Someone needs to stage an AGENTS OF SHIELD intervention with me. This is getting dangerous. Every last bit of “Identity and Change” felt like it was a calculated assault on my meager defenses. Every story element, trope, reveal, and character development was exactly what I wanted and in some cases I didn’t even know that was what I wanted. This whole exercise is superb. I am a lost cause.
I try so hard to be rational, objective, and logical about the MCU overall but especially about this show in particular because I know I get overwrought about it. Listen: there is literally no way I can be objective about this episode. I’ve been trying to pull myself back for hours so I can evaluate this by my usual criteria and I just can’t. For all I know, this entire thing is maudlin, hammy, and just as overwrought as I am. But even if that’s the case it’s worked so effectively on me that I have to tip my hat and give it its due. This episode messed me up to the point that an hour after it was over I had to go sit in a room alone and cry and I didn’t know why. Agents of SHIELD and I have a weird relationship, but I’ve never loved an episode so much and also had that kind of reaction to it. Plenty of other reactions, but none quite like that.
Remember how last week I was dying over the idea that Fitz’s brain would remember Simmons and break the whole thing? It’s like this show is just going “come on, Dana, you know us better than that.” I do, but I still never trust it. When this show excels, it takes those dumb, soapy, basic TV conceits and acts like it’s gonna do them, then tosses them out the window. I hate sappy nonsense, but from those two I would have bought it. Fitz and Simmons are probably the only two creatures ever written for whom I would believe a plot of “our love saves the world.” That is exactly the kind of trite, default nonsense that SHIELD doesn’t usually go in for, but I’d have bought it. Instead, Aida has taken the Simmons-shaped hole in Fitz’s life and plugged herself into. And it’s not simply for emotional manipulation—she’s using his brilliance to recode everything in the world to her specifications, including a project that I’m presuming will keep them all trapped in the Framework forever. Fitz is on board with this because, even psychotically evil, his basic drive is to protect the people he loves. It’s just in this case he thinks that’s Aida.
Aida hasn’t even lied about a single thing. There is another world where SHIELD defeated Hydra and where she is SHIELD’s slave. It is terrible for her. They are trying to take her down. Even everything she says about Simmons is true. She’s from that other world, and Radcliffe basically retold FitzSimmons’ whacked out love story right to Fitz’s face. And yet, no dent. The spin, the anger, the drive in Fitz is that complete. What I find personally hilarious is that there’s apparently no way to make me hate Leopold James (bless and thank) Fitz. “Dana, he’s a genocidal maniac.” “I know,” I wail. “It’s so perfect.” He even spouts off this line: “we will defeat these terrorists and we will make our society great again.” I’ll leave that one for you to decode. I mean, Simmons even begged Ward not to shoot Fitz explicitly because she loves him and it worked instead of being weird like it usually is when they’re direct about their feelings. I’m gonna need an ambulance at my address.
You may remember how giving Simmons a completely manufactured, ill-advised love affair quite literally took me out last season. I bring it up a lot because that’s still the moment this show betrayed itself and it’s still making up for it with me. I’m not so far gone as a shipper that Fitz or Simmons kissing other people is what infuriates me. It’s not that Simmons was sucking face with some other guy, it’s the way the narrative was packaged and sold to us. It was false, forced, and fake (amongst other things) and it never for a single second addressed any of the psychological or emotional impacts of the situation. The whole thing erased Simmons’ character for the sake of melodrama. Fitz and Aida, by contrast, is kind of perfect. It’s extremely clear that Fitz is being manipulated and that there’s some messed up crap going on that he can’t navigate his way out of.
Fitz is literally brainwashed into this relationship and she’s using the immense force of his emotions to keep everyone trapped in this world for her own purposes. The entire world of the Framework is just an expression of her rage at being a slave. I’m also laughing a bit because “Ophelia” is like what you name your self-insert original character. This is basically Aida’s bad wish fulfillment fanfic. This series not only continues to hit all the character buttons right but it’s still hitting the bullseye on my favorite parts of robot story tropes and virtual realities and spy stories and basically everything. I’m enjoying the hell out of all of this but with the basic understanding that they’ll all come out of it eventually and it will have some serious mental and emotional consequences. The one thing I know I shouldn’t do is trust this show. That said, they haven’t whiffed once this entire season so I unwisely leave myself in their hands. And, I won’t lie, it’s kind of lovely that Simmons is in the position to save Fitz for once. I imagine that will come into play at some point. This whole situation is just gonna keep hurting.
What made the entire Fitz thing even more crushing is that every single other part about this episode I nailed. They found Radcliffe for help, Mack is trying to keep his head down and live his life, and most thrilling to me is that Jeffrey Mace is the leader of the resistance. All of those plotlines were brilliantly done. Mack’s daughter is too perfect to the point that it’s almost obvious she’s a construct generated explicitly to keep him docile. I loved May using Mack to get Skye to implicate herself as a member of the resistance. That tricked me into believing it too, and it was a beautiful impetus for Mack to seek out the resistance (and hence everyone else) in shame. Radcliffe, who I’ve loved dearly since his first appearance, gets in a spat with Simmons of all people and is still spouting his lines about trying to help people. Simmons, bless her, won’t hear any of it and insists that he’s a traitor and he needs to help her save everyone from his nightmare creation. To his credit, Radcliffe wholeheartedly agrees that the Framework is a disaster and that everything is awful.
All of that and I still was most giddy about Mace. He is the kind of upstanding, righteous character that should be infuriatingly annoying and yet he isn’t. In every universe, Mace is righteous but not self-righteous. Somehow, in a world without Coulson and with very different history, he’s still the “Inhuman” Director of SHIELD, and he’s decisive, compassionate, and commanding. In fact, he’s an infinitely better director in the Framework than he was in the real world simply because he’s actually director rather than a figurehead. I love him so much, oh god. I’m pretty sure I can say that about every single character in this entire show at the moment. All my regulars (including Ward!), Aida, Radcliffe, Mace—I love them all so much. All of the conflicts, the situations, the characters—everything is just so excellent this season that it’s unreal. I legitimately cannot handle it anymore on any level. It’s like the world’s biggest best apology for screwing up all of season 3.
Now, a brief pause to appreciate what a giant nerd Coulson is. Coulson has broken through the simulation and remembers fragments of his real life but is mostly grateful just for someone to believe him. Best of all is his combination of very Coulson-esque geek-outs about technology and heroes and his conspiracy theories about Hydra mind-control—all of which are basically true. The Captain America-style squee over “The Patriot” was probably my favorite, but it’s everything from “blue soap,” to loving the quinjets, and getting excited to be handcuffed and taken away with a bag over his head. The SHIELD password even calls back to Peggy Carter’s “I always carry an umbrella” in Captain America: The First Avenger.
I could just dump a tome on you about how much I love Grant Ward and also Simmons’ continuing distrust of him, but I feel like I’ve expounded enough upon how much I love absolutely everything. You probably get the gist. And Simmons’ having to beg Ward not to kill Fitz while at the same time confronting the fact that Fitz is a sadistic killer? Just leave me here; it’s fine. I’m okay with this being the place where I die. It always sounds disingenuous coming from me, but De Caestecker and Henstridge absolutely carry this show. Obviously, I love everyone else—I’ve said it enough—and god knows I love my FitzSimmons. But they got so good on the strength of their actors. You can watch them go from dorky comic relief to the emotional and narrative work-horses of the whole show over the course of the series. Can there be an award for “fifth and sixth billed but actually the engine driving the whole thing?”
One of the great strengths of this series has always been that it can emotionally devastate you without killing anyone off. I’ve always felt like that’s the show taking a jab at Joss Whedon whose schtick is to kill off people left and right. I’m a reformed Whedonite and what he is most responsible for killing is my ability to emotionally invest in the deaths of characters in anything, not just in the stuff he personally writes. Killing someone off always feels cheap and hacky now. By contrast, Agents of SHIELD continues to find ways to completely devastate me without even threatening to kill people. All you have to do is take away the most fundamental elements of peoples’ identities and force them all to deal with the consequences. In this particular instance it hits hardest because Fitz is the most consistent and has the most integrity over the course of the entire show. As we’ve known him, that makes him the sweetest, most genuine, caring creature you’re likely to find. Change one thing about his past and re-channel all of that emotion towards a different goal and you create an actual monstrous soul. That idea actually fits right into my entire thesis about how Fitz and Simmons are just on the edge of mad scientist but keep each other from falling into madness. Fitz usually is a proto- version of what I call “Mad Scientist Type B” which is that he’s too emotional which would cause him to do harmful, evil things using science in the name of love. Take Simmons away and that unbalances him to the point that he actually is an evil mad scientist. Oh god, I love it. I love it so much it hurts. Everything hurts.
There is not enough space to talk about everything I want to. We’d be here all day. I could go on about the perfect authoritarian craziness, about May and Fitz being ideal villains because they’re such ideal heroes—there is so much I could ramble about for hours on end. This whole episode. This whole storyline. Man. I just. I am not okay right now, but I’m also grinning from ear to ear, so I think that’s a good thing. Good thing or bad thing, I could bring attempted murder charges against this episode of television and have plenty of evidence to support my case. Please ignore the soggy, trembling heap in the corner. That is me.
Season 4, Episode 17 (S04E17)
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