Once upon a time, a girl who had freshly escaped a hellish captivity was sad, lonely, and despairing. She loved those weird Marvel movies, perhaps more than one should, but they were fun, and they brought her joy. Just as she got free, they started a TV show called AGENTS OF SHIELD which the girl didn’t honestly like that much but she stuck with it because she’d watched worse things for lesser reasons. Eventually, that show found its footing and it helped prop up the sad, lonely girl even as she moved something like ten times through seven jobs in three years. There was a stretch in there where all she had was Agents of SHIELD, and so she’d watch it and rewatch it endlessly, formulating elaborate theses on why it was the bestest of best things. That is why your reviewer knows this entire show inside-out, outside-in, front-to-back, and back-to-front. That is why she can tell you with authority that if the alternate universe created in “What If…” is so rich in detail and seamless in design that it can please even her then it is essentially perfect.
In keeping with our story, I rewatched the entire series over the past two weeks. That used to be fun. Now it’s kind of exhausting. What it did do was remind me of everything I love and hate about this show on the whole. Most importantly, it emphasized how phenomenal this entire season is. It keeps all of the good pieces, chucks the bad ones, and finally consistently understands how the show works. On top of that, the plotlines, tropes, and sci-fi elements that it’s chosen are all some of my personal favorite things which I’d say was swaying my opinion except that I definitely know the mechanics of this series and I have no problem with tearing it down when it’s garbage. They’ve got this. They’ve got the whole thing.
That’s why there was only one thing causing me five weeks of anxiety: a gravestone reading “Jemma Anne Simmons” right at the end of the previous episode. Two seasons of completely trampling over Simmons’ character will leave a soul worried, even if all of the current season has been intensely focused on giving her a space to blossom. When weird things happen to Simmons, that’s when this show treads on dangerous ground with me. I saw this episode was written by DJ Doyle (my favorite) which took a bit of the edge off of my anxiety, but you never know. The second Simmons showed up in this, I was completely fine. The list of ways they could have screwed that up was long. Happily, they went for none of those options. Simmons is Simmons is Simmons. The only real way I would have burned all of this to the ground is if they had had Simmons leaping through other bodies in the simulation. Dead serious, and it’s unfortunate that I feel I have to say this but: only Elizabeth Henstridge is allowed to be Simmons. If I have to have the “Agency and Bodily Autonomy” talk with this show ever again, so help me, it will get ugly fast.
In addition to the fact that the girls get to save the world, Daisy and Simmons are the perfect people to be aware that they are in a simulation. Daisy is so empathetic that she’s completely taken in by watching simulated people get hurt and keeps trying to help them, while Simmons is so persistently rational that she keeps telling the simulation people that they’re rogue code. I adore Daisy again at this point but, being myself, I gotta talk about my Simmons more. She crawls out of a mass grave, literally looks like she’s dead, has a hellaciously messed up voice, and her only comment when asked about it later is “I’m feeling much better now!” She goes through something traumatic, takes action and makes things happen. In fact, she gets more done than Daisy does. It’s delightful. The thing is she’s still wholly Simmons the entire time so she tips off the Framework itself to the fact that she’s there by calling out everyone she meets as a computer simulation. She’s such a tactless weirdo, bless her. She alienates Coulson by just straight up telling him he’s in a virtual world. Even so, she’s so loyal and loving towards him that she won’t give up on him and she figures out a way that she can start to crack through his fake life. I love her so dearly. If you asked me to hand you the episode that best exemplifies Simmons, this one would definitely be high up in the running.
God, but all the Hydra stuff is fantastic too. Our friends in Hydra aren’t even the worst versions of themselves, they’re just slightly different and somehow incredibly familiar even through the difference. Daisy noting that May is “way more damaged” than in the real world is an excellent way to lampshade that fixing even your biggest regret could have even more devastating consequences. May is still stoic, practical, and completely in charge but rather than trying to protect everyone she’s instead directly targeting specific profiles of people. Yet my favorite (as ever) was Doctor Leopold “Mengele” Fitz. Fitz is doing terrible things and is, as Simmons rightly says, an “ugly person” in this world, but at the core of it he seems to genuinely believe he’s saving people and has that same protective instinct intact. I love that the Hydra hierarchy is essentially Aida, Fitz, and May. The entire thing with Aida and Fitz is delicious. It’s unclear whether he’s too damn intelligent to be left to his own devices or whether she’s using him specifically to keep the Framework going, but either way she has to manipulate him to keep him under control. She won’t even let him see a picture of Simmons, the implication being that even seeing her face would break his belief in the Framework’s illusion. Simmons gets to be her lovely self all on her own. Fitz can’t even remember her and there’s the presumption that he’s so in love with her and she’s such an ingrained part of his brain that even a complete memory wipe couldn’t wipe her away. Somebody help me. I’m presuming the thing they changed for him is that his father never left? Which means that his horrible dad just bullied him his whole life which explains his anger, his distrust of everyone, and his own pattern of bullying. I know that feel, sir. Even Fitz being evil makes me love him more but the caveat there is that none of this is real. It’s kind of like a role playing game and all of it can be turned off. Also, sidenote: robot overlord of alternate reality version of international supervillain spy agency is possibly my new life goal.
Remember a month ago when I said “the one thing they haven’t fixed because they can’t fix it is Ward?” Guess what. They fixed it. My whole beef with Ward’s original storyline is that they played it up like a fascinating exploration of trauma and damage and then after the winter break in the second season just flattened him completely. He no longer had depth or even anything interesting about him. He was just a bad guy. My love of Ward stems entirely from 1×16-2×10 and yet that love is so immense that I’ve always felt slighted by the way the show wrote him off. Everything about Ward in “What If…” is superb. True to form, as Simmons noted, even with Hydra in charge, he’s a double agent—this time for the resistance. Always a double agent, no matter what the circumstances. He gets to be the good guy, for once, and he also gets to show off his integrity. Basically, this may be a completely fake universe but Grant Ward can have his redemption. It might not be what happened in the “real” world, but nothing about Framework-Ward is changed from the Ward we knew. What we see in him is the potential that he had in the “real” world the whole time.
Now, one of the things that always killed me about Winter Soldier was how it presented a right-wing authoritarian regime as ever-present within the official boring bureaucracy of Washington. Since I was raised in a cesspool of the worst of American right-wing politics I always saw that dark side just under the respectable surface. (Happy to report I’m a dirty flaming liberal now.) What’s fantastic about a world with Hydra actually in control is that, thanks to our current political situation, the omnipresent fear, hate crimes, discrimination, and oppressive tactics are kinda what we’re headed for and, in some cases, already living. Winter Soldier implied that there are enough good people to fight for democracy and justice that authoritarianism could be defeated. Since our democracy has been undermined in real life, seeing Daisy and Simmons save their loved ones from a fate as brainwashed Nazis is something we need right now. There were so many jokes right after the election that our actual world was a computer simulation that I cannot help but laugh at the snark and love the brazenness of this entire plotline in equal measure. The control of information is such that there are no smartphones and one newspaper. You have to get Hydra-issued citizen’s cards, there’s DNA testing for Inhuman markers, and Hydra’s main disinformation tactic is gaslighting. The brutality is further underscored by the fact that Coulson—our wonderful Hufflepuff of a Director—is the one giving us most of the world-building notes as a class lecture and keeps turning people in to Hydra. A terrified and timid Coulson is about as heartbreaking for me as Fitz at his most Simmons-less, and I think we all know how I feel about Simmons-less Fitz.
The world-building in this is superb down to the finest details. The taser-bullet alternatives to ICERs are a particularly nice touch. ICERs are a FitzSimmons creation. Without the two of them together you wouldn’t have them. Daisy would, in fact, still be Skye. All of the stuff with Coulson harkens back to the TAHITI plotline that they dragged out for way too long in earlier seasons. Even the side-stories in Coulson’s clippings are all related to people and things we’ve seen before. The thing that I’m having far too much fun with is the whole rewrite of the universe starting with Bahrain. That incident was shortly after Iron Man, meaning the furthest back the world-breaking changes go would be about 8 or 9 years. Technically, everyone else’s changes would have been before that, but Bahrain is the important one. In the New York City-based Netflix shows, everyone refers to the Chitauri Invasion as “The Incident.” Here, Coulson calls the Inhuman girl wreaking havoc in Boston “The Incident.” If she came here as a refugee 8 or 9 years ago that precludes everything else in the whole ‘verse. There’s no Thor, no Avengers, no experimental program with the Tesseract that causes the Chitauri Invasion, Cap is still frozen in ice, and basically nothing we know happened. In this alternate universe, SHIELD fell years before it did in the “real” world. I was wondering what would have happened to the Avengers if Coulson never joined SHIELD, but it doesn’t even matter because the branching incident was so far before Avengers it makes no difference.
Here are the things I’m curious about: how did Daisy end up joining SHIELD/Hydra? Coulson is the reason she joined in the show’s reality. That’s the only thing that I can see Coulson never being in SHIELD affecting at this point. I’d love to see what Mack is up to, but for some reason I’m even more excited about Mace. He could be an ace in the hole if he’s still a politician, and I kind of want his precious face to be a leader in the resistance. I’d also love for someone to track down the copy of Radcliffe though that might not be the best idea given how crazy he is. Maybe the potential regret that Aida killed him for will have surfaced in his Framework copy and he could help them take it down. Also, there’s a copy of Agnes in here (the woman Aida was modeled on) and an incarnation of Aida. Which is weird, but I’ll allow it since it let’s Aida keep tighter control on what’s going on.
I’m also gonna laugh when they all wake up and the world is on fire. There’s still the Russian operating a drone copy of himself from his head in a jar, pretty sure there’s still a murderbot Fitz out there, and he’s in charge of an army of killer Daisy copies. I’m the creature who loved Inception because I had to hold seven layers in my head while I was watching it. I’m not about to get distracted from all the other stuff going on as well.
Sometimes with this show I’m like “chill, love, or there won’t be any way to top this.” They don’t have to top it, they just have to keep giving me this level of intelligence, attention to detail, and character integrity on a consistent basis. So far this year they’re doing the best that they ever have.
Season 4, Episode 16 (S04E16)
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