[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 20. There will be SPOILERS.]
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 has been split up into three distinct storylines, or pods, with the first introducing magic/mysticism through Ghost Rider and the Darkhold. The second pod shifted focus to the more tech-based Life-Model Decoys, specifically Aida, but once she and Dr. Radcliffe got their hands on the Darkhold, they used it to help create the virtual reality called the Framework. Acting as a prison for a group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Daisy and Simmons entered the digital world in the spring finale and have been trying to escape with their friends ever since.
Last week's episode, 'All the Madame's Men' featured Simmons discovering what Aida/Madame Hydra has planned for the future of the Framework and her mysterious Project Looking Glass. With the help of the Framework version of Fitz and the Darkhold, Aida was able to design a machine that could create a human body, granting her free will since she wouldn't be hampered by Radcliffe's LMD programming. With the ability of free will, Aida would be able to kill the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents - so they must exit the Framework and escape Aida before she has a chance to do so.
In this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, 'Farewell, Cruel World!' -- written by Brent Fletcher and directed by Vincent Misiano -- Daisy and Simmons are racing against the clock to make sure they and all their fellow agents exit the Framework. However, though the virtual world is a dystopia in which Hydra defeated S.H.I.E.L.D., certain agents don't want to leave the fabricated reality behind. Plus, Aida moves forward with Project Looking Glass.
Exiting the Framework
The main storyline of 'Farewell, Cruel World!' -- as hinted at by the title itself - is Daisy and Simmons trying to exit the Framework through Radcliffe's back door, and make sure all of their friends make it out as well. Of course, with Coulson being the only one of the agents within the Framework who believes their world is fabricated, Daisy and Simmons have their work cut out for them in getting May and Mack to the back door - not to mention Fitz (more on that later).
This particular storyline provides a thrilling mission to ground the episode, with the stakes ratcheted up by the scenes depicting the quinjet on which Daisy and Simmons have plugged into the Framework. For the first time since the agents entered the Framework, viewers get a chance to see how Yo-Yo and Piper have dealt with them being gone. Through a montage, we learn that Daisy and Simmons have been in the Framework for 10 days and in that time the S.H.I.E.L.D. team in the real world has attempted to keep flying, shutting off various functions to maintain flight. However, when they shut off cloaking, Anton Ivanov's men are able to locate them. So, not only are the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the Framework racing against Aida gaining the ability of free will, they're also unknowingly racing against the quinjet being shot out of the sky.
However, not all the agents make it back from the Framework. Coulson is able to get through the back door despite a number of gunshots to his chest -- which prompts a reference to The Avengers with his line, "This feels oddly familiar." May, Simmons, and Fitz follow after Coulson, but when it comes to Mack's turn, Daisy winds up telling him that Hope died in the real world and he makes the decision to stay in the Framework. Although Daisy tries to explain it isn't real, and he knows it isn't real, Mack would still rather stay with the simulation of his daughter. It's an emotional moment that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has building toward for a good part of season 4, but it remains to be seen if it's truly the last we've seen of Mack.
The Framework storyline this season has offered fans a chance to see wholly different sides to certain characters. We got to see a version of Coulson that never joined S.H.I.E.L.D., a truly heroic Grant Ward, and - perhaps most interesting - an evil Fitz. Raised by his father Alistair (David O'Hara) rather than his mother, the Fitz of the Framework is a ruthless scientist who is one of the top leaders in Hydra alongside his girlfriend Ophelia/Madame Hydra.
Of course, Fitz's high-ranking position in Hydra makes it difficult for Daisy and Simmons to rescue him from the Framework by getting him to pass through the back door out of the simulated reality. As such, Daisy plans to leave Fitz behind and attempt to rescue him at a later time, once they've deal with Aida in reality. However, Simmons has no intention of leaving the man she loves behind, and she attempts to use his father to lure Fitz to the back door. Her plan goes sideways though when Alistair fights back and she accidentally kills him. So, she heads to the location of the back door with Daisy and the others.
In one last ditch effort to do the right thing, Radcliffe leads Fitz to the back door under the guise of betraying Daisy -- when in actuality he led Fitz there so that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents could force him through the back door and save him from his Framework persona. It's a nice moment for Radcliffe, and an honorable way for the character to go out. However, perhaps even more compelling is Fitz's reaction to returning to reality, in which he staggers under the weight of his guilt over his part in killing Jeffrey Mace. It's a truly heartbreaking scene in which both Iain de Caestecker and Clark Gregg excel, showing Fitz - the real Fitz - struggling to comprehend how he ever could have done such evil things in the Framework.
Before the scene concludes though, Aida walks into the room as Ophelia, having used the Project Looking Glass machine to build herself a human body. Fitz, who retains all his memories from the Framework, seems to still feel a connection to her and prevents May from killing Ophelia -- whether he does so on purpose or out of shock is unclear. Seeing the situation she's found herself in, Ophelia grabs Fitz and teleports out of the room.
"Aida Bleeds Just Like Us"
Beyond the majority of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents exiting the Framework, the biggest revelation of 'Farewell, Cruel World!' is Aida's success in creating a human body for herself. Without Radcliffe's programming holding her back, Aida now has free will to do whatever she likes. This week's episode doesn't reveal anything that Aida has planned, but her brief interaction with Fitz does point toward her retaining the personal attachments she programmed into her Framework avatar - specifically her love for Fitz. And, if his reaction to her is any indication, he has a similar connection to Ophelia because of his time in the Framework.
How exactly this particular story thread plays out remains to be seen. Since the agents retain their memories and feelings from the Framework, it would seem that Fitz has become a wild card in terms of his allegiance. Additionally, with Aida/Ophelia experiencing true emotions for the first time, she may not be quite as cold and calculating as the LMD we've seen for much of season 4. Plus, we still don't know exactly what Aida has planned for herself and those working for her once she gained a human body.
Of course, with only two episodes left in season 4, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will no doubt wrap up these loose threads soon enough. And, with Ghost Rider returning to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the finale, the final episodes of season 4 will bring all three storylines together for what's sure to be an explosive conclusion.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues Tuesday, May 9 with ‘The Return’ at 10pm on ABC.