Monday, April 10, 2017

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 16: What If...

Yes, I know, this review is horribly late. An entire week late, in fact. Sometimes these things happen.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, for the last of the season's story "pods!"

So far this season we've had a Ghost Rider story arc (which worked out much better than I expected), a Life Model Decoy plot, and now The Matrix, er, I mean one in which the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents find themselves trapped inside the artificial reality of The Framework.

It's interesting that Legends Of Tomorrow just finished up a similar "alternate world" storyline, in which the Legion Of Doom got ahold of the all-powerful Spear Of Destiny and used it to remake reality in their own image.

Oddly enough, the Legion apparently didn't think things through very well, as their "new and improved" world looked amazingly like our own! It was definitely a low budget alternate reality.

Luckily Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Framework reality seems much more well thought out. There're all kinds of cool little touches in the background, like the ever-present propaganda posters and the fact that the public isn't allowed to have smartphones. See, Legends? Writing an alternate world isn't that hard!

This episode also brings back Grant Ward for the third time. His return from the dead yet again should have been groan-inducing, but it made perfect sense in the reality of the episode, and was handled very well. Way to go, writers!

Sadly, this storyline may well be Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s swan song. So far there's no word on whether the series will be renewed for a fifth season. I hope so, as the show continues to improve with every passing year. It'd be a shame if it got canceled. Fingers crossed, everyone!


The Plot:
Picking up where we left off in the previous episode, Daisy and Simmons enter The Framework— a Matrix-like virtual reality created by Dr. Radcliffe and perfected by his robotic assistant AIDA— to rescue their fellow agents who are trapped there.

Daisy finds herself in a strange bedroom. She gets a text saying, "Wake up your boyfriend. We're being called in." She sees a man in the bed, and for some reason assumes it's her old beau Lincoln. She's shocked when she sees it's really former S.H.I.E.L.D. traitor Grant Ward! She reaches out and tries to quake him, but realizes she doesn't have any superpowers inside the Framework.

She shakily tells Ward they've been ordered in, and he begins getting ready. He comments on how hard they've been working lately, rounding up Inhumans. She's also thrown when he calls her "Skye" instead of Daisy.

As they drive to work, Daisy hears a talk radio show urging people around the world to be on the lookout for Inhumans. She gasps when she sees where they're going— the Triskelion, which is branded with the Hydra logo. Inside, Daisy figures out which is her desk and does an online search for Lincoln. She sees he died during some kind of testing. She searches for Simmons and sees she's dead as well, killed in a horrific lab accident!

Cut to Simmons as she wakes up in a mass shallow grave in a wooded area near the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. She notices two bullet holes in her top, and realizes her Framework avatar was murdered. She wanders out of the woods and onto a road, where she hitches a ride with a woman named Julia who agrees to take her to Washington D.C.

They come to a roadblock, where armed soldiers are checking for pre-Terrigeneis Inhumans. Julia says it's no problem, as this particular checkpoint only looks at I.D.s, and doesn't do DNA scans. When Simmons says she doesn't have any identification (being "dead" and all), Julia becomes alarmed, saying they'll both be arrested. Simmons checks her pockets again and finds her S.H.I.E.L.D. I.D. When Julia sees it she freaks and throws Simmons out of the car. She sneaks back into the woods.

Back at Hydra Headquarters, Daisy and Ward attend a briefing lead by May. She orders the two of them to interrogate an Inhuman prisoner and find out who's been smuggling Terrrigen. Daisy recognizes the prisoner as Vijay Nadeer, brother of the late Senator Ellen Nadeer. During questioning, Daisy finds out he has a fake I.D. card. While the I.D. is fake, the card itself it authentic, meaning someone inside HYDRA made it. She asks Vijay where he got the card, but Ward becomes angry and knocks him out.

Simmons enters a diner and notices no one present has a smartphone. She steals a man's car keys and a trench coat and starts to leave the diner. She's stopped by two Hydra goons. They search their database for her, and discover she's listed as dead. Simmons somehow knocks out both the massive agents and steals their car.

Cut to Coulson teaching a high school history class. He talks about the "Cambridge Incident," in which an Inhuman caused a huge number of fatalities, which lead to the rise of Hydra and the importance of the State over the individual. A student named Burnell says he heard Hydra was formed by the Nazis, but Coulson deflects the accusation, saying they've been around for thousands of years.

Suddenly two Hydra agents enter the room and pull one of Coulson's students out of class, "just to run a few tests." Obviously they suspect the kid is an Inhuman, and he'll never be seen again.

Back at Hydra, May enters the interrogation room and wakes Vijay. He recognizes her and says the rise of Hydra is all her fault. She fumes and orders him to be taken to "The Doctor." Vijay's terrified at this, and Daisy offers to take him.

In a corridor, Daisy asks Vijay what he meant about May. He says that years ago, May allowed an Inhuman girl in Bahrain to live. That girl went on to kill everyone in the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy in Cambridge. This allowed Hydra to rise to power unopposed. Vijay then tries to run, but is stopped by "The Doctor" himself, who's none other than Fitz (!).

Meanwhile, Simmons waits for Daisy in a park at their preset rendezvous point. She lifts up a rock and pulls out the "Panic Button" that was hidden there, which will allow both her and Daisy to exit The Framework. She scratches an "X" on the park bench and leaves.

She uses the computer in her stolen Hydra car to search for Daisy, but nothing comes up (because her name has reverted to "Skye" in The Framework). She searches for Fitz, but all info on him is classified. She then searches for Coulson and sees he's a teacher.

Simmons sneaks into Coulson's classroom after school as he's grading papers. Unfortunately he doesn't recognize her, since he was conditioned or brain washed when Radcliffe and AIDA hooked him into The Framework. Simmons sees a hula girl figure on his shelf and says, "Tahiti is a magical place." Coulson's taken aback by the phrase, as it feels familiar to him, but he doesn't know why. He tells Simmons to leave immediately. As soon as she does, he calls the authorities and reports her.

Simmons walks to her stolen Hydra car and sees Burnell spray painting swastikas on the side. He accuses her of being Hydra, but she somehow convinces him he's wrong. She gives him the keys to the Hydra car and tells him it's all hers. Amazingly, he says since he trashed "her" car, she can borrow his!

Back at Hydra, Daisy watches in horror as Vijay's tortured by one of The Doctor's, aka Fitz's, machines. May enters and hands Coulson's report to Fitz. He gives it a long, hard look and orders May to assign all assets to finding Simmons. Does a part of his subconscious recognize her?

Coulson sits in his office and looks through a folder of newspaper clippings. Every one of them pertains to his real life in some way, indicating his true self is trying to break through the brainwashing.

Daisy goes to the rendezvous, and Simmons meets her. As they compare notes, suddenly Ward appears. Simmons is gobsmacked to see him "alive." 

They're then surrounded by Hydra agents. Daisy and Simmons are shocked when Ward starts firing on them! He explains that he's with the resistance, because of course he is— leave it to Ward to be a double agent in ANY reality!

The three of them drive off in Burnell's car. Ward explains that he knows Daisy's an Inhuman, and altered her records so Hydra wouldn't find out. He's also the one who made Vijay's fake I.D., and knocked him out during the interrogation to shut him up. Unknown to them, a Hydra drone buzzes above them, recording their every move.

May reports to Fitz, saying there's a mole inside Hydra. He tells her to find out who it is and eliminate them. May says she will, and then tells him that the drone footage was sent straight to the Director Of Hydra. Fitz looks concerned at this.

Back at Daisy's place, she and Simmons discuss why Radcliffe would construct a nightmare world like this. They realize The Framework became this way after Radcliffe removed May's biggest regret— the incident in Bahrain. They decide to get out of The Framework to figure out a new plan. They push their Panic Button, but nothing happens.

Cut to the office of the 
Director Of Hydra, aka Madame Hydra, aka AIDA (!). She looks at the drone footage, which clearly shows Simmons' face. Fitz enters, and asks to see the footage, but AIDA refuses. She pulls him closer and they kiss. Apparently AIDA's afraid that if Fitz sees Simmons' face in the footage, his memory could return.

Meanwhile, Coulson leaves his classroom and gets in his car. Daisy's sitting in the back seat, and does her best to jog his memory. He tells her to get out before he calls the authorities, but she refuses, telling him he's the closest thing she has to family. He takes a good look at her and says, "Daisy?"


• It's kind of hard to nitpick this episode, as it has a built in defense mechanism. Any time something really stupid happens in it, all the writers have to do is say, "Welp, that's just the way things are inside The Framework!"

• So who sent Daisy the "Wake up your boyfriend. We're being called in" text? It definitely wasn't May or Fitz, as they're both very high up in the Hydra chain of command, and wouldn't be likely to be "called in."

Was it this guy? When Daisy walks into the briefing, he says, "I told you not to be late!" Daisy replies, "Shut up, Pinsky!"

I dunno who the hell Pinsky is (have we ever seen him in S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters before?), but so far he's the most likely texting suspect.

By the way, when Simmons goes to the diner, she notes that not one single person there has a smartphone. Daisy receives her text on an older smart-ish type of phone though. I assume that means only Hydra agents are allowed to have them?

• For some reason, Daisy's back to being called "Skye" in The Framework. Supposedly one of the features of this virtual world is that it reverses a person's greatest regret. Does it think Daisy regrets changing her name?

By the way, back when Daisy was going by "Skye," that was apparently her full name. Kind of like "Cher," or "Adele." If she had a last name, we never learned it.

At the beginning of the episode, Ward hands her her Hydra I.D. If you look closely you'll see she apparently has a last name here inside The Framework, but her thumb is strategically placed over it so we can't see it! Those sneaky, sneaky writers!

• Once again, everything inside The Framework has a distinctive greenish tint. Just like in The Matrix!

• When Daisy gets to her desk at Hydra Headquarters, she immediately does a search for both Lincoln and Simmons. Um... surely a computer hacker like Daisy would realize such activity is likely to be monitored, and is going to look suspicious to her superiors? 

Of course if she didn't do the search, then this whole plot would never be able to get off the ground, so... I'm willing to give the writers this one.

• I admit I naturally assumed "The Doctor" would turn out to be Radcliffe. I definitely wasn't expecting such a cold, ruthless character to turn out to be the normally mild-mannered Fitz!

And then Ward turns out to be the good guy, fighting for the Resistance inside The Framework! Well done, writers! Way to subvert our expectations!

Note to aspiring writers out there if you're going to bring back a long-dead character, this is definitely the way to do it!

• At the very end of Self Control, we got a glimpse of life inside The Framework, and actually saw a shot of Simmons' grave (!). At that time I said, 
"I'm hoping this is a fake grave, and that Simmons' Framework avatar is still alive and well and living in secret. It'd better be, otherwise she's going to spend the next six or seven episodes in the body of a dead avatar, buried six feet underground!"
It appears the writers realized this too, and quickly retconned thise scene. Instead of waking up inside a coffin, Simmons comes to in a shallow grave in the woods, after she was apparently executed!

So does this mean Simmons is now inhabiting the avatar of a dead woman? She has to be right? She literally just crawled from the grave! She definitely looks like a corpse all through the episode, what with her pale (well, paler) skin and dark circles around her eyes. Daisy even asks her if she's dead and she brushes off her concerns, saying she's fine. 

I don't see how her avatar can be anything but dead though. Am I missing something here?

• What's up with Simmons' croaky voice in this episode? Was Elizabeth Henstridge getting over a cold, or was the voice an acting choice on her part, to drive home the point that she may be dead?

• Coulson's student Burnell feels bad after he vandalizes Simmons' stolen Hydra car. To make up for it, he straight up gives her his own car!

Sure, sounds reasonable to me. I gave my car to complete strangers all the time when I was in high school! 

"Welp, that's just the way things are inside The Framework!"

• Speaking of Burnell... The Framework and everything inside it was created by Dr. Radcliffe, and perfected by AIDA). Apparently one or both of them is a big fan of Kid & Play!

• It's interesting that this entire Hydra-dominated world sprang from one small incident. Radcliffe removes Agent May's biggest regret— killing Katia, the Inhuman girl in Bahrain. After Katia was spared, she wiped out the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy, which allowed Hydra to rise to power, turning the U.S. (and the world as well?) into a totalitarian state, complete with checkpoints, propaganda and random testing for the Inhuman gene.

• In the real world, Fitz helped Radcliffe create AIDA. Later he developed an unhealthy obsession with AIDA 1.0, going so far as to save her head ("for further study") after she'd been "killed." 

And now in The Framework he's AIDA's secret boy toy. I'm betting a Freudian would have a field day with that relationship!

• So inside The Framework, AIDA is Madame Hydra, leader of the organization.

There've been a couple of versions of Madame Hydra in the comics over the years. The first  first appeared in Captain America #110 in 1969, and was also known as Viper. She clashed often with Captain America, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. and even Wolverine.

She had no actual superpowers in the comics, instead being an expert in weaponry and martial arts. As you would expect from a femme fatale character like her, she often wore poisonous green lipstick, and could literally kill with a kiss!

AIDA actually looks pretty good here as Madame Hydra, as she's all decked out in green and they even added emerald highlights to her hair! I just have one complaint— her lips! Would it have killed them to have smeared some green on her lips? Look at how much better (and supervillain-y!) she looks above with the simple addition of green lipstick!

• The title of this episode (What If...) is likely an homage to the long-running Marvel comic of the same name. Each month What If would feature stories set in alternate timelines, such as What If Spider-Man Had Joined The Fantastic Four? or What If Loki Found The Hammer Of Thor?

A very appropriate title, considering this episode's set in an alternate world, much like the ones in the comic.

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