AGENTS OF SHIELD reveals motivation and takes a step toward escape in “All the Madame’s Men.” One group of our friends moves closer to freedom while another searches for the reason why they’re all trapped in a virtual prison. My first indication that this episode is excellent but not quite as good as the others so far is that I’m actually coherent.
Structurally, this was sound and checked all the SHIELD boxes but each plot was also fairly separate from the others. That never works well when it comes to this series. Daisy and May are trying to get to Coulson and co. Trip and Simmons go off to find Project Looking Glass and Fitz is manipulated into finishing the thing. The plots are related but don’t affect each other. That’s how all of last season was an unholy mess. The overarching story itself is what makes this episode work, despite my persnickety issues. just because each piece of information that we’re given is necessary moving forward and every team-up gets them one step closer to escape. “All the Madame’s Men” is serviceable but after the past few episodes I’m spoiled rotten. I expect this show to have me so worked up I can’t even remember what SHIELD’s formula is, let alone whether the episode is hitting it or not.
I loved Simon Kassianides back as Bakshi for a bit. There was so much going on with his propaganda program but what stuck out to me first was the “In Memoriam” for John Garrett. They had a remembrance for Bill Paxton before the end credits of 4×16 and giving him one in-universe (in-universe-in-universe?) is doubly appropriate. Paxton is part of what elevated the first season of this show to something that was not only watchable but great. This would have been a perfect opportunity to pull him back in. But, alas, we cannot. Slightly adjacent, topically: I loved that they had Victoria Hand recruit Ward into SHIELD rather than Garrett. How did that change shake out? That would have been way before Hydra came to power. It begs so many questions that are both irrelevant and fascinating for a nitpicker like me. Back around to the topic at hand: Bakshi’s fear-mongering talk show gives me chills. It’s perfectly in line with the rest of the totalitarian media control in this universe and Bakshi’s silver tongue makes him the ideal person to drag out of storage to front it. He also got the overly-topical real-world line while he was telling women who work for him that he would take them shopping for furniture. Help, y’all. Shut up.
Our usual crew gets to have a lot of fun here. In the void left by Mace’s death, Coulson just steps up as the head of SHIELD and everyone is cool with that. He also steps between May and a gun without a second thought even though here he barely knows her. Mack volunteers to help out SHIELD even though he has his daughter to look after. Ward is a big dumb-face cuz he’s oh-so in-love with Skye. Trip 100% believes Simmons’ babbling about “the real world” without a second thought because “it’s too crazy to make up,” bless him. And Daisy having her powers back gives the entire group a chance to make it out of the Framework. The moments between Ward and Daisy were also good enough to satisfy me. Ultimately, the whole crew storms a Hydra broadcasting facility to send out an anti-Hydra message about “alternative facts,” bless it all.
I do enjoy that they have to solve the problems in the Framework so that they can get out of the Framework. That’s an excellent bit of logistics. I also continue to enjoy how absolutely pointed every single bit of this storyline is. This plot is exhausting largely because there’s not a shred of escapism in it. Agents of SHIELD is my escapism so this I’m about bone dry at this point, but I’m fine with them turning my beloved show into a platform for resisting a totalitarian regime. That said, big, dramatic #resist speeches might work better for me if they weren’t over precious muffin Fitz’s face. Actually, I’ll get to Fitz in a second because I’m about over this storyline regarding him. Fitz aside, it’s so optimistic to believe that anyone living in a fascist society would rise up against their overlords because of one video broadcast by one band of rebels. That’s a weird cross between Serenity and The Force Awakens that I’m almost too cynical to believe at this point. It’s cute, though. Cute. I’d follow Coulson through fire, so maybe the rest of the world feels the same way.
Probably the best and most important part of this episode was that it finally revealed Aida’s goals. She’s got Fitz wrapped around her finger because she’s having him build a Darkhold-inspired matter generator that can create a living, human body for her in the real world. Sixteen levels of fantastic are wrapped up in this. For one thing, the matter generator stuff from the Ghost Rider section of this season just went from “cool explanation for magic” to “extremely relevant to the overall plot.” That piece sliding into place gives me pleasant goosebumps. Using all of the pieces it already has is one of the strengths of Agents of SHIELD. For another thing, it explains her creepy obsession with and isolation of Fitz. Get him to treat you like he treats Simmons and the boy will do anything for you. “Fitz is a romantic,” indeed. (My heart requires that I note: our Fitz wouldn’t have left Simmons’ bedside for a second if something like that happened to her—revenge or no.) Yet another thing it does is it finally gives us a reason why Aida chopped up the Russian Watchdog and forced him to control a robot version of himself from his head in a jar. On top of all of this is the notion that artificial beings created to do the bidding of humans would be extremely bitter about their mistreatment and would seek freedom at all cost. That is: it nails one of my favorite things about robot stories when they’re done right. This show is, indeed, coming after me like there’s a price on my head.
Okay, guys. I’ve hit the saturation point on evil Fitz. I love robots way too much but I love my Fitz even more. You can’t just keep leaving him there trying to kill everyone and for god’s sake you can’t keep him evil. That would hurt, yeah, but it would be a little too much. Like… soapy too much. A little bit like “stranded conveniently on an alien planet with a hot man instead of something interesting and character-focused” too much. This whole situation is completely non-consensual. Aida has just plugged herself into the Simmons-shaped hole in his life and it’s creepy and gross. As a narrative curveball it’s fascinating but not fascinating enough that I’d be okay with keeping it this way. Someone has to give my girl Simmons a chance to save her boy. Beyond that, anyone needs to have a go at actually helping the man. Geez. Everyone else has gotten their moment. They’ve all been tested and come through. Aida has Fitz so wrapped up in her (wonderful) creepy plans to make herself a real (alive) body in the real world that no one can even get close enough to challenge the worldview she’s constructed for him. But listen: as someone who can dream about tornadoes without a twitch but who jerks awake in terror dreaming about everyday situations involving her mother (who I haven’t even contacted in almost a year), can I just express how utterly horrifying it is that Fitz is stuck in a waking nightmare with his abusive father? I like this episode. I do. I adore this whole plotline and everything that goes with it. All the razor-sharp political points and terrible catchphrases from our universe and everything. But I’m tired and I want Fitz. It doesn’t matter how rah-rah #resist everything else is—that man has to come back to us too. Otherwise it’s all just a ploy to pull a friends-become-enemies Ward move with Fitz and, bro, I don’t think this show could actually survive without Fitz in his natural state. I know I’m biased, but I honestly think the whole structure of the thing would crash and we’d be back into eye-rolling melodrama territory in the part of the narrative we need for exposition. I had a bad, tiresome week, so perhaps that explains some of my fatigue with this storyline at this point. But also, we get it already. Give my girl a chance to win her boy back.
One thing I was a bit disappointed with was no one ever really following through on the title “All the Madame’s Men.” Yes, Humpty Dumpty Aida had a great fall, but guys. You can’t just use that line straight anymore. There’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Academy Award for Best Picture-winning film All the King’s Men about an idealistic demagogue who is undone by corruption (allegedly not based (but basically based) on 1930’s populist Huey Long. The 1930s are my wheelhouse so I was excited about this.) And there’s All the President’s Men which is the book about Watergate written by Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who investigated and broke the story. Double bonus-fun: the film adaptation is one of those 1970s All-American roles for Robert Redford that Captain America: The Winter Soldier deliberately counts on you to know so that his being the head of Hydra is an unfathomable betrayal. Here I went into this episode expecting Aida to be an agent in her own downfall and all I get is Fitz, elder Fitz, Bakshi, and the Russian being crazy. I love me some literary references in titles but I think I might love them too much because this series never does follow through on them. They’re nice phrases that are taken literally rather than any indication of context. (Lookin’ at you “Love in the Time of Hydra” and “Paradise Lost.”)
The power went out in my apartment before the end of this episode so I had to wait many hours for the tag. It might have fared better if I’d only had to wait one commercial break. As tags go, it’s perfectly functional. It advances the story and sets up the next episode but largely just confirms information we already had. It wasn’t quite as scream-worthy as, you know, Coulson remembering Daisy, or Fitz being super-evil, or May getting Daisy her powers back.
I’m having to grade all of these on a curve. On my MCU 50-point rating system this one has a (probably generous) 50. That warrants an A+, only the previous three all have 53s and the system is incapable of giving a score higher than 55. How’s a girl supposed to put that into a letter grade? I’m gonna be judgmental. This wasn’t exactly filler, but the point of the episode was largely to divulge information and to move all the characters into place for whatever comes next.
Season 4, Episode 19 (S04E19)
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays at 10PM on ABC
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
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Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor