When the half-season structure began on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. two years ago, thanks to Agent Carter’s arrival on the scene to fill up the mid-season winter break, the showrunners and their writing staff settled on a storytelling approach that saw the first part of the season (typically 10 episodes) introduce and then (largely) resolve a particular throughline, with the back half (12 eps) then moving on to a new, though usually related, narrative. In season 2.0, for instance, the titular agents had to contend with the Hydra leader Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond), while season 2.5 saw the rise – and subsequent war with – the Inhuman clan known as Afterlife.
It seems that the fourth season is taking this to a bigger extreme. Although he isn’t off of the show just yet, it’s all but certain that next week’s mid-season finale, “The Laws of Inferno Dynamics,” will bid farewell to the brand-new character of Ghost Rider (as he possibly heads off into his very own television series). This would bring an end to the supernatural-dominated season 4.0, but it would also leave open the door for future – though far more subdued – developments on this front, as Aida (Mallory Jansen) now has been exposed to the Darkhold’s secrets (more on which in just a moment).
Even with that taken into consideration, it still leaves a very big question: just what storyline will S.H.I.E.L.D. move onto next?
The most likely answer, of course, is the Inhumans: the storyline that the series has been building toward since its very first batch of episodes, and which dominated its second and third seasons. Though still a part of the show and its ever-more-convoluted mythology, the group of alien-human hybrids has taken a decidedly backseat role in the plot so far this year – which very well could be just set-up for their re-emergence into the front stage for season 4.5.
What’s been slowly simmering across these past seven installments certainly seems to point in this direction. Thanks to Captain America: Civil War’s Sokovia Accords, every Inhuman has to not only register themselves with the government, but also be actively tracked – creating the perfect opportunity for a group hell-bent on murdering all the Kree offspring to hack into this system and hunt each and every last one of them down. The organization behind such a move is none other than the Watchdogs, a militia that has gone from homegrown-but-well-armed club to fully-funded behemoth, and while the series has yet to reveal where that money has come from, or what role – if any – ex-agent Felix Blake (Titus Welliver) continues to play with the anti-alien zealots, the answers seem all but destined to arrive in season 4.5.
There’s more beyond all that, of course. The third season heavily hyped the arrival of the Secret Warriors – ex-Director Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) pet project of S.H.I.E.L.D.-trained Inhumans which would form an Avengers-esque superhero team – only to see the squad be dispatched a handful of times, at most. The potential is there for the Warriors to make a comeback with a vengeance, especially considering just how much more powerful Quake (Chloe Bennet) is at the present. And then there’s the explosion of Inhumans all across the narrative board, from the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. himself (the still-somewhat-mysterious Jeffrey Mace) to the almost-completely-unknown brother of new character Rota Nadeer (Parminder Nagra), who is both a senator in the US Congress and a vehement anti-Inhuman activist. The field is definitely being seeded for some major dramatics.
Ultimately, all of this simply underscores a newer, perhaps more pressing reality: now that ABC has officially ordered up an Inhuman TV series, much has to be done to set the stage for that new show’s narrative, cast of characters, and thematic explorations. Expect something to happen as we enter the home stretch of season 4.5, even if it’s just as brief-but-cool as what S.H.I.E.L.D. did for Agent Carter two years ago: having a brief flashback scene in which the eponymous SSR agent, along with her fan-favorite Howling Commandos backup, storm the last Hydra base during WWII and lock up all its contents, including Daniel Whitehall and an intact Kree corpse (both of which would go on to have profound dramatic consequences for the show).
Demons, Spells, and Hell
All of which isn’t to imply that the mystical footwork of season 4.0 – interdimensional “ghosts,” the legendary Darkhold, and Ghost Rider himself – will be for naught; just as S.H.I.E.L.D. was successfully able to weave its Inhuman predilection into the very fabric of what Hydra was and what its secret game plan entailed, the same can be done for the more supernatural elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given the evil spell book’s long history – and given the fact that it was responsible for the creation of the Marvel Universe’s vampires and werewolves in the comic books – there’s plenty of opportunity for bleedover between the two narrative prongs, and it’s not hard to see how, say, a new Inhuman would have the power to open up interdimensional portals..
There’s also the possibility of linking the Darkhold’s existence to the events of the recently-released Doctor Strange, saying that its long absence from human history was due to the protection of the previous Sorcerer Supreme; little tidbits like this, after all, are what make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the very heart of the MCU.
But there’s another key way that the series can maintain this more magical element in the back half of season 4 - one that would also simultaneously tie in yet another parallel storyline into the main narrative fold: Aida, the so-called Life Model Decoy, who was able to read nearly the entire contents of the Darkhold and then to act on the supposedly self-destructive knowledge. She could take up the mantle of the “possessed by evil” character now that Ghost Rider will be cruising on to other quests of vengeance, and given that she was last seen designing a human brain, the idea of genetically-modified human beings can be taken to the whole next level – and that’s whether the body in question is being prepped for Aida herself, or as the basis for a whole new race of LMDs.
Regardless of the exact path Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes next year, Ghost Rider will ultimately be seen as just one temporary step to getting to the show’s ultimate destination – as well as being set-up for even more Marvel Cinematic Universe productions, if The Inhumans and The Punisher are anything to go by.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4 continues Tuesday, December 6 with “The Laws of Inferno Dynamics” at 10:00 pm on ABC.