On one level, the “LMD” arc on Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has been an uneasy alliance between two plot threads: the titular android creations and the ongoing conflict of the Inhumans’ place in society. And while there may be nothing that will make these two vastly different stories make sense together, at least this week’s “The Man Behind The Shield” appears to have shuttled aside one for the time being. Problem is, the “end” of the Inhuman/Watchdog saga is a pretty tepid cat-and-mouse game with little of the show’s trademark cleverness.
For once, the path of the plot is straightforward from start to finish: the mysterious leader of the Watchdogs Anton has kidnapped Director Mace, and the team needs to track him down by following as series of clues across the globe. On the way, they realize that Anton has a particular hard on for destroying Agent Coulson – a revelation that prompts a series of flashbacks to one of the first missions our hero and the still kidnapped Agent May ever went on as a team. Back then, the pair of not-so-chummy S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives were tasked with retrieving a mystery object from a battered Russian facility. And somehow or someway, understanding what Coulson did back then will lead him to Anton in the present.
While most episodes of “Agents” find a way to twist their main plot around the mid-way point, this week’s adventure plays everything out in a straight line. Despite the implication that the previous mission will hold some secret as to Phil Coulson’s past or at least a new piece of the larger puzzle of the Watchdog phenomenon, no earth-shattering reveal is in the offing. Neither is there anything in the present day chase that opens up new or exciting traits to the heroes or the villains on the field. Anton is your textbook bigot. Mace faces the prospect of torture like a heroic team player. Coulson is his snarky self. The only interesting piece of the puzzle surrounding the chase is Aida – the core LMD who is observing Anton’s moves while her creator Dr. Radcliffe waits for next week’s episo…er, is lost in his own fantasy land. Her fascination with the Russian goon’s capacity for cruelty sets her up as the season’s true big bad – a prospect that could pay off interestingly in the weeks to come.
But in the here and now, there is no payoff worth watching. Coulson gets to play his “super fan” card by calling out Anton as a Red Shirt – an expendable body caught in the crossfire of Phil and May’s mission that left no impression on either agent. In fact, Coulson doesn’t even remember the object that they were sent to retrieve – a course of action that led to the death of Anton’s friends, but not much else. While there’s an outside possibility that whatever this MacGuffin was could become important later on, it certainly seems as though the writers are playing this straight. Anton is truly the conspiracy theorist several people called him this week, and the entire Inhuman/Watchdog story was simply the result of his broken fantasy that the American who crossed him years ago was in fact some kind of alien weirdness magnet. (We’ll set aside the ethical implications of the fact that Phil refers to real human beings his friend murdered as “Red Shirts” for now because it’s a superhero show, but think about that one for a minute)
This story is supposed to play out as a knowing wink at the audience. By going “meta,” we’re meant to appreciate that not every grand plot has an existential purpose, but sometimes there are just scummy actors in the world. Too bad this falls flat dramatically. Like similar attempts at spotlighting side players such as “Lost’s” infamous “Nikki and Paulo” episode, what’s meant to be a clever in-joke comes off as a waste of time. After nearly a season and a half of seeing the Watchdogs played as a straight threat to our heroes, writing them off as a central casting Russian’s fantasy project somehow cheapens the already thin Inhuman saga. Bottom line: there’s a reason why most superhero conflicts boil down to equally personal animosity between hero and villain. That’s effective, engrossing storytelling. But this here episode is not.
Some of the smaller elements of the our do leave an impression on the viewer, though, in ways good, bad and downright strange. Starting with the third case, what the hell is up with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest agent “Mr. Standing Around Awkwardly Man”? Oh wait. He apparently has a name. Davis! Good name. Totally sounds different than “Unremarkable White Guy #12.” After standing next to Coulson holding an ipad last week, Davis this time gets the incredibly important mission of standing next to Simmons for a while during the mission. Riveting stuff! In seriousness, when “Agents” has previously introduced a new cast member meant to play an actual role in the team, the writers have given these folks a bit of backstory or personality to leave an impression on the viewer. Davis being added with all the charm of a chair sitting in an empty room makes it seem like his inclusion is something else. Eventually he’ll be revealed as an LMD or will make a heroic sacrifice or serve out some other plot function that they didn’t want to waste on a main cast member. Start placing your bets now.
On a much better front, Fitz steps briefly into the spotlight in the hour to get blamed by Mack for pretty much the entirety of the year going sideways. That may sound like a total downer – and it kind of is, really – but the material here is strong on the page and in the hands of the actors. After helping create both LMDs and the expansive virtual world Radcliffe has created to trap the mind of May, shouldn’t Fitz feel some level of guilt? Playing that angle up as a principled disagreement between two friends is a sharp way to engage the moral implications of the act. Like the previous Fitz-centered story about his lost father, this stuff only deepens the character and provides new avenues for conflict. Why is Leo always relegated to B-plot status? With luck, the late game reveal that Coulson, Mace, Daisy and Mack have been replaced by LMDs themselves will put Fitz and Simmons in the driver’s seat for once in a major way.
So let’s talk about the actual twist of the episode for a moment. Tacked on as an almost afterthought to the Anton experiment and the incremental motion towards establishing Coulson and May as a One True Pairing (which is still not working at all, by the by), the idea that androids have replaced top decision-makers at S.H.I.E.L.D. and only the nerdy lab techs have figured it out is a GREAT premise for this show. It leans hard into everything that works well about this show and has none of the baggage that the interminable Inhuman plotline has saddled this season with. So now that the Watchdogs are dead and (possibly) the entire Inhuman idea is being shifted off into its own series, we’ll maybe get a cool spy robot replicant story before the LMD era is out the door. That’d be nice.