Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Like countless MacGuffin-centric stories before it, this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focuses on the contents of a mysterious briefcase. In a plot development that reeks of a retcon, we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. director Jeffrey Mace never goes anywhere without staying close to a silver briefcase that’s chained to the wrist of his loyal lackey Agent Burrows.
“The Patriot” opens as a sniper attempts to assassinate Mace at a public event. Mace, Burrows, Coulson, and Mack flee the chaos in a Quinjet, but a subsequent attack sends poor Burrows flying out an open hole in the hull. Burrows is clearly dead, which makes it particularly weird when Mace pulls rank and insists on tracking down his body anyway. It doesn’t take a Holmes-level intellect to deduce that Mace actually wants the briefcase chained to Burrows’s corpse. So what makes this heretofore unmentioned briefcase so important? Coulson tosses out a few guesses as to what it might contain: nuclear codes, hush money, Girl Scout cookies.
Ultimately, the answer turns out to be something no one else at S.H.I.E.L.D. saw coming. The briefcase contains a pair of syringes containing serum derived from an experiment called the “Patriot Project.” Jeffrey Mace isn’t an Inhuman after all; he’s an Inhuman sympathizer pretending to be Inhuman to help advance their cause. Without regular injections, he’s as mortal as anyone else.
This revelation brings Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Jeffrey Mace closer to his original comic-book counterpart, a wannabe Captain America who fought crime as the “Patriot” despite his total lack of superpowers. While Mace’s small-screen equivalent still draws clear inspiration from Captain America, his powers have a more sinister origin. The serum is derived not from the experiment that Steve Rogers underwent, but from Calvin “Mr. Hyde” Zabo, the primary villain from the second season and Daisy’s father.
This is an important twist with major ramifications for the rest of the season — which might be why it feels like the whole episode was reverse engineered to build to this moment. Take, for example, the moment when the Quinjet carrying Coulson, Mack, and Mace is shot down. As the damaged jet careens toward the ground, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes a commercial break, apparently building suspense over the question of how our heroes will manage to escape the plane before it crashes — but when the show returns from the commercial, the jet has already crash landed. All three of our heroes are very much alive, presumably because it would have been too expensive, inconvenient, or time-consuming to actually show us how the crash went down.
I find this kind of narrative contrivance both lazy and annoying, but it’s much easier to ignore when the rest of the show is working. Unfortunately, “The Patriot” also contorts its characters out of proportion to get the results it desires. Last week’s episode revealed that Dr. Radcliffe was secretly behind the kidnapping of Melinda May, and her Life Model Decoy is part of a grand scheme to get control of the Darkhold. So far, so good. But this week, when the real May wakes up and attempts to escape, Radcliffe’s decision to keep her in captivity doesn’t really make sense. I get that Radcliffe is actively seeking to avoid any human casualties, but what’s the long-term plan here? Wait until the May LMD successfully recovers the Darkhold, then free the original May and run for the hills? Would someone so single-minded and maniacal in his pursuit of immortality really take such an obvious risk?
The answer, of course, is a simple one: He wouldn’t, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t about to lose Melinda May as a recurring character, so he isn’t going to kill her. A TV show will always be built around some level of contrivance, but when the motives are so flimsy that you can spot the man behind the curtain, that’s on the writers.
The problem is even more pronounced when it applies to a character we’ve really come to know over the past few seasons, like Fitz. The episode ends by revealing that Fitz is secretly planning to dig into the circuitry of the AIDA robot that went haywire. This isn’t just a betrayal of the team’s trust; it’s a betrayal of Simmons, his lover and best friend, soon after the very same robot put her life in danger. The Fitz we usually see on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — who refused for months to accept that Simmons was dead, even after she disappeared into an alien portal — would never put her life at risk in such a cavalier way, let alone lie to her like this. So why does he do it this time? Because the plot requires it.
But ham-fisted as the narrative contrivances of “The Patriot” might be, it does manage to push the story in some promising new directions. As the episode ends, we finally get the rest of the story on Jeffrey Mace. It turns out his lack of heroism in Vienna is much less sinister than it might have appeared when Simmons originally dangled “the truth” over his head: In the chaos of the attack, he tripped and fell on top of someone, and when someone snapped a photo that made him look good, he just went along with it. Mace may be a fraud, but he’s a well-intentioned one, and he’s done plenty of genuinely heroic things since that moment catapulted him onto the national stage.
That’s why, at the end of the episode, Coulson refuses Mace’s offer to reveal the truth and resign as S.H.I.E.L.D. director. “Keep the title, handle the politics,” he says. “But when it comes to operations, make no mistake. From now on, I’m calling the shots.”
- In a recent interview at the Television Critics Association conference, star Elizabeth Henstridge revealed that (as far as she knows), no one except the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showrunners knows the mysterious third plot “pod” that will close out the season after the LMD story is wrapped up. Any brilliant guesses?
- A prediction for the series finale, whenever that may be: Coulson’s final act of behind-the-scenes leadership will be appointing Daisy Johnson — the Inhuman he was actually grooming as his protégé all along — to be the next director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- In a particularly deep cut, Daisy notes that Yuri Zaikin was one of the gunmen at “the Fridge,” a top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility last seen all the way back in season one.
- Of course Talbot’s ringtone for the president is “Hail to the Chief.” (While we’re on the subject: Is Matthew Ellis still president in the MCU?)
- Simmons pulls a particularly badass MacGyver move when she repurposes AIDA’s severed head to threaten Zaikin. “What’s that saying you’re so fond of at HYDRA?” she taunts him. Bonus points if you get it on the first try!
- Next week: The May LMD grapples with the unpleasant discovery that she’s actually a robot.