Subterfuge. It's a core idea in the super spy genre, and it's also the current that's run under some of the very best episodes of Marvel's network drama "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." With the arrival of the so-called "LMD" era of the show featuring the rise of lifelike androids worming their way into the ranks of the good guys, it's about time for the series to play up the hidden agendas of just about anyone in the cast. And this week, the latest episode, "The Patriot," leans hard into that classic ideal with some impressive results.
The entire story starts with an action sequence practically packed with subterfuge. At a public celebration for heroic Agent Daisy Quake (who's secretly getting credit for a role as a double agent she didn't actually play), Phil Coulson and his crew come up against mystery after mystery. For one, their old frienemy General Talbot is back on the scene complete with a secret briefcase and his own set of shadowy motives for working with S.H.I.E.L.D. But before that can be explored, an assassination attempt literally blows up the scene thanks to some would-be killers, one of whom carries mystery facial scars. And the object of this attempt? The team's new superpowered Director Mace – AKA Patriot – who appears to have some secrets of his own worth keeping.
All of these hidden identities and motivations are (mostly) spooled out across the rest of the hour, and while there aren't a lot of earth-shaking moments set to alter the course of the show forever, there's plenty of good ol' fashioned character payoff baked in.
At the episode's core, the main players set off in search of Talbot's stolen briefcase ("biometrically locked" so that only Mace can open it) and find that the Hydra cast-offs who have it are always one step ahead. The initial shooter is captured only to play things as cool as can be in lockup, barely admitting that not killing Mace was an acceptable consequence of their multi-phased plan. Turns out phase two is blowing Mace, Coulson and Mack out of the sky. The move kills plenty of red shirts but mostly leaves Phil wondering what exactly is going on with his new boss. Daisy and the LMD May who thinks she's the real deal set off in pursuit, but they're eternally one step behind...someone.
This is where the strong points of the episode really lie: in the chase for answers. We as the audience may know a little more than the characters (faux-May's reality being the prime example), but for the most part we're playing catch up to a bigger cat-and-mouse gang right alongside the stars of the show. That last sentence may be true of damn near any action show on TV, but when "S.H.I.E.L.D." ties those storytelling chops so closely with its thematic milieu, the results are ultimately more engrossing and entertaining than, say, the 45th episode of "Arrow" in a row where Oliver is confronted for his lying tendencies in melodramatic fashion.
This legitimate sense of dramatic tension bleeds into the arcs long term story as well. Radcliffe's secret mission to use his growing legion of Life Model Decoys to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. deeply enough to claim the Book of Darkhold has hit some bumps in the road. He's being frozen out of the org's HQ by his unwitting friend Fitz, but that's only the beginning of his problems. Since his LMD of May is now free to run loose, the not-so-good doctor is on the precipice of being caught. And even as he obsesses over pulling what he can out of the drugged up real May in his care, he has to contend with her superhuman escape attempts and the highly suspicious behavior of his gal Friday Aida.
On both these fronts, the writers are sewing some doubts as to how robotic the LMD's really are – only one week after seemingly revealing them to be simple tools. On the one hand, faux-May's "subconscious" programming is her greatest strength as an asset for Radcliffe, but it also means that the 'droid is living a lie (if you can call this a life). And the fact that she's not quite human keeps trying to break through her programming. More drastically, Aida seems intent on taking control of her own destiny by killing anyone in Radcliff's way. Whether this is the previously hinted corruption of the Darkhold or some other self-awareness twist. Whatever your personal pet theory may be, this story is just the latest link in a chain of secrets and lies that will hopefully push characters to their breaking point before too long.
As for this week, things break open when the contents of the briefcase finally come to light: turns out Mace was never an Inhuman. He just got his super strength from a high class cocktail provided by Talbot. The whole appointment was a PR ploy to make some kind of superhero look good in the public eye in the wake of "Civil War." The move is a logical one given Talbot's past both on screen and off as a man bent on recreating the Captain America Super Soldier Serum. Here he's just leaned on some of the leftover science from Daisy's deranged daddy. All of this ties MCU plots together nicely, but both the reveal and the payoff seem pretty light overall.
And that sense of lightness carries through with the rest of the hour. Fitz and Simmons are miffed when Talbot cops to his ruse, but not so much that they'll burn S.H.I.E.L.D. down. Similarly, Coulson and Mack get over Mace's deception long enough to cook up one of their own – dressing up the Director as a superhero to scare their way out of the proverbial foxhole the last of the Hydra expats have trapped them in. It's a clever twist on the overall theme of subterfuge, but it doesn't advance the overall story in a way that has some real pathos or payoff. Mostly what we're left with is a better-than-average filler episode – a one-off adventure that positions our main cast as every bit the heroes we want them to be.
The biggest takeaway from the episode is that Mace has finally been brought into the confidence of Coulson and company – a friendship cemented when he admits that he's never been a hero, even before he was given powers. It's a development Phil holds tight to since Senator Nadir is supposedly beefing up her anti-Inhuman activities by recruiting the likes of Hydra holdovers. It even appropriately sets Coulson up as a kind of shadow Director for the future. Meanwhile, faux-May continues to hunt for the Darkhold against her will but maybe with an inkling of what she is. Aida continues to plan...whatever the Hell she's up to behind Radcliffe's back. The doctor himself has his own secret plans to weaponize the real (sleeping) May, and in a final act of secrecy, Fitz is working on backing up the first Aida model even as his own girlfriend works to destroy it.
Real payoff for all of these ideas is likely just around the corner, so the "one more brick in the wall" feel of "The Patriot" isn't a knock against the episode. But the real test of whether the LMD story will work as a whole relies on whether the writers can pull off a spy game that gives us big surprises and real sense of the human toll such stories can take. They've done it before in fits and spurts. Maybe they've finally found the secret to doing it right all the time.