each character is given their moment in the fight to shine (including Mack with his shotgun-axe), while Yo-yo is given a scene that is reminiscent of X-Men: Days of Future Past's Quicksilver sequence -- albeit much shorter and without the fun musical track. Still, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sequence has been earned in terms of the team's season arc, and features exciting action as well.
Ghost Rider's Exit
For the most part, 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' presents a villain plot that is over-complicated instead of compelling and delivers a somewhat anticlimactic end. Furthermore, Eli's motivations, his anger at the Momentum Energy workers, and his end game of blowing up Los Angeles aren't very well developed. As such, his confrontation with Robbie is rather one-sided. Although Robbie has been developed well throughout his time on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Eli has more often been depicted as a necessary plot device rather than a three-dimensional character.
So, while it's compelling to watch Robbie being forced to deal with Eli's betrayal as well as confront his uncle about being the cause of the accident that paralyzed Game and found him bound to Ghost Rider, the scene falls flat as those complex emotions are met by Eli's one-dimensional anger. Additionally, with much of the episode's time devoted more to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, Robbie and Eli's confrontation undeservedly takes a back seat.
Still, although Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. undeniably leaves plenty to be desired in terms of Ghost Rider's final moments -- Robbie transforms into the flaming-skulled Spirit of Vengeance and drags Eli to another dimension -- the series may earn some points by effectively setting up a solo show for the character. While Ghost Rider's (presumably permanent) exit from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. explains the episode's focus on its S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the anticlimactic finale doesn't live up to the how well the character has been portrayed and developed throughout season 4.
Aida Expands the LMD Program
At the end of 'Deals with Our Devils', Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hinted that Radcliffe and May's decision to have Aida read the Darkhold would lead to disastrous consequences -- the android was secretly constructing a human brain, after all. Now, the final scenes of 'The Laws of Inferno Dynamics' takes that particular tease and ratchets up the suspense even more with the revelation that Aida had replaced May with a Life Model Decoy at some point during the episode (presumably when May went to fetch Aida for the battle against Eli).
It's unclear whether Aida killed May, though the android's action of cleaning up the blood on May's head seems to indicate the agent is still alive. However, it additionally remains to be seen what Aida has planned for Radcliffe's LMD program that she has secretly co-opted for her own purpose, as well as how exactly the Darkhold helped Aida create the LMD of May -- and whether there's a difference between LMD-May and Aida because of the help from the Darkhold.
Still, this particular tease perfectly sets up the shifting storyline from the first part of season 4 to the back half when the show returns from its midseason hiatus. With Aida having been revealed as an android to the major S.H.I.E.L.D. players, and her having earned the trust of her teammates, the stakes of her betrayal are all the higher -- which should provide for plenty of suspense and compelling drama once Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 returns January 10, 2017 at 10pm on ABC.