Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season finale opens with one of the nastiest, bloodiest scenes in the show’s history. Eli Morrow — who recently developed the ability to generate matter — is working on one of his evil schemes when a brave henchman pipes up, complaining that no one has been paid. “Hard day’s work deserves a hard day’s pay,” Eli agrees. “I hope you take diamonds.” Then, Eli uses his powers to spontaneously generate diamonds in the dude’s lungs. As the henchman coughs up bloody chunk after bloody chunk of priceless gemstone before collapsing onto the ground, Eli turns back to his work. “You may have to cut the rest out of his lungs,” he sneers at the remaining henchmen.
Whoa! Now this is a villain with some potential. My mind suddenly raced up and down the periodic table, considering all the creative havoc Eli could wreak on Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dispenses with him in the span of a single episode via its favorite new trick: Ghost Rider. At this point, Ghost Rider is starting to feel like a cheat code in a video game. Stuck with an “indestructible” villain? No worries, just have Ghost Rider pop in and condemn him to Hell.
To be fair, even S.H.I.E.L.D. knows this is a bit of a cheat. Deploying Ghost Rider is a roll of the dice: He’s enormously powerful, but impossible to control — and, of course, it’d be a huge scandal if anyone discovers S.H.I.E.L.D. has been working with a skull-faced demon vigilante. It’s the latter problem that most concerns Jeffrey Mace, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s PR-obsessed director, who argues with Coulson over whether or not to deploy the organization’s current lineup of Secret Warriors: Daisy Johnson, Yo-Yo Rodriguez, and Robbie “Ghost Rider” Reyes.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, so Mace agrees to send this ragtag bunch of superpowers into the field. In the end, “The Laws of Inferno Dynamics” winds up being a satisfying, straightforward season finale, as S.H.I.E.L.D. mounts a multitiered siege designed to bring down Eli Morrow once and for all. Though it’s a shame to see him defeated so easily, Eli does have the presence of mind to find one more cool use of his powers: a cesium booby trap, which sets the warehouse ablaze as soon as Yo-Yo steps into a puddle. Fire is no deterrent for Ghost Rider, of course, which means it’s Robbie Reyes’s turn to confront his uncle.
The resulting standoff is more or less what you’d expect it to be. Eli explains his motivation for mounting such an aggressive attack: Despite rising to the top of his field, he was always underestimated or distrusted due to his race and his socioeconomic background. It’s a compelling story, even though using his powers to level a large chunk of Los Angeles seems like a misguided way to gain the respect he craves, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dispenses with all the feelings pretty quickly so it can get back to the crazy superpowered stuff.
Eli impales Robbie on the spot with spikes of carbon, which means it’s time for the rest of the team to rush in. (Even Jeffrey Mace!) In a compelling action sequence that’s basically the TV version of those Quicksilver scenes from the X-Men movies, Yo-Yo uses her super-speed to rush around the room and disarm Eli’s goons, manipulating each individual skirmish to ensure S.H.I.E.L.D. comes out on top.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had convinced me it was going to wave away its violation of the law of conservation of mass with the handy catch-all of “duh, it’s magic,” but this episode revisits the subject in impressively nerdy fashion. Fitz discovers that Eli’s ability to “generate” matter is more like theft: Every element he brings into our dimension is actually being pulled from a parallel universe. Is that a hint to Eli’s ultimate fate? Robbie always says Ghost Rider drags people to Hell, but in a universe governed by science, they have to go somewhere, right?
After the Eli problem is addressed, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a little more cleanup to do. Daisy is spotted by a gaggle of reporters, who immediately start peppering her with questions about why S.H.I.E.L.D. is working with a known vigilante. Fortunately, an unexpected reprieve arrives in the form of Jeffrey Mace, who waves away the questions with a clever lie. Daisy has actually been working undercover on a top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. all along, he claims. She was never a true vigilante, and now she can formally rejoin the team.
Just like that, our scrappy band of heroes is reunited. Mace’s improvised solution is an elegant one. Sure, a hard-nosed investigative journalist could probably figure out the real story — where’s Ben Urich when you need him? — but as far as the public record is concerned, Daisy never left S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the team seems just as happy to let bygones be bygones.
This turns out to be pretty good timing: As soon as Eli Morrow is gone, a new villain emerges. (Protecting the world in the MCU is basically just a giant, deadly game of Whack-a-Mole.) This time, the threat is Radcliffe’s android Aida, whose encounter with the Darkhold, when combined with the experience of feeling pain for the first time, has sent her over the edge. The episode ends by revealing that Aida has betrayed S.H.I.E.L.D. by kidnapping the real Melinda May and replacing her with a Life Model Decoy — the first step in what’s certainly a grand evil plan.
To be frank, we don’t really need another show about robots that are indistinguishable from people. Westworld and Humans have that territory well-covered. Also, I’d love to see a cutting-edge android that doesn’t go haywire and turn against humankind for once. But even if this Aida stuff was a foregone conclusion, I’m intrigued to see what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can do with this particular trope when it returns in 2017.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has dropped plenty of loaded hints, and this week, Coulson finally comes out and says it: Before Robbie Reyes, he encountered a totally different Ghost Rider. Coulson doesn’t name names, but it’s almost certainly Johnny Blaze, the motorcycle-riding anti-hero played by Nicholas Cage in a couple of non-MCU movies. We’ll see if the character pops up in the back half of season four.
- Robbie’s whereabouts are currently unknown, but Coulson doesn’t seem worried. “I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Mr. Reyes,” he tells Daisy.
- When Simmons presents Daisy with her lanyard, she mentions Agent Koenig, the lanyard-loving S.H.I.E.L.D. insider played by Patton Oswalt. We never found out why he had so many twin brothers, did we?
- It might sound like another goofy Marvel Comics term, but there really was a plutonium “demon core,” which led to two fatal incidents in Los Alamos in 1945 and 1946. You can read the whole story here.
- Mack and Yo-Yo finally got together! I’m not super invested in that relationship or anything, but I’m definitely glad we’re done with scenes in which Mack awkwardly dances around his true feelings.
- While we’re on the subject: We get more flirty banter between Coulson and May as they talk about finally opening that damn bottle. (Of course, the current “May” being an Aida-controlled decoy might throw a wrench into their budding romance.)
- In a prescient bit of dialogue, Mace frets over the revelation that Aida is an android — and not just because he was kind of attracted to her. “Doesn’t anyone remember Ultron?!” he rants. Good point!
- Coulson drops a solid Philip K. Dick reference when he wonders aloud if Aida dreams of electric sheep. (If that line doesn’t ring familiar, you might know Dick’s novel better under the name of its film adaptation: Blade Runner.)
- “Clowns … with knives … in the dark.” Fitz, casually revealing a very specific phobia.
- For the past two years, ABC whiled away Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season break by airing full seasons of Agent Carter. Alas, Agent Carter was canceled after its second season. The return date for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t yet been announced, but without Agent Carter to split the gap, I suspect it’ll be back a little sooner than usual.