[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 11. There will be SPOILERS.]
Since returning from its midseason break, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has refocused on the main S.H.I.E.L.D. team. Whereas the first run of episodes in season 4 split their time between the organization under the new leadership of Director Jeffrey Mace (Jason O'Mara) and Robbie Reyes aka Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna), the second half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shifted focus to the team's dealings with Dr. Holden Radcliffe's Life Model Decoys as well as the anti-Inhuman agenda of Senator Ellen Nadeer (Parminder Nagra).
The midseason premiere featured two important revelations - that Radcliffe betrayed S.H.I.E.L.D. and launched an LMD attack on HQ in an attempt to get the Darkhold for himself, and that the Senator was willing to kill her own brother to further her anti-Inhuman agenda. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. followed up its midseason premiere with last week's 'The Patriot', which additionally revealed Jeffrey Mace isn't an Inhuman as he claimed, but had been given a variation of a super serum by General Glenn Talbot (Adrian Pasdar).
In this week's episode, 'Wake Up' - written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Jesse Bochco - both the real and LMD versions of May attempt to get out from under Radcliffe's thumb, the former trying to escape the mental prison in which she's been placed and the latter discovering her true nature. Meanwhile, Coulson leads a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to gather intelligence on Senator Nadeer, though it doesn't go according to plan.
May Wakes Up - Sort Of
As it was revealed in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s midseason finale, Agent Melinda May had been replaced by a Life Model Decoy, presumably when the agent went to retrieve Aida from Radcliffe's home. Now, 'Wake Up' confirms that's exactly when Aida and Radcliffe swapped out the real May for her Life Model Decoy - and establishes the timeline of events. Five days prior to the events of 'Wake Up', May was replaced with an LMD; then one day before the episode, she escaped from Radcliffe's simulation of a hot stone massage. However, after her escape during 'The Patriot', Radcliffe realized May needed something to fight in order to remain complacent.
As such, Radcliffe and Aida devise a simulation in which May must escape from her imprisonment at Radcliffe's apartment by besting Aida in a fight. Although this particular simulation is played for the audience as real life, the truth of it is quickly revealed; it's further explained that May gets better at the simulation each time she runs it - even with her memories erased after each completed run.
Meanwhile, LMD-May begins her own private investigation into the injury she received in 'The Patriot' - leading her to Radcliffe and a discussion of her identity. Although LMD-May is unsure of where May ends and Radcliffe's programming begins, he is quite clear on the matter: She's May so long as it doesn't interfere with his programming. This means that although LMD-May wants to tell Coulson what she is (as the real May would), she physically can't because it goes against her programming. The result is that LMD-May seems to be struggling with her identity and who she is if she's governed by Radcliffe's programming, mirroring the debate of artificial consciousness that has become a popular theme on television recently.
However, Radcliffe's discussion with LMD-May inspires a new simulation to keep the real May unquestioning in her mental prison. He discovers he needs to trap her in a fight she's already lost and the final moments of 'Wake Up' reveal this to be the events in Bahrain during which May earned the nickname The Cavalry. These events were shown in flashback during season 2, so it's an effective callback to May's previously established history - and it's an altogether heartbreaking revelation that May desperately wishes to change the events of that day.
A Not Great Day
While both May and LMD-May are busy with Radcliffe, Coulson leads an op to place surveillance on Senator Nadeer, using Daisy's meeting/signing of the Sokovia Accords as a distraction. Coulson brings Yo-Yo (who had previously signed the Accords) in on the op, but it goes sideways when she inadvertently sets off some kind of security device - one Nadeer put in place because she seemed to be aware S.H.I.E.L.D. was coming. Unfortunately, once Coulson and Yo-Yo are apprehended, they're trotted out in front of the committee overseeing Daisy's meeting, which includes Nadeer herself.
The whole situation sheds light on how vulnerable S.H.I.E.L.D. is now that the organization is back in the public eye, not to mention that they're encumbered by plenty of bureaucratic red tape - which includes, but isn't limited to, the fact that under the Accords S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't supposed to use Inhuman agents without the United Nations' approval. Of course, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in violation of this rule not only by utilizing Yo-Yo on the op to surveil Senator Nadeer, but in their justification for Daisy's time as the vigilante Quake (she was undercover, but not registered with the Accords).
The political aspects of S.H.I.E.L.D. going public are providing for some compelling drama in season 4, developing major plot points of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that haven't quite received their due on the film side. Just as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. turned Captain America: The Winter Soldier's revelation about Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. into a more developed ongoing storyline, the series is doing the same with Captain America: Civil War's Sokovia Accords. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has also weaved its Accords storyline in 'Wake Up' with its Inhumans narrative, carving out a unique corner of the MCU.
Still, with S.H.I.E.L.D. at its lowest point in recent memory at the end of 'Wake Up' - they're likely to face senate committee hearings and they learned of Radcliffe's doublecross - even Coulson is dejected. (Though, Coulson's defeat sets up the best line of the episode: "Cauliflower isn't great, today was a kick in the balls.") With even more working against S.H.I.E.L.D. than they're aware of, like May being replaced by an LMD, it remains to be seen how Coulson will be able to rally his troops after theses losses.
A United Enemy
Of course, perhaps the biggest revelations of 'Wake Up' arrive in the final moments of the episode when the audience learns Radcliffe is working with Senator Nadeer - and has been for some time. Plus, Radcliffe teased earlier in the episode that there was a third LMD in play (in addition to Aida and LMD-May) and both Fitz and the audience discover this to be Radcliffe himself. It's unclear when Radcliffe replaced himself with an LMD, but it certainly makes sense that the paranoia-prone scientist would use his technology for his own safety. And the reveal is carried off in a perfectly dramatic moment when Fitz shoots LMD-Radcliffe in the head to prove his theory about the scientist.
Still, the further reaching reveal is the partnership between Radcliffe and Nadeer, which also effectively brings Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s two ongoing story threads together. Although the agents may not yet know it, they're fighting a singular enemy, the as-yet-unrevealed Superior. Both Nadeer and her Watchdogs as well as Radcliffe now seem to report to this figure, so it's likely they're the main villain in this Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arc. But, without knowing who the Superior is or what their endgame may be, S.H.I.E.L.D. still has plenty to overcome in order to restore the organization's credibility and defeat their adversaries.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 continues with ‘Hot Potato Soup’ Tuesday January 31 at 10pm on ABC.