Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 episode 16 review: What If…

A twisted alternate universe is revealed as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns and blows the roof off everything you know...

This review contains spoilers.

4.16 What If…

Well, we’re back, and it’s a very strange time in the history of Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD. On one hand, the series has never been stronger. Perhaps the best episode to date aired before the hiatus (and can we please stop with the freakin’ gaps between episodes, it’s almost as absurd as having Roman Reigns be the guy to retire Undertaker and yes, I’m still bitter). I mean, in the cliffhanger at the end of the last episode, we saw our agents enter the Matrix-like world of Doctor Radcliffe’s Framework.  I mean in that cliffhanger, we saw Coulson as a teacher, Mack as a father, May as a HYDRA agent, Fitz as a captain of industry, Simmons dead, and Daisy living in wedded bliss with Grant freakin’ Ward.

And with that we waited with bated breath as Agents Of SHIELD hit a historical high water mark. Yet with all that coolness, we still don’t know if Agents Of SHIELD is coming back for a fifth season. So with the giddiness of last episode and the uncertainty of the future, let’s check in with this week’s mirror universe episode of the MCU’s inaugural TV series.

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First off, this episode continues the superb quality of the latter part of the season. Finally, the show has taken advantage of four seasons’ worth of character-building to create an absolutely riveting adventure drama. The twisted nature of the Framework allows the showrunners to present a deep and hard look at all the major players and shuffle the hero and villain deck to create a tapestry that is truly shocking.

Let’s break down the Framework version of our agents. First we have the catalyst of it all, Gemma Simmons. Gemma wakes up within the Framework and finds herself in a mass grave and things just get more intense from there. As we saw last episode, Daisy wakes up in bed with Grant Ward, and I’m not sure who had a bigger shock — Daisy or the corpse-hugging Simmons.

Daisy and Simmons are the only SHIELD agents that journeyed into the Framework who remember the real world so they serve as the viewer’s guide to this brave new world. Gemma and Daisy are our heroes while Coulson serves as a tweener. He is a HYDRA loyalist who spreads their propaganda in his classroom. Oh yeah, did I mention that within the Framework HYDRA rules damn near everything? How did that happen, you ask? Well, the episode gives us a pretty darn personal reason for it all.

Remember that little Inhuman girl that Agent May killed in Bahrain? The little girl that made May into the stoic, no-nonsense, somewhat joyless fighting machine that we know and love? Yeah well, in the Framework, Agent May spares the girl’s life which turns out to be a huge mistake because that little Inhuman child goes on to commit mass murder. This allows HYDRA to become the opposition to the Inhumans and get handed a dystopic level of control. We learn all this from one of Coulson’s civic lessons as he informs his class that after the Inhuman incident, the good of the state became more important than the good of the individual and an Orwellian MCU is born with HYDRA as Big Brother.

But we have Daisy and Simmons as resistance to Big Brother. Unfortunately, we also have May and a very dashingly evil Fitz as HYDRA’s high command, and let’s just say right here that evil Fitz is horrifying. Fitz is a Doctor Mengele-like force who experiments and tortures Inhumans and it’s so hard to watch knowing the real gentle Fitz. But in the world of the Framework, Fitz doesn’t have Simmons to ground and inspire him so he has become a force of pure cruelty. Would the real Leo Fitz be this corrupt if he didn’t have Simmons? Contemplate that the next time you see Fitz and Simmons all lovey dovey.

So we have the evil of a May who regrets her one act of kindness and a Red Skull-like Fitz versus an on-the-run Daisy and Simmons. Coulson seems to feel something is not quite right in the world, but our heroes do have an ally other than the wavering Coulson. If there’s one thing you can count on in the world of Agents Of SHIELD, it’s that Grant Ward is a double agent, and indeed in the Framework, that’s exactly what he is. But in a world ruled by HYDRA, that means Ward is SHIELD. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Ward as hero, but in this world where HYDRA calls the shots, that’s what we have.

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We also have a very Marvel-centric debut this week of the classic Madame HYDRA character. But this Madame HYDRA should be very familiar to SHIELD viewers as it is revealed that Madame Hydra is none other than Aida! Now this can go a long way in explaining why the Framework is such a vile world, and it also can explain why Simmons and Daisy can’t use their emergency escape button to get out of HYDRAville.

So that’s the new reality as Agents Of SHIELD finally returns, and hey, there’s no hiatus pending. What a concept. In the meantime, we can honestly say that between this week and the last episode before the break, we have experienced the show’s finest hours.

Read Marc’s review of the previous episode, Self-Control, here.