Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - S4E16: What If... - Review: Enter the Framework!
What If... – After waking up inside the artificial reality of The Framework, Daisy and Simmons find themselves in a world with Hydra in power and Inhumans hunted down with extreme prejudice. They need to help their friends wake up before it’s too late with help from an unexpected source
I make no secret that I geek-freaked out 6 weeks ago when Agents ended its L.M.D. pod with a tease final Agents of Hydra story and now, after truly sampling the merchandise, I remember why I got so excited. Much like whatwe’ve seen from Arrow this season, Agents is wielding its entire back catalogue as narrative muscle, taking things right back to the start for a parodying historical re-write much like Buffy’s classic The Wish. Daisy never reunited her father or unlocked her Inhuman potential so she’s still Skye. Her first season one romance was Grant Ward and here we see that uninterrupted by future events to still be going. I have missed Brett Dalton on the show and it’s great to have him back if only for a while.
Then of course, there is the biggest throwback to Season 1 with Hydra successfully emerging from their Shield shadows for the win. In this case, that becomes a great manipulation of existing character history, the Framework concept of a world where your single biggest regret is fixed and a rather awesome nod to comic book Civil War. As we saw several episodes back, Melinda May’s fixed regret was her Cavalry status, creating Bahrain mission changed so she saves the girl rather than killing her..... not knowing that said girl was a powerful and a little twisted Inhuman. With May rescuing her, she was brought to the US as a refugee resulting in a horrific mass-murdering event known as “The Cambridge Incident” (aka Civil War’s Stamford Incident equivalent). Hydra seized the opportunity to exploit the overwhelming public hatred and fear towards Inhumans, and the rest is alternative history. It’s a simple yet incredibly effective way to land us in Hydraworld. Furthermore, it immediately explains May’s new hard and uncaring Hydra persona; she blames herself for the Cambridge Incident and out of anger and guilt committed herself to eradicating all other Inhumans. The, “biggest regret” fixes for Fitz, Coulson, Mack and Mace remain hidden for now most likely to be revealed over the coming episodes.
While Daisy/Skye (God, that’s going to get confusing now) was the story’s lead figure I really liked the way writer DJ Doyle used Simmons to build the bigger macro picture of this new society. Her brief hitchhiking scene affirmed the underlying public hatred and animosity towards Inhumans (again, the show stays current and topical without feeling deliberately political) rather than just being within Hydra, followed by her bar scene, showing Hydra to be a police state-like presence everywhere and acting with absolute authority. This is expanded on nicely by Coulson’s class lesson in which he teaches the state being more important than individual, essentially pledging this world as 1984 with Hydra acting as Big Brother. It all combines to place Skye and Simmons (likely joined by other team members of the coming episodes) in a wonderful position of hopelessness as underdog heroes on the run against an overwhelming force that apparently is even self aware against them.
My favourite aspect of this episode was actually what we didn’t see... anything outside the Framework. It seems, for now at least, the story is taking place entirely inside it, which preserves that all important immersive experience of an alternative world. It seems crazier than a Harley Quinn pageant that (at time of writing) Agents has not been renewed for another season. Agents of Shield is producing its greatest ever form, it’s reaping the rewards from years of character development and now has given us an engaging and entirely unique concept for a superhero/comic book TV show. While this Matrix -ike scenario can’t last forever, for now, keep those blue pills coming!