SPOILERS for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 16 ‘What If...’ ahead.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 resumed with 'What If...' this week, revealing how The Cambridge Incident affected the world of the Framework and paved the way for Hydra's new world order. The fourth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been broken down into three distinctive "pods" each focused on their own storyline, kicking off with Ghost Rider and leading into Life-Model Decoys or LMDs. Prior to a weeks-long hiatus, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. left off with 'Self Control', which ended when Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) entered Dr. Holden Radcliffe's (John Hannah) digital reality. The Framework cliffhanger at the end of 'Self Control' teased a whole new world - one led by the villainous organization Hydra that S.H.I.E.L.D. defeated in season 3.
The marketing for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4's third pod has rewritten history to include Hydra's rise to power, unveiling posters from past seasons with a focus on the rogue organization. Still, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never quite explained how Hydra managed to defeat S.H.I.E.L.D. - when in the real continuity, Hydra was weakened during their uprising instigated by the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. However, the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to take place entirely in the Framework features an alternative history lesson that offers insight into the mysterious Cambridge Incident.
In this week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 'What If...', Daisy and Simmons wake up in their avatars within the Framework and are forced to get their bearings in order to survive. Along the way, they discover the world has been taken over by Hydra and Inhumans are public enemy #1, registered with the government and subject to testing at any time. Both Daisy and Simmons confront Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whose Framework persona is a timid schoolteacher under the thumb of Hydra. It's during one of Coulson's lessons that viewers get their best idea of what happened during the Cambridge Incident.
May's Bahrain Mission
To understand the Cambridge Incident, we need to dive back into the history as established on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., specifically pertaining to Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen). Radcliffe initially began building the Framework as a way to imprison May in her mind while the LMD version of the agent could carry out the scientist's plans earlier in season 4. However, after a few failed attempts - one involving a spa and another a course in which she battled Aida (Mallory Jansen) - Radcliffe realized the only way to keep May from figuring out she was trapped within a digital reality was to make it so she wanted to stay there, by correcting her biggest regret.
It was revealed during an earlier episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 what May's biggest regret was, though fans of the series likely guessed it beforehand. Radcliffe created a digital world that mimicked reality in every way, except May never killed the Inhuman girl during her mission in Bahrain where she earned the nickname, The Cavalry. As a refresher, the incident in Bahrain took place in 2008, prior to the events of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and were told through flashback during season 2.
The incident was a mission led by Coulson and May where they were tracking the Inhuman Eva Belyakov (though they didn't know her to be Inhuman yet) and her daughter Katya. Eva had triggered Terrigenesis in Katya and the young girl displayed the power to control humans around her. With no mental preparation for Terrigenesis - and having displayed signs of psychopathic schizophrenia prior to the process - the change caused Katya to go insane. In order to save her team, May killed Katya, but the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was forever scarred by the guilt of murdering a child, no matter how many lives it saved.
However, within the world of the Framework, May didn't kill Katya in Bahrain.
The Cambridge Incident
In 'What If...', we see Daisy and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) interrogating an Inhuman suspect viewers know to be Vijay Nadeer (Manish Dayal), with their actions being overseen by May, who is a high-ranking Hydra operative. When Daisy and Ward don't get any results, May enters the interrogation room and Vijay says that all Inhumans know of Agent Melinda May, and they blame her for the way Inhumans are policed and monitored by Hydra. He says, "All Inhumans know you - Bahrain. It’s funny because the world blames Inhumans for what happened, but it was you that got it wrong."
Just prior to this scene, viewers saw Coulson leading a lesson about Hydra's rise to power, specifically Hydra's authoritarian rule over the United States. He doesn't go into specifics about the Cambridge Incident, rather, he simply reveals Katya was brought to the U.S. by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a refugee, placed into a school classroom, and "the rest is history." Coulson's lesson largely acts as propaganda for Hydra, teaching his students to rely on Hydra for truth rather than the "untruths" of Inhumans - which is likely why he glosses over the events of the Cambridge Incident itself.
Based on what we know about Katya, we can presume she used her powers to control and kill a number of people in Cambridge. After being driven insane by Terrigenesis, she wouldn't have had the capacity to assimilate into society, but she was an exception to the rule of Inhumans. Still, the Cambridge Incident must have been big enough to rock the country's foundation and inspire enough fear for Hydra to be able to use it to step out of the shadows of S.H.I.E.L.D. and rise to power. Additionally, since Coulson refers to the event as simply "The Incident", a title that has often been given to The Avengers' Battle of New York, it's possible the Cambridge Incident is on a similar level of destruction - and, since this would have been before The Avengers took place, those events may have never happened.
Still, what may be more important is the effect the Cambridge Incident had on the world of the Framework.
Hydra's New World Order
Coulson's lesson in 'What If...' focuses less on the Cambridge Incident itself and more on what happened after: "When no one would tell us the truth, Hydra stepped forward. They brought us law and order, purpose. They galvanized us for the good of the state over the individual interests." He reveals that under Hydra's authoritarian rule - prioritizing the state over the individual - the government controls the media, meaning they control what information is disseminated to the citizens of the country. As a result, everyone is taught to fear Inhumans, and with that fear, Hydra gains more and more power - explaining how the world of the Framework came to be.
Of course, even in 'What If...' there are signs of a resistance to Hydra's rule, namely Grant Ward's inclusion in the subversive movement and mentions of it from various Hydra agents. As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. develops the Resistance, which we know the season will based on the synopsis for 'Identity and Change', we may learn more about the roots of their movement and the real truth of the Cambridge Incident.
In the end, the actual events of the Cambridge Incident may not be revealed on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. beyond what we learn in 'What If...'. Though, if Hydra was involved in the incident - which may be the case, explaining why Coulson glosses over it in his lesson - there is a strong possibility the series will dive deeper into the event in later episodes. But, that remains to be seen as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues with its Hydra-focused pod taking place within the Framework.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues Tuesday April 11 with 'Identity and Change' at 10pm on ABC.