WARNING: Spoilers for Agents of SHIELD episode 409, “Broken Promises,” ahead
When Agents of SHIELD first started all the way back in the fall of 2013, it quickly began alluding to a mysterious figure known only as the Clairvoyant as the show’s nemesis - an individual who was apparently conducting a series of interconnected supersoldier experiments around the world. It was only towards the end of that first year that the writers lifted the curtain and revealed the show’s true villain: none other than Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) himself, a plant from Hydra who had been busy manipulating nearly every single member of Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team from day one.
This idea of having the big, bad wolf hidden right there in plain sight, wearing sheep’s clothing, is an idea that has remained with the showrunners ever since. It can be seen popping up early in the second season, when viewers are initially led to believe that Agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) has defected to Hydra; or when Agent Alphonso Mackenzie (Henry Simmons) is revealed to be a double-agent working for the “real” SHIELD; or the red herring that Rosalind Price (Constance Zimmer), the head of the short-lived Advanced Threat Containment Unit, was a spy meant to infiltrate Coulson and his team. Call it a narrative requirement of the spy genre, which is, ultimately, what Agents of SHIELD is at the end of the day.
Through all this, however, Grant Ward remained a fixture on the series until just recently, slipping and sliding his way – almost Alex Krycek-style from The X-Files – from one position to the next, whether that be SHIELD prisoner or free-market agent or, finally, the founder and director of a brand-new, more hostile version of Hydra. This is an important note to make, as we believe Ward holds not only the explanation for the series’s newly-revealed nemesis, but also a potential path he can take moving forward, throughout season 4.5 and beyond.
Dr. Radcliffe, I presume?
When Dr. Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah) was first introduced in the latter half of season 3 as a recurring character. He appeared to be another a throwaway background face, one of several that arrive – and then depart – each and every season on Agents of SHIELD. The fact, then, that he played such an important note in the finale’s tag – grandly introducing the Life Model Decoy project, which he’s dusted off from the depths of SHIELD’s vault – was a surprise, though not nearly as big of one as the reveal that he was made a main cast member for season 4.0.
The revelation in “Broken Promises” that he’s actually the newest baddie on the scene, working from within SHIELD’s ranks to further his own personal agenda, makes perfect sense, rendering his ever-increasing involvement on the series perfectly understandable. He is, indeed, Grant Ward 2.0: a seemingly-friendly face who is willing to go to extreme lengths to accomplish his mission, even if that includes betraying his comrades, even kidnapping and then replacing Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) with an LMD.
What makes this development so interesting is not the fact that it’s apparently retreading the same narrative ground, but that it includes a couple of fresh wrinkles on the formula. Firstly, whereas Ward’s unmasking as a villain was genuinely shocking, Radcliffe’s reveal feels much more organic, fitting his introduction an unscrupulous researcher and inventor who would gladly follow any party, as long as they provided the opportunity for him to continue his work in transhumanism (blending the biological with the technological). It’s much less of a plot twist and more in keeping with his characterization thus far.
Secondly, the twist that the LMDs themselves are not “evil” and that, in fact, it is a human being pulling their strings from behind the scenes provides a much-needed variation on the rogue AI template. Not only does “Broken Promises” spend a lot of time listing all of the various “killer robot” tales in popular culture from the past 30 years - from the mainstream to the esoteric - there’s also the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself has already provided its own major take on the subject in the form of 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. In this way, SHIELD can be seen to innovate instead of simply repeat – thus far, at least.
The Grant Ward Connection
As already alluded to, Agent Ward’s storyline has a great deal of crossover with Dr. Radcliffe’s thus far: he was a grunt doing the bidding of his much bigger, badder master (in this case, his mentor/father figure/Hydra mastermind, Agent John Garrrett), but he eventually decides that Coulson and the rest of his former teammates are, indeed, targets that need to be taken out – a move which provides the thrust of his character arc for his last season on the show.
Holden has yet to make the actual murder of the main SHIELD agents his stated goal, but it’s only a matter of time before he does so. Coulson, Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), and the rest can only stop him from attaining the Darkhold so many times, after all, before he starts to lose his temper. And once he does, the same fate that ultimately befell Grant could also land on the good doctor: the former was murdered at the hands of Coulson himself, which left him open to being the perfect vessel for Hive - the ultimate Inhuman threat. While it’s unknown whether one of the other main cast members would do the “honor” of snuffing Radcliffe, his being replaced by one of his very own LMDs – perhaps at the direction of Aida (Mallory Jansen) herself, which would be ironic – seems likely.
Then there are the all the other story beats that Grant Ward managed to accrue during his three years on SHIELD, any of which also seem ripe for Holden to similarly inherit. After being outed as a Hydra sleeper agent at the end of the first season, he serves as SHIELD’s prisoner for most of season 2.0. Since he has no particular allegiance to either Hydra or SHIELD, he spends some time essentially playing both sides against one another in an effort to finally win the affections of Agent Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet). When that particular plan backfires, he settles on hitching his wayward wagon to Agent 33 (Maya Stojan) all throughout season 2.5; her death is the catalyst that sends him into the deep end, vowing to reformulate Hydra from the ground up in order to specifically take down Coulson, Johnson, and the rest.
That’s a lot of zigs and zags, and there’s no guarantee that Dr. Radcliffe will remain on the series for anywhere near as long as founding member Ward did. But it’s obvious that Grant’s removal from the cast left a gaping hole to be filled, and it’s even more obvious that the writers have a penchant for this particular type of antagonist – that means all bets are off as to how long Holden will ultimately remain a part of the narrative, and whether he will, indeed, end up retracing most of his predecessor’s steps.
Or, finally, whether he’ll remain human for the remainder of his stay.
Agents of SHIELD’s fourth season continues Tuesday, January 17 with “The Patriot” at 10:00 pm on ABC.