How Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fixed the 22-episode problem


Warning: this article contains spoilers for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s season 4 finale, World’s End. It will be re-promoted at a later date for those viewing at UK pace.

22 episodes is a lot to fill, and the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. arguably fell prey to this network-mandated issue. Forgettable filler instalments where the gang investigated a mysterious thing were commonplace, which felt like an excuse to kill time before the main villain of the season – the utterly unmemorable Clairvoyant – showed up.

But the show has been on an uptick since then. Appearances from Jaime Alexander’s Lady Sif livened things up, and the tie-in episodes around the release of The Winter Soldier gave the show a major new lease of life.

Then came season 3, which added the deadly parasite Hive and John Hannah’s mad scientist Holden Radcliffe, as well as stranding Simmons on an alien world and having the bravery to kill off major characters. Finally, S.H.I.E.L.D. felt like the show that was living up to its potential.

If season 3 was a belated proof of concept presentation for a show that struggled to find its footing at first, then season 4 was a master class in how Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. can thrive going forward. The 22-episode thing no longer seems to be a problem at all…

Straight out of the gate, you could tell that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. had got another kick up the backside. Not wanting to stagnate after the strengths of season 3, showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell threw another huge concept into the mix to kick off season 4: Ghost Rider.

Since Nicholas Cage’s days of tormenting criminals with a flaming cranium are done, Marvel regained the live-action rights to the Ghost Rider mythos and opted to hand it to the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. They decided to adapt the Robbie Reyes version of the character, and cast Gabriel Luna in the role.

When he turned up in the season 4 premiere, Luna’s Robbie instantaneously became the show’s coolest guest character yet. The effects work was amazing (especially on a TV budget), and there was a deep emotional core to the Ghost Rider’s arc as well.

The first eight episodes played out like a Ghost Rider-centric miniseries in which the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew were more like supporting characters. The episodes delved into Robbie’s family history and how it connects to Eli Morrow and the dangerous experiments conducted on the magical text known as the Darkhorld. There were actual ghosts, too, sort of.

There’s no time to get bored when there’s a bunch of new characters, a whole new dark mythos and twisty personal narrative being unravelled in front of you. Ghost Rider is very much a killer, and his episodes definitely aren’t filler.

And it helps that they didn’t overdo it. Eight episodes felt like the natural amount of time in which to tell this story. Other superhero shows might’ve tried to drag it out to a full season arc, but that would’ve run the risk of going stale. Instead, S.H.I.E.L.D. made the wise choice to move onto something else…

Paying off a teaser from the final moments of season 3, Mallory Jansen made her debut in season 4 episode 1 as the character AIDA, an artificially intelligent android created by Holden Radcliffe (the sometimes helpful but mostly troublemaking scientist played by John Hannah).

Someone has to read the Darkhold book to save Coulson, Fitz and Robbie from being trapped in a dark dimension (in episode 7, during the conflict against Eli Morrow). The decision is made that AIDA should do it, because she doesn’t have a human mind for the evil book to corrupt. This plan succeeds, playing out like a fan-pleasing rescue moment, but the introduction of AIDA is far more than a ‘deus ex machina’ device to save our heroes.

In actuality, AIDA is an example of the S.H.I.E.L.D. showrunners planning ahead with some real finesse. Once Morrow is despatched and Robbie out of the picture, AIDA and Radcliffe emerge as the new villains of the season. The focus shifts away from Ghost Rider onto a new mechanical menace.

It turns out that Radcliffe is desperate to get his hands on the Darkhold, intending to use it to save his dying ex-girlfriend (the original human that AIDA was physically based on). To get the book, Radcliffe builds Life Model Decoy androids in the likeness of core S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and programmes them to infiltrate the base, locate the book and bring it to him.

The first such decoy is a copy of Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May. AIDA attacks and kidnaps the original May, and replaces her with an ‘LMD’ android copy that doesn’t even know it’s a fake.

Again, it’s impossible to get bored when the show is packing in this many twists and turns. While most comic book TV shows at the moment seem content to eke out one main villainous arc from the start of the season to the 22nd or even 23rd episode, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying a different approach: allowing several arcs to intertwine with each other, with new major threats becoming apparent every few weeks.

This approach has other benefits beyond staving off boredom, too. By moving through stories so quickly, the actors are really allowed to shine. There’s a lot more for them to work with, because their characters are getting so much to do over the course of a series. Rather than plodding slowly through one drawn-out arc, they’re going from one emotional disaster to the next.

Ming-Na Wen, for example, gets some stellar material to work with during this ‘LMD’ strand of the season. She gets to keep playing the real May, whose mind is trapped in a simulation by AIDA, as well as playing a robotic copy of her. You get all the action that Wen is great at, as well as some really deep character material.

The May LMD doesn’t know that she’s a fake at first, but when she’s injured she puts the pieces together and confronts her creator. But she’s unable to break from her programming, so robo-May keeps trying to steal the Darkhold, despite having all of May’s memories in her head, including her closeness to Coulson. You can see the internal conflict all over her face. It’s terrific stuff from the writers and from Wen.

The LMDs-infiltrating-S.H.I.E.L.D. arc came to a head in the truly tense 15th episode of the season. AIDA and Radcliffe, now working with Ivanov (a Russian hater of both Inhumans and Coulson), have succeeded in replacing all the key players except for Chloe Bennet’s Daisy and Elizabeth Henstridge’s Simmons.

By the time the duo work this out, the odds are truly stacked against them. Evil LMDs of Coulson, Mack, Fitz and newbie director Mace (who also has a hefty arc of his own) have taken control of the base and begun gathering up Inhumans to kill. And thanks to a mix up in an earlier episode (feat. Patton Oswalt!), they’ve also got the Darkhold.

Bennet and Henstridge both do great work in this episode: the former shows some serious shock at discovering an army of robot duplicates made in her image; and the latter brings real emotional range to a scene where she has to work out if Fitz is an android (and then kill him when it turns out he is).

Then comes some great action, as the pair fight their way out of the base and make off with Zephyr One. Gunplay, braininess, fisticuffs and Daisy’s Quake powers all come in to play, to even the odds against the tough-to-despatch androids and their unaware lackeys. All the guys have fun playing evil robot clones, but these two female actors are allowed to flourish in a far more impressive way.

Also, the May LMD gets a superb send-off in this episode, which see the aforementioned internal conflict – the contrast between May’s memories and Radcliffe’s programming – coming to a head in dramatic fashion. It’s impossible not to be impressed: the writers keep throwing in more sci-fi concepts, the special effects team keep delivering, and the cast keep stepping up their game to keep up with it all.

At the end of that dramatic escape episode, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. revealed what happened to the original Coulson, Mack, May, Mace and Fitz: their minds are all trapped in the Framework, an artificial reality created by AIDA, under Radcliffe’s instruction. From here, we enter a new strand of the season dubbed ‘Agents Of HYDRA’.

In order to keep the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel docile and contained, AIDA has altered their lives within the Matrix-esque Framework reality, altering one huge regret from the past of each agent. Unfortunately, in doing this, AIDA has created a reality where HYDRA overthrew S.H.I.E.L.D. and our central gang of heroes never assembled.

May is working at HYDRA with Grant Ward (Brett Dalton is back!). Fitz is the evil scientist at the top of the evil regime, egged along by his absent-in-real-life father. Coulson is a schoolteacher, shilling HYDRA propaganda to kids. Mace is leading an underground resistance movement with Antoine Triplett (B.J. Britt is back!). Mack is a family man, staying off the radar with his daughter Hope. In real life, Hope died young, making Mack’s arc here particularly tragic.

Simply unplugging the Framework could do irreparable damage to their friends’ minds (plus it’s really hard to locate the damn thing), so Daisy and Simmons decide to patch themselves in to the system to orchestrate a breakout from the inside.

A lot of fun plays out here, with Iain De Caestecker showing a surprisingly sinister side as Framework Fitz, while Clark Gregg gets to go full-on conspiracy theorist nerd as Framework Coulson. A running gag about Coulson making his own soap to avoid being brainwashed is a particular highlight. Once again, by showcasing a whole new reality stuffed with alternate versions of our heroes, S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 refuses to sit still or let you get bored.

And the stakes remain high, too: when Director Mace perishes inside the Framework, in another highly dramatic episode, his real body dies as well. Gee, this really was a brave season, wasn’t it?

The Framework episodes provide another example of this approach – filling 22 episodes with a selection of mini-arcs – supplying great material for the actors. As the shotgun-axe-wielding agent/mechanic Mack, Henry Simmons has been a fun member of the supporting cast for quite some time now. But here, within the Framework, he evolves into the lead character in his own heart-wrenching story.

Despite evil Fitz and soapy Coulson being fun to watch, the best thing about the Framework has to be Mack and Hope. Seeing Mack interacting with the daughter he lost, utterly aware that she isn’t real, is truly tragic to behold. He’s clearly overjoyed in this reality. This is the Mack that could’ve been – a happy father to a smart, funny kid – if Hope hadn’t died.

When Daisy and Simmons find a way to escape, they finally have to tell Mack that this reality isn’t genuine. He stands above the gateway back to the real world, and even sees the computer coding around him for the first time, but he still can’t bring himself to leave. It’s emotional stuff, and you’re not sure whether Daisy is going to push Mack through or let him stay.

In the end, she lets him stay, much to the dismay of his real life love interest Yo-Yo (played with lots of charm, as always, by Natalia Cordova-Buckley). Yo-Yo refuses to give up, and goes in to save Mack just before The Framework shuts down. Mack’s final scene with Hope – as he holds her, crying, at the very second she ceases to exist – is genuinely difficult to watch.

With so many plates spinning – the Framework, the Darkhold, Fitz going evil, everyone being replaced by robots, dead characters coming back, Mace dying, and AIDA building herself a real body. Not to mention one Russian becoming a small army of robot clones – there was a bit of worry in the air when The Framework episodes ended. Would Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. be able to wrap up this brilliant, barmy season in a satisfying way?

Thankfully, though, the final two episodes of the season were just as much fun as the twenty that came before. AIDA – in her new sentient and enhanced body, created with help of the Darkhold – is quickly established as a genuine threat. Her Russian robot army is a little less thrilling, but it gets the job done.

Together, these villains present a threat that Coulson and company simply can’t beat. They ravage the base, killing multiple agents, and set in motion a plan to overthrow S.H.I.E.L.D. and make the HYDRA-led world of The Framework a reality. Holden Radcliffe, the only person who might’ve been able to switch AIDA off or reason with her, is dead.

Then came the icing on the cake, the only way this season could end: with Gabriel Luna returning as Ghost Rider to put a stop to AIDA’s reign of terror with the Darkhold. Luna and Jansen were both brilliant recurring performers this season, and seeing their characters spar was the perfect way to wrap things up.

Actually, scrap that: Agent ruddy Coulson borrowing The Spirit Of Vengeance and going full flaming skull to defeat AIDA. That was the perfect way to wrap things up. But Robbie helped.

So, in this age where 22-episode seasons are beginning to look a little archaic thanks to the flexible realm of online streaming, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has found a way to make the old school episode count feel fresh. They essentially split the season into three mini series: Ghost Rider, LMDs, and Agents Of Hydra (aka The Framework), before bringing all the strands together for a joy-inducing finale.

The result was a season that never felt long, or boring, or like it was having a filler episode. The stellar scripts pushed the characters in umpteen new directions, and the performers consistently delivered the goods to pull it off. The special effects boffins managed to keep up as well, even making a finale that featured The Spirit Of Vengeance teaming up with Quake to take down a super-powered former android and her Russian robo-chums feel epic instead of silly. Everyone involved in this run deserves a big old pat on the back.

And the good news is this: with Coulson’s deal with the devil teed up as a future cause of trouble, and an impromptu trip to space needing an explanation, it looks like the recently-confirmed Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 will continue to throw big new ideas around. Count me in…



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