Everything about the fourth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is best understood in the shadow of ABC's decision to move the series to 10 p.m. The introduction of an antihero who isn't afraid to torture and kill? That eye-rollingly gratuitous shot of Daisy pulling on a pair of black panties? The fight scene that ends, in a bit of self-conscious symbolism, with blood on Daisy's hands? It's all designed to signify the newer, darker Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an adults-only proposition.
But will a darker show be a better one? It's true that Marvel has had more success with adult-oriented Netflix shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Unfortunately, the problem here is that a maturity of content hasn't yet been equaled by a new maturity of storytelling. Strip away all the grim flourishes, and this is essentially the same series with a new coat of black paint.
For weeks, ABC has been hyping the return of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the strength of a single character: Ghost Rider. Ghost Rider is the most well-known Marvel figure that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been permitted to use in its narrative; at the very least, he carries name-brand recognition with mainstream audiences owing to Nicolas Cage's Ghost Rider movie and its 2012 sequel, Spirit of Vengeance.
I've never been the world's biggest Ghost Rider fan — "badass motorcyclist with a flaming skull" is just a little too close to something I would have doodled in a notebook in fourth grade — but the character does add an intriguing wild-card dynamic to the fourth season. When we're reintroduced to Daisy, she's squaring off against some rocket-launcher-wielding skinheads from the Aryan Brotherhood. But the fight is quickly interrupted by a mysterious driver behind the wheel of a '69 Dodge Charger. When a skinhead blasts the car with a rocket, it flips over and continues toward its target. Hello, Ghost Rider! Daisy watches from afar as the character takes out the remaining skinheads, and we get a brief glimpse of his flaming skull as he surveys the wreckage.
But after that tease, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. steps back to catch up with the old gang — or what's left of them. After a long (and mostly disastrous) tenure as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson has stepped aside to play backgammon with Mack. Six months have passed since the season-three finale, and they've spent the intervening time flying around the world, making contact with possible Inhumans, but a message from May brings them back to a very different S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.
In rapid succession, we're introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new power structure. May trains agents in hand-to-hand combat. Fitz and Simmons are still in the lab, but Simmons has received a hefty promotion — she's now the "Special Adviser to the Director in Science and Technology" — which puts her above even May in the chain of command. The new director is widely discussed but completely unseen, though his approach to S.H.I.E.L.D. seems, based on the evidence we have, to be both Orwellian and touchy-feely.
May goes behind the new director's back to slip some info to Coulson and Mack, who travel to Los Angeles to investigate the possibility that Daisy is still doling out her earthquake-related vigilante justice. It's a path that puts them squarely in the middle of a conflict between the Aryan Brotherhood and a group of Chinese gangsters. When the gangsters open a mysterious box, they're bedeviled by a mysterious spirit in the guise of the woman. (This character has the unfortunate burden of being identical to Enchantress, the villain from this summer's terrible Suicide Squad.) The spirit's powers apparently enable her to possess her victims, making them see people around them as black-eyed monster-faces. This can lead to horrifically violent consequences — as we may see again, since May gets possessed by the end of the episode — but for now, it's not all that clear what the spirit actually wants.
Unfortunately, Daisy misses her introduction to this creepy new villain because she's busy with the season's other big new character. After a little detective work (with an assist from Inhuman ally Yo-Yo Rodriguez), Daisy tracks down Ghost Rider at a nearby junkyard. Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna) — a.k.a. the human who becomes Ghost Rider — is savvy enough to recognize that Daisy is fishing for information, and the spirit takes over. This time, we get a good look at Ghost Rider's grinning, flaming skull. (It looks pretty good for a network TV budget!) They brawl, and in an echo of the fight between Daisy and Hive after she was possessed last year, she gives in as he prepares to crush her: "Do it. I deserve it."
Ghost Rider doesn't do it, instead deciding that Daisy hasn't earned the same fatal sentence he doled out to the Aryan Brotherhood. He lets her go and rides off, apparently in search of more deserving victims.
But Daisy never lets go so easily. The following morning, she watches from afar as Robbie Reyes helps his younger brother into a wheelchair. As far as redeeming qualities go, you can't do much better than "obsessively devoted to wheelchair-bound younger brother" — but while Robbie's tightrope walk between good and evil isn't subtle, it is a hopeful sign that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might infuse all this grim maturity with some genuine shades of gray.
- In the most intriguing of the episode's many subplots, Dr. Radcliffe introduces Fitz to Aida (Mallory Jansen), a supremely realistic humanoid — and, it seems, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s version of the comic-book staple called the Life Model Decoy. How close can a robot get to being a human before we need to start treating it like a human? Variations of this story play out in movies like Ex Machina and TV shows like AMC's Humans, as well as HBO's upcoming Westworld. But it's still fruitful ground for Marvel to explore, particularly as Fitz keeps his knowledge of Aida from Simmons.
- My Marvel comics knowledge may have failed me. Is the spirit in the box a new character, or someone from the comics? If you recognize her, feel free to weigh in below.
- Despite their superficial similarities, Robbie Reyes isn't the same as Johnny Blaze, who Nicolas Cage played in Ghost Rider. The backstory is a little too convoluted to explain here, but in short: Blaze and Reyes are two different dudes who get their very similar powers from two different sources. They've crossed paths in the comics, and in theory, they could do the same in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Perhaps most important, Reyes drives a car and Blaze rides a motorcycle.
- Robbie Reyes implies that he doesn't actually have any control over Ghost Rider, insisting that "he" is the one who decides who lives and who dies.
- This week's references to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe are relatively muted: a brief nod to the Sokovia Accords from this summer's Captain America: Civil War, and an ominous reference to Ultron as a reminder to be cautious about Aida's artificial intelligence.
- It took me weeks to get used to writing "Daisy" instead of "Skye," and now everyone is calling her Quake? I'm sticking with Daisy for now, but if this superhero nickname ends up lasting, I'll revisit later this season.
- Daisy is back to keeping a little dancing hula girl on her dashboard, as she did in her pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. days.
- Next week: We come face-to-face with the mysterious and much-discussed new S.H.I.E.L.D. director.