Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 4, Episode 14, “The Man Behind the Shield”
Once again Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows how it can make even the most simple episode fascinating.
“The Man Behind the Shield” is built around a pretty common story framework – a rescue mission that also serves as the villain’s backstory. It’s a setup seen a hundred times by fans of superhero/adventure themed television.
If this episode were on another network, the main cast would have largely taken the night off, and there would have mostly been scenes of the captive Mace interrogated/tortured by his Russian tormentor. What sets S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s storytelling apart is its devotion to keep the plot relentlessly moving forward, and adding layers to its main characters at every available turn.
This is why we get flashbacks to Coulson and May when they were junior agents, along with our Russian big bad’s backstory. Coulson was still working out his “confuse them with bureaucracy and deadpan charm” bit and May, while an ass-kicker, had a greater taste for danger and witty banter. They were flirty and already had a past where they clumsily had to pose as man and wife. They even had their Philinda two-ships-passing -in-the-night moment at the end, with the romantic origins of “that drink” the two have been talking about all season.
The Superior’s story is the least interesting part of the hour. He hates aliens/Inhumans/Coulson/everybody because he was a solider tasked to bring an alien object back to his superiors, and Coulson beat him to the punch. The Superior’s comrades were killed for their failure, which sent him down the path of third rate Bond-villainy, complete with yarn-walling, xenophobia and what can only be termed: overcompensation of personal inadequacies through submarine ownership.
Wrapped around that is Fitz’s struggles with Mack’s admonition about considering consequences, and not blindly following where the science leads, Daisy becoming more and more of a leader every day, and Mace’s dedication and courage, despite really only being a pencil pusher.
It all leads to the execution of Radcliffe’s master plan – replacing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top brass with LMDs. The breadcrumbs leading to the Superior’s lair was all a setup orchestrated by Radcliffe and Aida. It’s not until after the mission that Fitz and Simmons discover too much time elapsed during the mission. A recalibration of the LMD detector shows Mace, Mack, Coulson and Daisy have been replaced with LMDs, and only FitzSimmons is any the wiser.
This sets up a host of storytelling possibilities, and throws big chunks of the episode up for further examination. Daisy, Coulson and Mack all spent time in Fitz’s version of The Framework: Does that mean Fitz has been an LMD this whole time too, or will it help the trio recognize and escape from Radcliffe’s virtual prison?
This was an episode that could have had people relegated to sitting around in deep conversation before the real fun starts next week, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has aspired to better the last couple of seasons, so it delivered its dependable mix of action, humor and dramatic tension in a solid episode that has you eager to find out what happens next.