Early in this week’s episode of Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the show’s fearless leader meets its fiery new superhero face-to-face for the first time. “You’re not an Inhuman are you?” Agent Coulson asks. And Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes replies, “Why do you guys keep asking me that?”
The audience has probably been asking the same question. But luckily, this hour sees the series’ considerable character charms and whip smart dialogue push ahead and possibly let “Agents” cut ties with the hidden alien subplots of its past seasons. If we’re lucky, “Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire” will be the final word on the show that’s come before.
The forward-looking ghost story develops on two fronts. First off, there’s Coulson and Mack’s investigation into the undead scientists who have gained the ability to “infect” regular humans with a haunting virus. The only living soul with a clue as to how these villains were born is Reyes’ jailbird uncle – himself in prison for attacking the CEO of the shady think tank whose experiment made its staff hit the other side and return. Coulson captures Robbie after a clever bit of superspy car chase action (“he ran into an invisible jet” is also a nice budget-conscious way of avoiding using show’s always-shuttered flying car), but he soon extends a truce to Ghost Rider, seeing a hero under the hood of the hotrod.
All of this plays out quickly, to its benefit. While there’s tension between the rebel Rider and the buttoned-up agent over methods, it’s nice to see a show where the heroes see a shared goal and work towards it. Meanwhile, Robbie’s agreement to grill his uncle for S.H.I.E.L.D. draws out some of his story’s biggest themes. Everywhere he goes, Reyes is confronted with people who have paid the price for seeking vengeance – including his uncle. And the way the ghosts are literally haunted by their past mistakes in their quest for the mysterious Book of Darkholm not only enhances the dilemmas Robbie struggles with, they put him on a collision course with everything he fears is awful about his life with a flaming skull.
Meanwhile, the subplot featuring May’s late-minute revival at the hands of Fitz’s unlikely partner Radcliffe develops with some sparks of its own. While the “is it science of magic?” angle of the ghostly infection is set aside for the moment, the comedy of errors that develops as the (definitely not mad) scientists test their android assistant Aida against May’s B.S. detector is a breeze to witness. But it’s charms may run out if the show doubles down hard on Aida’s burgeoning consciousness. If the character’s only purpose in the show is to struggle with questions like “Lying…can be good?”, we’ll be stepping into some very well worn sci-fi territory.
Speaking of which, the Inhuman side of the episode centers on Daisy and Simmons’ quest to stop the villainous Watchdogs from hunting down every last not-quite-a-mutant in the world. Things on this track start out with some fun as the two old friends surprise each other through an off-kilter team-up (Daisy “forces” Simmons to join at gunpoint; Jemma “infiltrates” S.H.I.E.L.D. by being a literal boss). But their flimsy “frienemy” status just underscores how little thought has gone into Daisy’s motivations this year. The characters defection at the end of last season was always an ill fit to the show’s storyline, but in the early episodes of this year, the writers have given us little reason to believe that she needs to be out on her own.
Luckily, the story speeds past its bumpy motivations into a much more definitive landing pad for the Inhuman story. Daisy and Jemma track the Watchdogs’ hit list to James – the once Inhuman-obsessed firebug with personality to spare. But twist! James is actually working with the dogs to purge the world of what he now views as an Inhuman scourge on humanity. It’s a fun turn that also serves as a potential tombstone for the drawn out story of Daisy’s people. Robbie arrives with the crew to save the day and in a moment of rare restraint spares James’ life to save his own sense of a soul. Daisy is forced for the moment to rejoin the team in order to help her new pal complete his quest to find Darkhold. And maybe, just maybe, all of us can move past the lingering threads of what the show was and fully embrace the new Ghost Rider-fueled status quo that the series should have bit down hard on to begin with.
That’s certainly where we seem to be going with the episode’s kicker as the band are fully reassembled just in time for Jemma to realize that Aida’s an android – a reality she’ll have to lie about to do the right thing by her man. With that moment and the ones that came before it, there’s a refreshing feeling that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has finally turned the page into a new reality. Let’s hope it puts the pedal to the metal moving forward.