[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 15. There will be SPOILERS.]
More so than perhaps any other season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 has been split up into distinctive "pods" - as they were called by star Chloe Bennet. Each different pod had its own subtitle, offering fans an indication of what to expect from the overarching storyline. The first run of episodes in season 4 operated under the subtitle of Ghost Rider as the show introduced and focused on Robbie Reyes aka Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) before he disappeared in the midseason finale. Since then, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has used the subtitle LMD as the show shifted its focus from Ghost Rider to Dr. Holden Radcliffe's Life Model Decoys.
While episodes in this pod have featured Radcliffe and his main LMD, Aida (Mallory Jansen), they've also dealt with the anti-Inhuman movement led by the Watchdogs, Senator Ellen Nadeer (Parminder Nagra), and The Superior (Zach McGowan). However, the most recent episodes have seen the Watchdogs leader turned into an Inhuman, the death of Senator Nadeer, and The Superior severely injured after a fight with Daisy Johnson aka Quake. Now, this week's episode places the show's focus wholly back on LMDs as the second season 4 pod comes to a close.
In 'Self Control' - written and directed by co-showrunner Jed Whedon in his directorial debut - Fitz and Simmons are faced with the knowledge that four of their fellow agents have been replaced by LMDs. As a result, the remaining human agents are forced to do everything in their power to escape the S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ while the LMDs attempt to switch them out. Meanwhile, Aida reveals she still has plans for The Superior despite his injuries.
FitzSimmons Together Until The(ir) End?
At the end of 'The Man Behind the Shield', it seemed the four S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Aida had replaced with LMDs were Daisy, Mack, Mace, and Coulson, leaving Fitz and Simmons to fend for themselves in a base overrun by antagonistic androids. However, when Fitz and Simmons pass under another LMD-detector, it reveals one of them to be a robot. Instantly, the trust between the two breaks down and they accuse each other of being the android. It's an incredibly tense scene acted exceptionally well by both Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain de Caestecker, ramping up the drama of the episode tenfold as it completely subverts the viewers' expectations.
Of course, it's because Henstridge and Caestecker work so well together in the scene that the latter's sudden turn from wounded, concerned boyfriend to callous android is that much more horrifying - and pulled off well by Caestecker. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has played with the dynamic between Fitz and Simmons many times over the course of the series since they have been the most consistent couple (even when they weren't romantically involved), but the deepening of their relationship thanks to becoming romantically involved heightens the tension of this scene in 'Self Control'. Further, LMD-Fitz's mention of marrying Simmons when the two hadn't talked about it as humans adds to the emotional depth of the moment, creating an altogether heart wrenching sequence.
Still, the revelation that Fitz is an LMD leaves room for one of the four agents presumed to be robots to, in actuality, be human - and it turns out Daisy is that agent. She discovers the LMD plot to takeover S.H.I.E.L.D. by stumbling upon a containment room filled with robot replicas of herself and when Mack comes to confront her, she blends into the group in order to get the drop on her fellow agent. She then comes across a hiding Simmons - who escaped from Fitz by stabbing him a lot. The two are unable to trust each other since the LMD-induced paranoia has set in, but the following moment in which Daisy forces Simmons to believe they're both human through a Quake-hug is incredibly sweet and emotional.
Of course, once Daisy and Simmons team up, the pair are near unstoppable thanks to their combined knowledge and abilities. There's little doubt they can make it out of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base even with four LMD versions of their friends/coworkers assembling the agents against them. Still, the fight between Daisy and Mace (whose LMD replica has seemingly been given the super strength his human self could only achieve through a super-serum) is particularly well executed and beautifully shot by Whedon. Since 'Self Control' is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s final episode before another hiatus, the show pulls out all the stops and it isn't more apparent than in the Daisy and Mace fight sequence, which is one of the best the show has included since Ghost Rider departed (and is, perhaps, even the best the show has ever included).
The LMD Storyline Concludes - Sort Of
Unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Ghost Rider arc, which ended with a sense of finality since the Spirit of Vengeance disappeared into a different dimension along with his uncle Eli Morrow (Jose Zuniga), LMD doesn't quite conclude in the same way. Instead, the storyline shifts, as it has quite a few times in recent episodes, to focus on a new main villain. The balance of power among the series' villains has been one of the most compelling aspects in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s LMD arc, between shifting loyalties and capabilities - not to mention the show regularly subverting viewer expectations since in the midseason premiere.
Since the beginning of LMD in 'Broken Promises', it's been unclear who wields the most power. Is it Radcliffe with his knowledge of technology and engineering? Is it Aida with her capabilities enhanced by reading the Darkhold? Is it Senator Nadeer with her public movement and support? Or is it The Superior and his Watchdogs? 'Self Control' puts an end to all these questions by answering unequivocally that Aida is the main antagonist. She didn't have any hand in Senator Nadeer's death, the presumed dissolvement of the Watchdogs, or The Superior's injuries, but she did turn Anton Ivanov into something under her own control - and, most importantly, she was seemingly able to kill her creator.
The conclusion of the LMD storyline brings about Radcliffe's apparent death at the hands of his creation when Aida reveals her prime directives are in opposition - she must protect The Framework, but he is the biggest threat to it. Although it may not be the ending that viewers were expecting when it was revealed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a third storyline planned for season 4, it is certainly a conclusion of a sorts - and one that is quite sad since it seems to indicate John Hannah's departure from the series. Of course, with Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. shifting to a new story arc, there isn't much time to reflect on his death in 'Self Control', though that may happen later in the season.
Into The Framework
Of course, the biggest shift that arrives in 'Self Control' is Daisy and Simmons' willing immersion in The Framework. Although Radcliffe's artificial world is a classic storytelling staple of science fiction - and has been explored in movies and television series from The Matrix to The 100 - it presents a compelling change in the status quo for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been around long enough that the show has established plenty of its own mythology, ranging from LMDs to Inhumans, but it also adapts aspects from the film side of the MCU - such as Hydra's infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. as revealed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Now, The Framework world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. provides an opportunity for the show to capitalize on all that mythology and tell an engaging, but wholly new, story with these characters within this established universe. As a result, the final moments of 'Self Control' set up perhaps the most exciting - and, as Bennet promised, rewarding to longtime fans - storyline of the series so far. The brief glimpses of each agent's life within The Framework offer just enough to tease fans, without revealing too much; they're truly masterfully executed in their lack of real information.
All in all, 'Self Control' is one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s strongest episodes, demonstrating Whedon's deftness with the script and providing a long list of stunning visuals as the director. Overall, season 4 has been incredibly strong and, as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prepares for another major shift in its storyline, the show re-establishes itself as an important - and altogether fun and compelling - pillar of the MCU.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 continues later this year on ABC.