At a critical if quiet moment in last night’s episode of Marvels’ ABC drama “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Agent Simmons tells the still fuzzy Phil Coulson “No one is like you.” While the literal meaning is that no one else in the alternate reality world of Life Model Decoy Aida’s Framework is sensing who they really are, the implication goes deeper. No one on this show has the same mix of selflessness and goofy dad quality as Phil – a fact that leads to one of the more tragic losses in the show’s run by episode’s end.
But aside from the general idea that the team’s collective personal world is falling apart, there’s not much more unifying the action of “No Regrets” than…well the action. Rather than zero in on one character or concept or theme, the hour jumps from player to player as everyone fights their way to an objective that may help uncover Aida’s larger plan but for the moment does very little to turn over cards.
The story starts off with Phil and Director Mace. While both men are mostly ignorant of how they clashed over the job in the real world, they’re left as the two least conflicted “real” people in the confusing world of the Framework. Coulson knows that he wants to fight back against Hydra even if he feels more like a goofy sidekick than a highly competent Agent at this point. And Mace is fully dedicated to the cause in a way that only a battle hardened soldier can be. It’s no surprise that later in the hour when Simmons reveals the truth of this world to Mace, he brushes the implication that the death and destruction he’s seen in this world isn’t legit. If everyone brainwashed by Aida’s programming loses one regret, it’s hard to nail down what Mace’s is. But maybe it’s best to say that he always regretted not being the superhero he pretended to be and leave it at that.
The pair of previous Directors hijack a Hydra prison bus full of dead bodies in the first phase of a hunt for “Skye,” but the woman fans now know as Daisy Johnson has more on her plate than a mere prison transfer. Refusing to break under the pressure of the now evil Dr. Fitz’s torture, Daisy is a last bastion of sanity in this world even as she tries to convince her friend that he’s better than the villain he’s become. The speech rings hollow. Fitz fully feels like the bad guy now, and it’ll take more than the pleading of one of his victims to turn the tide. But there are sparks when Aida approaches Daisy with a carrot rather than a stick: turn over the location of her physical body, and the woman called Madam Hydra will give her a version of her lost lover Lincoln to live with in ignorant bliss in the Framework. The moment betrays shades of Daisy’s infection by Hive last season when she was able to shed the guild and anguish of her real life and live a reality with no constraints. But after that experience, Daisy is thankfully rebuilt as a better hero (the whole Ghost Rider arc aside) and holds firm with the revealing line “Sometimes what people want isn’t right for them.” It’s a lesson superhero storytelling could embrace more than it does, to be honest.
But the real meat of the hour come from the battle for Fitz’s soul, however. On the one side, we’re finally revealed the boy genius’ father in the form of veteran character actor David O’Hara. While the reveal will unquestionably disappoint some fans who were rooting for Dr. Radcliffe to be daddy dearest (especially considering the somewhat anti-climactic way the reveal scene played out), the casting is top notch. Later in the hour, Mr. Fitz expresses the full effect of a father’s twisted love by bolstering Leo’s confidence in his evil ways. It’s not just that he wants his son to be powerful or successful – it’s that he wants Leo to drop “the luxury of sympathy” and other “womanly sentiments.” While halfway across the country, Jemma insists that there is only a good soul in her lover, Mr. Fitz makes a compelling case the when it comes to nature vs. nurture, a nurturing relationship built on misogyny and cruelty are impossible barriers to overcome. It’s one of a few moments of overt social commentary to arrive on the show since the Framework arc began, and this one feels much more grounded and believable than shoe-horned in jabs at the comic continuity’s HydraCap story or this week’s D.O.D. “Nevertheless, she persisted” joke.
Sadly, that character-oriented storytelling falls a bit more flat in the final battle that concludes the hour. As Mace and Coulson rush to a Hydra reprogramming camp with Jemma and Ward hot on their heels to help, the show delivers its latest “they live in the Framework” twist with the arrival of the long dead Agent Trip. It’s a fun bit of stunt casting in its way, but mostly the return of the grandson of a Howling Commando just reminds the viewer how lame the character’s sacrifice was two years back. For pure “Hey, that guy!” entertainment, the return of the schlubby Hydra scientist who teamed with Simmons in Season 2 was a little more entertaining. Either way, at least Trip can play a heroic role this time by delivering microfilmed plans of Aida’s secret weapon (the kind of old school spy twist that the show always handles with style).
However once Agent May, still a true believe in the Hydra case, lands at the site pumped up on Patriot-crunching super steroids, things play out by the numbers. The fight between May and Mace is rather toothless aside from his brick-rattling final punch. And while we’re teased with the return of Daniel Whitehall’s “You must comply” brainwashing in the camp’s reeducation center (still probably the show’s most chilling bit of sci-fi), we never see the full emotional fallout from that practice being put to the kids that Coulson offered up to Hydra to save his own skin. Instead, it’s another “Save everyone in sight” free-for-all with the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents doing the hero bit until Fitz attacks the building with a somewhat weak rocket attack.
Of course it’s all just enough firepower to put Agent May on a mission to confirm the Patriot kill yet instead land amongst her former comrades and see them struggle to save innocent children (her one true weakness as a character). While the idea is solid enough given the importance placed on the lives of innocents in May’s backstory, the moment doesn’t have a lot of charge – even as Mace goes the extra mile to save every last kid before the building collapses on him. Dying in the real world is a tragic if heroic end for the man who only ever wanted to be a real superhero, but it almost feels as if the end of the Patriot’s story was just a speed bump on the revival of May. When she finally turns against Hydra and transforms the Framework Daisy into her Inhuman form, the show is signaling to the viewer “The team is back and they’re ready to kick ass!” more so than it’s saying, “We lost someone we love.” Ultimately, that leaves the death more an afterthought than the kind of moment we’d want for poor ol’ Mace. The story arc still has some life left in it, but now everything hinges on the fate of Fitz to make this thing a real winner.