For all the grousing that fans gave Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” during its first season for adhering to a “mission of the week” format for too long, the show is actually quite good at potboiler episodes. But what goes wrong with this week’s “Uprising” installment of the show’s still shaky fourth season is not the desperate daring do the cast pulls out when rolling blackouts cover the world. Rather, it’s the attempt the show makes to fold back in some of its more tired and flavorless subplots onto what would otherwise be a tense standalone hour.
Things start off well enough with semi-renegade S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Yo-Yo attending a pal’s bachelorette party. Our lady’s running around on her team to protect the runaway Daisy as well as her on-again, off-again relationship with Agent Mack get a brief glance before the shit hits the fan. A blackout suddenly sets in, cutting off Yo-Yo from the rest of the organization. It’s a moment that promises temporary but telling tension. If the team spreads thing, will they be able to solve the crisis? Will the secrets between them “come to light” as they fumble through the dark?
Those ideas could present a clear and easy outlet for character work, but instead the show pivots to some of its long-running world-building with tepid results. Back at HQ, Coulson, Mac and Fitz mix it up with their newly minted Director Jeffrey Mace on two front. For one, the rolling blackouts are now hitting cities across the globe – supposedly caused by an upstart group of Inhumans bent on getting the government off their backs. But Coulson in particular can’t be spared the time to unravel that particular knot when Agent May is still at death’s door in a secret CDC facility upstate. The Director won’t let her friends take part in an attempted rescue even after the other “ghost-infected” (long story) human in their custody bleeds out from his contact with the otherworldly. Ultimately, Simmons is commissioned to travel to help May while Coulson and company are left holding the bag of the Inhuman blackout crisis. And so is the audience.
It’s no secret that the idea of Inhumans in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a loose stand-in for the classic mutant population of the comics that are held under lock and key by rival studio Fox, but the more “Agents” pushes a “hated and feared by humanity” angle with their superpowered cohort, the less vital Inhuman storylines feel. This time out we’ve got all the cornerstones of a classic X-Men political paranoia struggle with none of the iconic flavor. There’s a fiery senator who’s taken to the TV to bemoan the Inhuman threat. The shadowy faces who claim responsibility for the blackouts are likely a hategroup bent on destroying the minority just pretending to be said minority. And tensions surrounding all of it make the question of whether our heroes can go public a hot-button topic. Yawn. Even with a few decent fights thrown in along the way, Coulson and company’s investigation feels bland. It’s hard to put a genie like the Inhuman mutations back in the bottle in a universe as small as the MCU still is (especially when maybe someday the Studio might kinda wanna make a movie out of the concept, just perhaps). But dragging this idea out when there are so many new directions the show could take is doing no one here favors.
Slightly better in its use of the blackout struggle is the fight to save May. At the CDC, Simmons is teamed with daft yet brilliant Dr. Radcliffe, whose toying with artificial woman AIDA is still in the background but informing his every move. The pair dig into the mystery of whether their friend has been infected by technology or by something they can’t yet measure, and while the show (smartly) saves questions over the nature of the supernatural for a later date, their scientific approach to the fear coursing through May’s brain is inspired. All they need to do, Radcliffe says, is kill the catatonic agent in order to “reboot” her brain without the ghostly code scaring her past the brink. When Simmons reluctantly agrees, the show drops one heart-stopping hit after another on them when the blackout arrives just in time to stop their shock paddle revival. It’s a fun, energetic use of the hour’s core premise that even the last-minute idea of Radcliffe’s “self-sustaining clean energy device prototype” (yes really) can’t kill the drama.
On the same beat, Daisy and Robbie “Ghost Rider” Reyes feel like their not only in a different episode from Coulson at times but almost in another show as they race to save Robbie’s brother Gabe during the blackout. We’re dolled out a wee bit more info on Reyes’ own heroic origins – his tragic Uncle Eli was a lab tech at the haunted locale where May’s phantom attacker came from – but mostly the story is there to pull our two anti-heroes together before Gabe scares Daisy off. Again, this is simple solo episode work, but it gets us closer to the characters and advances the big ideas just enough to leave us wanting more.
The same can’t be said for the final reveal of the main team’s mission. Coulson, Mack and Fitz collied with Yo-Yo whose bachelorette blast has turned bigoted with an armed squad of goons tracking and killing Inhumans burst in. Before the fast-paced agent can open up about her own Inhumanity to her hateful girlfriend, the goons are quickly swept up and revealed to be Watchdogs – a throwaway threat from last season. Like the Inhuman story in general, these masked militiamen are perhaps best left in the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” idea dustbin, but for some reason the show is doubling down on their presence for the time being. Some faux-scientific triangulation of EMP signals not only allows our team to reverse the blackouts but also open up the idea that the Watchdogs have gone global thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Yet once again, this material seems so far removed from anything new or engaging the show could be doing…why make it the centerpiece conflict for the start of your supposed “reinvented” season?
When all the pieces are put back together, we get a minor amount of forward momentum out of the “shot in the dark” theatrics. Yo-Yo’s role protecting Daisy is revealed, damaging her relationship with Mack but bringing the team and their lost soul closer together. Mace takes Coulson advice and takes the new S.H.I.E.L.D. public in an open rebuke to the Watchdogs’ shadowy anti-Inhuman propaganda. And our forgettable TV demagogue Senator Nahir is revealed to have a partially crystalized Inhuman husband at home – the kind of “I hate them because my family includes them” twist the X-Men have done a billion times before now.
All the heat on this season revolves around Ghost Rider and what his inclusion means for the expansion of magic in the MCU. So it’s a shame that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” seems to be spinning its wheels with Inhuman subterfuge that has little original creative juice and that few fans seem to care about anymore. But like certain moments of this episode, there’s hope that the dragging elements of Season 4’s plot will be more of a one-and-done so that we’ll soon have the fires of something new roaring along.