Warning – FULL SPOILERS for Tonight’s Penultimate “The Return”:

Hey, Ghost Rider’s back! That dramatic re-entrance … you know, didn’t really have anything to do with tonight’s “The Return,” or Season 4’s final Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pod overall, but is nonetheless a thing that happened. More on that next week, I guess.

Anyway, it’s no secret my frustration with the Agents of Hydra pod, whose conceptual value is consistently underwritten by the confusing nature of this reality, and the fact that Season 4 has only one more episode to address its fallout. On the one hand, I’m relieved no one really intends to leave Mack behind in that virtual world (double-kudos for Yo-Yo’s reminder that Daisy could easily have forced him back to reality, and dealt with the consequences later), but our abrupt exit from the Framework also means that two of its most effective storylines are hastily transitioned to some kind of world-ending climax.

If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 has one unending bright spot, it’s that Mallory Jansen has put in tremendous work playing everything from robot, to slightly more evil robot, human, Madame Hydra, and now an actual flesh-and-blood Aida (Ophelia?). The idea that a guilt-ridden Fitz might coax her toward the light side with empathy and love is a rich one (shades of Wes and lllyria), but – given the crunch for time – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. almost immediately spins rejection* into a vengeful superpowered ex-girlfriend who wants either Fitz’s full devotion, or to murder/make out with anyone in her path. It’s not a great look for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (particularly given its Whedon association), and likely rushed because Zach McGowan’s Anton Ivanov isn’t compelling enough to carry the final hour’s endgame on his own.

*I doubt Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wherewithal to go there, but Aida’s relationship with Fitz is essentially a rape narrative. She’s a machine, and wanted to better understand the love between Fitz and Simmons, but still altered his brain to make him sexually compliant.

“Plus, Coulson was almost tricked into … you know, maybe we *should* end the season here.”

The rushed tempo also means that Fitz’s sense of grief and regret is largely wasted, in light of Iain de Caestecker previously having full arcs to flesh out hardships like Fitz’s brain trauma, or Simmons’ interplanetary exile. “The Return” repeatedly stresses the Framework as more than implanted memory – even entire alternate lives these characters have awareness of – yet only so much can be mined with one hour of Fitz realizing himself capable of those dark deeds. At the very least, Elizabeth Henstridge helped shoulder that beat magnificently; between Simmons’ immediate decision to knock out both Fitz and Aida, listening in on their captivity, or that final, wordless embrace of hers and Fitz’s shared trauma.

The rest of the hour had a sort of loose, rebooted feeling, as Coulson and May awkwardly caught one another up on Season 4 events amid fending off the Ivanov-Bots, while the return of Adrian Pasdar’s General Talbot and apparent S.H.I.E.L.D. sabotage felt like an attempt to keep some urgency percolating until Aida reemerged as the central threat. Not to mention, we still have to revisit the framework with Yo-Yo’s search for Mack and balance Ghost Rider’s re-introduction.

It’s really starting to feel like any and all of Season 4’s best work is getting swallowed by these over-stuffed final episodes, but at least we have until Season 5, right?

Right?

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • Insult to injury; Mace not only never got to remember his past self, but his mutilated body washed up offscreen? Yikes.
  • So … what exactly happened to the army of LMD Daisys we saw before the base was destroyed? And shall we count on a new base next season?
  • Is it me, or were the exterior/Zephyr shots lacking in their usual CG polish? Perhaps a compromise of Ghost Rider’s return?
  • Is the implication that Aida has both Gordon, and Lincoln’s powers? Was her bullet-ridden recovery meant to represent anyone else?

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 will conclude Tuesday, May 16 with final outing “World’s End,” airing at 10:00 P.M. on ABC.

Check Out 100 TV Facts You May Not Know!