Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Ghost

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked off its new season last night with a tightly packed hour setting the stage for stories to come. It put a lot of intriguing elements into play.

All the marketing has been focused on the arrival of Ghost Rider, something that meant little and less to me going into the episode. I've never read a Ghost Rider comic, nor have I seen the Nicholas Cage film incarnations. (In the latter case, at least, I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.) About all I knew was that he was a character with a flaming head and a motorcycle... and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway, half of that information turned out to be wrong.

Interestingly, Ghost Rider felt to me like the least essential element of the episode, story-wise. Not that he wasn't interesting (because he mostly was), and not that there isn't plenty they could do with him (because there definitely is). But the story involving him felt like it came to a partial close -- as in, Daisy seemed to come to a decision about him in the end, and so it felt like we could easily go several episodes without seeing him again.

Tonally, however, Ghost Rider was the episode -- a transforming power on the series itself. The vibe I got from him was that he'd be more at home on a Netflix Marvel series than on ABC; he's a dark and disturbed character whose world is filled with violence and death. And it felt like he pulled the needle in that direction for the whole show. I can't recall a scene of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. more gory than the opening, nor a visual effect more crafted to be legitimately scary than his flaming skull.

But then, the other stories involving our familiar characters were equally dark. I was concerned with the tease at the end of season three that the show was (even more than usual) setting up to be the Daisy Hour, but we saw plenty of everyone else, having settled into a rather unhappy, certainly uncomfortable new norm at their jobs. The specter of the new agency director hung over everything -- and we cleverly didn't even get to meet him this week.

I like how the characters were all fractured and separated from each other. The tighter the pairing, the more intriguing it is. So having Fitz and Simmons still as a couple, but putting her in a position of authority over him on the job is a big deal. Then, sailing into that storm, is Radcliffe, whose android experiments now force Fitz to hide something from Simmons. Instantly, you have for me the most interesting ongoing story line of the new season.

But the fracturing of Coulson and May is nearly as intriguing to me. It started as merely physical separation, as the two people who trust each other most are split apart -- one in the field, and one relegated to training other agents. That didn't stop them from working together... but May becoming infected by whatever the Crazy Vision Making Ghost Woman Thing is is surely going to. May's a great choice for this plot development, as she's the character most able to "keep it together." I feel like for almost anyone else, it would be hard to justify the character not instantly going crazy like the villainous redshirts of this first episode. May might be able to hold out for a while, generating some tension along the way.

Pretty much the one thing I wasn't drawn in by in this first episode was some of the over-the-top GoPro-style photography peppered throughout (May's sparring session, Ghost Rider's trunk closing). Flashy, too big a break in style, not justified by any narrative or emotional throughline... it was just "look, a new toy!"

Overall? Season 4, color me intrigued. I give the premiere episode a B+.

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