SPOILERS for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ahead
As the third and final pod of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of the Framework - the Hydra-dominated virtual reality created by the nefarious Life Model Decoy Aida - the series is hitting unprecedented highs in its storytelling and its examination of his characters. Thrust into this twisted mirror universe, Agents Jemma Simmons and Daisy Johnson are continually confronted with alternate versions of their fellow Agents that are in many ways alarmingly changed. Moreso, they and the viewer must deal with compelling philosophical questions raised within the Framework, which is as real to the people living in it as the 'real world' is to Simmons and Daisy.
This week's episode "No Regrets" casts light on the personal regrets of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Framework's reality is built upon "correcting" the regrets of several of our heroes. For Mack, who lost his daughter Hope in her infancy in the real world, the Framework gives him a chance to be a loving father and role model to a bright and talented young girl. However, in the case of Melinda May, her deepest regret (which molded her into the stern but deeply caring fighter we know and love) is that she was unable to save a young Inhuman girl in Bahrain. In the Framework, May did save that girl, but that success directly led to the tragedy that became known as the Cambridge Incident, which is the flashpoint that allowed Hydra to rise, destroy S.H.I.E.L.D., and assume control of the world as the solution to humanity's fear of Inhumans.
REGRETS, THEY HAVE A FEW
Aida built the Framework around these and other regrets of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a form of manipulation and control. It's interesting, however, to question the nature of some of these regrets. In the real world, Mack mourns a daughter he lost through no fault of his own, yet this defined the man who he is. In the Framework, protecting his daughter is his first priority, so much that he betrayed Daisy - who is known as Skye and lacks her Inhuman powers in this reality - to Hydra. Regret over this is what leads Mack to seek out and join the Resistance made of the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their leader Jeffrey Mace, the Patriot.
While being held captive, tortured and interrogated, Skye is given an offer by Aida, who styled herself as the evil organization's leader Madame Hydra in the Framework. The promise of being able to be reunited with her dead Inhuman boyfriend Lincoln Campbell in the Framework is dangled in front of Skye (Lincoln sacrificed his life at the conclusion of season 3 to save the world from the Inhuman monster Hive). To paraphrase Fitz, nevertheless, Skye persisted in refusing to submit to Hydra, despite her regret of losing Lincoln.
Later, Skye's fellow prisoner Holden Radcliffe, who invented both Aida and the Framework, discussed the nature of their regrets. Radcliffe initially built the Framework as a way to keep the dying Agnes Kitsworth, the real woman whom Aida was built to resemble, alive, but Fitz murdered her in cold blood. In the Framework, if a real person plugged in dies within the virtual reality, the person dies in the real world as well. Radcliffe mourns how despite everything, he lost Agnes anyway, reminding Skye that in any reality, "One person in your life, one decision, one sentence" can completely change the course of your life and the type of person you are.
FITZ'S BIG REGRET
Murdering Agnes Kitsworth isn't Leopold Fitz's biggest regret. In the Framework, Fitz is the Doctor, the feared second-in-command of Hydra, and he's in a relationship with Aida/Madame Hydra. Unlike May, who was loyal to Hydra until this week when the heroic sacrifice of the Patriot triggered the latent aspect of the heroic 'real world's' May inside her, Fitz is fundamentally loyal to the cause and to Madame Hydra, whom he does love. Of all of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. transplanted from the 'real world', Fitz is both innately aware that 'another world' exists, and also the most steadfastly resolute in his commitment to the Framework's reality.
Aida's manipulation of Fitz stems from altering his history in a crucial way: instead of being raised by his loving mother, as he was in the 'real world,' the Fitz of the Framework was raised by his cold, authoritarian father Alistair Fitz, played by veteran character actor David O'Hara. Fitz's greatest regret in the 'real world' is that his father walked out on him and his mother when he was very young. Aida corrected this, and the result is a Leopold Fitz who reflects Alistair's beliefs and agrees with his father's "wisdom" that justifies committing atrocities in the name of the cause they serve: “In a hard world... we don’t buckle to guilt."
Fitz does struggle with whether he actually "needed" to kill Agnes, but when Fitz shows even the slightest flashes of the compassionate person we know from the 'real world,' his father accuses him of echoing the 'softness' of his mother and brings him to heel. When Fitz tells Alistair, "I don't know what kind of man I'd be without you, father," it brings an extra layer of heartbreak because the audience knows - and so does Simmons.
CAN FITZ BE REDEEMED?
In spite of everything, even witnessing Fitz murder Agnes with her own eyes, Simmons clings to her belief that this is an artificial version of Fitz. She insists to everyone she meets that everything in the Framework is merely a virtual reality construct and that the Fitz she knows would never be capable of the crimes the Doctor continually perpetrates. Simmons is resolute in her conviction, just as she dismisses the Framework's heroic version of Grant Ward as similarly artificial. As persuasive and even at times seductive as the Framework's reality can be, even to the viewers at home, Simmons continues to be the anchor to the reality she desperately wants herself and her friends to return to.
However, the Hydra Doctor version of Fitz has quickly emerged as arguably the most compelling villain in the history of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Because fans have followed and loved Fitz since season 1, when he was the young, naive genius who built little robots, loved sandwiches, and was charmingly and awkwardly infatuated with Simmons, this magnifies his impact as a villain. While the Doctor isn't the same Fitz we know and love, his actions in the Framework color our perception of him. The Doctor is no less devoted than 'our' Fitz, this time to the cause of Hydra and to a different woman, Aida. He's a product of both nature and nurture in the Framework's reality. Iain de Caestecker has grown as an actor as he evolved Fitz as a character; his current performance as the Doctor takes everything he's built in four seasons and brilliantly twists it into a version of Fitz we hardly recognize but fear might have been there all along.
What we have yet to find out, if the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are eventually able to escape the Framework, is how much of the lives they lived and the deeds they committed the characters will remember when back in the 'real world'? For a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which doesn't take the easy way out or spare their characters heartbreak and torment, the answer is likely to be everything, or at least enough to leave lasting scars.
The Framework's reality forces viewer to examine how their own lives and personalities could be different if even once simple thing had gone differently. For Fitz, the parent who raised him turned him into a completely different person. It's frighteningly possible the original version of Fitz is now gone, to be replaced by the memories and personalities of the Doctor even if the Agents escape the Framework. Even if that isn't the case and they are all 'themselves' again, Simmons will remember, as will Coulson and likely even Fitz himself, that Fitz committed a crime they all once considered unimaginable. The biggest question will be, is there a way to come back from that?
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues its 4th season @ 10pm on ABC.