Please excuse me if I start getting incoherent at any point in this review. The fourth season of AGENTS OF SHIELD so far is perfect to the point that my body can no longer handle my emotions about it. If I had a grievance, a thesis, an idea, or a love of any kind they’ve nailed it, not just over the course of this season, but in almost every episode individually as well. “Self Control” continues that trend. Long ago during the second season, I used to say two things hyperbolically: that eventually this show would put me in the hospital (check) and that at some point the only way I could properly write a review of it would be “in gifs and screams.” This is the ideal opportunity to fulfill that second promise:
I spent most of this week trying to figure out what the hell was happening in last week’s episode. Who was a robot and who wasn’t? Had one of them gotten snatched and it was all make believe? I legitimately could not decide. In fact, what really happened was so much better than any of my theories. I have a monstrous catalog of sci-fi cliches that I assume a TV show is going to whip out and wave around. One of the reasons I appreciate Agents of SHIELD so much is that, when it’s on its game, it acts like it’s gonna do the trite thing but subverts it at the last second. If you’ve got a bunch of robots wearing our favorite characters’ faces it’s cool for them to menace around but infinitely more interesting for there to be uncertainty about who is a robot and who isn’t. That’s fairly typical of robot replica stories, but! What makes it even better is who they chose for that uncertainty.
De Caestecker and Henstridge are far too good to not give them some crazy, emotional, psychologically fraught scenes to slay. They were so well-written too! I couldn’t tell up or down in any of them. If there is an opportunity for meaty, complex acting for those two never waste it. They both routinely steal the show from the rest of the cast. Plus, by the end, I’m pretty sure there’s still an evil robot version of Fitz running around and an entire squadron of Daisies set for “search and destroy.” Please, please give me all of this. I recall my “list of No-Nos” from the beginning of the season with some bemusement. Two of the very big no-nos would be to kill Fitz and/or Simmons for either ghostly or robot replacement purposes “to mess with the other one.” They’ve made Fitz both a ghost and a robot but its been amazing in both instances. The primary keys to why are that a.) they didn’t kill anybody for this; they’re all still here, b.) ghosting and roboting have happened to multiple characters at once which means that, golly gee, it’s part of the main plot therefore: c.) none of this is just for cheap manufactured drama. It’s all the main story. I love every second of it.
As a connoisseur of robot stories I would like to declare my immense adoration for this entire storyline. I’m extremely particular about robots, artificial intelligence, simulations, consciousness, brains—basically if I love it they’ve thrown it in the pot and stirred. The stew is all the more delightful to me because I already love these characters and this universe so much. I could scream about all of it for aeons, but I’ll focus on Aida in particular. First, the specific logic of her parameters is excellent. I’ve said it before, but Radcliffe should definitely not be making things that don’t adhere to Asimov’s Laws. Come on dude. Robotics 101. I love that this addressed how living as a copy (either in a simulation or as a robot) is in no way actual consciousness or sentience. Aida killing Radcliffe underscores that point, allows her to fulfill all of her directives, and switches the antagonist yet again. Simmons, in her perfectly rational way, has said from the beginning that copies of people aren’t those people and stuck to that even when confronted with a robot Fitz.
Finally, on the subject of robots, I need to scream from the rooftops about robot May. I’ve loved her from the first because turning May of all people into a robot is ideal. May is so practical and pragmatic that her robot copy would understand that she is neither autonomous nor “real” in a sense. She did, in the end, get to save the day which is what I wanted all along. The entire thread of May as a robot copy has strengthened her character immensely. It allowed her to confront issues of autonomy and personhood and removed just enough inhibitions that she could indulge desires that we never had a chance to see. I also loved how the “objective driven” versions of Fitz, Mack, Mace, and Coulson—the squishiest human beings possible—were hardcore killers. Like May said, if you take away the pain then you’re no longer yourself. You lose empathy and compassion. To bring it back around to Aida, she’s not only alone in charge of the Framework now (with the Russian Watchdog operating his robot body from his head inside a jar, be still my heart) but she’s expressed the desire to feel human emotions. That’s my last and favorite robot trope. Aida wants to be a real girl.
Guys, I need to talk about FitzSimmons’ love affair much more urgently than usual. All y’all know my feelings about romance stories in general and Fitz and Simmons in particular. One of the many things that makes them so delightful to me is that they eschew romantic convention altogether. That leaves a bit of a conundrum when it comes to traditional bits of fluff like, say, expressing the desire to get married. I’m 100% on board with that desire. The problem for me was how could they ever ask each other in a way that I’d find acceptable? Nothing sappy, drawn out, or direct would work for these two. Not to get them right. I’d tried to think through how they could do it and everything I came up with was too on-the-nose. A murderbot version of Fitz discussing actual-Fitz’s desire to get married, though? That’s perfect beyond my wildest dreams. It’s bizarre, it’s seriously messed up, and yet it’s still emotionally earnest and brilliantly in character for both of them. It also heads off the whole “something nice happens followed immediately by disaster” you usually get in serial television romances. Instead, something kind of screwed up happened and at its core was a gem of sweetness.
Simmons, in fact, was everything she should be in this episode. She was strong, intelligent, loving, and confused. For frickin’ once, she got to experience the emotional trauma that her circumstances would cause. She refused to believe robot Fitz was Fitz or that having a copy of yourself trapped in the Matrix would actually be living—all the perfectly rational checkboxes that I myself needed this particular plotline to tick. She trusted no one; she was incredibly disturbed by having to stab a robot version of Fitz to death and thrown by his genuine(ly copied) emotions. I even loved her complete breakdown when she said she couldn’t think without Fitz. Allowing her that moment of love, despair, and weakness for basically the first time ever in this show is a triumph in her portrayal.
Combined with that, there’s also her relationship with Daisy. What ho? I’m going to talk about Daisy, which I never do? Over the course of the series, Simmons and Daisy rarely get to interact despite apparently being best friends. The two of them allying alone against everyone, fighting their way out, and going off to rescue their team? I can’t even put words to how I feel about that. It couldn’t make me happier. Daisy kicked ass in this entire episode, from finding her copies to taking out all the robots. She’s cool, yeah, but she’s also useful now and has a ton of agency and plausible weaknesses. I love her so much right now. One final thing about escaping to save the world: that TAC team is made up of various background characters who have been in and out of this show since at least season 3. It was always the height of absurd that with Coulson in charge of the entire organization we never saw anyone aside from the main characters do anything. Really? The whole organization and there are only six or seven agents good enough for every single mission? The same faces showing up every now and then and having minor, logistical parts to play adds another satisfying bit of depth to the show’s world-building.
Now about that happy-go-lucky perfect universe simulation they’re all (mostly) living in. First and foremost my concern is what the hell happens to you if you enter a simulation where the version of you is already dead. (Or is she even dead? Did she even go into the Framework? Questions, questions?? Help???) Also of note (to me), by the math November of 2015 is when Simmons was brought back from that planet—year conspicuously omitted in the shot of that headstone. Now, Simmons aside, I am enamored with the application of the Butterfly Effect here. You change one small thing for each of them and the entire world is a wreck. More than that: if you change the one thing each of them regrets most they are all fundamentally the antithesis of who they are in life. Fitz is (I’m presuming) a rich playboy industrialist. Coulson teaches discriminatory lessons about Inhumans. May appears to be high up in frickin’ Hydra which (surprise!) runs the world in place of SHIELD. Mack has the cosiest one where (again presuming) his daughter is alive and well. We didn’t see Mace’s or Radcliffe’s. And, seriously, what/whose regret results in Jemma Simmons’ death in this place??? Do you expect me to sleep ever again when you fuel my mania with all of this? Ahem. I’m good. It’s cool. I’m good.
When you take away both your mistakes and all the things that cause you pain you end up with a world where all the sweetest, kindest creatures are supervillains instead. Will they get so tied up in perfect fantasy they never want to leave? I love these ideas, and I love that everyone is going to get to play in that sandbox. Even so, my favorite little fantasy is Daisy’s. Because! I have a long-standing love affair with Grant Ward. This season of Agents of SHIELD has systematically repaired everything that this show had messed up. On top of that, it’s endeavored to fulfill every shred of potential I always said it had. The one thing it didn’t have the opportunity to fix was Ward because Ward was no longer with us. If they can manage to make up for all the stupid, lazy, awful things they did with Ward’s character even just in a simulation—well, I was gonna say “I’ll cry so hard in happiness I’ll probably vomit” but they’ve got me incredibly close to that point already. I can’t actually feel more than this. I’m maxed out.
Before I go I have to mention that Jed Whedon wrote and directed this one. He used every single ounce of potential that this show, this cast, and these characters have. Mad kudos, Jed.
So, all the girls get to save the world, there’s a crazy alternate reality, and also possibly some murderbots on the loose. Let my Simmons be okay. Please do right by Ward. Those two specifics aside: give me all of this. I’ll see y’all back here April 4th.
Season 4, Episode 15 (S04E15)
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