[SPOILERS for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 15 'Self Control' ahead.]
So far in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, the series has tackled two vastly different subjects. First, Robbie Reyes, aka Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna), took center stage, only for the focus to shift to Dr. Holden Radcliffe's (John Hannah) Life Model Decoys once the Spirit of Vengeance disappeared -- with The Darkhold acting as a connective aspect tying everything together. Now, we knew Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was gearing up to tackle a third story arc, called "pods" by those close to production; we knew this week's episode, 'Self Control', would officially conclude the LMD storyline.
Of course, up until 'Self Control' aired, fans speculated what the third pod could encompass, with only Daisy Johnson actress Chloe Bennet offering any kind of hint when she said it would reward "fans that have been watching from day one." Now that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s latest episode has aired, we have some idea of what to expect when the show returns for the final pod of season 4.
'Self Control' concluded with Daisy and Jemma Simmons entering The Framework -- an entirely digital world created by Radcliffe and his LMD, Aida -- in order to save their friends who were trapped within it. We've seen teases of The Framework as Radcliffe constructed it, but this is the longest look inside we've gotten since he seemingly finished construction on it. Now, we break down and analyze the Framework cliffhanger featured in 'Self Control' and speculate what it means going forward. Something to keep in mind before we dive in, though: Aida says in 'Self Control' that she "fixed" a regret for each of the agents in the simulation, which leads to "changes" within the world.
Daisy's Framework vision is the first of the bunch as she wakes up in the bathtub of what we can presume is her apartment. She receives a text message from an unknown source, though it seems to be a coworker or boss, reading, "Wake up your boyfriend, we're being called in." Now, it's unclear whether Daisy is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent -- or even if she goes by Daisy (she is shown with long hair, after all, which she hasn't had since abandoning her old name of Skye). All we can glean from this message is that Daisy has a boyfriend and they work together, but it's unclear at first who she's dating.
Of course, Daisy's first thought is that her boyfriend from season 3, Lincoln Campbell (Luke Mitchell), is alive and well within the simulation. Daisy and Simmons didn't know going into the Framework that Aida had constructed a world in which she fixed a regret each agent held onto, but Lincoln's death has certainly weighed on Daisy throughout season 4. So, it's fair for Daisy, and the viewers, to think he's returned as well. But, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulls the rug out from under viewers -- and Daisy, though we don't get a chance to see her reaction -- since her boyfriend in the Framework is actually Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was revealed to be an undercover Hydra operative in season 1.
Does that mean the regret that Aida fixed for Daisy is her non-starter relationship with Ward from season 1? The pair were about to pursue a relationship when she discovered him to be a Hydra agent and they were enemies thereafter. Based on what we know about Hydra in The Framework (more on that later), the simulation's version of Daisy could have shifted her alliances from S.H.I.E.L.D. to Hydra because of Ward during that pivotal time in season 1. It would have allowed for them to pursue a relationship and prevent Daisy from meeting Lincoln -- thereby preventing his death in sacrificing himself to destroy the Hive-infested Ward at the end of season 3. This would also mean Daisy never became an Inhuman, making it likely she still goes by Skye within the Framework.
Earlier in 'Self Control', the LMD version of Coulson has a conversation with LMD-May about their lives and he comments that he sometimes regrets joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. Although it may not seem to be an important line upon first listen, it foreshadows Coulson's life within The Framework since he is depicted at the front of a high school classroom as a teacher. As the camera pans closer, he writes on the chalkboard, "Inhumans, why we fear them."
Now, we can assume that the regret Aida fixed for Coulson was him becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent because of the character's earlier foreshadowing. Since he didn't become an agent, it seems he became a teacher. Even more than that, it means the Framework's version of Coulson is more like the character viewers saw in the flashback sequences from 'The Man Behind the Shield' -- someone not as well equipped for S.H.I.E.L.D. operations as the man we've seen in season 4. It also means he likely never met any of his fellow team members, unless they crossed paths somehow outside of S.H.I.E.L.D.
But, on a larger scale, Coulson's particular lesson in what appears to be a public high school offers a great deal of insight into how Inhumans are seen in the world of the Framework. If a lesson is being taught in a public school, it has to have been sanctioned by the government (at the very least by the state government, though it may also be part of curriculums country-wide). That means Inhumans are not only known to the public, but are an enemy of the government -- why would schools need to educate students on the reasons Inhumans should be feared if they were not an enemy? So, we can deduce that the U.S. government, likely at the behest of the Framework's version of S.H.I.E.L.D. (again, more on that later), has declared war on Inhumans.
Of all the glimpses at each character's life within the Framework, Mack's is the most straightforward. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first introduced the idea of Mack's daughter, Hope, earlier in season 4 when the Spirit of Vengeance left Robbie to inhabit Mack. Later, when Mack started acting like he was hiding something from Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) she insisted he tell her what was going on. In turn, he revealed the story of his daughter who was born in 2006 and lived for four days before passing away; he had been acting distant with Yo-Yo because he spent Hope's birthday with the mother of his child, his ex Nicole, who continued to struggle with her grief.
Now within the Framework, Mack is shown outside of what is presumably his house, moving a child's purple bicycle out of the driveway. Based on this scene, it's clear Hope is alive within the simulation. Given what we know from his story, Hope would be 11 in 2017 and Mack would still be with Nicole -- since he said their relationship began falling apart after Hope's death. So, if Mack is still with Nicole, he would never have been with Yo-Yo.
Of course, it's unclear from this brief scene how much about the rest of Mack's life has been changed because Hope is still alive. Is he still a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent? How Mack became an agent hasn't been revealed on the series yet, though we know he was working aboard a ship during Hydra's attempted takeover of the organization. However, considering how long ago Hope died, it's possible his becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent had something to do with his grieving process -- meaning he may not be a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the simulation. Rather, he may be a civilian mechanic.
Perhaps the hardest Framework vision to interpret from the closing sequence of 'Self Control' is Fitz's. He is shown getting out of an expensive car -- in what might be a foreign country, though there's too little to go on (and the car's license plate is too blurry to offer much help) -- with what appears to be two privately hired security guards. Additionally, he is dressed expensively and turns to help someone out of the car.
This person's face is not shown, just their hand; while viewers may assume it belongs to Simmons, given the fake-out with Daisy's Framework boyfriend being Ward instead of Lincoln, that may be too simple an answer. For the most part, it seems the regrets Aida fixed for each of the agents are from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1 or earlier in their lives. Since there aren't any clues, it's unclear what Aida changed in Fitz's life that he became someone of wealth rather than a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.
Of course, it's also possible Fitz is on an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. mission, and the person in the car is a fellow agent. But Iain de Caestecker's portrayal of Fitz in this scene, albeit brief, suggests a swagger and confidence the character hasn't exhibited in the show thus far. Given Fitz's struggles in undercover work in past episodes, it seems unlikely he'd have that much confidence on a mission. So, if he's not undercover, it figures the expensive car and clothes are his -- which prompts the question of how and why he has those things.
While it's clear that all of the glimpses into the Framework are only showing a piece of the picture that fans can expect from the simulation once Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns, perhaps the most misleading is Simmons'. Although her gravestone is clearly shown in a brief, zooming in shot, it's unlikely she's dead. Prior to entering the Framework, Daisy said she had located the avatars of herself and Simmons. Certainly, Daisy could have been wrong and Simmons will wake up in the Framework as someone else -- or, Simmons could wake up buried beneath her gravestone (which would be exceptionally morbid, but not out of the realm of possibility).
Perhaps the biggest argument for the fact that Simmons isn't dead within the Framework is that the simulation is meant to keep each of the agents at peace while they're inside so that the LMD versions of themselves can go about their business. That said, earlier 'Self Control' LMD-Fitz attempted to map Simmons brain and she escaped before he could do so. Maybe she doesn't exist within the Framework because Aida had no opportunity to create an existence for her without the map of her brain. Instead, Aida created a world in which Simmons died to prevent complications.
As for the gravestone itself, the date of Simmons' death is purposely obscured, though it seems to read "8 November" of a year within the 2000s. If we follow the clues from the other glimpses of the Framework that reference the first season, it's possible she died during the season 1 episode 'FZZT' (which originally aired November 5, 2013 in the U.S.). In fact, 'FZZT' did feature Simmons almost die from an alien virus -- though she was saved at the last moment by Agent Ward and Fitz's antidote. Perhaps whatever was changed in the pasts of Ward and Fitz impacted Simmons' brush with death, resulting in her not being saved.
Still, that leaves the question of where -- and in whose body -- Simmons will wake up in the Framework. Perhaps the gravestone is a complete misdirection and the death of the version of herself within the Framework was faked while she went on to take on a new identity or work her way deeper into the organization of S.H.I.E.L.D.
May's Role in Hydra
The most striking of the glimpses inside the Framework is the final one of the episode, which depicts Agent May standing in an elevator of a building that is revealed to be the Triskelion -- but not the Triskelion destroyed by Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This building that served as the main headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D. before Captain America rooted out the Hydra infiltration is safe and sound with the Hydra insignia plastered on the front. It's unclear what happened within The Framework that leads to this point, but it is clear that Hydra successfully took over S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and, presumably, Captain America failed in his mission from The Winter Soldier.
Of course, it's unclear how or why May stayed within S.H.I.E.L.D. after the Hydra takeover. Perhaps she became a Hydra agent prior to the reveal that the villainous organization had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., or she simply went along with new management. Plus, though it remains to be seen if May's trajectory within S.H.I.E.L.D. was impacted by Coulson not joining up, it's likely they're related considering how long the two had been friends.
As for what regret of May's Aida fixed, that was revealed in an earlier episode this season: Aida altered May's history during the incident in Bahrain so that she was able to save the young girl, Katya. However, as that mission played out in reality, May killed Katya because the girl was an Inhuman who could manipulate the senses of others and used the ability to kill a lot of people - which is why May made the choice to kill Katya instead. Perhaps May not killing Katya, instead saving the girl and taking her out of Bahrain, is what helps Hydra takeover S.H.I.E.L.D. and sends May down the path of becoming a Hydra agent.
All in all, these glimpses at the Framework purposefully don't give viewers a full idea of what to expect when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 returns for its third pod. We don't even get to see Mace's life in the Framework. Certainly, there are a lot of major differences between reality and the Framework -- not the least of which being Hydra having taken control of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- but it's also clear the next pod will heavily reference season 1 (as well as other seasons). So, based on what we can decipher from these scenes, it's clear that this next arc will incorporate a number of aspects from both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mythology and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will be a treat for long time fans of the show and the MCU.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 continues later this year on ABC.