AGENTS OF SHIELD continues to knock it out of the park in every respect with a beautiful mix of robots, politics, superpowers, and character-driven stories. In this week’s episode, Agent May and her copy both fight against their respective constraints, SHIELD’s three leaders clash over policy decisions, and science might not actually save us this time. The best part is that every single mission is a failure. It’s nice that their outlandish schemes don’t always work out exactly as planned. Coulson and Elena were caught bugging Senator Nadeer’s office, Daisy and Mace were caught out in their lie that she was an undercover SHIELD operative, neither May gets free, and even Fitz and Simmons ultimately failed. It’s usually science that saves the day but this time turncoat Radcliffe gave all their tech to the enemy. Science is the whole team’s undoing. I don’t think this show has ever had an episode with this much complete and utter failure. Usually even the craziest plan succeeds, often fueled by sheer force of will. It’s a satisfying break to see all the character flaws on full display.
It took four frickin’ years for them to pay attention to May in a satisfying way, but they finally have. I thought last week treated her well, but “Wake Up” is excellent. Agents of SHIELD seems to have learned its lesson regarding agency and female characters in captivity. It’s essential that they be the ones working and fighting for their freedom. They need to to do things rather than have things happen to them. It provides stronger characterization and much better story. The simulation aspect of May’s fight to escape reminded me of the best episode of Person of Interest from last season “6,741,” and to mention the similarity isn’t a knock on it at all. That episode of PoI proved to me that at least someone out there knew how to destroy distressed damsel tropes. May fighting her way through Radcliffe’s course over and over again is just the kind of resistance that I need to see. Sure, it’s all fake, but she doesn’t just roll over and accept the situation she’s presented with. She fights in her own way. Even the copy of her resists being controlled! That’s how it should be. Now, I can’t decide how I feel about everyone telling May and Coulson that they’re in love with each other. Are they actually gonna go there? Am I okay with that? Is this actually what May would want or is it robot!May’s programming manipulating Coulson? The question of bodily autonomy and emotional boundaries is one of those things that SHIELD can and has done very well, but they’re also things that they’ve trampled all over. Are we gonna get the good or the bad? It’s not that I’m against Coulson and May being together but, bro, they’ve got to do it right for me to get on board.
Talbot, Mace, and Coulson were delightful in this episode. The power dynamic between the three of them is so much fun. Mace continues to be a sweetheart, Talbot is confrontational but obviously trying to protect SHIELD, and Coulson is trying to run SHIELD like its still in the shadows. I’m so glad every time Talbot is in an episode. He’d probably be tiresome all the time, but he’s such a strong personality that he always provides ample conflict. He’s also been with us for so long and his role has transformed so many times that the character has a lot of history in the story. It’s nice. All of that is the unpacked version of what I mean when I start squealing “I love him soooooo much” while I’m actually watching. It’s fantastic that the first mission with Coulson back in charge is an unmitigated disaster. Right when SHIELD comes back out in the open they’re branded as a criminal organization again. Coulson needs to readjust to the state of the world now since he’s been out of the game so long. I’d love to see them actually investigate SHIELD, maybe in like a McCarthy-era witch hunt style of public proceedings? Oh god, I had the thought and now I want the thing like burning. Just imagining all of these butts openly defying oppressive policy is making my heart flutter. Show me the way, SHIELD.
This show is doing robots so well, guys. I didn’t expect this. And not just robots, but robot replacements of actual people which is the easiest thing to screw up. May is the perfect character to make a robot, not because “harhar, she’s so emotionless!” but because she’s so rational that she has no problem accepting she’s a robot and still fighting. She’s even worried about her flesh-and-blood original self! I loved Ada questioning why they keep May alive at all if they have copies of her body and mind. What an excellent question to even bring up! It hints at the nature of personhood, consciousness, and the nature of humanity which are all the reasons I love robot stories in the first place. Just that hint is enough to please me. I’d love for robot!May to be the one who ends up saving flesh-and-blood May. Radcliffe making a robot copy of himself got me good, too. It’s one of those things I should have seen coming because in retrospect it’s obvious and self-preservation is his primary drive, but I was making an aghast face during that whole reveal.
Let me tell you, though, I can barely handle Fitz’s existence. What a squish. One of the things on the infinite list of things I love about Fitz is that he’s openly emotional and trusting no matter how many times he’s been hurt or manipulated. He wears his heart on his sleeve yet he doesn’t let those emotions cloud his reason. I always try, but I love Fitz so much I can never quite articulate it beyond shouting and banging on the table. Not to go full nerd on you, but I think Radcliffe is the pure embodiment of Slytherin mentality without all the villainous baggage of Harry Potter Slytherins. He’s switched sides so many times just to save his own skin that you can’t really say he’s on either side. He’s an opportunist without actual loyalty to anything except himself and the advancement of his own work. He yet again played (ultra-Gryffindor) Fitz like a piano by programming his LMD copy to express just how much he “cares” for Fitz. I love everyone in this bar. Radcliffe’s turn was the kind of pleasing twist that made me fall in love with this show in the first place. As Agents of SHIELD is wont to do with its mysteries, now we have to wait for the identity of “the Superior” that Nadeer answers to. I’m excited. Make it good! Also, did you catch she’s the Senator from New York? That would make it even easier for her to be in cahoots with Mariah Dillard. I want that so much, I’m not going to drop it anytime soon.
I did have something to gripe about this time, believe it or not. The dead baby aspect of Mack’s sudden backstory is a bit overwrought mostly because it doesn’t seem to have a reason for being here. As a reason for Mack not being on the mission, it was flimsy. It might inform his secrecy, but that’s not really an established part of his character. Basically, I’m trying to figure out why we even need to know this. It’s random information that hovers on the edge of bad trope and I don’t appreciate it, especially when I swear they implied for over a year that Mack was gay. It’s strange retcon backfill that puts a damper on my otherwise ebullient enjoyment of this episode. Again, it’s like with May and Coulson: I’m not against baby drama entirely, but what is it here for? Do it right or don’t do it. Also, don’t be named Hope in the MCU, geez.
Here are some of the leftover bits that I adored. The encyclopaedic/librarian/fannish completist part of my brain is in love with the timeline indicators here. The winter finale, which for us was two months ago, was five days ago in-universe and the last episode was yesterday in-universe. Agents of SHIELD has always been sketchy when it comes to timeline (for example, my obsessive analysis suggests that most of the second season takes place in March or April of 2015—a full seven months after the season started airing) so I kind of want to know if someone with creative control (i.e. not me) has this all calculated and labelled somewhere. I’ve said a few times that I was going to give up this preoccupation with the MCU timeline, but here we still are. Another thing I loved was that Simmons legit got mad at Fitz for disobeying orders and lying to her, but then actually listened to him when he was trying to explain. They could have played that for drama for months and they have before, but they didn’t go there. Bless it. Then she went full Mama Bear on Radcliffe for a minute over the whole situation, protecting Fitz from Radcliffe’s skeevy manipulation. Oh, my muffins. If there is one unbreakable law of the universe it’s don’t mess with Fitz or Simmons because the other one will shred you in their defense. You’ll also notice that was the first time we’ve seen them kiss since they decided they were together and it wasn’t a big deal at all. It was just as sweet as it should be. Elena continues to be fantastic. I’ve loved her since her first episode and she keeps getting better. Finally, keeping May calm by letting her “save the girl” is both the only thing I’d believe would legit keep her sedated and a nice way to call back to the few sparse times they’ve tried to do May episodes. I’d love if, when she wakes up, that was actually a form of cognitive behavioral therapy and it’s helped her process her years-old trauma. This show is great when it comes to physical trauma but I still haven’t seen them satisfactorily address emotional trauma. Not once. May would be the perfect character to start turning that trend around.
All told, “Wake Up” provided intrigue, misdirection, twists, integrity, and rebellion all in one tightly interwoven package. What more could you want from anything?
Season 4, Episode 11 (S04E11)
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