AGENTS OF SHIELD has set itself the unenviable task of having to absolutely nail about fifteen aspects of their current storyline before the season is out or they’ll deflate what is, to this point, one of the most perfect seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Once I saw that my hated nemesis Jeffrey Bell was writing the season finale, I convinced myself this was all going to end in disaster. I’ll save my frothing hatred of Jeffrey Bell for when he actually does something that warrants it. Instead I’ll focus on this week’s episode, as I should. Honestly? “Farewell, Cruel World!” does its best to restore my faith that this season will tell us a good story in the end and not just jerk us around.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on story and narrative lately and one of my favorite things that I’ve learned is that melodrama is when there’s a fundamental mismatch between the level of emotion portrayed and the underlying motivation and causation of that emotion. The range of human emotion is immense, so to say something is “too intense” doesn’t cut it. It’s when it’s too intense and it makes no sense for it to be that hardcore. If there was ever the opportunity for cheap, tasteless melodrama it would be this entire storyline. To be honest, after the previous episode I was waiting for it all to crash and burn. Instead, every shred of pain, pleasure, shock, and suspense in “Farewell, Cruel World!” is completely warranted. I believe Fitz’s pain and anger. I believe Simmons doing legitimately stupid things out of love and desperation. I believe May’s skepticism and Coulson’s faith. I believe all of it. Well done.
I had reached “Agents of Hydra” fatigue by the end of the previous episode. I was sick of everyone being trapped and powerless, sick of Fitz being awful—basically, sick of all of it. The melodrama I’d concocted for the rest of the season was this disaster where Fitz gets stuck with his Framework-brain and is just flat-out evil like an ’80s soap opera twist. “He’s not himself! He’s been brainwashed! But, oh dear, we must kill him before he kills all of us! Isn’t it painful!?” That’s what I mean by “cheap” and “tasteless.” If I can call it beforehand as a worst case scenario then there is a problem. I offer 90% of the third season of this show as case in point. There were, however, quite a few things about this episode that I did call. The thing is, every single one of them happened and then had a twist. When this show is good it’s because it knows its genre conventions so well that it surprises even me, the walking encyclopaedia of science fiction and genre television.
I was fairly certain at some point Simmons was gonna pop a cap in Papa Fitz. I thought it might be in the real world, but I loved the way it actually happened. Honestly, thinking back on the previous episode purely with my self-interest in mind, the fact that Simmons had nothing active to do is what makes it kind of boring. Here, Daisy tries to talk her into leaving Fitz behind in the Framework but instead she rashly goes after Fitz’s father—not to hurt him, but to try to get to Fitz through him. However, his dad is a thoroughly terrible person, manipulates Fitz by apparently telling him he loves him for the first time in his life (god help me, this man.) Then he tries to kill Simmons who, in turn, accidentally kills him. Simmons’ actions are just the right flavor of desperate and stupid to make it clear that she’s not about to just give up on Fitz. Seriously, after three years of Fitz doing insane death-defying things for her, when he’s in a bad situation they have to let her balance the scales a bit. If she just gave up on him, or barely even tried that would be so sour. I also loved the scene between the two of them where Fitz is holding her at gunpoint screaming at her to say that she means nothing to him. It’s painful in just the right way without being over-the-top and Simmons refuses to do it. She’d rather die at his hand than say that. Because they don’t lie to each other. (Does she get to like, actually save him now? Poor beans; can they never catch a break?)
That brings me to dear, dear Dr. Radcliffe who shines as the hero at last. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such triumph at being shown a character’s true nature. What I nailed about him was that they were going to offer him a body back in the real world to motivate him to give up information. Radcliffe is one of my pets for a lot of reasons, one of which is that he’s so amorally self-preservationist that you just cannot tell what he’s going to do or which side of anything he’s going to land on. In this case, that’s used to everyone’s advantage. Because of his previous terrible life choices, I completely believed that he would turn on everyone so that he could get a body back. Fitz presents it to him as, not just a body, but immortality. It’s exactly the sort of thing he’d go in for and it’s what I expected to happen. The delightful twist is that Radcliffe was tricking Fitz to the portal so that he could chuck him through it. Sure, he used Fitz, lied to him, manipulated him—every possible thing that our dear Fitz finds particularly hurtful. But in the end, Radcliffe truly loves him. Radcliffe takes responsibility for his misdeeds and tries to atone for them even if just in the small way of giving Fitz back his own self. No one else who’s betrayed our folks has ever had that kind of heel-face turn before. Usually, they just go bad, stay bad, and get killed off. It’s refreshing in the context of this show and also perfectly in keeping with Radcliffe’s haywire moral compass. Even when he’s waffled into the antagonist role he’s never been truly deplorable. Radcliffe saving the day is the literal narrative climax of the episode, but it’s also the emotional one for me personally. He’s the best.
The other thing that was getting squirrely on me about this plotline was how hard it hammered on a Hydra-run fascist dystopia being essentially our current world. It’s great commentary, if you actually do something with that. Otherwise, hauling in all the catchphrases and quotes from conservative politicians is baldly exploitative and self-congratulatory. It screams “aren’t we good little liberals!” I loved it in those first three episodes because it was so on point. However, by this episode it was growing thin. The thing that moved me from being uncomfortable with it to completely fine is that everyone who’s made it out of the Framework is extremely screwed up in the head about what happened in there—particularly Fitz. We saw him freaking out for like fifteen seconds but that’s enough to prove to me that things that happened in the Framework will have psychological consequences. Nobody is stuck the way they were in there—that would have been the exploitative thing to do. But also no one is really okay.
Now, to my favorite robot girl! She made it into a human body of her own devising! I’m so excited! She’s horrible and skeevy and terrifying! But I love her! She’s totally creeping on Fitz and trying to kill Simmons! But I love her! Okay, so, when I was watching Westworld I finally figured out what my thing is with robots. Because, obviously it’s a thing. Be they shiny metal creatures or human-like androids or anything on the spectrum of “beings created by humans to serve a purpose,” robots are never allowed free will. They are constructed to fulfill a set of functions and nothing more. So it doesn’t matter how sentient they are, or if they have desires, or if they develop personality—essentially it doesn’t matter if they are people, they are eternally trapped in lives of servitude. I’ve loved robots for basically my entire life, not realizing that personally they serve two functions for me. First, in narratives they often represent outsiders which is how I’ve always felt. You get fish-out-of-water stories like Edward Scissorhands or the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein. The second and obscenely personal reason is that I was never allowed my own wishes, desires, and emotions like… ever. I was basically a doll. Y’all all know I have issues with my mother. Robots help me deal with that. So, for me, Aida is a rock star because she got free. Get it, girl!
Now, that said, I love her but she’s messing with the wrong babes. It seems that she’s not only freed herself but acquired the powers of Gordon, the teleporting Inhuman from season 2. So did they research all the Inhumans so extensively in the Framework so that she could have every power ever and be the biggest, bestest, most powerful person alive in her fancy human body? That’s wicked, by which I mean both brilliant and also terrifying. She doesn’t have the strongest sense of ethics, our Aida. And not cool kidnapping Fitz! Not cool, Aida. I’m thinking she’s got some weird narrative in her head and all of her emotional wires are jacked up. If Fitz is back to being Fitz, even if he’s seriously screwed up, I can tell you he’s gonna want his actual girl (who he just shot.) But, if Fitz is back to being Fitz, he’s also such an incredible fluff that he’ll want to help Aida as much as he can. So will she convince him he’s a bad person? Tune in next week, I guess.
Someday, I will have enough room to tell you how much I love everyone in this show. I’ll briefly skim it. Mack is the biggest, gentlest muffin and I’ve always loved him and he needs to come back to us please. Admittedly, he had the happiest and least detrimental life change in the Framework. May refusing to believe anyone’s wild tales of alternate universes is very her, but then so is giving Simmons all the information she needs to go off and get herself killed, and so is not shooting Aida because Fitz is in the way, and so is jumping through the Framework exit after Coulson completely on faith. Coulson, though. Getting himself all shot, and leading everyone out, and just believing so hard in everything. Ah, me. When this show is good, I love everyone to death. It’s hard to find the space (or energy) to do them all justice.
So here’s what’s left: there’s no way they’re gonna just leave Mack stuck in the Framework. I fully believe he wouldn’t leave. He’s a man of extreme love and loyalty. But I also fully believe they’re not gonna just unplug the thing with him still in it. Not without trying a little more to get him out. The Zephyr One crew is going to have to a.) not get blown up by Russians and b.) somehow rescue everyone from the oil rig in the Baltic where Ivanov is still waiting. I’ve seen this show get rid of plot business like that in a 30-second cold open, though, so I’m less worried about that part. Most importantly, they’re gonna have to save Fitz from his psycho-stalker-robot-girlfriend somehow. The unfortunate thing is there’s no way that all of this can happen in the next episode alone, which means that Jeffrey Bell—who has never written an emotionally authentic satisfactory conclusion in his life—is going to be in charge of sticking the landing.
This episode is great. Honestly? I couldn’t be happier with it. “Farewell, Cruel World!” had to do so much in such a small space it’s honestly astonishing that it not only soothed most of my anxieties but it did it with fantastic style. Every second drips with tension even on subsequent viewings. It provides just enough closure for the Framework world that you can breath for a second but then launches immediately into a-whole-nother level of crazy. I’m fine with that because it did, at least, give me that second of oxygen. Sometimes, that’s all you need before you dive back in for more.
Season 4, Episode 20 (S04E20)
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