At the end of its third season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made the bold choice to jump ahead six months in time. The decision instantly rooted the series in a whole new continuity, but it came with a downside: It takes time to catch up on everything we’ve missed. Last week’s uneven premiere gave us the rundown on everything from the advancement of cutting-edge artificial intelligence to the status of Fitz and Simmons’s relationship. This week’s superior episode tackles two of the biggest questions that remain: Why isn’t Phil Coulson the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and who took his place?
“Meet the New Boss” gives us incomplete answers. The new S.H.I.E.L.D. director is Jeffrey (Jason O’Mara), a glad-handing PR whiz whose roots might extend deep into Marvel lore. (More on Jeffrey’s possible comic-book origins in the bullet points below.) And despite the episode’s wink-wink title, this new boss is emphatically not the same as the old boss. He’s perfectly happy to court the favor of smarmy politicians. He’s prone to tossing out fortune-cookie-style maxims like “A team that trusts is a team that triumphs.” And he’s an Inhuman who happens to possess super-strength and super-endurance.
That final revelation is a huge one. Last year, Daisy was forced to covertly recruit Inhumans for a special-ops group that was so off-the-record it was literally called the Secret Warriors. Now Coulson has ceded his role to an Inhuman who is, quite literally, hiding in plain sight. It’s unclear just how many people know about Jeffrey’s superpowers, but when he goes public with the revamped S.H.I.E.L.D., a more Inhuman-tolerant policy will presumably be part of the agenda.
Unfortunately, the big change at S.H.I.E.L.D. is too little, too late for Daisy, who continues her one-man investigation into Robbie Reyes, a.k.a. Ghost Rider. As she grills Reyes on his powers, the difference between the two is stark: Daisy’s Inhumanity is central to her sense of self, while Reyes views Ghost Rider as an entirely different being who makes his own choices. Though Daisy spends most of the episode antagonizing Reyes, she can presumably relate. Much of the angst that drives her current mission began last season, when Hive used his powers to pit her against S.H.I.E.L.D.
Possession may turn out to be a main theme of the season. After all, the S.H.I.E.L.D. and Ghost Rider arcs finally collide as they confront a third entity who can worm her way into the brain of any adversary: Lucy, the ghostlike apparition who emerged from the mystery box in last week’s premiere. As they dig into the origins of the box, Fitz and Mack head to Momentum Laboratories — the apparent origin of whatever turned Lucy into what she is now. Unfortunately, they discover too late that Lucy isn’t alone. There are a bunch of these ghostlike figures, they have been locked up for years, and now that Lucy has set them free, they’re yet another befuddling problem for S.H.I.E.L.D. to handle.
What exactly is happening with these mysterious apparitions? Their scientific-experiment-gone-awry origin story recalls the overarching narrative of Agent Carter’s second season, and their quasi-magical abilities look like something out of the upcoming Doctor Strange, Marvel’s biggest (and riskiest) attempt to expand the scope of its cinematic universe. They also share a trait or two with Ghost Rider, who insists that he’s not an Inhuman. Perhaps his superpowers are also rooted in magic, not terrigenesis.
Whatever the story behind the ghosts’ origins, they’re an immediate threat that needs to be dealt with — and as Fitz and Mack struggle against one of them, Ghost Rider lends an unlikely helping hand, burning the ghost into nothingness as Daisy looks on. One down, but how many more to go?
The aftermath of the battle also offers the rare chance for Daisy to come face-to-face with her former allies, and their conversation is a tense one. “We’ve all been through terrible things,” Fitz says. “All of us. And we’ve never turned our back.” Too bad it’s not enough to sway Daisy back to S.H.I.E.L.D. By the end of the episode, she’s cast her lot with Robbie Reyes instead.
None of this is particularly groundbreaking or profound, but it is a worthwhile reminder that a TV show can accumulate emotional power over the simple passage of time. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has nearly 70 episodes under its belt, and the fraught history between its characters is enough to give this episode the weight it requires. When Mack realizes that Yo-Yo has been helping Daisy all along, we don’t need a big confrontation or breakdown over the betrayal. We already know that Mack’s flirtatious, trusting relationship has been one of the few bright spots during a particularly dark chapter in his life.
A similar principle underpins the episode’s unsettling final scene, as May — still possessed by Lucy — succumbs to paranoia and violence. When Coulson attempts to nudge her into the lab, May turns on him, and the new director himself is forced to step in to disarm her. If she were in her right mind, May would know she needs help, but in the full context of her relationship with Coulson, it stings like a betrayal. And when the episode ends with May strapped to a rolling stretcher, being hauled away from the watchful eye of Phil Coulson, it’s hard not to wish for someone who actually cares about her well-being.
- The new S.H.I.E.L.D. director is apparently a Marvel character with decades of history in the comics … but I’ll be damned if I can figure out who he’s supposed to be. In interviews leading up to the season premiere, Clark Gregg indicated that Jeffrey’s roots go all the way back to the 1940s, and that he has some kind of connection to Captain America. Based on those hints — along with the name — my best guess is Jeffrey Mace, a character who briefly moonlighted as Captain America. Anyone else want to take a shot?
- In the middle of rattling off some S.H.I.E.L.D. trivia, Coulson gets in a particularly pointed dig at the premature cancellation of Agent Carter: “Most people know the legend of Peggy Carter. But there are so many stories that were never recorded.”
- Robbie Reyes attended Garfield High School, which shot to real-life national prominence after teacher Jaime Escalante taught AP calculus to a group of poorly performing students. Escalante’s story was later adapted into the film Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos — the very same actor who played Robert Gonzales in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season.
- The name on Daisy’s passport is Jacqueline Rippon, an alias she previously used in season three.
- No mention whatsoever of Dr. Radcliffe or Aida. Their story is an intriguing subplot, but one that can be placed on the back burner while S.H.I.E.L.D. deals with ghosts and Ghost Riders.
- It’s long past time for screenwriters to abolish “We’re not so different, you and me” from their repertoires, even if Daisy gets enough room to make fun of the line just a few minutes later.