Marvel's Agents of SHIELD 4.16: What If...
This was the first episode of television in a long time -- well, maybe since Legion's first episode -- where I felt like it could have played longer than an hour. Don't get me wrong; This episode was great. It was the perfect logical progression from the end of the LMD arc to what would happen inside the Framework. And I feel that since the primary focus was on what Jemma and Daisy were to do to combat whatever came in the Framework, it would be the natural sequel to "Self Control." It's been a month since "Self Control" aired, and perhaps going with a season premiere-like double-length episode would have been excessive, but at the end of this episode, I felt there was more material left on the floor. Obviously, that material would be aired in subsequent episodes, but everything that happened here was so good that I wanted desperately for it to continue.
If anything, I'd really like for the show to reveal how Aida changed and tailored the Framework to each and every member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team beyond May, who was revealed at the end of "Self Control" as one of the chief operatives inside the Hydra Triskelion. Where May showed ample resistance to Radcliffe's nascent version of the Framework, May and the others have been more or less totally brainwashed (I say "more or less" because of the very end of the episode with Coulson's agonizingly prolonged remembrance of who Daisy is, suggesting that the brainwashing hasn't taken total hold of everyone), and they've become enmeshed into this fantasy world.
And what a terrifying world it is. The series brilliantly tweaks both the series' history and the history of the MCU, twisting the comic book staple of an alternate reality completely. It's brilliantly realized, much more so than what The Flash did with their "Flashpoint" storyline months ago. That ended up being a missed opportunity because of how ephemeral the entire world had become. Here, the audience has a couple of hero characters as anchors in Daisy and Jemma, whose lives have been altered as well, but they never willingly submitted to Aida's experimentation within the Framework so they are forced to have to convince the rest of the team that their reality is not really real. Judging by Coulson's reaction to Jemma's presence, that could prove to be a difficult prospect.
Like what happened to her in "Self Control," Jemma has to constantly prove her heroic fortitude in the face of extraordinarily trying circumstances: Hydra's all-consuming presence and influence makes the DC area a veritably oppressive surveillance state, complete with roadblocks, ID checkpoints used to weed out potential Inhuman "subversives" pre-Terrigenesis that could prove to be a problem for the ruling party. The gravestone teaser from "Self Control" was a fabricated story to explain Jemma's "death" along with other S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits at the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. She literally crawls out of a mass grave, having been buried with clothes that indicate she (and likely the other recruits) had been executed by firing squad. She can't get through this world alone, which is why she was very lucky to find Daisy when she did.
It's not like Daisy was lying down on the job either. Her world has been twisted around too, as she is an agent working for Hydra... and is partnered with Ward. The charade goes on for a little while before the show pulls an effective twist out of thin air, revealing that Ward is actually a member of the Resistance fighting Hydra. He infiltrated Hydra to protect and look out for "Skye" so that she, one of the Inhumans who haven't undergone Terrigenesis yet, doesn't fall into the hands of either May or the nefarious "Doctor"... who turns out to be Fitz. In effect, Ward here in the Framework fantasy world has maintained his double agent role from the real world, only it's been inverted to serve the good guys instead of the bad guys. It's a neat way to both subvert audience expectations and use the character's history to show him in a different light. Conceivably, the real Ward could have turned out this way were it not for a few bad apples that served as an influence and a few choices that went the other way. But we'll never know if that comes to pass.
Suffice it to say, this is only the beginning of what feels like a very promising concluding arc to a very solid season so far. We haven't even touched on what has happened to Mack! The prospect of Daisy and Jemma bringing Yo-Yo into the Framework as "backup" would likely mean that she is tasked with finding Mack and convincing him to fight alongside the rest of the team to destroy this fantasy world and escape Aida's twisted Framework. This is a great start, and it provides a natural way to build more complications into the arc.
- The tweaked opening credits and overall Hydra theme is perfection
- The emphasis on Jemma and Daisy as the heroes of the story is much appreciated
- The twist with Ward is another ingenious way to give the character a new look
- This show writes rings around Iron Fist and the DCW right now but hardly anyone is watching