[SPOILERS for those not caught up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ahead.]
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. resumed this week after a spring hiatus and kicked off its alternate reality arc in the Framework: a Matrix-like constructed digital reality that seeks to provide a more painless life for its guests. However, this fictional world appears more dystopian than utopian, as HYDRA police the population with an iron fist and Inhumans are routinely abused. With only Daisy and Simmons - and perhaps now Coulson - aware that they aren't in the 'real world', the race is on to re-assemble the S.H.I.E.L.D. team and escape the Framework.
The arc's opening episode revealed how the majority of the core S.H.I.E.L.D. team are living their new, fake lives; with Fitz seemingly second in command at HYDRA, May working under him alongside Ward and Skye, Jemma being a deceased S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and finally Coulson working as an anti-Inhuman school teacher. Conspicuous by his absence was Mack, who didn't seem to be present as an agent of either organization - although his fate was hinted at in the closing montage of 'Self Control'.
A new clip from next week's episode - 'Identity and Change' - provides some insight into exactly what kind of life digital Mack is leading in the Framework. The teaser shows the mechanic hand in hand with his daughter, seemingly taking her to school. Any notions of a happy existence for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s resident mechanic quickly evaporate however, when Mack and the citizens around him are subjected to an immediate stop and search as HYDRA continues to hunt down potential hidden Inhumans.
It should come as no surprise that Mack's life in the Framework - which supposedly removes an inhabitant's regrets - revolves around his daughter. In the real world, Mack's child tragically died, so to get another chance at raising her would naturally be the route for his Framework life to take. This could lead to some serious problems when the S.H.I.E.L.D. gang attempt to convince Mack that the life he's currently living isn't real.
The Agents of HYDRA/Framework arc is giving the show plenty of scope to play around and experiment with alternate versions of the audience's favorite characters. After four seasons on screen, it's refreshing to see the actors and actresses stretch their wings and play vastly different incarnations of their respective characters - and the villainous Leopold Fitz was a particular highlight in this week's offering, 'What If...'.
With that said, it's difficult to escape the nagging sensation that because of the nature of the Framework, very little that happens in these episodes is of any consequence. It was confirmed previously that dying in the Framework meant dying in real life so the stakes aren't completely lowered - but as Simmons herself alluded in the show's most recent episode, none of what we're seeing or the additional characters we're meeting are real. And as much as the HYDRA dystopia is disturbing, it's also not actually happening.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues with 'Identity and Change' April 11th on ABC.