For a while now I’ve felt that Agents of SHIELD is at its best when the status quo is shifting. After a notoriously wobbly start, the fallout from The Winter Soldier and its massive repercussions for SHIELD as an organisation gave the show a much-needed shove off the deep end into uncharted waters.

Two and a half seasons later we’re still seeing the aftershocks from the downfall of SHIELD. At the end of season 3 President Ellis finally granted SHIELD a chance to step out of the shadows, but that opportunity came with certain strings attached. With Coulson having elected to step down as director so he can concentrate on his search for Daisy, the position has been filled externally with a government-approved man at the top. From what we can glean from this episode, his managerial style is somewhat different to Coulson’s approachable surrogate dad style. Red tape, checks and balances, and strictly enforced hierarchies are the order of the day – all while the director himself is conspicuously absent for the entire episode’s duration.

Simmons and May

Out of all the many plots set into motion in what was a promising season opener, the new director is the one that intrigues me the most. Will he be a flat out antagonist – perhaps even a noteworthy villain of some kind? Or will it be more complicated than that – an accidental disruptor, sowing discord and division through endless diktats issued from his ivory tower? Perhaps in time he will even grow to be part of the family, just as Rosalind Price evolved from a thorn in SHIELD’s side to an important ally in the fight against Hydra? Only time will tell.

But you didn’t come here to read a bunch of waffle about internal hierarchies, did you? So let’s do it. Let’s talk about Ghost Rider… Now, full disclosure here, I have never read a single Ghost Rider comic. In my defence, I am very much a latecomer to American comics in general, having only seriously started reading them about 3 years ago (a story for another time perhaps) so I have decades of history still to catch up on. So, surprising as this may be for some, Gabriel Luna’s take on Ghost Rider is my first proper exposure to the character in any form.

Thus my expectations were neither high nor low, but more or less non-existent. All I really hoped for was an interesting addition to the show and the wider MCU, and on those terms at least I would say the results so far are promising. Luna imbues the character with plenty of menace and just a whiff of vulnerability. It’s clear there are layers still to be peeled back with this character and I’m excited to see how his story unfolds over the course of the season. From an effects perspective, his transformation was pretty flawless, especially for something created on a TV budget. I expect it might be a good few episodes before we see that effect again, or for that matter the high-octane car-flipping action that kicked off this episode. Hopefully there will be enough high budget, fiery madness throughout the season to satisfy hardcore fans and reassure them that the character isn’t wasted as a supporting player on Agents of SHIELD.

AIDA

In addition to a new hierarchy and a powerful new super-being on the scene, this episode also dug a little deeper into one of the big teases at the end of the previous season – Doctor Radcliffe’s development of Life Model Decoy technology. Firstly, I must say how delighted I am to see John Hannah back as Radcliffe, as he was easily one of the highlights of the sometimes rather frustrating third season. The scene in which he revealed his creation to Fitz managed to toe a careful line between funny, creepy, and dramatic, with Fitz almost lost for words at the recklessness of Radcliffe’s experiment, its surprisingly advanced outcomes and the wider implications of creating lifelike AI beings. His decision to work with him on it under SHIELD’s nose could have grave consequences, though, especially given the new director’s authoritarian approach. All in all, it was easily one of the standout moments of the season.

The other highlight came from Simmons’ tense confrontation with May, after discovering she had been secretly feeding information to Coulson against the new director’s stringent protocols. It’s clear she’s not relishing her role as one of the director’s trusted inner circle, but as she explains to May, she is attempting to wring what value she can from the situation for the benefit of the old team. Something tells me it won’t be just May that Simmons finds herself in conflict with as this season progresses.

As with previous season openers, “The Ghost” set several plates spinning – the new director, LMDs, Daisy on the run and, of course, Ghost Rider. Here’s hoping none of them come crashing down before the season’s done.