Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked off its month-long hiatus with a genuinely suspenseful cliffhanger, as Robbie's uncle Eli Morrow developed the ability to generate matter from nothing. A cliffhanger is a good way to ensure viewers will return after a long break, but it's also a risk: If the resolution doesn't justify all that anticipation, viewers will come to distrust the show.
So it's a relief that this week's "Deals With Our Devils" is the best episode of the fourth season: clever, smart, fun, and surprising. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has had a few standout episodes, but none that so completely encapsulate the stuff I'd like to see from a Marvel series every week.
"Deals With Our Devils" begins by explaining what happened after Eli's experiment. While the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents scramble to find the mad scientist, Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie realize an unexpected side effect of the explosion: They've been shoved into a liminal space between dimensions, which effectively makes them ghosts in the real world. They can see everything and interact with each other — but they can't interact with anything in the physical world and no one can see or hear them. If they're ever going to get back to our plane of reality, they need to act fast, because some strange force is attempting to drag them out of existence altogether.
The rest of the episode — written by series mainstay D.J. Doyle and directed by Jesse Bochco, who helmed the all-time great "4,722 Hours" — is built around an artful structure. First, we see scenes play out as normal, while S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to figure out what to do without Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie. Next, we see the same exact scenes play out again, but with the ghostly versions of Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie standing right next to their oblivious S.H.I.E.L.D. allies, trying (and failing) to influence the real world and engineer their own rescue.
This narrative trick requires both deft writing and deft performances, and "Deals With Our Devils" is largely up to the task. It creates distinct emotional stakes for each character: Coulson, ever the pragmatist, analyzes the problem and hunts for a solution; Fitz frets over the idea that he might disappear before he gets to see Simmons again; and Robbie finds himself afflicted with a strange kind of exhaustion, as Ghost Rider fights the new reality he has been dragged into.
For all the intrigue of the spirit world, the biggest surprises come in the real one. In a rare and telling departure from her measured stoicism, May contemplates using the Darkhold to bring Coulson back. Daisy, displaying her usual compassion for orphans, seeks to comfort Robbie's brother Gabe, who just lost his entire family in a single shot. And Mack just gets mad. Unusually mad. So mad, in fact, that Ghost Rider vacates Robbie's body to possess Mack and his shotgun-axe instead.
Newly infused with the spirit of vengeance, Ghost Rider Mack hops on his bike and heads out to confront the gang that might know where Eli is hiding. (I'm all for Robbie Reyes and his Charger, but I have to admit, it feels good to see Ghost Rider on a motorcycle again.) The ensuing chase sequence is every bit as fun as it sounds: Daisy drives Robbie's car while he rides shotgun as an unseen ghost, wincing at every dent and scratch.
Of course, the final confrontation is deadly serious. When Mack arrives at the warehouse, he rushes in with guns blazing, and it's pretty horrifying to behold — S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most devout Christian possessed, more or less, by the devil. As Mack resorts to torture to get the information he wants, Robbie decides it's time to intervene. Unlike the other characters, Ghost Rider can still communicate with Robbie while he's on the other side, so he offers a deal: If Ghost Rider will repossess him and help him take down Eli, Robbie will devote the rest of his life to crossing names off Ghost Rider's list. As soon as Ghost Rider agrees, Mack is saved and Robbie vanishes.
Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Coulson and Fitz's allies are debating a different moral compromise: Should they open the Darkhold to see if it contains the solution? This is, by all rational standards, a terrible idea. Everyone knows this thing is insanely evil. The last guy who opened it just became an Über-dangerous supervillain! It's a testament to way Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has solidified the connections between its protagonists that this seems like an option at all.
But then an intriguing solution arises. Darkhold is supposedly too much for any human mind to bear, but what about Aida, Dr. Radcliffe's experimental A.I. that merely looks human? Aida opens the book and uncovers a way to bring them back: a portal that can reach between worlds. (In a neat little detail, the Darkhold — which magically translates itself into the language its reader will understand — shows this trick to Aida in binary code.) The portal works, and Coulson and Fitz rejoin their S.H.I.E.L.D. allies in the real world. (There are unseen consequences, of course, which I'll elaborate on in the stray bullets section below.)
Next week's episode is the midseason finale, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has laid the groundwork for a compelling finish. Eli Morrow is still out there somewhere, and even if the team manages to take him down, they'll still need to confront plenty of threats on the horizon.
- If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wraps up the Eli Morrow story line in next week's episode, "Deals With Our Devils" sets up a few potential story lines that could pay off in the back half of season four. With Simmons's help, the Inhuman-hating Senator Nadeer manages to break her brother out of his Terrigenesis shell, though his superpowers remain unclear. Meanwhile, the Darkhold is powerful enough to affect not just human brains, but artificial intelligence: As the episode ends, Aida secretly experiments with creating what looks like a human brain out of thin air. And there's still the nagging question about the real agenda of Jeffrey Mace, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s enigmatic new director.
- One intriguing bit of news that popped up during the show's brief hiatus: ABC Studios will produce an eight-episode Marvel series called The Inhumans, centered on the superheroic Black Bolt and his royal family, which will premiere sometime next year in IMAX theaters before moving to the small screen. Oddly, The Inhumans is not being treated as a spinoff, despite Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spending much of the past two years getting mainstream audiences up to speed on the Inhuman mythology.
- Is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally throwing Coulson-May shippers a bone? Her burn-it-all-down desperation to bring him back — and their renewed promise to share a good bottle of whiskey — makes their longstanding bond seem less platonic than usual.
- I liked Daisy's nonchalant response to everybody's shock at this latest brush with the boundaries of reality: "It's S.H.I.E.L.D.! Impossible things happened all the time."
- Next week: S.H.I.E.L.D. enlists Ghost Rider in the battle for Los Angeles.