NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” are present in this review
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fourth season is coming off a particularly strong ‘LMD’ arc in its past several episodes, and having taken all of March off, the show is finally returning in April with its third and final arc of Season Four, ‘Agents of HYDRA’. “What If…” began the ‘Agents of HYDRA’ arc with our first look at the twisted virtual world of the Framework this week, with the episode’s title also serving as a cute reference to Marvel Comics’ line of non-canon tangent storylines that explore what may have occurred if pivotal characters made different defining choices in the Marvel Universe.
Building on the idea that all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. characters’ pain has been taken away in this virtual world, Radcliffe has altered a few data parameters in an otherwise perfect simulation of real life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has resulted in the world of the Framework being a ghastly and unrecognizable cracked mirror to the real life recognized by Daisy and Simmons. In this alternate reality, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been eradicated, Inhumans are feared and hunted, and HYDRA now seems to have a totalitarian grip on the United States, with May and Fitz also being high-ranking HYDRA agents, plus Daisy’s avatar is also an enforcer within their ranks to boot. Oh, and worst of all, Daisy doesn’t have her powers in the Framework’s reality. Oh dear.
Not only is this a really clever way to return HYDRA to being an active threat on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., after they were seemingly wiped out of the MCU during Season Three (for however long that lasts), it’s also a clever way to resurrect Ward, with Brett Dalton returning to the series as the Framework-powered version of his fallen turncoat HYDRA bruiser. Daisy, who is now known as, “Skye” again in the Framework’s reality, has been in a romantic relationship with Ward for years, and both of them capture, interrogate and imprison Inhumans for HYDRA, with May overseeing their operations, and Fitz performing gruesome experiments on any captured Inhumans, to learn about their abilities without triggering them.
It’s very interesting and cool to see that, in erasing the pain of characters like May, Fitz and Coulson, the world has essentially become an inverse to actual reality. HYDRA has now taken the place of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the government, Coulson is now a teacher living a quiet life who spouts anti-Inhuman propaganda to his young students, and Fitz has had Simmons completely removed from his life, freeing him up to entirely focus on his experiments, however awful they are in this world. Yes, as that grave site teased, Simmons is indeed dead in this reality, with Simmons waking up to being buried in a shallow grave around the ruins of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. That’s not very pleasant for her, that’s for sure! Through Simmons, we see how much S.H.I.E.L.D. has become toxic in the public consciousness, as well as just how much of a steel grip HYDRA has in the Framework’s American society, since Simmons is constantly targeted and refused help, simply because she has a S.H.I.E.L.D. tag.
Through the capture of an alternate Vijay Nadeer, we also learn that there is an underground resistance dedicated to opposing HYDRA, somewhat referencing HYDRA growing within S.H.I.E.L.D. during the early years and decades of the MCU canon. Another cool twist of irony also occurs when Daisy and Simmons finally do meet up, after Simmons tries and fails to help Coulson remember who he was in the real world, with Ward holding them at gunpoint for a bit, only to then save them from pursuing HYDRA agents! Turns out, Ward is an undercover mole for the resistance, once again making him a double agent in this reality, only this time, he’s ironically a good guy masquerading as one of the bad guys! This is yet another really cool way to redefine Ward’s character, just when you thought that his transformation into Hive in the latter portion of last season represented the farthest that he could have reasonably gone in terms of character development. I guess that wasn’t true after all!
The biggest surprise was saved for last though, and it’s one that will definitely delight avid Marvel fans. When HYDRA learns of Simmons’ presence, and begins undertaking efforts to capture her, Fitz reports to the director of the organization, who is none other than Aida! Turns out, Aida has a huge degree of control in this reality too, as she was able to re-code the exit parameters so that Daisy and Simmons can’t use their beacon to escape, trapping them in the Framework indefinitely! Not only that, but Fitz addressing Aida as, “Madame” outs another awesome twist for the Framework’s reality; Aida is Madame HYDRA in the Framework, with Madame HYDRA being a recognizable Marvel Comics villain that, true to her name, is one of the leaders of HYDRA. This is a really neat touch that places the cherry on top of HYDRA’s spiritual return to the MCU (even a virtual version of it), if you don’t count the fact that the episode’s main events end with Fitz smooching Madame HYDRA, confirming that they’re in a romantic relationship in this reality. Well, that’s certainly going to be awkward for Simmons!
Things seem hopeless, though the episode’s epilogue ends with Daisy making contact with Coulson herself, and eventually successfully getting him to recognize her. The previous attempt to tamper with Coulson’s memories after his death in The Avengers might turn out to be an ace in the hole for our heroes, since Coulson’s false ‘Tahiti’ memories presented a hole in the Framework’s programmed memories that seems to have allowed them to come apart. Thus, we have a pretty fantastic start to the ‘Agents of HYDRA’ arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with, “What If…” continuing to have this show riding high with its superb fourth season. We’ll have to see if this initial intrigue and excitement with the Framework’s world can be sustained for the rest of the ‘Agents of HYDRA’ volume of the series, but so far, it’s looking like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be keeping on stronger than ever in its latest revision!
- Clever, ironic twist on the reality of the MCU
- Ward being outed as a hero in the Framework's reality
- Aida being redesigned as Madame HYDRA