Since returning from its winter break, season four of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has felt like it’s stuck in a loop. Some episodes have noticeably missed their mark. The most recent example of this is last week’s “The Patriot” which failed to live up to its strong premise. Sadly, this week’s episode didn’t fare much better. “Wake Up” has a few great moments, but it perpetuates this season’s lack of compelling villains. Season four still needs to “Wake Up”, but this episode didn’t help in that area.
Radcliffe, the Underwhelming Villain
The main problem with “Wake Up” — and season four in general — is Dr. Holden Radcliffe. Don’t get me wrong, I love actor John Hannah and the magnetic personality that he infuses into the character. But season four has relegated Radcliffe back to his old role of mad scientist. That role has undercut his appeal as a compelling antagonist.
When Radcliffe isn’t off hiding his true agenda from S.H.I.E.L.D., he’s busy being a total control freak. In “Wake Up”, Melinda May’s Life-Model Decoy realizes she’s an android and confronts Radcliffe. However, in a twisted and almost sadistic moment, Radcliffe prevents the May L.M.D. from acting out thanks to the fact that he programmed her not to do so. This illustrates the overarching problem with the Life-Model Decoys: all of them are Radcliffe’s puppets.
Despite any appearances to the contrary, the Life-Model Decoys haven’t exhibited any capacity for free thought. Instead, Aida and the May L.M.D. seem like they’re acting out parts in an elaborate drama that Radcliffe has composed, for both of them are limited by Radcliffe’s programming. Not only does this relationship make them ancillary as antagonists, it also undermines their agency as characters.
The other part of the series’ villain problem is that Radcliffe is shifty, and not in a good way. When the end of “Wake Up” reveals that Radcliffe has switched sides and turned to Senator Ellen Nadeer for protection from S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s a far too convenient plot move. Now, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s enemies are all under the same umbrella — the Watchdogs. Radcliffe has gone from serving an Inhuman warlord last season to an anti-Inhuman hate group this season. His main priority is obviously his self-preservation, and that alone doesn’t make him an appealing villain. It just makes him generic.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Falls Back on Old Habits
The other shortcoming of “Wake Up” is its heavy-handed repurposing of old plot points. Phil Coulson and Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez illegally plant surveillance equipment in Senator Nadeer’s office. But thanks to her new informant (Radcliffe), Nadeer catches Coulson and Elena red-handed. How is this any different from last season’s “The Inside Man” when Gideon Malick caught Coulson’s team in the act of investigating attendees of the international symposium on Inhumans? It’s no coincidence that both of these storylines had the purpose of publicly discrediting S.H.I.E.L.D.
Similarly, “Wake Up” focuses on the identity of a second L.M.D. within S.H.I.E.L.D., which adds an unnecessary amount of tension to the episode. It felt far too similar to the season three episode “The Team” without enough success to justify the Agatha Christie vibe. Whereas “The Team” offered some shock value from the revelation that Hive had possessed Daisy Johnson, the revelation that Radcliffe had replaced himself with an L.M.D. made “Wake Up” feel underwhelming and too obvious. Why wouldn’t the man who created Life-Model Decoys use one for himself?
Throughout season four, the Life-Model Decoys have been the focus of storylines that aren’t nuanced enough. “Wake Up” is prime evidence of how the show’s incorporation of Life-Model Decoys has caused fans to unnecessarily question which characters are real, and which ones aren’t. If that’s all that the L.M.D.s have to add to the show, then maybe their storyline should end. Perhaps that would force Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop reusing old scenarios from past seasons.
Two Steps Back, Two Steps Forward
Despite Radcliffe’s lack of appeal as a villain and the episode’s clumsy rehash of old plot points, “Wake Up” manages to have a few outstanding moments. Elena Rodriguez and “Mack” Mackenzie have steadily become the show’s most intriguing couple, especially now that they’re officially a couple. Moreover, the episode finally shows why Mack has experienced commitment problems.
Even though I’ve become desensitized to most of the series’ frequent plot twists, I gasped out loud when Mack admits his secret to Elena. Eleven years ago, Mack and his ex had a daughter, Hope, who only lived for four days. Actors Henry Simmons (Mack) and Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Elena) have developed a deep rapport that helps their performances shine. It makes Elena and Mack’s relationship that much more intriguing and complex. Now all they need is an official shipping name.
“Wake Up” also covered some interesting ground with Coulson and May. May’s Life-Model Decoy finally addressed the question of whether there’s any potential for romance between her and Coulson. However, the episode ended on a vexing note when Radcliffe sent the real Melinda May into a simulation of her mission in Bahrain. I suppose it’s nice to know that the simulation has helped May find a fictional way to save Katya, the Inhuman girl whom she killed. But there’s something truly dark about the fact that Radcliffe forces May to relive the most traumatic moment of her life.
- Building off the revelation in “The Patriot” that Director Jeffrey Mace has been faking his Inhuman identity, Daisy Johnson seems to have agreed with Coulson that they should perpetuate Mace’s sham. Seriously, does no one realize that they’re generating another future public scandal for S.H.I.E.L.D.?
- Leo Fitz confirms that Radcliffe is an L.M.D. by shooting him in the head. If Fitz had been wrong, that would’ve been rather… awkward, to say the least.
- The Superior, the talked-about-but-never-before-seen leader of the Watchdogs, makes his debut next week. Since the series’ villains have developed a reputation for waxing poetic, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Superior goes full-on monologue mode at some point. He’s the leader of a paramilitary hate group, after all.
If there’s one thing to look forward to next week, it’s the return of actor Patton Oswalt. Oswalt will reprise his fan-favorite role as the Koenig brothers, while Artemis Pebdani (Scandal) debuts as the Koenigs’ sister. Tune into the oddly titled “Hot Potato Soup” next Tuesday, January 31. And if you’re not too full on soup afterward, come back for our next Recap and Reaction.