In his recent TV appearances, Patton Oswalt has proven himself to be a human spice rack: Sprinkle him in, and he can add a little flavor to anything. Shows like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have reaped the rewards of Oswalt’s idiosyncratic shenanigans — but no show has gotten as much out of the actor as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which likes him so much it has given him no fewer than four characters to play over the course of the series.
Oswalt’s various Koenigs — Agents Eric, Billy, Sam, and their non-S.H.I.E.L.D. brother Thurston, an obnoxious performance artist — have always been a bit of a mystery. Are they robots, or an indeterminate number of identical siblings? And how many Koenigs are out there, anyway? For a while, I suspect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have a grasp on the answers to those questions, but this week’s episode finally offers some clarity: The Koenigs are identical human quadruplets, browbeaten into their S.H.I.E.L.D. gigs by their domineering sister L.T. (Artemis Pebdani). They’re not LMDs, but they were technicians on the earliest experiments that led to the creation of LMDs.
These long-awaited answers come at the tail end of a rollicking episode that takes our heroes on a race around the globe, attempting to reach the Darkhold — which has been passed from Koenig to Koenig as an extreme security measure — before the villains can torture the information out of the kidnapped Billy Koenig. He is being held captive on an old submarine owned by none other than Senator Nadeer’s oft-mentioned, never-seen boss: “The Superior.”
The Superior, we learn, is a reclusive Russian industrialist named Anton Ivanov. Ivanov veers pretty hard into stereotype — he’s literally introduced as he takes a shot of vodka — but the committed, charismatic performance by Zach McGowan (previously of Shameless and Black Sails) makes him one of the more promising villains introduced in the fourth season. Along with his identity, the purpose of Ivanov’s quest for the Darkhold is finally clear: Offended by the concept that Inhumans gain superpowers without putting in the work to earn them, he plans to use the destructive knowledge gleaned from the book to wipe every Inhuman off the face of the earth. He also specifically aims to take down Coulson, whose repeated encounters with aliens have put a target on his back.
Ivanov repeatedly professes a preference for the simple cruelty of torture, but his alliances with both Senator Nadeer and Dr. Radcliffe have added a number of more complicated tools to his chest — including the LMDs. At this stage of the game, we have two LMDs in play, and “Hot Potato Soup” spends a fair amount of time with both of them. The Radcliffe LMD was uncovered in last week’s episode, and Fitz, Simmons, and Mack spend most of their time trying to pull information out of it.
Or should it be pull information out of “him”? While the Radcliffe LMD demonstrates some distinctly robotic characteristics — including the ability to eerily, perfectly mimic Simmons’s voice — it also argues that, biological or mechanical, it’s an independent being that may even possess a soul. Given the LMD’s apparent complexity, it’s not terribly surprising when Fitz cracks it open and discovers a “quantum brain” — nonorganic, but broadly similar to a human’s.
As interesting as this Westworld-lite debate turns out to be, it’s the second LMD that really drives the plot forward. The May LMD has spent the past few episodes cozying up to Coulson, and this week, it finally makes its big move. As the Koenigs recover the Darkhold from a top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base called the Labyrinth, the May LMD kisses Coulson. But as quickly as the ruse reaches its logical endpoint, it collapses. When the May LMD insists that it will destroy the Darkhold, Coulson realizes it must be a decoy. (“There are some things you can’t fake,” he muses, which seems to imply that the kiss felt wrong too.) At the same time, Fitz — relying on his new knowledge about the Radcliffe LMD — realizes that May has also been replaced. He sends in Daisy, who uses her powers to propel the robot into a wall, leaving it a crumpled mess.
The robot, true to its programming, still manages to complete its prime directive. When Billy Koenig sees the wounded LMD, he assumes it’s the real May, and attempts to help. The LMD disarms him, takes the Darkhold, and passes it off to Radcliffe, who brings it right back to Ivanov.
Once again, the world is in danger from a madman with an unimaginable power — but as Coulson reminds the team, S.H.I.E.L.D. gained its own assets in the race for the Darkhold. They finally know the name and face of the Superior, which will make it exponentially easier to find him and take him down. They’ve successfully disarmed three known LMDs. Two — AIDA 1.0 and the Radcliffe LMD — have been destroyed; the May LMD has been preserved, in case the real May has been killed. In that final, questionable decision, Coulson’s beating heart shows once again. The LMD may not be the real thing, but even he can’t destroy the closest thing he might ever have to a Melinda May again, no matter the danger.
- Is the “Darkhold” recovered by the May LMD a decoy? The book spends the entire episode inside a leather bag, and I wouldn’t put it past Coulson and the Koenigs to construct an elaborate ruse to throw the villains off the real book’s trail.
- The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Coulson’s obituary, which calls him a “son of Manhattan” also reveals that he died on May 4, 2012 — the day The Avengers landed in theaters. If the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. timeline is still in line with our own, that makes Coulson 53 years old right now (a.k.a. way too old to make like a college kid and spend a month reading Ulysses in Irish pubs).
- The episode also gives us our first details about Fitz’s childhood: His extremely critical father left the family altogether when Fitz was 10 years old.
- I guess I can sympathize with the decision to leave the May LMD intact … but why not lock it up? Do you really want to risk the possibility that Radcliffe turns it on from afar and sends it on a killing spree?
- In the span of a single episode, the various Koenigs squeeze in references to Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Lord of the Rings. It’s nothing on the level of Oswalt’s improvised Star Wars filibuster for Parks and Rec, but I wonder how many of those pop-culture references were ad-libbed by Oswalt on the spot.
- Sam Koenig helpfully educates Daisy on the explosion of fanfiction that has developed around her since she was formally revealed as “Quake” — including the “steamier stuff” that pairs her with Black Widow. “They call you Quack,” he says.
- A small sample of Thurston Koenig’s incisive slam poetry: “Sequels and prequels / Zombies and Kanyes / Snapchats and Grumpy Cats.”
- Next week: S.H.I.E.L.D. squares off against a combustible Inhuman who is not Ghost Rider.