SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for "Self Control," the latest episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
When "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." returns in April, the show will predominantly take place inside the Framework. A Matrix-like computer program built by Doctor Radcliffe, the Framework is designed to be a near-perfect reality, where Radcliffe can upload copies of peoples' minds to live out their days unaware that they're no longer participating in the real world. With Coulson, May, Mack, Fitz and Mace trapped inside the cybernetic dream world, Daisy and Simmons will have the incredibly difficult task of waking up their teammates -- from the inside, no less, as they've voluntarily entered the Framework in an effort to save their friends.
As is if navigating the faux reality wasn't a difficult task already, Daisy and Simmons will also have to cope with its new world order. Hydra -- wiped out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the events of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" -- is not only around and kicking in the Framework, it's replaced S.H.I.E.L.D. and appears to be ruling the world. Of course, the big question is why does Hydra exist inside the Framework in the first place? We know Radcliffe was never loyal to the terrorist organization, so why craft a reality where it's replaced S.H.I.E.L.D.? The answer, we suspect, likely lies with Phil Coulson.
The final moments of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" most recent episode revealed that Coulson is no longer a member of S.H.I.E.L.D., having traded in his guns and spy gadgets for chalk and a dismissal bell. Yes, Phil Coulson is now a high school teacher. This "what if" raises two questions: Did Framework Coulson leave S.H.I.E.L.D. after Hydra took over, or did Coulson choose to not join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place? If this arc is going to explore character regrets, maybe Coulson's greatest regret was choosing to become an agent and giving up a "normal" life. If that's the case, then in Framework-reality, perhaps Hydra took over in the absence of the formation of the Avengers, a team hand-picked by Coulson and Director Fury. This theory could bring the show back to its original Season 1 premise of exploring how important Coulson is to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, if was Hydra was able to take over in his absence, it would seem that Coulson is pretty damn important.
Phil Coulson made his MCU debut in "Iron Man," where he approached Tony Stark about the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). In "Iron Man 2," Coulson sent Natasha Romanoff undercover in Stark's business to help protect the inventor-turned-superhero from outside threats. In "Thor," Coulson was among the agents to discover Thor's hammer, and eventually hired Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. We know that his death in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" catalyzed Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye and The Hulk to set aside their differences and work as a team to stop Loki's invasion; as Nick Fury said, Coulson's death was the "push" the group needed to finally assemble. If, inside the Framework, Coulson never joined S.H.I.E.L.D., would any of those things have happened? The bottom line is, if Coulson had never joined S.H.I.E.L.D., the MCU as we know it would look much, much different.
Which raises another question: If Hydra is back in the mix thanks to the Framework, who might they be bringing with them? We know Grant Ward is making a return; not only was he in the photograph next to Daisy's bed, but Marvel confirmed his return immediately after the episode aired. And if Ward is back, what about S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra agent Jasper Sitwell? Actor Maximiliano Hernández portrayed Sitwell in both the first season of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and various MCU films and one-shots until his death in "Winter Soldier" -- could he appear in the Framework? There's also Gideon Malick, Victoria Hand, Eric Koenig, Isabelle Hartley, Lincoln Campbell, Christian Ward, Daniel Whitehall, Antoine Triplet, Sunil Bakshi, Robert Gonzales, Raina, Agent 33 -- the list goes on. Clearly, Coulson's "what if" could have the biggest impact of them all.
In addition to the Framework being run by Hydra, Agents Fitz, Coulson, May, Mack and Director Mace are all living very different lives. Daisy and Simmons will have exactly seven episodes to find all of their friends, convince them that their lives are a lie, and get them out of the system.
Daisy cautioned Simmons that if their minds stayed plugged in too long, their bodies would die, and that if they died inside the Framework, they'll die in the real world. Based on the last few scenes of the episode, both Simmons and Daisy will also be faced with the personal temptations of the Framework. When Daisy arrived in the Framework, she was in a bubble bath, presumably enjoying domestic bliss with her boyfriend, Ward. Even though Daisy knows what she's seeing isn't real, she's going to have to fight her own natural instincts for happiness. Mack, too, was given a glimpse at his ideal life, one where his daughter Hope is still alive. May also looked pretty happy, despite working for Hydra; perhaps her ability to find peace in not killing that Inhuman child in Bahrain gave her the serenity she needed to be content in any situation, including one where Hydra is in charge.
Then there's Fitz and Coulson, the latter of which is now a school teacher who fears Inhumans. Extrapolating from that, it's not a stretch to assume he never met Captain America, he never grew up idolizing S.H.I.E.L.D., and he was never resurrected by Inhuman blood. In short, he'll likely be a completely different Coulson when Daisy and Simmons find him.
Fitz seemed to be very, very wealthy inside the Framework. Perhaps his greatest regret was not taking his family's money, or using his mental abilities to earn millions of dollars. In his brief scene, he was getting out of a car and taking a woman's hand, though her face was not shown. This was definitely not Simmons, as an image of Simmon's grave was shown later. Did Framework Simmons die when she touched the Chituari helmet in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Season 1? Will the real Simmons wake up underground and have to dig herself out? That's a scary thought.
The only person not shown in the Framework montage was Director Mace. We saw him plugged into the Framework with everyone else, so where was he? Perhaps we'll learn more about his new life in the next episode, "What If?"
While it seems these character "what ifs" are going to explore the mostly positive changes they appear to be experiencing, the Framework world will also explore the negative consequences from those "what ifs." Coulson may be happier living his normal life, but S.H.I.E.L.D. ended up paying the ultimate price. May might be happy never having become The Cavalry, but she'll have never met Coulson and she'll be working for Hydra. Fitz might be happy living the sweet life, but he'll be incomplete without Simmons. Each of those moments will ultimately teach each character what May's LMD said to LMD Coulson in the last episode: "Our regrets make us who we are." Each character will essentially have to choose to live with their greatest regrets and wake up. Knowing superhero shows, it's also possible that not everyone will choose to wake up, and we may be losing someone at the end of the season. Let's just hope it's not Agent Coulson.
Airing Tuesdays at 10 pm ET/PT on ABC, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” returns April 4 and stars Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Chloe Bennet as Daisy “Quake” Johnson, Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons, Henry Simmons as Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie and more.