[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned for the show's fourth season, its arrival was marked by certain notable changes, not the least of which being the series' later time slot allowing for more violence. That time slot was put to good use when the season 4 premiere additionally introduced Robbie Reyes aka Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna), who was seeking vengeance on a number of criminals in Los Angeles when he crossed paths with Daisy Johnson. The early episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 introduced magic to the show's world, with the help of a mysterious book known as the Darkhold.
Although the midseason finale saw the disappearance of Ghost Rider - as the show shifted gears to focus more heavily on Dr. Holden Radcliffe and his Life Model Decoy invention, Aida (Mallory Jansen) - the Darkhold has remained a problem to be dealt with. In fact, it's the problem at the forefront of Director Jeffrey Mace's mind when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 resumes in its winter premiere.
In 'Broken Promises' - written by Brent Fletcher and directed by Garry A. Brown - the team is split as Daisy, Mace, and Simmons attempt to track down an Inhuman while the remaining agents battle a rogue Aida who is focused on obtaining the Darkhold. Elsewhere, Senator Ellen Nadeer (Parminder Nagra) keeps a promise to her brother Vijay (Manish Dayal).
The Robot Apocalypse is Finally Here?
As ABC has been promising with the number of LMD-focused pieces of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. advertising, Radcliffe's lifelike android is front and center in 'Broken Promises' as the series acts out any number of classic robot apocalypse films. But, in true Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - and, really, Marvel - fashion, 'Broken Promises' pokes fun at the episode's similarities between its storyline and the plots of many '80s and '90s sci-fi films.
Throughout the midseason premiere, Mack and Yo-Yo act as the entry point for the audience. First, Mack offers a voice of reason when Director Mace orders Radcliffe and Fitz to wipe Aida's hard drive since they have no way of knowing how she was affected by the Darkhold. Then, both Mack and Yo-Yo make reference to the fact that they're living in an '80s sci-fi movie in the episode, which helps to balance out the more dramatic and action-focused aspects of the midseason premiere.
For the most part, the running joke fits in perfectly with the tone of the series, and Henry Simmons and Natalia Cordova-Buckley pull off the humor well. Though, one moment seems to push the limits of reality a bit too much, when Mack reveals he has life insurance covering his demise in a robot apocalypse. Certainly, Ultron-inspired life insurance policies aren't necessarily far-fetched, but the lack of references to the Ultron robots is (really - there are more references to '80s sci-fi films than Ultron).
Nevertheless, while Aida's attack on the S.H.I.E.L.D. base provides for an exciting plot in the show's midseason premiere, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also gets back to its roots as a spy series - both since the audience is aware that May is actually an LMD and for the reveal that there wasn't a robot apocalypse at all. The final moments of 'Broken Promises' show Radcliffe was behind Aida's entire attack, including programming the android to believe she had gained consciousness and human emotion. He orchestrated the attack to learn the location of the Darkhold, and potentially gain an advantage in obtaining the book for his own purposes.
The reveal proves to somewhat subvert expectations about the second half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4. While it truly did seem as though the series would be shifting focus from the mystical entity of Ghost Rider to the more scientific Life Model Decoys (an admittedly abrupt about-face), 'Broken Promises' instead positions Radcliffe as the true villain - an antagonist motivated by his desire for the Darkhold. As such, the Life Model Decoys don't seem to be the true focus of the next arc in the season. Instead, the focus seemingly falls on Radcliffe and his fixation with the Darkhold.
Of course, there's still the matter of LMD-May and what exactly Radcliffe plans to do with the Darkhold. So, it seems Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will balance their throughline of the Darkhold with the pivot in focus to the Life Model Decoys. Still, it remains to be seen if this particular arc is as well grounded and entertaining as that of Ghost Rider - though, if 'Broken Promises' is anything to go by, it may be.
Senator Nadeer Always Keeps Her Promises
Elsewhere - and almost entirely removed from Aida's attack on the S.H.I.E.L.D. base - Director Mace, Daisy, and Simmons attempt to track down the Inhuman that Senator Nadeer blackmailed Mace into helping. Simmons and Daisy figure out the Inhuman is Nadeer's brother, Vijay, and they make quick work of locating both him and his sister at their family home. Although Simmons, Daisy, and Mace attempt to save Vijay from his sister - who has teamed up with the Watchdogs to kill her brother - he chooses to trust his sister and she shoots him.
While the storyline is rushed (which makes sense since it's the secondary plot of the episode), it does provide a number of insights into Nadeer's background. Namely, it explains her hatred of Inhumans as tracing back to the Chitauri invasion of New York during The Avengers, in which her mother was killed. After that, Nadeer and her brother promised each other that if one of them became an Inhuman, the other would kill them. Although Nadeer initially hesitates, she eventually shows her true, brutal colors after Vijay demonstrates his Inhuman abilities.
This particular plotline mainly works to offer insight into Nadeer's backstory, but it additionally lays the groundwork for other intriguing story threads. First, both Nadeer and the Watchdog team leader refer to a "superior," someone who is calling the shots of both Nadeer and the Watchdogs. Additionally, when the Watchdogs dispose of Vijay's body in a lake, he is covered by a Terrigenesis cocoon - teasing the fact that he may not be as dead as Nadeer believed.
Between the Watchdogs, Vijay, and Life Model Decoys, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has certainly set the stage for an entertaining and compelling second half of the season. Following such an exciting start to season 4, it was unclear whether Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be able to maintain that momentum after the hiatus, but 'Broken Promises' seems to prove the series can work just as well without Ghost Rider.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 continues Tuesday, January 17 with ‘The Patriot’ at 10pm on ABC.