Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” may be battling out the end of its fourth season in an alternate reality, but the real question for the “Agents of Hydra” era will be how its action affects the true reality of the cast of agents. And last night’s almost too aptly named “Identity and Change” episode through some wrinkles into the long-term consequences of our heroes’ time in the framework without truly answering the question of why the hell this is happening.
While last week’s kick-off ep laid the groundwork for what was at stake in “the Framework” – the AI-created virtual world Phil Coulson and his team are mentally trapped in – this week expands the vision of where everyone is on a planet ruled by Hydra while upping the stakes significantly. Not only does it seem that everyone except Daisy and Jemma are brainwashed into compliance with Madam Hydra’s (the rogue LMD once called Aida) plan, we now see that not all of their scenarios are quite as nightmarish as things seem at first blush. Then again, some events from the hour are worse than imaginable.
Take Mack for one. In this world, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resident working man avoided his greatest regret by getting a chance to raise his daughter Hope. A whiz kid mechanic/inventor herself, Hope is any father’s ideal doting daughter. But the terror’s of this world bleed into their happy home when the young girl scavenges some crashed Hydra technology to build her own drone. Mack is worried that such a move will put them on the radar of the new world order, and he’s right…after a fact. While the harrowing yet distressingly routine lineups that Hydra pulls on citizens just waiting for a bus don’t net him and Hope, the pair are soon snapped up by a highly confused Daisy – still acting as a Hydra agent herself alongside true believer May. But that story is only a part of the puzzle.
That’s because the other half of our miniature resistance movement is meeting their Framework counterpart in the form of underground S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Jeffrey Mace. Sure, the square-jawed fearless leader also holds that position in the real world, but here in Hydra-land it seems Mace is living his dream of holding the big job without the shame of it being a smokescreen where he’s jacked up on designer superpower drugs. So while the world may be falling apart all around him, at least the Patriot gets to be a real hero for once.
Of course, these semi-silver lining scenarios are only subplots (more on the main story in a moment), but their inclusion complicates one of the key ideas in this arc: what’s at stake for the “real world” of the show? After last week’s episode, it seemed certain that when this reality finally broke, Coulson, May and the rest would rub the scales from their eyes and be perfectly happy to return to reality. But with Mack and Mace, things just took a step towards a more complicated finish. With Mace, he’ll be forced to give up a level of self-respect that he never had in real life. And worse yet for Mack, he’ll have to say goodbye to his daughter again – this time after having known her as a real person. The audience will have to make that journey too, and while the scenes between Mack and his little “Sparkplug” carry all the schmaltz of a daytime soap, that may be enough to pull the viewer deeper into this world.
But the main action, as always, lies with Coulson and company. And while last week plumbed the depths of despair that is Daisy and Jemma breaking their way out of the Framework, this week sees a more lighthearted look at the struggles over their mission (at least initially). Though he’s woken up a bit from the hazy prison of Madam Hydra’s programming (at least in part thanks to the fact that his brain has been scrambled many times before now), Phil isn’t the man he was. In fact, living as a school teacher under Hydra’s rule has left the main man little more than a nerdy conspiracy nut – making his own soap to keep imagined mind control chemicals out of his body. It’s a funny concept that maybe runs a little too flat by the end of the episode, but given Coulson’s character background as a superhero super nerd, it fits. That’s particularly true of the scene where he and Jemma meet up with S.H.I.E.L.D. resitance’s Mace thanks to the backdoor connections of (the still seemingly good) Grant Ward. Coulson geeking out on the one true Patriot adds some levity to the story even as their mission gets more and more complicated.
That’s because on the other side of the story, Daisy is finally ferreted out by May and Hydra. While looking for a line to Radcliffe – the Framework’s inventor and the season-long foil who’s not quite into supervillain territory – the perma-woke computer hacker gets swept up in the mission to put a lean on Mack and his daughter. When Mack tells her in interrogation that she is Daisy Johnson and they’re both S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, she’s ecstatic…until it turns out his line was just a ruse to make her slip up. May soon has Daisy in holding, leaving Mack a turncoat in the eyes of his daughter – a twist that is worthy enough to carry the action on another week.
But a spy series in full-on espionage mode is rarely content with only one major headspin, and this week is no exception. When Jemma, Coulson and Ward arrive on a remote island to force Radcliffe back onto the side of the angels, everything goes wrong. For one, the doctor reveals that both he and his terminally sick lady love have seen their corporeal bodies die, so there is no “real world” for them to return to. Soon after, Madam Hydra and the deranged doctor that is Fitz arrive in search of the interlopers. A major question mark hangs over Ftiz, who certainly seems to be fully ensnared in the Madam’s virtual honeypot even as she works hard to keep her lover away from memories of his life with Jemma. But before they can hatch a plan to…do something to the “other reality” that Madam H swears is a world bent on their destruction (somewhat true!) they have to clean up the problem of this rogue S.H.I.E.L.D.
Anyone vaguely familiar with this kind of storytelling could have guessed where this one is going. Fitz threatens the life of Radcliffe’s love while Madam Hydra eggs him on. Jemma is convinced that he won’t do it, insisting sniper Ward spare his life. He does it anyway. Jemma screams. And for just a moment, it seems that Fitz recognizes her across the field before the agents escape with their lives. But by the episode’s very end, a resurgent doctor Fitz seems almost gleeful to be torturing Radcliffe before turning the same treatment on Daisy. Is this a reinvention of the Leopold we’ve always known or maybe even his true nature finally revealed?
On paper, these are all highly engrossing developments, and the way the cast plays them certainly sells the ideas with gusto. However, there are still many pieces of the “Agents of Hydra” setting that haven’t come together yet. Primarily, the big question is who’s in control. If Madam Hydra/Aida has been able to manipulate the agents whose bodies she physically controls with such exactitude, why can’t she just as easily locate and destroy the likes of Jemma and Daisy? Or see that “her” version of Grant Ward is part of the resistance? Why is there even a resistance at all? Even if we accept that the world is far out of her control, why does she need the help of Fitz to cross back over into reality to fight for the existence of the Framework? And if the divisions between the two worlds are so strong, where in the hell did May learn that the woman they know as Skye really considers herself Daisy Johnson?
It’s not impossible that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will answer these questions before the arc is done, but for the logic of their story, they better get to it pretty soon. Leading with twisting character motivations only work if the plot around them can make enough sense to justify all the fireworks.