Since the inception of Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the enigmatic Agent May has always been a fan favorite. And that’s why it’s always doubly disappointing that whenever the show focuses on May’s own story, the quality turns sideways. Such is the case with this week’s “Wake Up.” The hour holds plenty of intriguing twists spinning out of the steely May’s replacement with an unwitting Life Model Decoy. But when it comes to May herself, the character and dynamism driving the rest of the cast seems to drop off the radar in favor of soap operatics.
The episode’s cold open kickstarts the problems the whole entry has. We rewind to five days previous – the moment when shifty mad scientist and S.H.I.E.L.D. defector Dr. Radcliffe kidnapped May to replace her with an undercover android. From the start of the flashbacks, we see all the dynamics that have been covered in previous episodes: the second model of Radcliffe’s assistant Aida is going rogue while May is tough as nails, constantly breaking out of the virtual prison set up in her own head. By the end of the flashback sequence, Radcliffe’s reveals that – shocker of shocks – he’s got a third LMD undercover in the S.H.I.E.L.D. space in case faux-May can’t steal the Book of Darkhold.
The sequence is at least a little confusing and generally lacking in dramatic tension, but things pick up considerably when we join the rest of the cast. Essentially, the first half of the episode offers tease after tease of every possible character who could be the third LMD. The “clues” start with cutesy bits of dialogue. Coulson and Daisy are accused of “not acting like themselves” during mission prep before it’s revealed they have a perfectly reasonable plan of their own. Yo-Yo says of her lover Mack’s physique “These arms don’t seem like they’re real” when the real mystery is what text he’s receiving that unnerves him. Director Mace is accused of programatic agreement with Coulson’s plans. Talbot is just generally a dick to everyone.
Okay, that last one may not be much of a red herring, but what the character dynamics do build up is the episode’s core theme: that everyone is hiding something. As Daisy and Mace sit down in front of a Senate sub committee to complete her public transition into Sokovia Accords-approved hero status, the pair bond over the way they’ve each been forced to put on an act full time in life. And as Yo-Yo and Coulson use the hearing as cover to bug the offices of Inhuman-hating Senator Nadir, the lightning fast agent deflects her own worries about Mack’s hidden life by insinuating that her boss may be denying his own romantic feelings for May. Meanwhile, back at the base Fitz is still hiding his strange resurrection of the first Aida head from Jemma. One after another, these moments are played with effortless charm by the ensemble, who have always been “Agents” biggest selling point.
But as the overall LMD story arc shapes up in this episode by ratcheting up the spy dynamics that the series needs to succeed. The first domino to fall on this front is a double turning of the tables by Nadir, who first gains the upper hand in Daisy’s hearing by pointing out that the illegal things she did when she was a rogue agent were actually illegal. Considering the fact that the entire premise of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s public image makeover for Quake is a ruse, you’d think they prepared for this, but whatever. The real problem is that Nadir also knew that Coulson and Yo-Yo were breaking into her office – a trap that springs just in time to imperil both them and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself.
The subterfuge is generally sharp, and the way that the competing viewpoints of Coulson and Talbot (and later Fitz and Simmons) play out is the kind of tense, paranoid drama that a show like this should excel in. That S.H.I.E.L.D. has a traitor in its midst is an well-traveled plot idea, but tied in with the knowledge the audience has of the third LMD, the entire effect is more memorable. And when the episode downshifts from the pure spy drama to a heartfelt revelation from Mack to Yo-Yo that his reticence to share his secrets with her is driven by the tragic loss of a child years before, the human dimension of the secrets theme gets explored in a way that is genuinely effecting and tastefully free of superhero shenanigans.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of May’s own story. Ideally, the style and structure of her plot should be a whirlwind of “What is reality?” action sequences as the captive May wakes up again and again only to realize that even her escape attempts are programs meant to subdue her mind. But in execution, the story is muddy and choppy more than it is mysterious. Moments where the super spy cuts her own hand attempting to slash her restraints or mysteriously runs upstairs in an apartment with a ground floor entryway lack tension and logic. On the other side of the coin, the faux-May LMD that’s been planted in S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ comes to realize her own twisted reality, but a quick “You’re programmed to not want to rat me out” explanation from Radcliffe defuses the tension before pivoting to the same “May and Coulson are secretly in love” plot which the show seems intent on exploring despite its very forced nature. Worst of all, the final fate of real May is that she is trapped in a reality where she corrects her biggest ever loss – the day she had to kill a super powered child which was revealed in one of the series all-time worst episodes. This twist barely registers a blip on the radar either in terms of logic or character empathy.
Luckily for the show, the other major twist of the hour lands on steadier footing. Despite his strained relationship with Jemma during his secret mission, Fitz’s investigation into the Aida head ends up being the one real win the spy organization pulls out of the week. Fitz realizes that Radcliffe was turning on them all along and attempts to capture his former mentor for the cause. When Radcliffe delivers a double twist as his HQ-based body is the third LMD, not only do the heroes lose their only tangible lead to stopping the mad scientist – we also find that he’s been the one feeding vital info to Nadir all along.
Now with the two major villains on the same side (with some mystery talk that makes us wonder who’s really in charge), the LMD story has an opportunity to kick it into high gear. Sure, there have been some missteps along the way, but if the “Whom do you trust?” vibe can expand in the week’s ahead, we may have a winner on our hands.