If you want to see stories about robots that look like people, you don’t need to look very hard. Last year brought us HBO’s outside-the-box hit Westworld. Next month brings the second season of AMC’s Humans, a British show about robots that look like people, which is loosely based on a Swedish show about robots that looks like people. The summer will bring us Alien: Covenant, which stars Michael Fassbender as the humanoid robot David; the fall will bring us Blade Runner 2049, which will be packed with characters who are either possibly or definitely robots.
With such a well-worn narrative conceit, what can Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. bring to the table? Fortunately, there’s a good reason why storytellers keep returning to this concept: When it works, it really works. “Wake Up” is easily one of the best episodes of this season, a tense, twisty hour that deftly juggles three high-stakes subplots.
The first story takes us five days into the past to revisit the events of the midseason finale from a totally new perspective. This time, we follow the real Melinda May as she travels to Dr. Radcliffe’s laboratory to let him know that Jeffrey Mace has some serious questions about AIDA. When May reveals that she plans to destroy the Darkhold, Radcliffe activates AIDA’s “sunset protocol,” and AIDA attacks May, sedating her just in time for May to see her own perfect replica, soon to be activated so it can take her place.
Much of the episode centers on the real May’s attempt to escape her captivity. At first, Radcliffe attempts to keep her peaceful by immersing her in the fantasy of a luxurious day spa, but May, who isn’t big on relaxation, sees through the simulation almost immediately. Radcliffe’s second attempt is more successful: a simulated escape from the actual, real-life horror of her current captivity, complete with a brutal fight against AIDA. (The inherent unreality of this “escape” is also hidden from the audience, in a predictable but effective twist.) Even this harrowing scenario can’t keep May occupied for long, though. Every time the simulation repeats, she gets better and faster at fighting through it.
That’s why Radcliffe digs into May’s actual memories for the perfect solution. It’s a simulation based on the defining trauma of May’s past: her horrific mission in Bahrain, which ended when she had no choice but to kill a superpowered little girl. In this fantasy, she finally has the chance to make it right. In a heartbreaking coda to the simulation, May imagines calling her now-deceased ex-husband Andrew Garner, telling him that she managed to save the girl’s life.
All of this could have been enough for one episode — something like last year’s “4,722 Hours,” which broke format to spend a standalone hour with Jemma Simmons. But in the midst of all his tinkering with May’s brain, Radcliffe drops another bombshell: When AIDA asks him if their second android is operational, Radcliffe nods. “Yes,” he smiles. “Our second LMD.”
So when “Wake Up” cuts away from the real May to rejoin the rest of the cast, an uneasy question hangs over each scene: Which of our protagonists has already been replaced by an LMD? The script, written by longtime series vet Drew Z. Greenberg, hammers the audience with this subtext a little harder than it should, with line after line designed to torment us with the idea that one of these characters has been replaced: “These arms … they don’t even seem real,” Yo-Yo says to Mack. “That’s just how you’re built,” Fitz says to the May LMD. “I don’t want to intrude on you when you’re processing,” Simmons says to Fitz. “We are who we are, flaws and all,” the May LMD says to Coulson.
Tantalizing as it is, that threat remains a background concern while our heroes unknowingly go about their usual business. Daisy and Mace face a congressional committee led by Senator Nadeer, which goes awry when Nadeer’s goons catch Coulson and Yo-Yo digging around in her office, put them in handcuffs, and march them right into the hearing. The consequences for this very public indiscretion are still unknown, but Talbot suggests the very existence of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be at risk.
Back at the base, Fitz continues his secret investigation into the AIDA model that was decapitated by Mack. This sketchy behavior — kept hidden even from Simmons — makes him the likeliest candidate for Radcliffe’s second LMD. But the end of the episode brings a twist: Fitz is only obsessed with AIDA because he suspects Radcliffe deliberately engineered her “malfunction,” and by the end of the episode, he has enough evidence to bring his concerns to the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Fitz’s confrontation with Radcliffe happens to dovetail with the May LMD also confronting him, having discovered the truth about herself after an injury revealed that she’s made of metal and circuitry, not flesh and blood. As it turns out, Radcliffe’s crafty approach to LMDs is making them so much like the real person that they don’t know they’re not the real person. Programmed protocols only come into play when the LMDs veer off the track Radcliffe has set for them — like when one of them tries to kill him, or tell another person what they really are.
Of course, this would all be moot if Radcliffe were captured and interrogated into revealing the truth about the May LMD, so it seems promising when Fitz and his fellow agents have him arrested. But the episode brings a final wrinkle: When Fitz visits his mentor-turned-villain in the cell, he senses something is off and shoots Radcliffe in the head — revealing a brain full of circuitry. The real Radcliffe is in Senator Nadeer’s office, having cut a deal to save his own skin.
So does the existence of this now-defunct Radcliffe decoy close the case on the whole “second LMD” thing? I don’t think so. The great thing about the LMD arc is that it forces viewers to be as paranoid as the agents themselves, scrutinizing every odd moment for a sign that someone might not be what they seem. Even after this arc is over, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will keep us looking over our shoulders, aware that any of these heroes could be a deep-cover robot just waiting to be activated.
- If there is another sleeper LMD, who is it? I was betting on Fitz before he put a bullet in Radcliffe’s head, but now I’m not as convinced (though that would be a very clever scheme to clear Fitz of any suspicion). I assume it’s not Daisy or Yo-Yo, because it’d be impossible to robotically recreate their superpowers, or Coulson, because that would suck all the pathos out of the Coulson/May LMD pairing. That leaves Mack and Simmons. Personally, I’d bet on the latter. Her status as a rising S.H.I.E.L.D. star with the ear of the director could prove invaluable in Radcliffe’s plot to recover the Darkhold.
- No payoff on Vijay Nadeer, who’s presumably still percolating underwater, though Daisy does taunt Senator Nadeer about her brother’s mysterious disappearance. Could he be the key to the top-secret, much-discussed “third pod” that will dominate the season’s final episodes?
- When Mack started describing his secret past with a woman named Hope, I briefly assumed he was talking about Hope van Dyne, the female protagonist of Ant-Man (and co-headliner of the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp). Evangeline Lilly would be an ideal Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. guest star, tying the TV show back into an MCU that seems more and more disconnected — but once again, the show is building out its own narrative instead of strengthening its ties to the movies.
- Senator Nadeer makes another reference to “The Superior.” Any guesses?
- Simmons casually mentions that AIDA’s eye technology is based on Deathlok, the S.H.I.E.L.D. cyborg last seen in season two. What happened to that guy, anyway?
- Talbot has always had a unique way with words, but “steaming pile of fart pebbles” definitely belongs in the all-time pantheon.
- If you’re having Agent Coulson over for dinner, don’t serve him any cauliflower.
- Next week: Patton Oswalt returns to play at least two of the innumerable Koenig brothers.