Has there ever been a comic universe couple quite as starcrossed as Fitz and Simmons? Sure, plenty of comic book couples are on again/off again or have that “Moonlighting” thing going on or just break up. But the two brainiacs of Marvel’s ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.” have seen their relationship go from friendship to budding romance to traumatic brain injury to otherworldly third wheel to alternate reality A.I. third wheel. It’s been quite a trip!
With this week’s cheekily titled “Farewell, Cruel World!” the series puts the lovers through their latest traumatic twist: the wedge caused when you kill your lover’s fake dad.
And it’s relationships with parents that form the emotional core of this week’s episode, which is otherwise as straightforward an action story as “Agents” has told in some time. The ticking timebomb aspect of the hour begins with the cold open, which checks in with Yo-Yo and the Redshirt brigade as they fly an increasingly low-energy Quinjet housing the Framework-jacked-in Daisy and Simmons. There are plenty of logistical questions one could ask about how a ten-day stint trapped in the A.I. alternate reality where Hydra rules all really works (for one: how do these guys eat or use the toilet?). But the show zeroes in on the life-or-death struggle of the flight crew. Low on power, they have to drop their cloak to allow the two agents to keep living in the other reality. But that puts a target on their back in a big way.
Within the Hydra-verse, things are similarly set to explode. Daisy and Simmons have realized that the crippled Madam Hydra is incredibly close to birthing her new human (or is it Inhuman?) body in the real world. So one way or the other, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team has to find their way to the Framework’s backdoor exit with all their real life compatriots in tow. This is easy for Phil Coulson, who’s era as a wacky soap-making high school teacher has always had reality in its sights. But others like Agent May take some convincing that the world they’re in isn’t the real one.
Of course, the most complicated question of all is what to do about Leo Fitz. The Hydra heavy is on his own path to the exit point after squeezing its location from Framework designer Dr. Radcliffe with a promise that he too can build a new super body in the real world. (we’ll set aside that the recently remorseful Radcliffe seems all too eager to jump for this body because, well, there are a lot of balls in the air here). But before Fitz can head the team off at the pass, Simmons attempts to get him back on their side by confronting his Framework father at gunpoint and demanding a private meeting. Daddy Fitz being the ultimate Hydra true believer puts a kibosh on this, of course, as he reveals Jemma’s play on the phone with his son while simultaneously attempting to wrestle the gun away from her. The ensuing shot that takes dad’s life is expected, but no less tragic.
And really, that’s the key takeaway from this episode. The plot is straightforward, and most of the twists are telegraphed from miles away. But the execution here is sharp both visually and emotionally. Images like Fitz doubling over in the glow of an “Empire Strikes Back” like carrier ratchet up the impact of his dad’s death. And little flourishes like that aren’t alone as we see Madam Hydra’s broken body from above as her Darkhold-inspired machine scans her to be reborn. In its early seasons, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” felt like an ABC Studios drama in the worst possible way, but this season’s most consistent highlight has been the sophisticated style it brings to its cinematic storytelling. Right now the show is every bit as visually impressive as its Marvel Netflix brethren.
That feel carries over to the final showdown where Daisy’s reunited team of real-life heroes clashes with Fitz and Radcliffe’s Hydra goons in a molten metal-fueled factory. Again, the story does mostly what we expect as the Agents have to chose to jump through a literal pit of lava expertly opened by Daisy to find their way home. But the character moments driving their escape sell the experience. Coulson is gut shot so he has to rely on May to drop him back home – inspiring her to take the leap as well. The pair of almost lovers wake up in their traditional no-nonsense action mode on the other side while Fitz and Simmons have a final moment of terror before Radcliffe knocks Leo out to redeem himself at long last.
Perhaps most unexpected and emotional in the sequence is Mack’s refusal to leave his Framework daughter behind. Even confronted with virtual proof that the reality he’s known recently is a lie and that his child is little more than a string of code, the regretful father refuses to cut himself off from the joys of parenting. And Daisy’s tearful goodbye evoke the rock solid relationship the two characters have built on screen while also standing in for the feelings of the audience in no unsubtle terms.
— Agents of SHIELD (@AgentsofSHIELD) May 3, 2017
But even as we leave the hour with Mack as the sole living inhabitant of the Framework, the real fireworks are for Fitz and Simmons. The pair wake up on opposite ends of the globe, of course, and while Jemma feels relief that she was able to break Leo out, he awakens in terror at what he was capable of doing inside the Framework – killing Director Mace most of all. It’s hard to think that Leo would immediately turn away from S.H.I.E.L.D., but the repeated implication that the doctor took to torture like a duck to water over the Hydraverse storyline did its work. When Leo says, “I think I’m a bad person” it’s hard not to empathize with his struggle. So when a now human(ish) Aida walks in and grabs her Framework lover to teleport away (side conversation: WHAAAA?), the audience’s anxiety goes through the roof.
The “Agents of Hydra” era may be over in a literal sense, but it’s aftershocks are hitting the show as strongly as any arc has in a while. Season 4 has been mostly up-and-down, but the show seems to be accomplishing its now expected run of strong character-focused ideas as it enters the finale phase. And that’s great regardless of whether Fitz and Simmons will ever just get a good weekend away together.