[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 16. There will be SPOILERS.]
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 has been broken up into three distinctive "pods," each focused on a different overarching narrative. Season 4 kicked off with Ghost Rider, introducing Robbie Reyes as he allied with S.H.I.E.L.D. to defeat Eli Morrow and recover the Darkhold. Then, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shifted focus to Dr. Holden Radcliffe's Life-Model Decoys, or LMDs. He and the LMD Aida worked to steal the Darkhold from S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to create the Framework, a digital world in which May was imprisoned that evolved into an alternative reality where anyone can live forever.
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s last episode prior to a weeks-long hiatus, 'Self Control', Daisy and Simmons discovered many of their fellow agents had been imprisoned in the Framework along with May, and they decided to infiltrate the digital reality in order to save their friends. What they found, though, was a world ruled by Hydra, the villainous organization S.H.I.E.L.D. defeated back in season 3.
In 'What If...' -- directed by Oz Scott and written by DJ Doyle - Daisy and Simmons discover just how different the world of the Framework is from reality. Within this alternate reality, Hydra defeated S.H.I.E.L.D., rather than the other way around, and Inhumans are the enemy of the government. For her part, Daisy is thrown completely off balance when she learns her Framework self is dating Grant Ward and they're both agents of Hydra along with May. Elsewhere, Simmons wakes up in her own mysterious circumstances.
A Brave New Terrifying World
Much of 'What If...' follows Daisy and Simmons as they discover the alternate reality of the Framework - and many of the horrors it entails. Following up on the cliffhanger from 'Self Control', the fates of each S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that has been around since season 1 are revealed. May saved the Inhuman girl in Bahrain, which led to the rise of Hydra and her role in the organization; Daisy never learned her real name or that she's Inhuman and still goes by Skye; Simmons discovers she was murdered and it was covered up by Hydra; Fitz became a cruel Hydra agent simply referred to as the Doctor and who carries out experiments on Inhumans; and Coulson is a near-cowardly school teacher who defers to Hydra.
The process of Daisy and Simmons acquiring this information is frustrating at times, largely because the rules of the Framework haven't been clearly established. Were Coulson, Fitz, and May aware they were living in an alternate reality at first, but simply gave in as Daisy suggests, letting their true memories be buried? Or were they completely unaware of the real world from the moment they entered the Framework? Of course, the Framework draws on the sci-fi archetype of a technologically created reality (essentially, it's The Matrix). Although Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has so far set up a compelling world within the Framework, the digital reality itself will need to be further developed for this particular storyline to be successful.
That said, it's fascinating how differently Daisy and Simmons approach the problem of the Framework. While Daisy is quicker to try to blend in with the world around her, Simmons rebels against assimilating into the alternate reality - it shows how much more willing Daisy is to believe the world of the Framework, while Simmons simply dismisses it as the computer program she knows it to be. Both approaches will be integral to their mission to save their friends in the coming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. Hopefully the series will delve into the nitty gritty of the Framework itself as Daisy and Simmons uncover more about Radcliffe's digital world.
Additionally, 'What If...' includes standout performances from Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet, especially in their respective scenes with Clark Gregg's Coulson. Since the beginning of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson has acted as the patriarch of the show's makeshift family dynamic. Seeing a wholly different side to Coulson is compelling on its own, but Simmons' and especially Daisy's reaction to seeing the man he is within the Framework is heartbreaking, and lends an important emotional throughline to 'What If..."
Always the Double Agent
Of course, one of the biggest revelations in 'Self Control' was that Grant Ward is alive and well within the world of the Framework - and he and Skye are dating. Daisy's initial reaction to Ward, as she tries to get her bearings within the Framework, is understandably awkward since her relationship with him hadn't been friendly since season 1, when he revealed himself to be among the Hydra agents that had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. Now, not only are they dating in the Framework, but Daisy had asked him to move in with her.
However, even their relationship in the Framework isn't everything it seems, since Ward reveals himself to be a member of the Resistance, a secret organization working to subvert Hydra's authoritarian rule. As everyone else is the opposite of their real selves in the Framework, Ward is working on the side of good and has selflessly devoted himself to protecting Skye. In fact, he explains to Daisy and Simmons that he joined the Resistance after hiding Skye's Inhuman status from Hydra in a bid to protect her.
It's certainly compelling to see this different side to Ward, even as the threads of his core character are there within his Framework self. Brett Dalton has played a number of different versions of Ward throughout Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s four seasons - last being that of Hive, the ancient Inhuman that took over Ward's body after Coulson murdered him on Maveth - and the actor has taken it all in stride. Now with Ward on the right side for once, fans will get a chance to see him as the hero - albeit within a fictional reality where Daisy and Simmons won't let him forget that he's always the double agent, never the real hero.
Madame Hydra Makes Her Debut
Although her introduction within 'What If...' is brief, Mallory Jansen makes a compelling debut as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Madame Hydra, the director of the organization within the Framework. Based on her being able to eliminate the loophole through which Daisy and Simmons were going to escape the Framework, she's a self-aware part of the program that essentially acts as a prison guard. Given that Jansen, the actress who additionally portrays Aida, is the face of Madame Hydra, it's likely she's a part of the Framework that was created by Aida herself.
As an extension of Aida, Madame Hydra is seemingly poised to keep Daisy and Simmons trapped within the Framework and those S.H.I.E.L.D. agents unaware they're living in a fictional reality from finding out the truth. This explains why Fitz is the second-in-command of Hydra. Aida would believe him to be her most formidable foe, so Madame Hydra keeps him close - a little too close for Simmons' comfort once she finds out about Fitz and Madame Hydra's relationship.
All in all, 'What If...' kicks off an exciting new pod in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, even as it spends much of the hour devoted to expository explanation of the Framework's alternate reality. Still, the Framework is an expansive world that capitalizes on the four years of history established on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to create an entirely new story rooted in the show's own canon. It's a fun treat for fans that have stuck with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., one that keeps up the new levels of quality storytelling the series has reached throughout season 4.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues Tuesday April 11 with 'Identity and Change' at 10pm on ABC.