[This is a review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, episode 17. There will be SPOILERS.]
After dealing with Ghost Rider and Dr. Holden Radcliffe's Life-Model Decoys, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shifted its focus one more time before the conclusion of season 4. In the final episode before ABC's Marvel TV series took a spring hiatus, 'Self Control', Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. saw Daisy Johnson and Jemma Simmons head into Radcliffe's simulated reality, called the Framework, in an effort to locate their friends/fellow agents and learn where they were being held by the LMD Aida.
However, what they found in the Framework during last week's episode, 'What If...', is a world wholly unlike the reality they left behind. Rather than S.H.I.E.L.D. defeating Hydra after the rogue organization had been weakened by Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Framework world is ruled by Madame Hydra and her anti-Inhuman authoritarian rule. Additionally, Daisy learned her Framework self still goes by Skye, never underwent Terrigenesis to become a powered Inhuman, and -- perhaps worst of all -- is in a romantic relationship with Grant Ward (guest star Brett Dalton), who is a member of the Resistance attempting to undermine Hydra.
In this week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 'Identity and Change' -- written by George Kitson and directed by Garry A. Brown -- Simmons makes contact with the Resistance leader, Jeffrey Mace, aka the Patriot, and attempts to find a way out of the Framework by contacting Radcliffe. Meanwhile, Daisy discovers Mack within the Framework, but is betrayed and captured by Hydra.
Meet the Resistance
In their next bid to escape the Framework, Simmons and Daisy attempt to locate Radcliffe within the fabricated world, but to do so Daisy has to go back into Hydra. Simmons meanwhile brings Coulson with her to meet with the Resistance after being vouched for by Ward. The Resistance is led by Mace out of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, the location of which he reveals was given to him by the Framework's version of Billy Koenig. Aside from Agent Burrows - Mace's second in command both in reality and the Framework - the Resistance is largely made up of unknown soldiers.
Even though the Resistance is lead by a familiar face, Simmons struggles with trusting both Mace and Ward, refusing to tell them the real reason she's looking for Radcliffe. Still, Ward volunteers to pilot a Quinjet and fly Simmons and Coulson - who believed Daisy's explanation of the Framework - to confront Radcliffe about a way out of the alternate reality. However, while Radcliffe is fully aware that he's trapped inside the Framework, he reveals Aida killed him and he's unable to help Simmons escape, though he does divulge where he and Aida had been holding the bodies of Coulson, Fitz, Mack and Mace in the real world.
Although this particularly storyline is more devoted to moving the plot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 forward, it also introduces an incredibly emotional throughline for the Framework arc in Simmons and Fitz's relationship. As revealed in last week's episode, Fitz is Madame Hydra's second in command, as well as her romantic interest, and he's known throughout the villainous organization as the psychopathic Doctor who tortures Inhumans seemingly for fun. While Simmons believes there's still good in Fitz - and, in fact, the episode works to build that belief among viewers - he proves himself to be wholly loyal to Madame Hydra, killing an innocent woman and betraying everything Simmons knows about him. It's a gut-wrenchingly emotional scene that confirms Fitz as a major antagonist in this particular Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arc, a distinctly new dynamic for the character.
Daisy Faces Hydra’s Wrath
While Simmons, Coulson, and Ward track down Radcliffe, Daisy returns to Hydra with the intention of getting in and out as quickly as possible - a plan that is rather quickly thwarted by May. Daisy, who struggled to assimilate into Hydra even during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first full episode within the Framework, doesn't do a much better job playing the part of a ruthless Hydra agent. May however is ruthless enough for both of them - making the scene in which May's Hydra team, which includes Daisy, breaks down the door of Mack's home and take both him and his daughter Hope into custody incredibly difficult to watch.
May subsequently uses Mack to lay a trap for Daisy - making a deal with him to get Daisy to admit she's a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on a hidden microphone. He does this by calling her by her true full name and recalling information it would seem he'd only know if he had his memories of reality, but it's quickly revealed he was fed the info by May. However, that prompts the question of where May gathered this information. Was it given to her by Madame Hydra (the only one within the Framework working against Daisy who has full knowledge of reality)? Or did she come across this information some other way?
No matter how May learned the truth about Daisy, she used it to set a trap and Daisy fell right into it. 'Identity and Change' then delivers another one of the show's fantastic fight sequences as Daisy attempts to battle her way out of the Hydra Triskelion, but without her powers she isn't able to overpower May's forces. After being brutalized by the Hydra agents, she's given over to Fitz, who reveals her to be a potential Inhuman. Though Daisy tries to reason with him, he isn't the same Fitz she knows on the outside - and he'll prove as much to her next week...
Madame Hydra’s Endgame
Mallory Jensen has excellently moved between characters in season 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - much like Brett Dalton before her - and her new turn as the human villain that is Madame Hydra is perhaps her most entertaining persona so far. Though it's unclear how much Aida was affected by reading the Darkhold earlier in season 4, it did create somewhat of a carte blanche opportunity for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to pursue a storyline in which Aida manipulates the Framework world to her benefit and enjoyment (like, for instance, making Fitz her desperately loyal romantic interest).
However, though much of 'Identity and Change' sees Madame Hydra trying to clean up the mess created by Daisy and Simmons infiltrating the fabricated reality, viewers also get hints of what she has planned for the outside world. Project Looking Glass was briefly mentioned in 'What If...' but Madame Hydra hints at its intent during 'Identity and Change'. She has enlisted Fitz in creating a way for those from the Framework to cross over into reality, hence the hint to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Of course, with Daisy and Simmons trapped in the Framework since Aida eliminated their way out, Hydra's "looking glass" may be their only escape - and may lead to the climactic battle of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4.
That said, how the Framework storyline plays out remains to be seen. Certainly, it's been a fresh and entertaining twist on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology - and that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole - to see the world in such a different way. But with only a handful of episodes left before the season 4 finale, the show will likely start gearing up for a final battle in the upcoming episodes.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues Tuesday April 18 with ‘No Regrets’ at 10pm on ABC.