In the opening episodes of this uneven season, Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has been working to find the right balance between its fiery, forward-looking stories featuring the occult world of Ghost Rider and the (at best) stuck in neutral theatrics of its long-running Inhuman saga. With last night’s generally average “Lockup” episode, the series may have found one way to tie the two ideas together thematically. And it’s all about monster making.
The hour starts out with a literally spooky flashback sure to entice longtime Marvel readers as the series currently ghostly big bad Lucy and her fellow globetrotting scientist/general scumbag husband break in to musty basement in search of the Book of Darkhold. Eagle-eyed watchers may not the piles of discarded motorcycle parts and the faded poster for the Quentin Carnival – both tell-tale signs that this is the home of the originally flaming skullhead Johnny Blaze. Though if you’re holding out for a surprise Nicholas Cage cameo later this season, we’re not betting the original Ghost Rider will live again (think of how much teasing we got about the “real” Mandarin from Marvel Studios). In the meantime, Lucy and her man discover that Darkhold reads you as much as you read it, revealing itself in mysterious ways.
Flashing back to the present, Agent Coulson’s team is on as dicey a quest as it ever is. In need to track down the modern ghost Lucy before she infects more people with her otherworldly madness, the crew decides to use their government powers to take current Rider Robbie Reyes’ uncle out of prison so he can point them to Darkhold’s current location (even though Lucy’s currently beating them to it without the ability to turn its pages an one of the undead). This op is being kept off the books from S.H.I.E.L.D., which always works out well – especially when Lucy infects the prison guards and releases armies of Inhuman-hating Watchdog prisoners. From there, the team has to fight their way out of the cellblocks and to freedom with Robbie’s uncle.
And while that basic plot eats up the entire hour with a few expected beat down moments, it’s important to look at what the mission means for our most conflicted characters. Yes, the prisonbreak scheme allows us to watch Mack walk around with a slick designed version of his previously makeshift axe gun, but it’s far more revealing for both Daisy and Robbie. The former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent reveals to her ally why she’s been such a skulky flake this season. “I keep my distance because that’s what’s best for everyone,” she says establishing a motivation that’s been murky at best all year. And one can argue whether this motivation truly makes sense considering what we’ve seen of the character over three-plus seasons, but at least her fear of becoming a dangerous monster who harms those close to her drives the story forward here. It even helps explain why the woman known as Quake doesn’t unleash her Inhuman powers when she gets cornered in a prison kitchen by wave-after-wave of bigots bent on her destruction, though the series could make her status more explicit on that front if they want to keep the audience engaged fully.
Meanwhile, Robbie struggles with his own darker half as the prison break brings him into contact with perhaps the last living member of the gang who crippled his beloved brother. The former banger is on a calm path to reform, waiting out both his sentence and the prison riot by chilling and reading Stephen King. But Reyes’ desire for revenge can’t be contained even when he should be helping his uncle escape. The Ghost Rider flames alive and burns the gang member (who wasn’t even in action when his brother got hit) – giving into the monster inside himself at the worst possible moment. Here we see the connection between Robbie’s curse and Daisy’s. Both live in a world where holding on to who they feel they really are only causes pain and suffering, but while Daisy turns away from her path, Robbie holds onto his. And to the show’s credit, neither option seems tenable in a world bent on destroying both of them.
This idea of the ironic state of those seen as monsters comes into even sharper focus with our B-plot between Agent Simmons and smiley Director Mace. She’s trying her best to conceal the secret that Fitz dropped on her about Aida’s true identity. He’s trying to push back publicly against Inhuman-hating Senator Nadeer. And while Fitz helps her boss get the job done up until the point where he reveals his true nature as an Inhuman to George Stephanopoulis (hi, ABC crosspromotion!), she also sees a moment of hidden truth in him. Mace is hiding something about his own past that makes us doubt whether he’s the square-jawed hero he presents to the world. It’s a great bargaining chip for Jemma to get him off her back, but it also puts him in a precarious position as a clandestine meeting with Nadeer sees the senator blackmail him with evidence of Coulson’s prison op. All of this forces the reader to ask who the real monsters are in the show – something that can only get murkier as Ghost Rider is drawn into the crossfire.
In the end, Robbie’s need for vengeance delivers his uncle right into Lucy’s hands, leaving everyone on the show in the worst possible position as the Book of Darkhold is now in a position to unleash its ghost-creating powers en mass. In its own way, its a connective-tissue episode – one that sets up future conflicts more than delivers its own fireworks. But at lease we know exactly which fuse is being lit going forward.