With the arrival of "What If..." (tonight's opening chapter in the show's "Agents of Hydra" alternate reality saga), Marvel's ABC drama "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has its future on the line in more ways than one.
Creatively, the big question on everyone's mind is whether or not the premise of a world where Hydra conquered America in place of the story of Marvel Studios' "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" can excite viewers again. The first two chapters of Season 4 failed to make the show buzz-worthy in fan circles outside a few moments of fun Ghost Rider effects and the (largely forgettable) introduction of comic mainstays the Life Model Decoys. Both of bits of fan service couldn't cover up the fact that the core of the series characters have been treading water since the end of Season 3.
But maybe even more importantly than stirring the passions of Marvel-heads, "Agents" big question mark is its chances for renewal. With a Marvel TV division that's increasingly cut off from the big movies and instead focusing on new projects (including the buzzed about "Legion" and the incoming theatrical-to-ABC project "Inhumans"), what incentive is there for either the studio or the network to push forward with more of "the adventures of people who never meet the Avengers"? Even in the modern world of decreasing network viewership, another year of this drama may take some heavy lifting.
The good news on both fronts is that "What If.." is a tense, satisfying hour of "Agents" with loads of potential. A slight color correction makes the so-called "Framework" reality created by rogue LMD Aida reflect the grey area that this world represents. Which of our heroes are living the life they truly want? Which of them are truly brainwashed by Aida? And which of the many characters not actually plugged in to the Framework represent real independent thought versus lines of code meant to mimic characters long absent from the show? These questions hum along with dramatic results that overpower the sometimes weaker concepts and hopefully set the series on a path towards a real spy showdown.
The majority of the hour is divided between the two (for lack of a better term) "woke" agents who have infiltrated the Framework with memories of the real world intact: Daisy and Jemma. The former literally wakes up to a world she never expected – now an Inhuman-hunting Hydra agent struggling with commitment issues in her relationship with resurrected Hydra believer Grant Ward. Meanwhile, Jemma has to claw her way out of a mass grave where the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents of this virtual world were slaughtered during Hydra's rise. While these developments aren't surprising on their own (some were downright spoiled before the episode even aired), the fireworks come from watching the ladies struggle to understand what the hell is happening around them as they try to make their way back to a MacGuffin that will zap them and their friends back to the real world.
On the path towards escape, both Daisy and Jemma cross paths with the core heroes of the show – fully entranced by the Framework's programming but with a twist. In truth, each character is given some "gift" that ties to their previous struggles across four seasons. May now lives in a world where she avoided her biggest regret (killing a young superpowered girl who had gone over the edge) only to see that same girl go on to create a massive tragedy that allowed Hydra to rise to power on a wave of anti-Inhuman fury. And if that's not bad enough, we also meet a Fitz who has lived up to his (still mysterious) father's legacy in order to become a Hydra super scientist in charge of torturing Inhuman's in the most gruesome fashion at the whim of his lover and Hydra supreme leader Aida. Also in bed with the eight-tentacled organization is Coulson. Though rather than taking a high-ranking job with Hydra like the others, our main man's dream reality involves a total lack of spy craziness and instead plops Phil into the mundane world of high school history teaching. The greatest S.H.I.E.L.D. agent of all time being torn between his new love of turning over students to Hydra and the phantom memories of who he was that populate a hidden file of Easter Egg-esque clippings is solid ground to build from.
One can quibble over whether all the details here are electric (for example, the show's reliance on Inhumans as a building block is both understandable but also a drag). But what makes these twists work overall is the sense of world-building they bring to the Hydra high concept. In Coulson's scenes, not only do we get some pointed political criticism perfectly attuned to our modern moment (according to Mr. C, what really led to Hydra's takeover was the false narratives peddled by Washington leaders) but also a hint as to what resistance exists against the new world order via Phil's more rebellious students. May's role at the heart of the "Cambridge Incident" extends the layer of mystery as to how exactly this world works on its own terms, but it never gets bogged down in info dumps as Melinda's tortured self takes center stage. Best of all, the mystery of Fitz's father (one of the few truly intriguing elements from earlier this year) is neck-in-neck with whatever control Aida is exerting over the proceedings for story that we want answers to the quickest.
And in the end, the idea of answers is what will allow the "Agents of Hydra" era to sink or swim. While the previous "LMD" arc spun its wheels forever before delivering one knockout episode, there's a chance for this alternate universe story to peel back the layers of the cast and world at a more measured, engaging pace. In this hour alone we get the complicated reveal that uber-villain Ward is actually a good guy here (but what does that even mean if he's just code?) and the earliest glimpses of Coulson snapping out of his trance thanks to Daisy's impassioned plea that he's all the family she has. If the weeks ahead can spin our heads this well without turning over all the cards, "Agents" has a shot of making its argument to both viewers and execs that it can go on another year.