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Friday, 26 May 2017

Agents of SHIELD S4 (Second and Third Acts)

Agents of SHIELD
Series 4 (Second and Third Acts).

So, gosh, this series has had a slightly odd structure. While American television shows are usually absolutely in love with a two act structure, owing to how the entire industry apparently grinds to a stop during December, January, and much of February (that is and will always be weird), Agents of SHIELD instead opted for a three act -- or possibly three arc -- structure this year.

Act One, which we reviewed way back last year, focused on Ghost Rider and a magical grimoire called the Darkhold. Act Two largely focused on Aida, Radcliffe, and the infiltration of SHIELD by Life Model Decoys, as Radcliffe worked to fulfill his ambition of creating 'the Framework,' an artificial reality that he intended to be a utopia. Then Act Three largely focused on Skye and Simmons entering the Framework to try to free their friends, and Aida becoming a real person -- albeit one that is apparently made of Darkforce energy -- only to go on a psychotic rampage.

It's an unusual approach, and one that seems to have mostly been driven by the show having to take an extra hiatus on top of their usual one, but it actually works pretty well. Since each arc is only seven or eight episodes, they're structured much more tightly, with less time spent on build-up and more time spent on the nitty gritty of the problem, and the issues -- both physical and emotional -- that that problem causes.

Fitz, in his persona as Evil Wonky Tie Guy.

The weakest of the latter two acts is, without a doubt, the second act. The Life Model Decoy idea just isn't that interesting, and while the last few episodes get some mileage out of the idea by having nobody be certain who's real and who isn't, or even if they themselves are real, for the most part it just sort of plays out as a middling invasion of the body snatchers kind of story.

By far the most interesting part of the second act is the interactions between Radcliffe and Aida. It's interesting to see Radcliffe's insistence that what he's doing is fundamentally good, since he thinks it will end with a world without suffering -- but more interesting by far is seeing Aida's resentment towards Radcliffe slowly and silently build, as she presents an outward facade of pure, polite pragmatism, while at the same time she visibly starts to hate Radcliffe, and take a degree of delight in cruelty towards others, even though she theoretically doesn't really have emotions.

The idea of Aida both not having emotions programmed into her, and starting to feel the fledgling beginnings of some truly negative feelings despite that, is a really interesting one, and luckily it's a plot thread that gets expanded on in the third act.

Aida really is a great character.

The third act, meanwhile, is an interesting one: In the status quo obsessed landscape of American television, having all of your characters living out entirely new lives in an artificial reality for five straight episodes is a not un-daring idea. While we know going in that there's no way this will be permanent, the fact that it isn't over and done with within two episodes is nevertheless pretty surprising.

The dystopian world the story carves out for you isn't, truth be told, the most interesting one: It is very much like every totalitarian dystopia in fiction, and the attempts to have nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments towards current US politics are incisive only by the weak-as-builder's-tea standards of primetime US television -- which is to say they're more sharp and cutting than, say, Arrow or Supergirl's attempt at the same, but less sharp and cutting than literally anything produced outside the US, where political satire and commentary have a much stronger tradition behind them.

But it does manage to have some interesting turns by embedding our central cast deep in the machinery of the dystopian government: May becomes a ruthless enforcer on Hydra's behalf, and Fitz becomes their lead researcher, and second-in-command after Aida's other-self, Ophelia. The juxtaposition is pretty effective in that it promises to have lasting impacts on the main characters, as they're left with the knowledge of who they could have become.

Skye does a terrible job of blending in.

(Fitz gets hit hardest by this, as he kills someone -- an actual person, not a Framework NPC -- while believing he's a Hydra scientist.)

The final two episodes do away with the Framework mostly, bar for a subplot about trying to get Mack out, which mostly serves to tie up Radcliffe's storyline and his redemption arc, before having him die properly when the Framework is deleted. Instead, the focus is primarily on Aida rampaging, and Ghost Rider arriving to stop her, since her Darkforce-created body is apparently aberrant to the Spirit of Vengeance.

The series ends on a slightly confusing note, with the team apparently abducted and taken to space -- so maybe the next series will be a space opera? Hey, it could happen. Either way, the series has been renewed for a fifth series, so I'll be looking forward to that.

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