Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 04×014 – The Man Behind the Shield

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A dangerous new LMD in the base – but who!?

Our episode starts with Agent Daisy “Quake” Johnson and “de facto” S.H.I.E.L.D. director Agent Phil Coulson fighting in the training room. Coulson is surprised that he can feel pain, which leads me to believe that this is not a normal fight. Coulson appears to have the upper hand, until Daisy kicks him and he freezes mid-air. At this point, they call it a day and remove their headsets, exiting The Framework – an advanced virtual-reality system designed by Agents Dr. Leo Fitz and his girlfriend Dr. Jemma Simmons alongside adversary-turned-ally-turned-adversary, robotics expert and transhumanist Dr. Holden Radcliffe. Coulson comments on the realism of the VR, noting that the only difference was that the room was colder than usual. Fitz tells him this was his silent way of protesting that he always leaves the air conditioning on in the base. Fitz and Simmons explain to Coulson, Daisy and Agent Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie that Radcliffe is keeping his captive Agent Melinda May in a expanded global version of the Framework, an entire virtual reality world, to keep her placid. Redshirt Agent Davis arrives and tells Coulson that they have tracked the suit of kidnapped “de jure” Director Jeffrey “The Patriot” Mace to Nome, Alaska. In Alaska, Daisy, Mack and Coulson break into an old abandoned building. They find Mace’s Patriot suit and on a wall, they find a series of photos connected to maps with strings, like the ramblings of a madman. They realize it all points back to Coulson and his connections with Anton Ivanov, aka the “Superior”, the leader of an anti-Inhuman hate group The Watchdogs – particularly a mine they both have ties to in Russia.

Elsewhere, in a base straight out of Metal Gear Solid, Ivanov oversees his men loading canisters of gas. He leaves to speak with his ally Radcliffe, who is unconscious and currently jacked in to The Framework. He tries to remove him from the simulation, but Radcliffe’s android assistant, the Life-Model Decoy (LMD) Aida 2.0 stops him forcefully, saying removing him from the Framework could damage his mind. Ivanov demands to speak with Radcliffe, and Aida offers to speak on his behalf. Not trusting of technology, Ivanov insists Radcliffe is removed from The Framework so they can talk. Conscious, a grumpy Radcliffe tells him that everything is going according to plan and to leave him in peace and deal with Aida, and enters the Framework again.

In a flashback to “Some time ago” (in true S.H.I.E.L.D. flashback fashion), a young Level 4 S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson arrives to a  the Bukov Mining Facility in an ill-fitting suit and attempts to convince the guard in very broken Russian that he is from the U.N. and is there to retrieve an object for the benefit of his “cat”. The man is confused until a cheery young Level 3 S.H.I.E.L.D. Specialist Melinda May (with bangs) takes out the guard and points out that Coulson’s negotiation skills are terrible. They bicker a bit and enter the base, though Coulson almost forgets his car.

Jeffrey Mace is chained battered and shirtless to a wall in an undisclosed location. Despite not retaining any of his super-strength from his serum, Mace breaks the shackles off the wall with regular bad-ass strength and tries to escape. He stealthily takes out a guard, when he is stopped by Ivanov. Mace declares him under arrest, but Ivanov questions his power. They fight and Ivanov kicks Mace’s ass, confirming his suspicion that he is not actually an Inhuman with super-strength. He locks Mace back up.

Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane the Zephyr One, Mack tries out the Framework and says he likes video games but it is “too much”. Fitz remarks that it is not a game, it’s a training tool. Mack gibes that he’s sure Radcliffe is using it to help May run a triathlon. Fitz accuses Mack of blaming him for all of this, and Mack asserts that his “tool” is being used for evil and that Aida was just a “tool” too. Fitz points out that electricity is used to kill criminals but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it. Mack refuses to compare the two. Simmons breaks up the argument by notifying them that they are landing soon.

In present day, Coulson and the crew pull up at the Russian mine. He tells them that May and him were sent to retrieve an 0-8-4 (“object of unknown origin”) there years ago, and Daisy posits that this couldn’t be a coincidence. In the past, May chastises Coulson for trying to “persuade” the guard to let him in, asking if he even knows Russian. She claims that he is a terrible liar and intimidator, because his eyes dart all over the place. Coulson tries to prove her wrong by maintaining eye contact and fails. She suggests he looks into sunglasses. (He did.) They enter the room and find a safe, and Coulson says May jinxed them. He goes to crack the safe and drops his tools, saying he is “good with his hands”. May denies this, bringing up a mission where they were an undercover couple and Coulson fumbled opening her bra. Coulson claims he was just being polite because he didn’t know her at the time, but she says that a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent commits to the mission. She uses this to justify dating civilians exclusively, saying it is easier. Coulson agrees, until they start asking questions. May agrees, and says she goes through men like paper towels. Coulson agrees. As they finish cracking the safe, some Russian agents enter. In the building now, they find the safe door cracked and Coulson tells Daisy that May cracked it. Mack wonders what is in there, and Coulson hopes it isn’t Mace’s body.

Mace is strapped to a chair and wakes up to see Aida and Ivanov. Ivanov tells Mace a story about his childhood, and how his admiration for his father died when he saw his father licking the boots of another man. He says the only thing lower than scum was what strived to be it; like Mace. He reveals that he knows Mace isn’t actually Inhuman, and slowly cuts his chest with a knife. Mace informs him that S.H.I.E.L.D. will come for him, and Ivanov says that that is the plan. Aida tells Ivanov that if he is done playing with his food, there is work to be done – and Ivanov is impressed that an android understands metaphors. He asks if his methods disturb her, and she admits that while his methods differ from what she is used to, she wasn’t programmed to have an opinion on him or his methods. She asks when he will be done with Mace, and Ivanov responds that he will finish with the Director once he serves his purpose; even filth has a purpose. Aida idly plays with the necklace she stole from Agnes Kitsworth, the model for her android body.

Coulson and team enter the room in the Bukov to find several decomposing skeletons in Russian military uniforms lain in a row.  A cellphone in the mouth of one of the corpse rings, and Coulson answers it to hear the voice of the Superior, Ivanov. He asks if Coulson recognizes these men, considering he was the one who got them killed. In the past, May wants to take out the soldiers guns-ablazin’, but Coulson refuses to let her. May reminds him that the mission comes before the man, and Coulson questions what her orders are anyway – to back him up or retrieve the 0-8-4. May informs him that her orders don’t include telling him, and brags that she is clearance level 3 now. Coulson tells her his is classified. Coulson says he will stall the soldiers by telling them there is a bio-hazard containment in place, “bio” always works. (Coulson also uses this lie in May’s infamous life-changing “Cavalry” mission in Bahrain years later). Coulson tells the Russian soldiers that there was a bio-hazard and gives them his papers. In the present, Coulson claims he didn’t kill the soldiers. Ivanov said they were his comrades, and died to cover up for Coulson. He resolves to do the same to May and Mace and hangs up. Ivanov tells Mace his idea that Nick Fury, Tony Stark, S.H.I.E.L.D., everything that has happened in the MCU so far is because of Phil Coulson, the man behind it all. Mace mocks his conspiracy theory and points out that he himself mounted a conspiracy to have the Watchdogs ingrained with the US government to murder Inhumans. Ivanov just says he is preventing their world from being taken over by alien threats, and stopping Coulson from inspiring others to follow him in his evil schemes.

Aboard the Zephyr, Fitz is able to trace the Framework source code to locate where Radcliffe is hiding May. He traces it to a server in China, which pings to a cell phone in Atlanta, which pings to a military base in Norfolk – he realizes that Radcliffe is using power from electronics all over the world to power the Framework. This would make the Framework massive and untraceable. Simmons asks how this is possible, and Fitz says that with the evil mystical book the Darkhold, anything is possible. Coulson orders him to find it – S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t leave people behind. As young Coulson waits outside the Bukov, the Russian guard checks over his papers and asks if Coulson has backup. Coulson admits that he only brought one copy, and he clarifies that he meant a partner. Coulson says she is more of a friend, but he’s feeling some sexual tension. The guard says that Americans talk too much, and that his troop was sent to retrieve an item at any cost. The squadron point their guns at Coulson, when an explosion is heard inside. They rush inside to find the safe blown open, and realize the object is not there. May drives off with Coulson’s car.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t leave people behind.”

Daisy briefs the team aboard the Zephyr, saying they located a base that has ties to Ivanov’s ex-platoon that has interrogation rooms and a submarine bay, and are en route.  Coulson says that they are likely walking into a trap so beware sharks with lasers. Simmons notices that Fitz is nervous and tells him that they are going to save them. Fitz is scared that they won’t, and worries that May and Mace will suffer permanent cognitive damage because of tools he built. He concedes that Mack was right, and that his prints are all over these murder weapons. Simmons tells a tearful Fitz that everything he built was out of the goodness of his heart, and Radcliffe can’t corrupt that. They will correct Radcliffe’s wrongs together. Fitz decides to help explore the base to look for traces of the Framework code.

In the interrogation room, Ivanov gives Mace one last chance to denounce S.H.I.E.L.D., and Mace makes a heroic speech about how he believes in S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson, and how his only regret is that he doesn’t have real superpowers so he can kick Ivanov’s ass. Ivanov respects this, and cuts him free, lamenting that they are fighting on the opposite side of the war. Calling him a pawn, he agrees to overlook Mace’s “sins” – but his comrades are less forgiving. He opens the door, and several large Russian men enter and begin to kick and beat the living shit out of Mace.

Mack shoots a hole in the wall with a rocket launcher, and the team enters, shooting Watchdogs with I.C.E.R.s along the way. Coulson sends Fitz, Simmons and redshirt Davis to find the communications hub and has Daisy and Mack fan out to find May and Mace. He assigns redshirt Agent Morales to accompany him to find The Superior.

Is Agent Morales a reference to Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man who has a father in S.H.I.E.L.D., or S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Alisande Morales?

Ivanov takes out Morales immediately and confronts Coulson, and tells him his conspiracy theory about him. In the past, a young Ivanov blackbags Coulson and loads him into a van. The van is T-Boned by a car, and Coulson hears fighting outside. May takes the bag off Coulson’s head, and Coulson reminds her that the mission comes before the man. She questions if he really thought she would leave him, and he admits he 100% did. They leave. In present day, Coulson realizes that Ivanov was one of the soldiers at the Bukov Mining Facility. Ivanov tells his Mace will be dead by the time they find him, and tells his story about he spent years researching and found out S.H.I.E.L.D. and specifically Coulson was behind it all and spent a decade tracking him. Coulson confides in him that he has been on hundreds of missions and doesn’t even remember who he is, and barely even remembers the mission. He calls him a useless redshirt who just tried to unsuccessfully stop him from saving the world, and concludes it with “Cool origin story, bro”.

This scene is actually very, very similar to a scene between M. Bison and Chun Li from the Street Fighter movie, in which Chun Li was played by our own Melinda May, Ming-Na Wen. “To me, it was Tuesday.” That can’t be a coincidence.

Daisy enters and Coulson says while Ivanov means nothing to him, the top Watchdog means a lot to Inhuman activist Quake. Daisy uses a shockwave and blasts Ivanov against a pillar as Coulson leaves. Daisy proceeds to kick his ass with earthquake powers, but gets a throwing knife to the arm. In the communication room, Fitz and Simmons only find rudimentary equipment and realize that the Framework isn’t being powered here. They get a communication that Aida has been spotted, and Simmons leaves to find her with Davis (which only slightly lessons Fitz’ concern, to Davis’ dismay). Meanwhile, Mack finds several Russian Watchdogs beating Mace unconscious and takes them out with his shotgun axe. Coulson jumps in to help, and they find Mace barely breathing and unable to talk. Quake and The Superior continue to fight, and Ivanov calls Daisy a “genetic cheater”. She claims he is just playing by the old rules, and that the game has changed. She uses her power to cause the roof to cave in and buries him under rubble, radioing that Ivanov is down. Simmons and Davis find nothing in the “labyrinth” (to which Davis makes a joke about the Goblin King), and then they hear the alarm signifying the departure of the submarine and rush to the submarine bay, seeing Aida and Radcliffe depart with May as Coulson and Mack help Mace off the base. Fitz approaches and says that the comms have being going wonky, and he hasn’t been able to reach anyone. Mace, Daisy, Mack and Coulson rejoin them at the submarine bay and Coulson calls the mission off to tend to their injured.

Back at the base The Playground, Simmons is lost in thought. She points out the timeline of the mission doesn’t make sense; Coulson claims he came to the submarine bay immediately after he and Mack rescued Mace, but they heard the roof collapsing from Daisy’s battle with Ivanov long before she rejoined them. There is a strange long stretch of time where no one was in contact, and something doesn’t feel right. She notices that the “blast door scanner system” – the system used to detect LMDs in the base – has been disabled and a report has been deleted, to Fitz’ confusion. She pulls up the log and the system was last accessed by “COULSON, PHIL”. They wonder why Coulson would delete the report, and pull up the security feed of Coulson entering the base with Mace, Mack and Daisy. The screen reads “LMD DETECTED”.

Damn, this just got real.

Simmons is confused, but Fitz points out that they were in the base separated from them for a long time, and Simmons reminds him that Aida was seen at the base. They realize in shock that while they were downstairs in the communication bay, the gas canisters were used to take out the team and switch them out. Fitz wonders how many, and Simmons compiles the total on the system’s screengrab of Mace, Coulson, Mack and Daisy.

“[4] LIFE MODEL DECOYS DETECTED”.

Suddenly, Coulson chatting with Daisy and Mack in the next room got a lot more sinister, as Fitz and Simmons watch in horror.

Talking to the bloody body of Anton Ivanov crushed by rubble, Aida informs the body that they have replaced the top operatives at S.H.I.E.L.D., and they can proceed to the next phase of the plan. She promises that Ivanov will be integral to the plan, and whispers to him his own line;  “even filth has a purpose”.

In a final flashback, May makes Coulson thank her again for saving him. She accidentally reveals she asked for this assignment instead of spending quality time this weekend with her boyfriend “Random Civilian #14”. She admits that she is tired of dating civilians, and this new guy is a shrink and is totally not her type. (Spoilers: Her husband Dr. Andrew Garner was totally her type.) They decide to give it a shot after it inevitably doesn’t work out. The Philinda feels are strong. In present day, the Coulson LMD powers on the May LMD, and he tells her that they’ve waited around forever and that’s long enough.

The episode overall was nothing special, I was expecting more from Mace for some reason. Maybe it’s the episode title’s fault. I do however think the LMD twist at the end was super cool and sets up for quite the finale for the LMD arc. Fitz and Simmons are not safe! Does anyone else get the vibe that Fitz is actually an LMD too and Simmons is alone in this? I give this episode a 6/10, which I will bump up to 6.5/10 for the twist and cute flashbacks. Who else is excited for next episode when I have to come up with LMD nicknames for all the android replacements? I’m thinking Skynet, Coultron, Macebot and LMackD. We’ll see if those stick.

Author: Jesse "The Clairvoyant" Rolufs

Film star. Chemical engineer. Dancer. Comedian. I am none of these things. What I am, however, is a huge geek hailing from the frigid wastes of western Canada. I couldn’t even tell you when it started - I’m told the first words out of my mouth were “I swing my +2 DEX war axe and attack the dragon.” My name is Jesse (also known as “The Clairvoyant”) and I am a big nerd when it comes to video games, board games, movies, anime, TV, RPGs - and I am possibly the one of the world leading experts on comic books, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Joss Whedon. You can find me on twitter as @JesseRolufs. Don’t be afraid to check out my informative Joss Whedon-themed podcast @whedoncast, and my hilarious bargain-bin-movie-bashing podcast @BlindBuy!

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