In a classic episode of The Simpsons, the show-within-a-show Itchy & Scratchy takes its titular characters on a drive to a fireworks factory. It’s a can’t-fail premise for giddy, explosive fun … until an obnoxious side character pops in and derails the whole trip before they arrive.
I’ll say this for this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: It does, in fact, get to the fireworks factory — but it takes a similarly long, laborious route to get there. It happens at the climax of the episode, as the series answers a question I never cared enough to ask: Whatever happened to James, that Australian jerk with fire superpowers who teamed up with Hive back in season three?
As the episode begins, Simmons — curiously gullible for a high-level S.H.I.E.L.D agent — uses a day off to check out the vacant apartment of her dreams. But the dream listing is just bait. Injured, alone, and using cheap vodka as a painkiller, Daisy needs Simmons’s help as she tries to figure out how the Watchdogs managed to track down all the deep-cover Inhumans.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has painted Daisy and Simmons as close friends before, but the series has never convincingly explained their intimate connection, or explored where it originates. I can’t help but think this story would have been much more effective if Daisy had been forced to enlist the help of Coulson, her staunchest defender, or May, who spent so much time and effort teaching Daisy the skills that she now uses as a vigilante. At the very least, the story could have introduced a little more tension by having Daisy actually hold Simmons at gunpoint, which would prove that these desperate times have led her to ever-more desperate measures. But Coulson is busy tracking down Ghost Rider, and May is in a hospital bed recovering from her encounter with Lucy, so Simmons is next in line. After a little prodding, she basically volunteers to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. for her old friend.
Meanwhile, Daisy’s new friend Robbie Reyes continues his quest to make bad guys pay for their sins, with Coulson and Mack trailing close behind. After a heated chase, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents manage to get Robbie into an Inhuman holding tank, where Coulson manages to talk him into moonlighting as a S.H.I.E.L.D. deputy for a little while. Robbie heads to the prison where his uncle Elias is doing time, and convinces him to tell the real story behind the manslaughter charge that landed him in the clink in the first place.
As Elias explains it, Dr. Lucy Bower — the ghost that’s been running around Los Angeles possessing people — was a member of a team of scientists working on a quantum-particle generator, which could generate matter out of nothing. ("They thought they were pushing boundaries, and I thought they were playing God," he explains.) In the midst of an experiment, Lucy’s husband, Joseph, somehow "killed" his colleagues, and Elias put him into a coma. But as it turns out, Lucy isn't dead at all; she’s one of the "ghosts" we’ve been seeing since the season premiere, and she’s looking for a book called Darkhold. (More than that later.)
Back in the A-plot, Daisy and Simmons are busily working to stop the spate of Inhuman assassinations. After indulging in a little Mr. Robot–style hacking, they track down James, now working as a clerk at a fireworks shop while he fights through his Hive withdrawal. It’s a risky gig for someone who can make pretty much anything spontaneously combust, but James compares himself to someone who quits smoking but keeps a cigarette lying around: "It’s a reminder of who he doesn’t want to be."
If Daisy and Simmons were paying attention, they might catch a note of self-loathing in that little parable. James offers to help them, leading them to a storage locker where he keeps his secret weapon … which turns out to be a contingent of armed Watchdogs, ready to pounce on the now-legendary Inhuman vigilante "Quake" and her S.H.I.E.L.D. ally. "Inhumans are a scourge. The Watchdogs have the right idea," James explains, revealing that he’s the one who has been feeding the Watchdogs information on the whereabouts of his fellow Inhumans. "I don’t hate myself. I hate all of us."
Like any good fireworks show, that brings us to the grand finale. As Daisy and Simmons try to fend off James and his Watchdog allies, the battle is interrupted by Coulson and Mack, with Ghost Rider in tow. In the ensuing battle of fire vs. fire, Ghost Rider handily outmatches James (and gets the inspiration for his "Hellfire Chain" in the process). When the fight spills over into the fireworks factory, even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t resist openly calling out how contrived this battle has become. "Did two fire dudes just drop into a warehouse full of fireworks?" Mack asks. "You had to see that coming," Coulson says. The ensuing sequence, in which all the heroes flee while the warehouse goes up in an explosion of colorful pyrotechnics, is as shamelessly goofy and fun as it sounds.
But after that minor indulgence, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brings things back to Earth for its final scene. For the first time this season, Coulson and Daisy come face-to-face, and Clark Gregg imbues the encounter with all the pain and history it requires. Before long, Coulson's ordering Daisy around like she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent again, as he enlists her and Robbie Reyes in the fight to stop Lucy Bower and the rest of the ghosts from the Momentum Labs incident. Of course, whether S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new director will approve of the newly legitimized agency operating with the help of two vigilantes remains an open question.
In the end, "Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire" is most effective as an episode designed to move all of the narrative pieces into place. By the time the credits roll, Simmons knows the truth about Ada; Ghost Rider is operating as a de-facto S.H.I.E.L.D. agent; Daisy is back in the fold; and everyone is chasing down Darkhold, a mysterious and powerful book with a conspicuous connection to Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange. Synergy, as always, remains the most powerful force in the MCU.
- Here’s what you should know about Darkhold. First introduced in a Doctor Strange comic in 1972, Darkhold is an ancient and indestructible spell book created by the Elder God Chthon. It's so old, it even served as a source for the famed Necronomicon. Over the years, Darkhold has popped up in stories featuring everyone from King Arthur to Dracula to Conan the Barbarian, and eventually ended up in the possession of Doctor Strange — a connection that Marvel will surely milk for one of its customary MCU tie-in episodes when Doctor Strange hits theaters in a couple of weeks.
- In other fan service: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just had to give us a car chase between Robbie’s ’69 Dodge Charger and Coulson’s beloved ’62 Chevy Corvette (better known as "Lola").
- After all the drama they endured last season, I’m relieved Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is allowing Fitz and Simmons to exist in a state of simple, contended coupledom — and that the series didn’t go the obvious route by letting Ada drive a wedge between them.
- There’s not a lot to say about the subplot in which Ada nurses May back to life, but I did like May’s natural affinity for someone she doesn’t realize is a robot: "I like her. No nonsense, just business. It’s very impressive."
- Next week: With the whole band back together again (and Ghost Rider in tow), S.H.I.E.L.D. digs deep into the Darkhold mystery.