Agents Of SHIELD: Season Four Review

When Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD first burst onto our screens - the TV spin-off of the successful Marvel Cinematic Universe - expectations were high. Needless to say, audiences were disappointed. The crew - Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson aside - seemed bland and uninteresting. The cases of the week weren't terribly exciting and it certainly lacked the punch of it's big screen counterparts. It took the fall of SHIELD late in season one, tying into the events of Captain America: The Winter Solider, finally shake up the dynamic of show. Finally there was hope and seasons two and three really started to deliver on its promise.

The subsequent two years started to deliver on that newfound energy as the show found greater confidence in moving away from the restraints of the larger movie universe to tell its own stories. The introduction of the Inhumans allowed the series - and the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe - to deliver its own take on Mutants (the rights of course still owned by Fox) and the addition of more interesting characters like Mac, Yoyo and Mockingbird saw the show grow from strength to strength. There was even some well needed development in the core characters; by the end of season three Fitz and Simmons were two of the most popular members of the cast.

Gabriel Luna as Ghost Rider

Agents Of SHIELD went from okay to good television, but it wasn't until the recent season that it truly became must watch TV. The series had already switched from episode of the week cases to long-running arcs by the end of its first year (and was all the stronger for it) but it helped that the fourth season switched from two halves to three connected narratives, allowing for tighter pacing in its storytelling. The show also continued to push itself and that all began with the surprise introduction of Gabriel Luna's Robbie Reyes, AKA Ghost Rider. A different  incarnation to the classic version (played in the largely terrible movies by Nicolas Cage), his opening eight episodes saw the series embrace more of the mystical elements (timing nicely with Doctor Strange). With ghosts and a magical book Darkhold, the show was entering new territory.

It was arguably the slowest segment of the season but after a low key start that saw the status quo shift with the arrival of new SHIELD director Jeffrey Mace ( Jason O'Mara) and Skye / Daisy on the run, it's main purpose was to seed the larger elements of the season, namely Artificial Intelligent Digital Assistant (Aida) (played superbly by Mallory Jansen), designed by the supposedly good Holden Radcliffe (the always brilliant John Hannah). It was also a chance to shake things up with Coulson back in the field and he was all the better for it; no longer burdened by the weight of authority, this was the quippier version of the old days and Clark Gregg soon reminded us why he was given his own show in the first place after a wonderful debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe phase 1.

The big bad of that first story arc, Reyes' uncle Eli Morrow (José Zúñiga) was a little flat, his reveal as traitor one of the weaker elements of the series. However two things made up for it - the chance to see Ghost Rider kick ass on screen and the real threat of season four - AIDA - who used the Darkhold to defeat Morrow and trap Reyes with him.

Mallory Jansen as AIDA

The second story arc - the Life Model Decoy - was a step up again as key characters were replaced by android versions and Radcliffe's villainy was revealed as AIDA stepped up her pursuit of the Darkhold. Jansen's ability to deliver absolute menace while still appearing robotic made her one of the more interesting villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From the audience waiting for the rest of the team to discover May was a replacement to the shocking turns as more characters were replaced as Simmons and Daisy (thankfully part of the team once more) tried to save SHIELD, the excitements levels continued to rise week after week.

It culminated in the emergence of the Framework, which saw Coulson, Mack, May, Fitz and Mace trapped in a world gone mad, where HYDRA has defeated SHIELD and Inhumans are hunted. Desperate to save their colleagues, Simmons and Daisy plugged themselves in, and Agents Of HYDRA was born. The final run of episodes were quite simply riveting television, as old characters like Ward and Tripp returned, heroes became villains (Fitz and May's ruthlessness was horrible to watch) and Daisy and Simmons went through the ringer to wake up their friends to what was happening and return home.

Madame Hydra and Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) in the Framework

The pacing of the Framework story arc was perfect because it gave enough time to make the growing awareness of our heroes feel natural without ever outstaying its welcome. Coulson's bubbling teacher was adorable, Ward as the good guy was a lot of fun, May as a high ranking HYDRA enforcer was totally believable and Fitz as a Nazi-like scientist, experimenting on Inhumans while having a twisted affair with Madame Hydra (AIDA) made for gripping television. It really felt as if the stakes couldn't be higher and there were several nail biting moments, particularly the horrible moment Fitz coldly murdered Agnes (the woman behind Radcliffe's inspiration for AIDA). The death of Mace, starting as a bureaucratic thorn in Coulson's side at the beginning of the season and emerging as a true Captain America-style hero was terribly sad. And Mack's refusal to accept the truth as he was reunited with his dead daughter was heartbreaking.

As thrilling as those Framework episodes were, the fallout in the final two episodes was just as riveting. Mack staying behind and Yoyo entering the Framework to save him was powerful stuff, even as the 'dreamworld' collapsed around them. It was a great swansong for John Hannah's Radcliffe too. Aida using the Darkhold to transform into a powerful Inhuman with multiple powers was excellent too, particular her love for Fitz transforming into deranged psychopathy as he rejected her for Simmons. I loved that the impacts of what happened to our characters remained after they escaped, Fitz in particular traumatised by his apparent evil side.

Aida 'kills' Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) in the season finale

The finale World's End was the perfect cap to a strong season as Ghost Rider returned, more powerful than ever (the Ghost Rider and Quake team up was magnificent), May and Coulson finally looking to move forward in their relationship and Aida out of control. Her apparent brutal murder of Simmons (later revealed as a life model decoy) was harrowing and Coulson becoming Ghost Rider to defeat Aida was cool, even if the final fight was rather abrupt. And then we had the delightful final scene as the team reunited for one final meal before they were all arrested and apparently sent into a prison in space - setting up an intriguing new direction for season five.

The fourth season of Agents Of SHIELD was its most successful yet with a great villain in Mallory Jansen's Aida and plenty of great twists and turns along the way. The introduction of Gabriel Luna's Ghost Rider was a very cool addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and each character got a fascinating journey of their own, the impact of which is sure to have a huge focus in season five even outside their imprisonment in space. The trick of splitting the season into three small arcs and a two-part finale to cap things off worked extremely well and for the first time, the show became must see TV week after week.

Roll on season five...

Review Summary

A vastly improved fourth season that made the use of three smaller arcs and a great central villain in Mallory Jansen's AIDA

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