Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: Major Malfunction

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Broken Promises
Season 4 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****
Mallory Jansen. Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC

Everything you need to know about the current state of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be summed up in the show’s new credits sequence. When the fourth season premiered last September, the show’s logo was surrounded by fire and chains designed to evoke the arrival and prominence of Robbie “Ghost Rider” Reyes. But the Ghost Rider arc came to a relatively graceful end in December, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is wasting no time establishing a new direction for the narrative. The new logo is surrounded by a complicated-looking web of circuits and gears, designed to evoke the show’s latest threat: AIDA, the once-benevolent android that’s been corrupted by its encounter with the Darkhold.

“Broken Promises” takes place immediately after the mid-season finale’s cliffhanger, which revealed that AIDA had secretly replaced Melinda May with a Life Model Decoy, the Marvel term for a robot that’s indistinguishable from a human. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could have strung this along for a while, letting AIDA operate with the tacit approval of S.H.I.E.L.D. after she saved the lives of Coulson and Fitz. Instead, the team agrees to wipe her memory, and AIDA openly attacks our heroes in response, leading to a game of cat and mouse as she uses her technological edge to manipulate every aspect of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s network.

The solution turns out to be a simple one: shut off the network and take AIDA down by force. But while the beats of the plot are fairly rote, the character moments are clever and tense, facilitated by an above-par script from series veteran Brent Fletcher. Radcliffe and Fitz are understandably protective of their creation, even as they (reluctantly) agree that she needs to be destroyed. Daisy, back within S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ranks after the events of the mid-season finale, takes time to bond with old friends like Simmons, and bristles at the new man in charge. Mack gets all the best lines in the episode, openly riffing on the sheer idiocy of creating a humanoid robot without assuming it’ll eventually turn evil. “Have either one of you seen a movie in the last 30 years?” he asks Fitz and Radcliffe. “The robots always attack.”

Meanwhile, in a subplot that feels like lukewarm leftovers from the first half of the season, the vehemently anti-Inhuman Senator Ellen Nadeer confronts her brother Vijay, who recently emerged from a Terrigenesis cocoon after seven months of incubation. (Along the way, we finally get the backstory on Nadeer’s hatred for Inhumans: Her mother was killed in the Chitauri attack in The Avengers — on her birthday, no less — which inspired Ellen’s knee-jerk distrust of anything with alien origins.)

The Nadeer subplot centers on a key question: What happened to Vijay in the cocoon? Ellen repeatedly references a promise they made to sacrifice themselves if they ever turned into something like the aliens that killed their mom; Vijay repeatedly insists that he’s the same person he ever was. It’s only when Vijay is in mortal danger that his power finally emerges: He’s got extremely advanced reflexes, which enable him to dodge all the murderous Watchdogs employed by his sister. Daisy, Mace, and Simmons eventually arrive to offer Vijay S.H.I.E.L.D.’s support, but he opts to trust his sister over the secret government organization that just turned up on his doorstep. This, alas, turns out to be a mistake. In the tight confines of the helicopter that arrives to take them away, Ellen shoots Vijay in the stomach, vowing to strike back against S.H.I.E.L.D. after she orders her goons to get rid of the body.

Back in the main story, our heroes confront AIDA as she seeks out the Darkhold. After manipulating Coulson into unwittingly revealing the magic book’s location to the May LMD, AIDA nearly accomplishes her goal, too. Fortunately, Mack arrives just in time to stop her, and chops her head clean off before delivering a Schwarzenegger-worthy one-liner: “Roll credits.”

And so ends Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s extremely brief LMD arc — at least in the eyes of our heroes. We know, of course, that the May LMD is still in play. But, of course, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is holding back a bigger twist. In the safety of the lab, a second, more powerful AIDA emerges with the full cooperation of her creator, Dr. Radcliffe, who has engineered all of this mayhem to get his hands onto the Darkhold. Radcliffe personally glimpsed the Darkhold only briefly, but even that was enough to corrupt his mind. He now believes the secret to immortality lies in stealing the book from S.H.I.E.L.D. and working with AIDA to decipher its many mysteries, and it seems like he’ll do pretty much anything to get it. Yikes.

The episode’s next twist, which comes in the stinger, is both more predictable and less interesting. The Watchdogs dispose of Vijay’s body by dropping him into the ocean, weighted down by a rock chained to his ankle. But you can’t keep a good Inhuman down that easily. As he sinks to the ocean floor, he begins to cocoon again — presumably hibernating until all his wounds are healed. Until that day, I guess Vijay will just be hanging out underwater, being immortal, like Jason at the end of Friday the 13th Part VI. Although this will probably pay off down the road, it feels like a needless detour from the claustrophobic sci-fi horror of the LMD story line.

Fortunately, it’s clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be doubling down on the LMDs soon enough. The episode’s smartest, most tragic shot comes directly from the May LMD’s perspective, staring directly at Coulson as they share a Chinese takeout order. Coulson is poised to fall for this Melinda May impostor, which would wreak emotional havoc on both him and the real Melinda May once the truth is revealed. That’s just the first of many possible LMD replacements in the grand scope of AIDA and Radcliffe’s master plan.

Stray Bullets:

  • In a very candid interview, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s producers said they “left it open” for Ghost Rider to return someday, but conceded that “financial considerations” were part of what led to the abbreviated Robbie Reyes arc — presumably because it’s so expensive and labor-intensive to do the CGI for a flaming skull head every week. Personally, I’m fine with the show backing off from Ghost Rider for a while (even as I wait to see the payoff for all those Johnny Blaze references), but I wish the reasons for it were solely creative.
  • Ellen and Vijay briefly reminisce over the time they built a biplane with their brother Raj, who I’m pretty sure we’ve never heard about before, let alone met. If he eventually turns up, I wonder which side of this family feud he would land on?
  • If the Watchdogs are really trying to be a top-secret terrorist group, they should probably stop wearing those gray wolf masks.
  • Mack, always quick on the draw with nicknames, dubs AIDA a “beautiful weird science sex-bot.”
  • Yo-Yo shares Mack’s incredulity about Radcliffe’s decision to ignore the lessons of killer-robot movies. “Someone needs to make Radcliffe watch all the Terminator movies,” Mack argues. “Even Salvation?” “He brought this onto himself.”
  • Another nice moment from Fletcher’s script: As Mace dips into reflexive false modesty about his heroism in Vienna attack from Captain America: Civil War, Daisy stops him in his tracks. “You don’t get to be modest and have a framed glamour shot,” she says.
  • Daisy also leans into the self-conscious ridiculousness of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s larger arc. “I think Simmons has been kidnapped, like, three times since I’ve known her,” she reflects. “Well, only twice on this planet.”
  • Shoutout to Yo-Yo for that reference to 1986’s Chopping Mall, a wonderfully stupid killer-robot movie that everyone should see. Tagline: “Where shopping costs you an arm and a leg!”
  • Next week, Coulson finally digs into the shadowy, too-good-to-be-true past of Jeffrey Mace.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: Major Malfunction