Agents of SHIELD has been on fire this fourth season, which I shall SPOIL for you. One of its strengths has been splitting its narrative into discrete yet interlocking thirds to keep the momentum wound tight. I’ve complained that the show feels like the MCU’s redheaded stepchild, but ironically this season may be its strongest for having the least direct interconnectivity with Marvel’s movies. The series has built itself up enough that it can now stand on its own.
Remember when Captain America: The Winter Soldier excitingly set-up HYDRA as a major force of modern day villainy? Then how disappointing, albeit believable, it was that the Avengers flattened them out like tortillas under a steamroller in the prologue to Avengers: Age of Ultron? Then recall how HYDRA’s leftovers were somehow even more pathetic in the third season of Agents of SHIELD? Well the Framework’s VR simulation has HYDRA back to being a formidable foe. Not only is this a clever way to reintroduce HYDRA without rolling back the MCU’s stance that it’s been utterly destroyed for real this time, having them in charge feels eerily topical. The HYDRA propaganda posters are a nice touch. I love how the start this arc was named “What If…?” just like the comic series. This is the closest the MCU has come to doing an alternate reality since they’re not ready to dip their toes into an official multiverse like The Flash. It had plenty of callbacks to past seasons including a Bill Paxton tribute. Quit teasing us about Griffin!
Remember when I asked them not to make AIDA evil or seduce Fitz? Well the writers did both! Thankfully it’s executed much more deftly than I’d feared. Then this LMD 3-D prints herself a real human body to acquire free will & unsimulated sensations. She wisely gave herself all the inhuman powers because not only is she Madame HYDRA (unlike AIDA, it’s not actually an acronym), she’s also Super-Adaptoid! After being repressed all season, Mallory Jansen let out all the emotions like a fire hydrant! She honestly deserves an Emmy for doing the most acting!
AIDA as Ophelia as Madame Hydra may be the show’s first costumed supervillain. (That’s kind of sad, albeit less so than giving that honor to Deathlok.) Just like Dr. Strange’s training outfit, her shirt has weird elbow gaps before the cuffs. She even wears a cape in one scene like Veronica Lodge! While far superior to Polaris’s hair in the generic The Gifted, it’s too bad they didn’t dye her hair completely green like
Fire Green Fury on Powerless. (Please get Natalie Morales to reprise that role on a CW show!) Sadly the color grading makes her outfit look practically gray most of the time. Of course she’s also not really Viper as Madame Hydra, but she’s closer than The Wolverine’s version. Whatever her name is, she’s one of the most compelling foes in the MCU.
Ophelia is disingenuous when she tells Fitz that the Framework being the MCU equivalent of The Man In The High Castle (the man was remorseful Dr. Radcliffe on a secluded isle) isn’t her fault. You can’t make yourself the leader of a fascist dystopia you programmed via sorcery & then disclaim responsibility. It’s especially telling that Ophelia had pre-programmed Quake’s role in The Framework as a HYDRA agent in a relationship with
The Worst Ward, whereas Jemmacide Jemma wound up in a mass grave so she wouldn’t have any competition for Fitz.
I love how Jemma has zero patience for pretending the Framework-generated simulations are real people. Unlike Marvel Comics, she has no hesitation in calling out Hydra as Nazis. As someone who’d been undercover in their ranks, she is qualified to make this statement. (This approach is much better than last season’s clumsy retcon that HYDRA was always an ancient Inhuman worshiping cult that merely co-opted by Nazis.) Jemmacide gets to accidentally kill Fitz’s digitized dastardly dad too.
So I guess we need a digression on the subject of HYDRA, especially because of the Secret Empire crossover event running concurrently. Marvel Comics introduced HYDRA as a stand in for Nazis in a post-WWII sci-fi universe. Its first origin from 1967 is that it was assembled from international Axis war criminals by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. It uses Jim Steranko’s SPECTRE-ish logo so the comics cold still be sold in countries where the Hakenkreuz is prohibited & for merchandising. Regardless of whatever alien-adjacent secret origins were tacked onto it in 2009, its modern day leaders have been affiliated with the Nazi regime. Even if the “original” HYDRA secret society infiltrated the Nazis to advance its own agenda, Marvel just can’t magically sever HYDRA from its Nazi ties by tossing in a convoluted story blaming aliens. Claiming the MCU unfairly besmirched the terrorist group’s good name by linking it with Nazis is poppycock! Revisionist Marvel Comics claiming that “real” HYDRA didn’t like Hitler doesn’t change that fact that they’re elitist bastards perpetrating atrocities inspired by Social Darwinism to conquer the world. Way to keep the moral high-ground, HYDRA! While nobody can actually be a genuine Nazi anymore because Germany’s Nazi government has been overthrown along with Mussolini’s Italy & Hirohoto’s Japan, it’s a distinction without a difference. HYDRA are still totalitarian fascists with similar iconography that support ethnic cleansing among other human rights violations. When Marvel Comics says Captain America is just HYDRA not a Nazi, it sounds like semantic nitpicking at best & Nazi apologism at worst.
Time dilation means Quake & Jemma spent ten real life days in The Framework when they only experience about three? I liked how Ophelia moved the Framework’s exit portal inside a vat of molten steel & how Quake was able to get to it via her powers. Quake could’ve just told Mack his daughter was fine, but she had to insist on honesty for maximum drama! She didn’t want to save his life at the cost of their friendship. (If someone who doesn’t exist in the real world anymore jumped through the portal without having a body printed, would they have wound up inside Mack’s body by default?) So it’s up to Yo-Yo to rescue him at a most inopportune time.
I’ve critiqued SHIELD in the past for often acting shady, but making them the resitance to HYDRA has allowed them to be unambiguously heroic. Phil Coulson’s speech was his most inspiring moment. Although this arc must’ve been plotted out months in advance, its dialogue gets bonus points for the correct usage of “fake news.” Even the Patriot fulfills his redemption arc by going out a big damn hero in the Framework during an inversion of his celebrity-making PR hoax.
This “Agents of HYDRA” arc feels like a better version of Secret Empire with Fitz substituting for Captain America. First off, it’s set up in an alternate reality simulation so there’s no worry that Fitz’s atrocities will irrevocably affect the real (fictional) world & his standing in it. It’s clear that Fitz becoming the top man at HYDRA is due to Ophelia rewriting his memories, whereas the comics are trying to make Captain America’s surprise heel turn seem deeper than mere mind control by confusingly insisting he was always a sleeper agent. (Dollars to doughnuts says that a problem caused by the reality-warping Cosmic Cube will be undone by the Cosmic Cube.) It also doesn’t require you to buy tons of tie-in comics, so the show doesn’t drag on after all the dramatic beats have been mined (much like earlier & shorter Captain America gets brainwashed by Nazis arcs). Wee Scottish cinnamon roll Fitz’s emotional breakdown upon realizing all the horrors he perpetrated in The Framework is more gut-wrenching acting by Iain De Caestecker. He always does great work, so he’s overdue for an Emmy.
This season is a good argument in favor of government funding for science. If SHIELD hadn’t curtailed his work in perfecting LMDs & the Framework, Radcliffe wouldn’t have had to ally with the Watchdogs for protection & financing. Not every mad scientist is wealthy enough to support themselves like Tony Stark. AIDA probably still would’ve been corrupted by the Darkhold, but it would’ve spared SHIELD at least the middle third of this season.
Humble Superior”Ivanov was a good supporting villain. The best part was that he was obsessed with Coulson & got an M. Bison speech in return. I suppose he could return since they didn’t find his real brain. There’s speculation that he’s the MCU’s MODOK since he remarked his body was designed only for killing, but I prefer him as Red Guardian. The MCU deserves MODOK in all his macrocephalic glory!
Having learned that it’s okay to wreck robots from TMNT, this season satisfied my lust for gratuitous ultraviolence. AIDA got decapitated twice! Quake broke her spine by blasting her through a window! Ophelia sadistically kills Gemma’s LMD. Coulson slices off the face of one of Ivanov’s LMDs with his hard-light shield! May goes “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on another! (Between this & The 100, it’s not been a great month for Zach McGowan’s characters.) Ophelia gets burnt alive down to cinders!
The finale mostly wrapped everything up, but it wasn’t quite as exhilarating as I’d anticipated. Unfortunately Ghost Rider didn’t fly Lola. May (who’d been replaced for 2/3 of the season) & Coulson still haven’t resolved their romantic tension. What became of Ophelia’s machine was unresolved, but I’m glad the writers resisted the urge to print bodies for The Framework’s Hope, Tripp, Burrows, & Ward. Radcliffe evaporating was the most poignant bit. Agent Piper survived! I’m over the status quo alternating between SHIELD being a public agency or on the lam, but maybe the stinger means they’ve been drafted into SWORD? Or maybe they’re just prisoners of a terrestrial agency that likes space videos on its wall TVs?
I was worried this would be the show’s last hurrah, but it’s been renewed for season five … IN SPACE! (Do not expect any crossovers with Guardians of the Galaxy.) Can it add Darcy Lewis to the cast next season now that 2 Broke Girls has been axed? (Kat Dennings deserves to be more than Thor’s comic relief.) Since Mockingbird’s & Hunter’s spinoff never took off, bring them back too! (This is dependent on The Orville tanking quickly.) Can they revitalize AIM with signature yellow clean-suits? Will they officially introduce the Masters of Evil to the MCU with a team of Graviton, Ivanov, Hellfire, Nitro, Angarr the Screamer, Absorbing Man, Titania, Griffin, & Hellcow? Since five is an odd season, does that mean it’s going to be bland again?
You’ll have some DC TV finale reviews next week!