Five episodes into the season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still doesn't have a truly compelling villain. Robbie "Ghost Rider" Reyes was an antagonist for just two episodes before he became an antihero. The Watchdogs are topical, but ultimately just a bland group of blue-collar tough guys for our heroes to beat up. Aida will presumably go haywire at some point, since that's how all stories about uber-advanced A.I. end up, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. clearly intends to take its time getting there.
That leaves us with Lucy Bauer, the ghostlike woman Coulson glibly describes as "a pissed-off mad scientist ghost," who serves as the primary antagonist of this week's episode. Lucy hasn't come off as a particularly compelling baddie in her previous appearances, and "Lockout" doesn't do anything to make her more complicated, more intimidating, or more interesting. (It doesn't help that the makeup and special effects used for Lucy look absolutely terrible. They're not convincing enough for a haunted house at a county fair, let alone a network-TV series.)
But whether or not Lucy is a compelling character in her own right, her mere existence is enough to set the events of "Lockup" into motion. Now that the S.H.I.E.LD. band is back together, this week's narrative is a little more focused and straightforward than the broader, more sprawling narratives that popped up throughout the fourth season. Robbie Reyes's uncle Elias — a.k.a. the only living man who knows anything about Darkhold — is locked up in a California prison. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants him, so does Lucy Bauer, and it's a race against time to see who reaches him first.
You'd think that Lucy would have the edge here. After all, she can walk through walls and possess anyone she comes across. But while Lucy uses her powers to set up roadblock after roadblock — primarily in the form of prisoners eager to take the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents down a peg, which leads to a particularly well-choreographed fight scene with Daisy at its center — she has a surprisingly difficult time locating Elias's cell. That gives our heroes a chance to facilitate his escape and lead him to safety, giving them the edge in the ongoing quest to control Darkhold.
At least, that's what should have happened. But Robbie Reyes's personal vendetta gets in the way of the mission when he sees Santino, an incarcerated member of the gang Robbie targets when he moonlights as Ghost Rider. The ensuing confrontation is suitably badass; as Santino burns up, some of the escaping inmates are so frightened that they lock themselves back inside their cells. It's also petty, self-serving, moronic, and exactly the time-consuming indulgence that Lucy needs. She swoops in, abducts Elias, and escapes to enlist his help in translating the secrets of the Darkhold.
That's the main arc of "Lockup," and it basically delivers what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. promises: quippy dialogue, solid action scenes, and an array of TV-friendly special effects — some more impressive than others. But as much fun as the show has with its prison break, it's the stuff happening back at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters that's really interesting. Simmons teams up with Jeffrey Mace, the newly minted director of S.H.I.E.L.D., as he debates Senator Ellen Nadeer over whether or not S.H.I.E.L.D. should protect Inhumans.
Mace's earnest request for debate prep comes at just the right time, because Simmons is in the middle of a mandatory lie-detector test, sweating bullets as she tries to figure out how she'll dodge questions about Daisy and Aida. (In yet another muddled attempt at a real-life political parallel, Simmons is asked, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of HYDRA?" — a reworking of the question typically asked of alleged Communist sympathizers.) But Mace gives Simmons a temporary pass on the condition that she stand off-camera while he debates the senator, feeding him talking points and statistics through a tiny microphone in his ear.
In principle, this is a dumb story. Even though Jeffrey Mace comes across as more sizzle than steak, there's no reason the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. should need a voice in his ear just to debate with a woman whose talking points never go beyond, "Inhumans are bad!" At least it gives both Simmons and the audience a chance to examine this new character who has been a bit of a cipher, as he smoothly translates Simmons's suggestions into mainstream-friendly talking points. And Mace's biggest bit of theater comes at the end, when he abandons Simmons's advice entirely to reveal that he is also Inhuman.
The gambit works. Already beloved by the public for putting his life on the line to rescue innocent bystanders during a Vienna bombing, Mace is the new face of the Inhuman movement — and pro-Inhuman, pro-S.H.I.E.L.D. polling explodes in popularity. It's a happy ending for everybody, until Simmons goes back to complete her polygraph.
That's when she plays the card she's been stashing in her deck. She doesn't want to be subjected to any more lie-detector tests, she explains, and Mace should spare her for his own sake. If he doesn't, she'd have no choice but to tell the truth about his legendary "heroic" moment in Vienna. We don't know what she's talking about, but it's enough to make Mace coolly swear off any further tests. He knows beyond a doubt that one of his highest-ranking employees is harboring secrets, but he's unable to do anything about it.
In that brief exchange between Simmons and Mace, when so much is left unspoken, you see his mask slip a little, and it's clear how dangerous he might turn out to be. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new director is still mired in mystery, but the more we learn about him, the more layered and intriguing he turns out to be. Maybe the show has a big villain lined up after all.
- In the episode's stinger, Senator Nadeer calls a secret meeting with Mace to drop a second bombshell: She has footage of S.H.I.E.L.D. working with Daisy and Ghost Rider, two known vigilantes. Mace asks her what he can do to persuade her not to leak the footage to the public, and while we don't get to hear her answer, her sly smile makes it clear that it's nothing good.
- If you look very closely at the walls in the flashback that opens the episode, you'll spot a poster for the Quentin Carnival — a callback to the location where Johnny Blaze, the original Ghost Rider, showed off his motorcycling talents to an adoring crowd.
- ABC's George Stephanopoulos moderates the debate between Mace and Nadeer as himself. Synergy!
- Nadeer's tossed-off reference to "blue-skinned killers in Wyoming" certainly sounded like a reference to the Kree, didn't it?
- May, snapping back at Coulson's persistent questions about what she experienced when she briefly died in last week's episode: "Didn't feel like a trip to Tahiti."
- During his confrontation with Robbie, Santino implies that there was a greater purpose to the drive-by shooting that left Gabe Reyes in a wheelchair. Any guesses on who was actually responsible for what seems to be a grander conspiracy? Was Robbie's transformation into Ghost Rider a little less random and voluntary than he believes?
- While the other prisoners riot, Santino sits in his cell reading the Spanish language version of Stephen King's Pet Sematary. I couldn't figure out if there was a greater purpose to that reference, but hey, Pet Sematary!
- Just a week after Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. repeatedly referenced Overwatch, an inmate yelled "FINISH HER!" with a suspiciously Mortal Kombat–esque cadence. Is the writing staff packed with gamers?
- Next week: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. winds back the clock to reveal how Robbie Reyes became Ghost Rider.