Season 4, Episode 16: What If?
Director: Oz Scott
Writer: DJ Doyle
Starring: Clark Gregg, Mallory Jansen, Elizabeth Henstridge, Iain De Caestecker

It’s been a long wait for everyone who was hooked by the last episode of Agents of SHIELD – there’s no shame in admitting to forgetting a few details! If you have, the basics are these: Our gang of SHIELD agents have found themselves in an alternate reality, wherein they’re trapped in scary alternate lives. Daisy and Simmons however have followed them in, waking up cognisant of their own unusual predicaments. Meanwhile, the villains of the piece have unfolded…

Never say that this show doesn’t keep you on your toes.

“Do you have moments when reality is quite right…?”

For the proud comic book readers among you, the title of this episode will be familiar as one of Marvel’s most famous and popular storylines. It looked at well-known Marvel situations and turned them on their heads with “what if?” style questions and this episode does a very similar thing. What if the Agents of SHIELD were actually Agents of HYDRA?

The world of the Framework which our heroes find themselves in is entirely different to the one we’ve been comfortable in for the past four seasons now. Gone is the belief in good and the age of heroes: HYDRA controls everything here. In a nod to 1984 (which, ironically, has been best-selling once again – take that as you will), HYDRA keeps a watch over everything here, spreading propaganda through all kinds of means – including schools like the one that Inhuman-hating HYDRA! Coulson works at. Always our steadfast leader, Coulson is creepily different in this world, but we shouldn’t despair just yet. It’s evident that he senses something wrong with this world and, as Nick Fury would probably observe in some universe, you can take the man out of SHIELD, but you can’t take SHIELD out of the man.

The reason for the HYDRA rule is brilliantly explained as it’s revealed to the viewers in one of the propaganda lessons taught by Coulson, that this world is actually an alternate timeline to the one we know. The characters living it don’t know, but this world results from Agent May saving the little girl in Bahrain. In this world, the little girl went on to commit a massacre, putting Inhumans permanently on the bad side of public opinion. Using this act of terrorism as a way to keep the public in fear, HYDRA creates a Big Brother style society, keeping everyone in line through fear of the Inhuman threat.

This also perhaps explains why Agent May, in this world, is an agent of HYDRA. The guilt surrounding saving this girl is obvious and guilt only ever goes two ways. It paralyses, or it motivates. Unfortunately, May seems to have been motivated towards the cruelty of HYDRA.

aoh fitz

And so it seems has Fitz. He has has long been a fan favourite for his loveable, vulnerable personality in the show, which is partly the reason why the Framework is such a mind-bendingly fun storyline. Fitz is evil in this world. It’s almost perverted to have the gentle soul experiment coldly on Inhumans; it’s so un-Fitz that it makes your skin crawl a little bit. It’s one of the most genius twists of the Framework as the sheer wrongness of it acts like some kind of horrific cruelty in the narrative – we don’t want to watch, but we can’t stop looking. It’ll be interesting to see how much of the Framework the agents will retain if they manage to escape and what the repercussions might be.

The HYDRA rule is also explained by the introduction of a personal favourite, Madame Hydra. Brilliantly though this character has also been twisted to suit the show’s needs and the good Madame is actually AIDA from the real world! With a firm grip on HYDRA, and thus the world, AIDA is maybe the sleekest, sexiest and smartest villain on Marvel television.

aoh madame hydra

With such a villain, it’s an almost laughably difficult situation for Simmons (who is supposedly dead in this world, which may explain some of what Fitz has gone through to create him in this universe) and Daisy. But they might not be as alone as they first appear. Besides an unsure Coulson, who seems to have remembered Daisy, there is one more thing that is ever-certain in all universes. Ward is a double agent. He’s an unlikely ally (and it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say that) but it’s a good way to examine once again both sides of his complex character.

The Framework is without doubt a stroke of genius. Placed at just the right time in the narrative, it’s a microscope lens for the well-developed agents we know and love and with no hiatus on the horizon, next week is an exciting prospect.

Rating: 10 out of 10

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