Season 4 of Agents of SHIELD acts as something of a reset of the show's premise. Although the Inhuman background story from Seasons 2 and 3 does continue into Season 4, most of the storylines that dominated the show's opening years have now been laid to rest and the season's focus is on new threats.
To accommodate the show's original airing schedule, the season is broken into three distinct arcs, each of which has its own subtitle and title card. The Ghost Rider arc takes up the first eight episodes and sees the SHIELD team first hunting down and then allying with Ghost Rider, in this case the Robbie Reyes incarnation of the character, to confront the threat of the Darkhold (which recently showed up in WandaVision and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness). SHIELD was, at least nominally, originally pitched as a slightly more grounded story that just happened to take place in the MCU, but the transition to having a guy walking around whose head is a flaming skull is surprisingly well-handled (helped by Gabriel Luna's splendid performance). By keeping this story down to a modest eight episodes rather than sprawling across all twenty-two episodes of the season, the showrunners keep things pacy and fresh, although the main villain is forgettable.
The transition to the "LMD" or "Robots" arc is also well-handled, although this seven-part arc is not as well-paced. There's a bit more wheel-spinning and the storyline, where the SHIELD team have to deal with an errant android they helped create, is so reminiscent of Avengers: Age of Ultron that it's even brought up a few times. It's fun, but a little wearying.
The final arc, also spanning seven episodes, is known as "Agents of Hydra" and sees the SHIELD team trapped in a VR simulation called the Framework, where Hydra won the war against SHIELD and now acts the enforcement arm of a totalitarian world government. They journey into a dystopian otherworld is surprisingly fun, helped by the show bringing back characters killed off years ago to create a new team of heroes. What I really wasn't expecting was how this storyline elevated Iain De Caestecker to the role of the show's MVP. He's always been a good actor and each season has given him more and more acting challenges that he's always risen to, but his role here as the outright villain is brilliantly played. The rest of the cast are on top form as well, but De Caestecker goes to the next level. Henry Simmons as Mack gets close in the season finale as well.
Season 4 of Agents of SHIELD (****) is easily the strongest to date. Splitting the season into three arcs improves pacing and the cast deliver excellent performances, especially Iain De Caestecker and the brilliant John Hannah, promoted to regular for this season. It's not a flawless season, with a few saggy episodes in the mid-running and the usually-reliable Zach McGowan not getting a lot to do beyond growl menacingly, but it finally delivers the promise that this show is a worthy part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if it doesn't get the respect it deserves. The season is available now worldwide on Disney+.