Television

'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.': "Laws of Inferno Dynamics" Offers a Welcome Return to Science Over Magic

Daniel Rasmus
Daisy (Chloe Bennett) rejoins the S.H.I.E.L.D. team.

As the team puts its collective heads together, they find the answers are more science than supernatural.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Henry Simmons, Gabriel Luna
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 8 - "The Laws of Inferno Dynamics"
Network: ABC
Air date: 2016-12-06
Amazon

In a season that's so far flirted at the very edges of credibility, for a show that already requires a concentrated dose of belief suspension, Team Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally started grounding their supernatural season with science. Well, at least science fiction. With "The Laws of Inferno Dynamics", the mystery of Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) and his uncle Eli Morrow (José Zúñiga) start to ravel in the heads of Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), as well as in the head of android Aida (Mallory Jansen).

The answer to "how you create energy from nothing" permeates the episode. Simple answer: you don't. Fitz discerns "grand larceny" as the answer. The universe comes under threat not because Morrow can create matter from nothingness, but because he steals quantum energy from another dimension. The bigger the rift, the bigger the displacement.

Meanwhile, Morrow progresses rapidly through the periodic table on his way to making compounds, and eventually life, out of nothing. He creates a "demon core": a plutonium-based trap designed to take down this world, leaving one in which he can create in his own image.

I don't know if the show runners and writers have been reading this column or others like it, but the return to more traditional science fiction is more than welcome. All the weirdness starts to make some sense, save Reyes/Ghost Rider's possession. The return to science floats across the entire episode. As Fitz examines the gauntlets protecting Daisy's (Chloe Bennet) arms from her own shockwave, they banter about her not being the cause of the recent seismic activity. She reaffirms her innocence to Fitz, who holds up a tablet full of data and says, "now it's true". Evidence, not magic.

And the magical book, The Dark Hold, turns out not to be a book, but a user interface to some data retrieval technology too sophisticated for the human brain. Unfortunately, it isn't too sophisticated for Aida's matrix, and what it contains not only rewrites her knowledge base, but providers her access to new information about inter-dimensional physics, and seemingly tweaks her moral compass as well.

In another tie to reality, reality TV becomes a character as news trucks descend on S.H.I.E.L.D. as they attempt to take Morrow down. With the shadows now fully illuminated, Director Mace (Jason O'Mara), also joins the fray. He moves from "optics" to "tactics" as he initiates a "plan B", which also fails. His political instincts remain intact, however, as he explains the sudden appearance of Daisy/"Quake" to the press, and giving her a legitimate way back into S.H.I.E.L.D.

Before the science fiction completely reasserts itself, though, the devil once again saves the day as Reyes initiates a ghostly atomic implosion that takes the already dying Morrow with it.

Regardless of the disconnect between Ghost Rider and the main line of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), this plot allowed for some meaningful social commentary on smart people living with ethnic bias and economic distress. While Coulson (Clark Gregg) doesn’t count Reyes out, with an off-handed reference to the "previous" Ghost Rider's return, fans probably should; although a fiery head hugging Aida into oblivion in the season finale isn't out of the realm of poetic endings.

In the episode's subplots, Daisy, Coulson, and Mace have a come-to-Fury meeting about trust and teamwork midway through the episode. I don't think it was lost on writing team that Coulson and Daisy represent alternate universe versions of the Director. She even makes a comment about her becoming director as something that would only happen in the "comic book version". For the show to move beyond the guest-of-the-half, the core S.H.I.E.L.D. team needs to rediscover its characters' hearts and connections that link emotion with the characters.

More good evidence for character-driven emotional connection: Elena/YoYo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and Mack (Henry Simmons) reconcile with an awkward conversation followed by a passionate kiss. Cordova-Buckley delivers a strong female presence, but using her to pull off a speed effect done with more extensive joy and dexterity in X-Men: Days of Future Past's Quicksilver (Evan Peters) kitchen scene creates a superhero cliché. That they can do that kind of intricate effect on network television is cool, but let’s be more inventive.

From all indications, the second half of the season promises more science fiction as the focus shifts to Aida and the implications of her being shot, as well as the impact of her absorption of the Dark Hold data. Aida clearly thinks for herself; Coulson confirms to May (Ming-Na Wen) that perhaps Aida dreams "about electric sheep".

Aida, however, not only thinks, but both acts and creates. In the final scenes, Aida snaps an agent’s neck with less effort than Spock administering a neck pinch. The plot cookies leading into the January 10 return suggests that rather than teaming with a demon, S.H.I.E.L.D. will need a blade runner. As "Agent May" taps glasses of scotch with Coulson, the Singularity isn't just near; it appears it's arrived in the MCU with a lot more aplomb than Ultron (James Spader) could muster.

Perhaps as we move forward, the writers will be able to explore more themes around our right to create sentient beings, and if we do, what rights we have to control them once they become self-aware, as well as what rights we can assert to contain them within out moral code if they attempt to transcend it.

Unfortunately, that may loop back to the supernatural as viewers, if not the writers, ask, who or what defines good and evil. Reyes represented a demon that extracted vengeance on behalf of the innocent on Earth; not a normal attribute ascribed to Satan. Aida, as an unbiased container of algorithms designed to save human life, may perhaps find her new data at odds with Radcliffe's (John Hannah) intentions. Perhaps she'll need to take human life in service to some perceived higher good. We already know she knows things that humans do not. How will the MCU humans pass judgment on something they can't understand? That perhaps carves out a question central to all things superhuman and supernatural.

Most likely, the characters will make their judgments based on incomplete data and faulty assumptions, just like real humans. Hopefully, the characters will teach the value of learning, as well as the value of patience in the face of the unknown, although that's never been S.H.I.E.L.D.'s MO.

All Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second-half storylines outshine those of the first half. I hope this season also brings viewers some real meaning in the midst of its action and adventure. Here's to some real magic in the writer's room, the only kind of magic Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs.

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