In general, the arrival of a new “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premier (midseason or otherwise) is cause for optimism. The show has always been somewhat lopsided, but usually its quality rises in bursts with the series’ signature story arcs. Some are good (the war with the revealed Hydra at the start of Season 2). Some are…less so (virtually any major Inhumans story). And with the back half of Season 4, “Agents” has the potential to go either way with its deep dive into the world of the lifelike androids comic fans know as Life Model Decoys.
The plot point is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, despite being so ubiquitous in the Marvel Comics Universe that fans were convinced they’d already showed up in the MCU multiple times (remember cries of “It wasn’t Coulson that died” after “Avengers?), the LMDs have rarely been important. In fact, over decades it’s rare to see a story where they’re used as anything beyond an empty twist or deus ex machina. That leaves the idea as all-potential for an ostensible spy show. At the same time, without a solid fan service net to catch them, the writers have a lot of pressure riding on turning this concept into a character story strong enough to keep the show going another season.
With the midseason premier of “Broken Promises,” the producers of “Agents” deliver a start with potential and a lot of mystery. But the precarious position the show is in dividing its stories between different corners of of the Marvel U make it hard to tell whether the LMD arc will be a winner or a loser.
The story of the Life Model Decoys starts in earnest with Aida – the Eve of the LMD line who seemingly turned evil at the end of last year. We already knew that the android had body swapped Agent May, but why exactly she’s keeping the real mccoy alive (if sedated) is a question that hangs over the opening moments as Aida locks the sleeping May away. Similarly, the question of whether Aida’s unknown plotting is the result of her reading the mystic book of Darkhold remains unanswered. So even after her creators Dr. Radcliffe and Fitz fail to rewrite Aida’s programming, the struggle S.H.I.E.L.D. is left with is not only how to find the renegade android but how to understand what she’s doing and why.
The story beats around this simple run-and-gun plot lean into some of the series’ better instincts but so far play things light and fast. For one, the LMD May is given little to do over the first half hour except glower at her human peers menacingly as they take pop culture cheap shots at the idea of a robot gone rogue. The producers keep their tongue’s firmly in their cheeks as this plays out with winks to the audience like Radcliffe’s unwitting line to fake May of “Without the book [of Darkhold], you two wouldn’t be standing here.” Ho ho, if only he knew! There are some tense action beats in Aida’s escape thanks to actress Mallory Jansen’s steely performance, but most of what draws the viewer in comes from the double-agent mystery. Of course, Agents” is at its best when it leans hard on classic espionage tropes like wolves in sheep’s clothing. The question is how long they can keep this game going.
Thankfully, the episode brings some of that classic spy saga sizzle to its other story: the ongoing conspiracy against earth’s Inhuman population. On one side of the coin, the anti-Inhuman zealot Senator Nadeer is struggling to treat her brother Vijay – recently released from his own transformative cocoon and swearing it didn’t Inhuman him – like her flesh and blood while maintaining her alliance with the still aggressively unmemorable hate group called the Watchdogs. Elsewhere, bonafide Inhumans Daisy and Director Mace are playing nice since they’ve realized a common goal of uncovering the growing government conspiracy against their people. With Jemma along as their designated undercover agent (delivering top-notch faux-Southern accent to boot; fact: undercover Jemma is the best part of this show), the pair are hot on the trail of Nadeer and her brother, who they’ve tagged as an Inhuman in trouble.
In general, this is strong material than the first half of the season’s Inhuman saga. That story was a muddy subplot anchored by Daisy’s nonsensical insistence on staying out of S.H.I.E.L.D. With a quick turn away from that material, the team is back on point in some regards. However, the recasting of Kree-mutated super people as X-Men-light is generally working here about as well as it has in the comics themselves. That is to say, the best you can say of it is that it’s no one’s favorite thing. Maybe the recent news that Marvel will shift its “Inhuman” movie plans to a supposedly prestige network TV project will give the story in “Agents” some much-needed urgency, but that doesn’t really arrive here. Yet.
More excitingly, Aida makes her move on the S.H.I.E.L.D. base with her eyes on the Darkhold, but the real sparks come with the revelation that Faux May doesn’t even know she’s an LMD. The time-bomb status of that idea could be used in many ways, but much like their comic book counterparts, the non-Aida androids are for now relegated to plot devices more than any kind of thematic or character-shaping elements. This droid may sound like May on the surface, but in the end she’s no more than an unwitting pawn who serves as a spy cam that can tease info from Coulson on where the Darkhold is hidden. Aida seemingly has more gears turning in her brainbox (as Fitz and Radcliffe discuss in the 10 billionth “But is this robot human now?” debate in film history), but without a strong sense of her character, the selling points for her attack are more about small details like Mack and Yo-Yo’s humorous insistence that robots always turn evil or the show’s occasionally strong action sequence like Aida’s hijacked Quinjet going on auto-pilot kill mode.
The last minutes of the show deliver the twists requisite in a “premier” episode, and the results are satisfying if not earth-shattering. After a shootout with Daisy and company at her home, Senator Nadeer convinces Vijay to follow her and the Watchdogs rather than defect to S.H.I.E.L.D. only to murder her own brother in cold blood. With weeks of buildup on the mystery of who was in her family cocoon and only one episode to invest ourselves in Vijay to make his death seem too tragic. Though in a double twist, the discarded corpse of Vijay seems to be ready to re-cocoon for a return. Meanwhile, Aida gets her head lopped off by Mack just after she starts to reveal her supposed awakening after glimpsing Darkhold. But in a double secret second twist (triple twist? We’ve lost count), the android never evolved at all. It was all a setup by Radcliffe who’s desperate to get his hands on the cursed book himself. With another Aida in the waiting and the control stick for faux May, ur doctor has some scheming to do, but the whole premise of the LMDs is ultimately dropped down to “some robots” status.
What we’re left with is two would-be master villains each with unique motivations – one desiring power and the other lashing out from fear. Maybe one of them will turn this arc of “Agents” into a memorable affair. This episode certainly showed that the series has some super spy life left in it. But in order to really justify the run, the writers will have to come up with some unique twists on Marvel-dom. Because if the LMDs and the Inhumans both keep sitting on the shelf in these uninspired terms, no one will be chomping at the bit for a future to this show.