After last week's episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." turned over the majority of its mystery cards, the question viewers were left with was what could come next. The "LMD" era of the Marvel ABC drama was no longer playing games with hidden double agents, secret mastermind villains or quests to solve super science problems. And while those things are certainly not the entirety of the show's appeal, they do provide some of the most sublime pleasures in watching a comic book spy show.
But with a direct, action-oriented path set before it for the rest of the winter run, last night's "BOOM" episode proves surprisingly dull. Despite being full of literal explosions, the story offers up little in terms of revelations, dramatic turns or universe-building despite the show's typically fine character work.
And if there's one thing that's holding this hour together, it's the idea of characters in flux. On the hunt for a lead to May's whereabouts, Phil Coulson is struggling with the fact that he may become a darker, more dangerous man without his right hand to support his more heroic qualities. And the object of his hunt – a former lover of the turncoat/May kidnapper Dr. Radcliffe – is dealing with her own mixed fate as she must choose between dying alone with dignity or drawing out the doctor to serve a greater good. Meanwhile, Director Mace is adrift after learning that the modified super serum he's been using to play hero could kill him instantly at any application of dosage. And on the wrong side of the law, one of the anti-Inhuman Watchdogs learns that he is fated to become the thing he hates the most.
Starting with that last conflict, the idea of a member of a hate group learning he's secretly what he despises is a well-worn trope but not one without merit. Problem is that this episode plays that story in an entirely forgettable fashion. Our example is the handle-barred mustachioed Terrence Shockley, though his name is a relatively forgettable detail much like the character's entire presence on the show. The player has been one-dimensional since he showed up earlier this year, and when given the command from his (equally bland) Russian bossman to test some Terrigan crystals created by Radcliffe on their shaky ally Senator Nadeer, Shockley is given no time to express any deeper point of view or characterization outside of "Them Inhumans is bad!" He breaks the crystal in Nadeer's office thinking it'll turn her into an Inhuman like her brother before her, but instead, a cocoon grows around him. The senator's joy at the idea that she's a "pure" human is short-lived because it turns out that Shockley's Inhuman power is to explode with violence force only to reassemble himself out of thin air.
After that twist, this story is D.O.A. When a character as thoroughly hateful as Shockley is made to understand that he is the genetic kind he's fought so hard against, does he doubt his past transgressions? No. Does he despair at what will become of him if his boss finds out? No. He just gets in line with the Russian as the pair launch the super hypocritical plan of using their own personal Inhuman as a weapon against S.H.I.E.L.D. The motivations here are nonexistent beyond a standard "bad guys need to fight the heroes" setup. It's a waste of solid story potential and adds no flair or friction to the supposed mastermind of the anti-Inhuman movement even as the plot kills off more interesting characters like Nadeer.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. side of the plot fares little better. As they chase down Shockley (first capturing him, then releasing him in a midair explosion, then miraculously finding him on the side of the road again), Mace mopes his way through the motions. The Director is feeling useless now that he can no longer transform into the ultra-powerful Patriot, and like Phil Coulson before him is struggling to find his place as a nominally normal spy in a world of superheroes. It's a fine launching point for a story, but any of these concepts are quickly abandoned so we can get a "Daisy Vs. Shockley" showdown with Fitz and Simmons hard-wiring a containment shell for the explosive bad guy's scattered particles. This is pure Villain of the Week writing on a series that's always excelled when exploring serial spy dramatics.
Coulson and Mack's foray into using Radcliffe's former lover Agnes against him fares slightly better, but still we're given an unsatisfying conclusion. The majority of their plot involves the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents talking up May's qualities as a fighter and a caring friend – both a method of therapy for the men and a not-so-subtle tactic to get Agnes to agree to help save her. We're made to believe that some of these May-esque qualities reside in the terminally ill artist as well, but as soon as Agnes meets with Radcliffe, the doctor spins a quick story about this LMD research being a way for her to live beyond her brain tumor. She falls back in line and seems thrilled at the prospect of loading her brain into a virtual playground for eternity – something that sounds pretty awful if you ask us.
But it's not just that the last-minute twist here lacks internal story logic. It also doesn't seem to pay off on any f the episode's themes. Is Phil really more grim or more empathetic after all this goes down? Who cares? Does Agnes get what she's been looking for, or has she been played by a mind poisoned by the Book of Darkhold? The story doesn't seem to know the answer to this question and isn't very concerned with answering it. Presumably, one more twist awaits Radcliffe's plans for the mystic tome, but for now his story seems to be made up week-to-week with very little electricity to be had from the idea that this is the only mad scientist alive who can make human replicas.
And that in a nutshell explains what's fallen apart about the "LMD" era of "Agents." Despite some good material early on, the show seems very disinterested in exploring this classic comic book concept in a meaningful way and is instead leaning back on tired "corrupt villain seeks ultimate power...or something" storytelling. We'll be better off when this model is taken out of commission.