Welcome back to a new season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As always with new beginnings on this show, the status quo has radically shifted. The last few moments of season 3 jumped ahead six months and gave us a quick look at where the characters had ended up in the wake of Hydra’s final defeat, but now we know for sure.
Daisy Johnson, for one, is now a vigilante going by the name Quake, using her telekinetic powers to hunt down the Watchdogs, that anti-Inhuman terrorist group that caused so much trouble last season. The season 4 premiere opens with her chasing them down, but she’s not the only one. Suddenly an eerie black car appears on the L.A. street, and if you’ve been paying one lick of attention to the advertisements for this season, you know what’s afoot. The militants shoot a bazooka at the newcomer, but as they might say in Pokemon Go, it’s not very effective — not when the target is the demonic Spirit of Vengeance powered by the fires of hell. This mystery man makes short work of the terrorists, and as he drags the last one into the trunk of his car, we get our first look at Ghost Rider — but only from a distance. Daisy, who unlike us is not blessed with decades of comic book knowledge, is befuddled by her glimpse of that flaming skull head.
Things have changed for Phil Coulson and Mack, too. The one-time directors of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been demoted to field agents over the time jump. We find them out on assignment in the Zephyr One, killing time between assignments by playing backgammon and grumbling about the new management (“everything is classified nowadays”). Suddenly, they get orders to fly back to base, which confuses them because they’re not due to refuel for a while. Coulson’s excited to see the old team again, though, especially May (Ming-Na Wen).
Cut to May, who’s sparring with the members of her elite strike force as the Zephyr One lands. Thanks to her contacts in law enforcement, she’s able to fill Coulson and Mack in on the grisly details of the Ghost Rider murders (apparently, one unfortunate goon got his spine ripped out). But the reason she had them come back to base personally was so she could tell them that Daisy might be involved — and in this new post-Sokovia Accords world where Daisy’s considered a dangerous fugitive, she didn’t exactly want to send that info over the wire. If they pursue, they might be able to catch up with her before she gets into deeper trouble. Then again, it might be too late for that. Daisy’s already breaking into a hospital to interrogate a survivor of the Ghost Rider attack. He helpfully informs her that Ghost Rider’s flames don’t just burn flesh and bone — they burn your soul. Apparently those soul burns were too much for a sinner like him and he expires, forcing Daisy to pursue other leads.
From there, it’s time to check in with our favorite scientists. Jemma appears to be standing alone in an abandoned lab — until a camera pan reveals that she’s accidentally standing three feet above the floor. She and Fitz are working out the kinks of a new virtual-reality device. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. always somewhat resembled Star Trek, what with its dedicated team of mature professionals working passionately and respectfully to solve complicated problems, and now they’re closing in on their very own Holodeck. This experiment is interrupted by Coulson and Mack. Fitz invites them to watch a soccer game with him and the similarly European Dr. Radcliffe (John Hannah), but unfortunately this is just a business call. Fitz does his best Q impression, outfitting Mack with a new exploding pen and Coulson with the latest model of high-tech robotic hand. Simmons shares that she’s made it to the new director’s inner circle and is working on cutting-edge lie detector technology for him. Still no sign of this new guy on campus, but apparently he’s a bit paranoid about infiltration — and after all Coulson and company went through with both Hydra and Agent Gonzales’ secret S.H.I.E.L.D., can you really blame him?
NEXT: Can you say “Life Model Decoy”? [pagebreak]
Coulson and Mack find out that the thugs attacked by Ghost Rider were Aryan Brotherhood. These unsavory characters have been known to work all kinds of nasty jobs (Coulson even calls them “the Value Meal of hired guns”) but their alliance with Chinese gangsters is still confusing, and not just to Coulson and Mack. Ghost Rider (now in human form) is interrogating his prisoner, and similarly befuddled by this connection. He, too, is apparently trying to track down the mysterious cargo the Aryan Brotherhood thugs were delivering.
Then it’s time to check in on Elena. The Inhuman speedster is still technically an “asset” for S.H.I.E.L.D., although she’s not able to deploy in the field without all kinds of bureaucratic Sokovia Accords approval. She flirts with Mack, but unfortunately the new director’s got regulations against fraternizing, too. Elena’s not exactly one for rules, though. She secretly meets up with Daisy to give her intel on the Ghost Rider case, and more importantly, some bone medicine. From what we’ve seen so far, Daisy looks more powerful than ever; she’s even able to use her tremors to shoot herself into the air for quick getaways. Apparently, that doesn’t come without a cost. Elena warns Daisy that excessive use of her power could wear out her body, and reminds her that everyone has attachments, as much as Daisy would like to pretend otherwise. For now, Daisy takes that more as helpful insight into the Ghost Rider case than actual advice. She finds a graffiti mural of Ghost Rider, and though the artist isn’t able to tell her the guy’s identity, he does have an accurate depiction of the rider’s car.
Thanks to said regulations, Simmons is too busy to join Fitz and Radcliffe for the soccer game. Which is unfortunate, because the good doctor has a big surprise in store. As hinted at in the last scene of season 3, Radcliffe has built an android body for his personal computer system AIDA. A female body, to be exact. A naked female body, to be even more exact, which causes quite a shock for Fitz. Radcliffe is apparently forbidden from unapproved experiments (in exchange for getting pardoned for his involvement with Hive), but he couldn’t resist trying this after seeing the work Fitz had done with Coulson’s hand. Luckily for him, Fitz shares that same scientific curiosity and agrees to hear Radcliffe out.
Speaking of, the new gadgets on Coulson’s hand are proving quite useful in the field. Scanning capabilities allow him and Mack to unearth a truck compartment full of dead men who apparently tore each other to pieces — the grotesque result of whatever’s in that missing cargo. The only other clue is the infinity symbol sewn into the dead men’s jackets.
Ghost Rider’s not having much more luck in his investigation, though we finally get a straight-ahead look at his human form (Daniel Luna). The info from his prisoner didn’t work out, so the rider decides to run him over. “I don’t deserve to die!” The man screams. “Everyone says that,” the remorseless rider, his eyes full of literal fire, responds. Little does he know that Daisy’s inching closer to finding him. A gear expert isn’t able to find the rider’s exact car for her, but he does forward her to a nearby salvage yard.
But Daisy wasn’t careful enough. She’s been spotted in LA, and once that info makes its way back to S.H.I.E.L.D. base, Simmons isn’t happy about it. She and May already had a tense stand-off about the new director’s highly regulated security protocol, where Simmons ranks higher than almost all her former teammates. May tried to bypass that by personally calling Coulson and Mack to base to fill them in on the Daisy info, but now Simmons has found out and she’s pissed. As part of the director’s inner circle, she’s lined up for daily lie detection, and this is exactly the kind of thing that could make her look either incompetent or subversive. May’s angry that the team’s been split up, but Simmons responds that’s exactly why she’s worked so hard to gain favor with the new director — so she can maintain some kind of control over this new S.H.I.E.L.D., now more closely overseen by the likes of President Ellis and General Talbot. In order to maintain that favor and control, she orders May and her team to catch up with Coulson and Mack and remove them from the field — by force, if need be.
NEXT: A breath of fresh air [pagebreak]
Fitz seems to have a better understanding of his girlfriend than May, and that’s exactly why he doesn’t want to inform her about Radcliffe and AIDA just yet. Fitz asks AIDA to explain herself, and she does: The hope is she will be able to prevent the deaths of future agents by acting as “a decoy target, a safeguard, a shield” (gotta love references to actual shields in this show — would be nice to see Coulson’s energetic one again, speaking of). She is not capable of killing, only protection, which should stop her going the way of Ultron or even Vision. That’s the hope, anyway; there’s lots more experimenting to be done. Looks like Fitz and Radcliffe are going to be spending this season doing their best Ex Machina impression — what kind of obstacle that creates for FitzSimmons’ relationship, after their tumultuous and cathartic season 3, remains to be seen.
Coulson and Mack track the mysterious cargo to the Chinese gangsters just in time to see them open it. Out emerges a glowing mist, which infects the four men. A ghost woman’s face appears behind one of them and declares, “a breath of fresh air.” This prompts some kind of illusion — all the men start seeing each other with black, demonic faces. They start viciously murdering each other. Coulson and Mack are outnumbered, but luckily May and her team arrive just in time to ice their attackers. They, of course, weren’t the real threat. That ghost woman invisibly walks past May, causing the veteran agent to shiver.
Daisy’s tip was correct. She finds the human rider in the salvage yard, and the two get into a scuffle. In between shooting fire and telekinetic tremors at each other, the two have a bit of a vigilante debate, Daredevil-and-Punisher style. Daisy accuses the rider of being a serial killer; he responds that he only kills people who deserve it. Daisy tells him that he doesn’t get to decide that; he responds he’s not the one who decides, and yep, here we go, it’s our first full-on Ghost Rider transformation. The demon pins Daisy to the ground, and she asks him to kill her. “I deserve it.”
Perhaps this was the real reason Daisy was pursuing him so vehemently, even if she didn’t realize it. She still feels guilt over Lincoln’s death and her possession by Hive, and she believes she deserves punishment (recall that several times at the end of last season, she demanded to be permanently kept inside one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s containment modules). Ghost Rider, however, disagrees. He leaves her to pursue more deserving targets — such as, presumably, whatever that ghost woman was. This show has nailed the spy, superhero, and science-fiction genres with aplomb; looks like this season will have a little more fantasy and horror to it, especially since May now appears to be suffering some effects of her brush with that ghost.
Unlike Daisy, though, Ghost Rider isn’t in vigilante mode all the time. When he shifts back into human form, he’s got a wheelchair-bound little brother to take care of. Everyone’s attached to something, Daisy notes from a distance.