“It’s not too late to do the right thing. It’s time to show the world what S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for.”

This show is all over the place. Sometimes it’s just crazy-good, like the last half of Season One and anything that Hunter and Bobbi were involved in. Covert missions and spycraft and your grandfather’s suitcase-full-of-blues-for-the-bad-guys he used when he was in The Howling Commandos. Sometimes it’s comfort food entertaining, like Space Simmons and Porcupine Blair Underwood. Sometimes it’s forgettable, like all those episodes I wrote about but don’t actually remember. But I think it’s always best when it addresses a universal theme or a core concept of the show, and crazy-good when it does both. This one was one of those.

I’m always up for a good exploration of “Who am I?” because that’s a root question of existence. You really can’t go wrong crafting an episode around that. “What is the nature of identity?” is almost as universal a theme as “Is this all there is?” Dang, set it in a bar where fully-realized archetypes are chewing it over, and that’s Oscar-bait, right there. Can’t go wrong with setting something in a bar or a cafe.

And speaking of, how does this episode begin? Coulson talking to himself about the affairs of what’s left of his heart after Loki stabbed it, sitting at a table in a joint called “Cafe de Lola.” Nice one, set designers. That didn’t take me out of the story any more than “Club Obi-wan” did in Temple of Doom. Wait; yes, it did. There’s cute nods, and there’s dropping a canned ham on the audience’s foot.

I dunno if it’s just me, but I think love-struck Coulson is just a giant mistake. Him “not giving up” on May is a much more layered and satisfying thing if he’s fighting for a longtime, valued colleague and not just his sweetie. “Go to any lengths to save the girl” is as hoary cliché as writing the phrase “hoary cliché” is. How much more nuanced and unexpected it would be for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to not go with the soap opera angle and just have an agent not leaving another agent behind? But, oh, it’s a man and a woman! Who cares that their backstory is two decades of mutually respected professionals? We’re in Season Four; may be our last, let’s just give the Internet shippers what they want. Blargh.

Fortunately, the “What is the nature of identity?” theme is all over this episode, and that soap opera stuff is easy for me to ignore. Of course the obvious thread is Aida/Agnes. A difference that makes no difference is no difference, and now that Agnes is in The Framework, why not take her necklace and put it on the artificial body that also carries her memories? Who is “real” now? The original ones and zeroes of Agnes’ EEG in The Framework, or Command D duplicate ones and zeroes in the Aida mobile platform? Ha! This sort of thing is what makes “Who am I?” such a ripe area to explore in science fiction.

Me, though, I appreciate Director Mace’s hey-coach-put-me-in-to-see-what-I-can-do exploration of the theme. This seems more like an obvious Mary Sue (in the original sense of the term [an author’s stand-in] and not how the kids use it as now) for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. writer’s room. Our boss keeps saying “it’s all connected” but Marvel Studios won’t let us be overt. Sure we can mention the Captain America super-soldier serum, and have Phil casually drop about that time when he worked with the Avengers, but except for stunt-cast Nick Fury, and a little Lady Sif, we’re out here on our own. I love that the show is embracing this theme for the last part of Season Four because rumors are flying this may be the last for the show and what better way to go out than to address the ol’ “Who are we?” and answer it. For Mace, he’s the guy who takes one for the team, and it’s hard not to see the Other Whedons not thinking the same thing and going out as valiantly as they can.

I’m telling you, all will be forgiven if Robert Downey, Junior shows up in the last episode of the series and gives Coulson a giant, manly tear-filled hug. If they don’t do that, they will not only have missed a bet. They will have missed all the bets.

 

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