Oh, what’s that? AGENTS OF SHIELD is perfect yet again? “No Regrets” continues this astonishing run of SHIELD, mining every aspect of the show and current affairs for its alternate universe. Our friends remain trapped in a VR nightmare while the series knows just which wounds to press and which character traits to tweak for maximum devastation. I am much calmer this week largely because I’ve had time to process what the hell is going on with this whole storyline so I can distance myself to evaluate it better. I shall endeavor to express my thoughts as best I can.
I would like to speak for a moment about alternate universe (or “AU”) fan fiction. There are many kinds of AU’s—most popularly twee things like “coffee shop” AU or “high school” AU. Those are the stories that take the characters you know and love from one thing and plug them into (frankly, uninteresting) trope-laden scenarios to play out basic cultural fantasies. Those kinds of AUs are fine. Personally, I hate them. To each their own. The best kinds of AUs are the ones that take the characters you know and love, and all of the elements of the story and they massage everything just enough so that they fit some other vision of the universe. The whole “Agents of Hydra” thing is the very best kind of alternate universe. As is my wont when this show is deliberately agitating my soul, I rewatched a healthy chunk of it this week and can confirm that what they are doing is astonishing.
Many of these episodes seem to be made explicitly for someone who both is engaged with current political controversies and also knows literally every word of every episode of this show to date. That is: they seem to be made for me. I spent a significant portion of my time telling this episode to shut up (in a Princess Diaries sort of way). I thought the last episode was on the nose with its dog whistles about “law and order” and Fitz declaring they would “make our society great again.” Throwing in “nevertheless, she persisted” is making me think that every single writer on this show is using this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations and resist the current U.S. political regime. To be honest, that’s kind of what I’ve wanted since SHIELD came back from winter hiatus but this is so much more than I dreamed possible. I thought they might do something with Senator Nadeer’s “Humans First” movement, Senate hearings, and the Watchdogs. Turning the entire world of the show into an authoritarian fascist state borders on insane. It’s utterly brilliant and it’s doing a spectacular job but, dear god. One of my favorite things about the MCU is its understated political statements but Agents of SHIELD has thrown subtlety out the window of a speeding aircraft. Honestly, I needed this. But also: they really need to stick the landing on this plotline, or things will get ugly.
Even beyond the painful perfection of the politics in play, the references and rewrites are also phenomenal. The Hydra scientist that May goes to for Cal’s Hyde serum is Simmons’ lab partner from when she was undercover at Hydra. All of the children in the “reeducation facility” are getting brainwashed by one of Whitehall’s Faustus videos with Bakshi as a voiceover. Whole lines and exchanges in this episode are lifted straight out of other episodes from the show’s entire run and recontextualized here. Every little thing is a piece from Agents of SHIELD reworked into something crueler or stranger. I never said this in my reviews because I considered it a jinx but I’ve squeed it at a few people in real life: I desperately wanted Trip, Bobbi, and Hunter—one or all—to show back up in this world. You cannot just throw “B.J. Britt” into the credits all casual. I will see it and I will start screaming. And he brought with him all of Hydra’s plans for whatever craziness “Project Looking Glass” turns out to be. Yay, Trip! Trip is also used more effectively here than he ever was before. In like five minutes they gave him more purpose and relevant swagger than they did when he was a regular guest star. Is there just a checklist of “things we know we screwed up big time” that they’re systematically working their way through? Ward in particular is getting all of his cracks filled in. I have remained furious about the way they completely ignored Ward’s character beyond the first half of the second season. This isn’t even a giant retcon because none of it is real or permanent but it feels like an apology. They’ve given him all of the motivation and depth that no one wanted to deal with before. He even apologized to Simmons for what he had done “in her world.” In her world, on top of killing a ton of people and grievously injuring Fitz while trying to kill them both, he literally tortured her, guys. Lest anyone forget. Yet what she’s most upset with him about is killing all those people. Simmons is a holder of grudges and yet she readily teamed up with him after that to save her people and to keep Mack out of danger. It warmed my icy little heart.
I have a cadre of Fitz people (because, for some reason I can’t fathom, I attract them) and I am literally the only one I know who loves this plotline. I have a well-known proclivity for well-written villains (see: previous adulations about Grant Ward) and Fitz is tops. The basic things that make Fitz so lovable are still there—he’s extremely loyal, believes that he’s helping people, and would do anything for those he loves. It’s just that you tweak his life ever so slightly, keep his absolutely awful father in his life, erase Simmons and replace her with Aida’s manipulations and you get a very different, very terrible person. He’s so easy for Aida to control because he’s still so earnest and feels deeply but his father forces him to repress all that “womanly sentiment” to be “strong.” Also it’s implied his father beat the crap out of him? I’m gonna need to closely watch this like six times. It’s like the toxic masculine antithesis of what Fitz actually is except even with his dad breathing down his neck he’s still kinda squishy underneath. I love it for a million reasons, but if for no others than that it underscores how wonderful our version of Fitz is and shows how thin the line is between hero and villain. Granted, this is not a state of affairs that I want to exist for any length of time, but as an exploration of character and identity Doctor Fitz is superb. Now. Simmons needs to save him. Also, Fitz’s father is way too close to my own for comfort. All he needs is a solid racist screed and the caricature will be complete. Ouch.
One of the many, many things I adore about FitzSimmons is how weird their relationship is, so color me surprised for the second week in a row about how okay I am with literally everyone screaming about how in love the two of them are. Simmons says it. Daisy says it. Everyone says it. It’s the kind of “love conquers all” nonsense that I can’t abide, and yet this show has gone out of its way not just to prove to me that they love each other, but to fix every single persnickety problem I had with the way they were presenting both characters. Basically, if it’s going to be an enormous, world-shattering plot point that two characters are-or-are-not “in love” it will take some extremely specific lovers, a strong dose of amazing acting, and nearly four seasons of intense character work for me to buy it. Congratulations, Agents of SHIELD: I’d buy this one at any price you want to set. To be fair to my Fitz people, I think the worry here is that if/when everyone gets out of the Framework, Fitz will be so torn up he’ll push Simmons away in yet another cycle of their endless cycles of not-being-together-for-reasons. (Or worse, be stuck evil?) On the one hand, yeah, I’m kind of expecting disaster too. On the other, Simmons as she stands right now would not let him get away with that. Just let her be her and we’ll all be fine.
At some point, I should probably talk about what actually happened in this episode. The usual SHIELD formula of mystery/science and action applies perfectly here. Throw all the extra stuff on top of it and this show is trying to kill me yet again. Most notably, I love Jeffrey Mace all out of proportion to how much he is actually in this story. I mean, I love that man. He’s dear to me. I wanted him to stay forever. His is the first actual death in this show that’s ever upset me. I loved most of our dearly departed friends, but they almost all went out in ways that were contrived or narratively superfluous. Ironically, Mace’s death is literally pointless. He’s saving a made-up person in a made-up world, and yet it so thoroughly demonstrates his devotion to justice and rock solid character integrity that I was sobbing on myself the whole time. Plus, it got May to heel-face turn. (Though, good god, is it worth sacrificing such a sweet muffin’s life for that? What’s it gonna take to wake up Fitz?) This storyline is bizarre because it’s very obviously playing the audience like a piano. Bear McCreary swells that orchestra and I am completely aware that I’m being manipulated at exactly the same time that I feel every emotion that they’re deliberately wringing from me. It’s brilliant and I cannot fathom how they’re achieving it. Is it the juxtaposition of what’s happening versus what we know should be? Maybe it’s the deconstruction of narrative versus reality? I will have to process this for longer than two weeks to give any sort of answer. I am obscenely persnickety when it comes to stories ringing emotionally true. If something is contrived yet tries to pass itself off as arty or deep I will fly into a rage at it. I’ve done it to this show at least three times (for reference: “What They Become,” “4,722 Hours,” and “Spacetime.”) So far, the Agents of SHIELD universe that is actually fake hasn’t had a single contrived or melodramatic moment, even with material that could be obscenely gaudy.
Here’s what, though: thank god this episode ended on an up note. The last ten minutes of last week’s episode were just an onslaught of excruciating Fitz-pain that left me (and a whole bunch of other people) in a week-long state of semi-catatonia. You can’t just end the whole world like that and expect it to be okay! Having May turn against Hydra and drop Terrigen to give Daisy back her superpowers is like the height of optimism—not because this story is in any way optimistic but because, like every good SHIELD tag, it pumps you up for what’s going to happen next. It leaves you with a bit of hope rather than a feeling of abandoned dread. Tell me last season how happy I’d be for Daisy to have her powers back right now and I would laugh in your face Plus, Radcliffe told Daisy about whatever backdoor he programmed so perhaps we can actually get out of this place. I also loved that May’s moment of turning on Hydra was that she was ordered to bomb a building full of children and she helped Mace rescue one of them while he sacrificed himself. May never trusted Mace in the real world, so the brief exchange of understanding between them was touching on many levels. Also! Coulson shouting “snap out of it, May!” when he had never even met May in this world is a beautiful ray of sunshine peeking through this darkness.
Seriously, I could just sit here and ramble about this episode and this whole storyline endlessly. When I try to talk about it in person I just sort of scream and hit things (usually tables.) That’s always been what happens when I try to vocalize my feelings about Agents of SHIELD but at this point I’m beyond that. I keep clutching people I’m not even fond of and squealing at them if they happen to watch this show. I’m honestly amazed I’ve managed to express anything coherent about this at all beyond loud sobs, banging objects, and grabbing you all by the arm and burying my head in your metaphorical shoulder. This show is crazy. I’m crazier. I can barely comprehend how good it is right now, and you all know I am ruthless to it when it doesn’t live up to my standards. Currently, it’s beyond them.
Season 4, Episode 18 (S04E18)
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays at 10PM on ABC
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
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Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor