With Doctor Strange arriving in theaters on Friday, it seemed safe to assume that this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would devote much of its run time to reminding everyone to run out and see Marvel's latest potential blockbuster.
That's certainly the approach we've seen in previous season. When Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron arrived in theaters, S.H.I.E.L.D. dutifully allowed the MCU to impose itself on its TV universe. But well into its fourth season, this is a different kind of show: more confident, more independent, and more immersed in the twists and turns of its own long-running narrative. The Doctor Strange references are there if you look for them, but this week's deepest and most meaningful MCU tie-ins relate to the underappreciated Agent Carter, which was canceled last spring. For once, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is looking backward and dropping a few deep cuts — a welcome reward for fans who have faithfully followed the story so far.
"The Good Samaritan" is primarily concerned with the backstory of the Reyes family, skipping back in time to reveal how Eli ended up in prison, how Gabe ended up in a wheelchair, and how Robbie turned into a demon with a flaming skull. In a series of flashbacks (credited simply as "back in the day"), we see Eli working with the Momentum Labs team to combine cutting-edge technology with the lessons of the Darkhold, which enable them to create matter from nothing.
Like many of fiction's great mad scientists, the Momentum Labs team began with a noble goal: developing their technology until it allows them to generate wheat, rice, and other resources that could end world hunger. But the sheer potential of the technology leads to deep fissures within the team, and Joseph Bauer eventually hires the Fifth Street Locos to assassinate Eli in a drive-by shooting.
Unfortunately, the would-be killers aren't particularly careful about locking down their target. When Robbie Reyes borrows his uncle Eli's '69 Charger for a street race (and brings his brother Gabe along for the ride), the Locos mistake him for Eli and riddle the car with bullets. This is the incident that put Gabe in a wheelchair, but he wasn't the only victim. By all rights, Robbie was hit by many more bullets. He should be dead.
But as Robbie explains it, he heard a voice in his dying moments and it made him an offer: a second chance at life, on the condition that he punish those who spill innocent blood. He accepted, became Ghost Rider, and began his streak of lethal vigilantism against the Fifth Street Locos. Robbie believes he was offered a second chance by the devil himself; I have a different theory (which I'll explain in the "stray bullets" below).
Wherever Robbie's superpowers originate, this week's episode makes one thing perfectly clear: He's neither human nor Inhuman. In the wake of last week's prison assassination, Jeffrey Mace arrives to take Robbie into custody. Coulson attempts to thwart Mace by hiding Robbie in the most secure place he can find: one of the holding chambers designed to keep Inhumans' powers in check. It's a technique we've seen S.H.I.E.L.D. use for years without fail — until this time, when Robbie morphs into Ghost Rider and bashes his way right through the door so he can pummel Mace into a stupor. Whatever Ghost Rider is, it's nothing S.H.I.E.L.D. has dealt with before.
Unfortunately, S.H.I.E.L.D. also needs him. Lucy Bauer has taken over a power plant in an effort to undo the experiment that turned her into a ghost in the first place. The resulting energy burst could kill thousands, and Robbie is the only one with the ability to kill these ghostlike creatures. With so much at stake, Mace reluctantly agrees to let Robbie act as a kind of S.H.I.E.L.D. deputy in the mission to take out Lucy and rescue Eli.
But as it turns out, the real villain has been hiding in plain sight, biding his time until he could strike. Eli wasn't the victim of Joe, Lucy, or any of the other mad scientists at Momentum Labs; he was the maddest of them all. As Ghost Rider helpfully takes out Lucy Bower, Eli slips into a chamber and flips a switch. When he emerges, he has gained the ability to generate matter out of nothing — a power that could just as easily destroy the world as save it.
And that's when the grander purpose of "The Good Samaritan" becomes clear. The episode isn't just an origin story for Ghost Rider; it's an origin story for Eli, explaining how an intelligent and apparently decent man can be utterly corrupted by the power he seeks. The stakes for the season are finally clear, and Eli is definitely the biggest threat facing S.H.I.E.L.D. right now. But the episode ends without addressing the wild card in the mix: On whose side will Ghost Rider land?
- So let's talk about the alleged "devil" who facilitated Robbie's transformation into Ghost Rider. Last week featured an Easter egg that directly referenced the original Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze; this week featured a mysterious "good Samaritan" motorcyclist who saved Gabe and facilitated Robbie's transformation into Ghost Rider. "Whatever was inside him, he passed it into me," Robbie explains. Is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. preparing to introduce the MCU version of Johnny Blaze? The evidence certainly points in that direction.
- To elaborate on that elaborate Agent Carter tie-in: Fitz explains that Peggy Carter originally encountered Momentum Labs back in the 1940s, when it was operating under the name Isodyne — the very same laboratory that was screwing around with Dark Matter, setting the entirety of Agent Carter's second season into motion. In the 1950s, Isodyne was acquired by the Roxxon Corporation, presumably under the leadership of CEO Hugh Jones, who was played by Ray Wise in Agent Carter. If you look closely, you can also spot references to Roxxon in all three Iron Man movies.
- Near the beginning of the episode, Mace sends Simmons on a mission so mysterious he won't even tell her what it is — a move that seems to be equal parts trust and spite. That's the last we see of Simmons for the week, which makes me think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is laying the groundwork to do something very special with her character this season. After all, the last time we got a stand-alone Simmons episode, it turned out to be the show's finest hour.
- I know Mace is a super-strong Inhuman, but it still seems like being punched in the face by Ghost Rider dozens of times should have led to a nosebleed — or, you know, death.
- According to Robbie, you experience nothing when you die — "just darkness." He should trade notes with Coulson and May sometime.
- Agent Coulson, Star Wars enthusiast: "Personally, I always felt that Admiral Ackbar was the unsung hero. A strategic military man who led combat ops against the Empire."
- Gabe Reyes continues to be a welcome addition, successfully recognizing and calling out anything that seems like bullshit. When Robbie attempts to justify his vigilantism by referencing the attack that left Gabe in a wheelchair, Gabe shuts him down immediately, explaining that he has long been at peace with being in a wheelchair: "Don't you put that blood on me."
- For once, someone manages to clap back at one of Mack's nicknames. When Mack calls Gabe "Ironside" — a reference to the wheelchair-bound detective from the TV show of the same name — Gabe responds by calling him "Black Kojak," in a reference to the bald, lollipop-sucking TV cop played by Telly Savalas.
- RIP, Lucy Bower. I will not miss your overwritten dialogue, nor the terrible special effects that brought you to life in the first place.