Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD – Season 4 Episode 17
“Identity and Change”
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD catches up with Mack and Mace as the virtual H.Y.D.R.A. closes in on Daisy and Simmons.
It has been well established that the underlying purpose of the Framework is to remove everyone’s greatest regret which -in theory- allows them to live in what essentially amounts to their own personal paradise. Things haven’t gone quite as planned since the removal of certain regrets has created a world where H.Y.D.R.A. are in control and Inhumans are a persecuted minority. Everyone may be free of something that they felt was holding them back but the result is something far worse than the world they came from.
Mack is the perfect example of this. It was recently revealed that he lost a daughter which caused a pain that will never go away for him. In the Framework he has his daughter back but its at the expense of his freedom. He has chosen to protect his little bubble and pretty much ignore everything else. As long as he follows the rules set by H.Y.D.R.A. then he will get to live a happy life with his daughter. It seems simple enough and it’s something that can easily be understood. Accepting a less than ideal situation because you think that it’s possible to find a way to live within it is fair enough and its consistent with what we have seen of Mack previously. He has always been someone who largely wants a quiet life but keeps getting sidetracked by his sense of responsibility. Mack isn’t someone who can sit on the sidelines when there’s something he can do to help and this follows him into the Framework.
Seeing Mack’s perspective on this world is interesting because it’s slightly different to what we saw last week. He is someone who lives within the confines of what H.Y.D.R.A. have created and there’s the sense that he constantly lives in fear but is also content with living a quiet life with his daughter. The scenes between Mack and his daughter come across as a little too idyllic but it does get the point across that Mack has everything he wants from life which makes the world he lives in something he can find a way to deal with.
Mack’s morality hasn’t gone away and the struggle he faces when given the choice of being set free and protecting his daughter by selling out Daisy or keeping silent and be under lock and key for the rest of his life is really well done. Ultimately he chooses to betray Daisy because he has no idea who she is so sees fit to protect his daughter over her. He is genuinely apologetic over having to do this and it informs the decision he makes to actively oppose H.Y.D.R.A. at the end of the episode. For him it’s not simply about survival as he wants to be a good role model to his daughter. Selling out Daisy is something he can’t live with and it means that he can’t look his daughter in the eye. Slowly but surely the team is getting back together.
This episode reveals where Mace is and it turns out that he’s in charge of the resistance made up of the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. which puts them in a similar position to the team in early season 2 only this time they are a much smaller operation who are going against the make-up of society itself. Mace is a changed man as a result of his experiences. He comes across as weary yet determined which means that he is far less optimistic and doesn’t engage in small talk. All he wants are facts and a way to use them to his advantage. In many ways he reminded me of the old school Nick Fury from the comics. If this is the closest we’ll ever get to that character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe then I’m alright with that.
I found Radcliffe’s role in the episode to be the most interesting as he essentially gets a mirror held up to him and is forced to account for his behaviour and the foolish behaviour. Specifically it’s Aida -or Ophelia- who forces him to look at what he’s done. The Framework is a representation of everything he worked towards and it’s far less than ideal.
I’ve talked a lot in the past about Aida not actually being human and only mimicking human behaviour. Any emotional response that she gives is software approximating that response and using her artificial body to express it. It seems that she either has evolved or is trying to evolve and sees Radcliffe as a barrier to that. Her chosen name is Ophelia and she points out that Aida is something that she finds offensive at this point because it’s an acronym rather than a name. The first letter stands for “Artificial” which carries a lot of negative connotations. She finds it degrading to have been kept in a closet and treated as a thing rather than a person.
She has a desire to experience the full range of human emotion and that will never happen unless she achieves it by herself. Aida/Ophelia’s rage is clear and Mallory Jansen does a great job of making it convincing. I’m no longer sure if she is simply approximating human behaviour or is actually evolving to the point where she is truly sentient. When she tells Fitz that she loves him it seems genuine and her hatred for Radcliffe is entirely convincing. I suspect there is more development to come on this but for now I’m fascinated to see where this goes.
There is definitely a plan at work that involves the real world in some way. Various references are made to a “Project Looking Glass” which suggests to me that Aida is planning to somehow export her influence into the real world in some way. It’s unclear at this point but Fitz knows that there is another world and different versions of everyone from that world. He is also under the impression that Aida came from that world and that it’s a dark unforgiving place. Of course we know that to be different but there’s some truth to what she says. From her perspective she was treated like property and badly oppressed. It’s easy to see why she would react this way and use Radcliffe as the focal point for her rage.
Agnes is part of this as well. Aida is confronted with her template and has to deal with the fact that she was created as a physical resemblance to Agnes which reinforces the fact that she was designed to Radcliffe’s specifications and was never meant to be “real” to him. It’s a really complex identity issue that is put on screen with the time it really needs to have the viewer think about. Agnes’ death shows that Aida is asserting her own individuality in a big way while casting off her oppressive past. It’s really powerful stuff and makes her really interesting as villains go.
Having Fitz pull the trigger was a shock as I thought the episode was building up to Fitz realising that everything he is experiencing is wrong. The opposite happens and he affirms his commitment to this version of himself by murdering in cold blood. It’s a surprise to Radcliffe who clearly thought he was getting through to Fitz and it’s an even bigger shock to Simmons who never thought that Fitz would be capable of such a cold blooded act. At the very least she assumed that there was a line that he would never crossed but then she sees him cross it right before her eyes.
Interestingly Daisy and Simmons are facing a similar personal problem but from opposite ends of the scale. Simmons has lost the one person she could always rely on for support and turn to when she had nobody else where Daisy is forced to rely on Ward; a man who caused her -and everyone close to her- no end of pain. This arc is continuing to subvert expectations by showing that nothing the characters -and the audience- took for granted can be relied on.
I’m sure this will become a weekly reminder but the Framework isn’t real. It’s important to remember that because the plot mechanics don’t matter as they have no real bearing on the real world, at least not so far. The stakes come from the fact that all of the characters are in the Framework and are at risk of death just as they would be in the real world. When Agnes is killed she is actually completely dead and can’t be brought back. The stakes are where they need to be for that reason so any jeopardy the characters experience is entirely genuine. Ward is the exception here because he has been dead for quite a while now and is entirely a computer program.
Even more importantly is that the characters will be permanently affected by what they experience in the Framework. Mac will likely retain memories of raising his daughter and will have to face returning to a life where she was lost. Is there going to be a crisis point where he considers staying when that becomes clear to him? I’d be shocked if there isn’t.
Fitz and May are going to have significant personal issues to deal with when they return to their real lives. This version of Fitz is comfortable killing in cold blood as well as torturing for fun and May is generally comfortable committing terrible acts in the name of H.Y.D.R.A. None of this will simply go away when they return to their lives and I can see this having massive consequences for Fitz and Simmons’ relationship. Will she be able to look him in the eye knowing what he’s capable of? Will she be able to touch him again or could this spell the end for them? If it does then it will be earned. These are all lingering questions that confirm the Framework as a worthwhile story thread that has massive personal consequences for the entire roster of characters.
The weak link in this episode was Coulson. It makes enough sense that he would be better equipped to question this new reality because of the circumstances of his resurrection but the way it played out wasn’t great. He came across as more irritating than anything else and it seemed ad odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. Clark Gregg fully commits to the performance and is endearing enough some of the time but on occasion his presence and comments would drag a scene down. The recurring gag about making his own soap and essentially showing himself to be a bit of a conspiracy nut didn’t help matters either.
Another compelling outing that fleshes out the world of the Framework while posing some really complex questions to the audience. Mac being pretty much intact as a character but choosing to focus on taking care of his daughter while accepting the situation makes a lot of sense and is consistent with what we know of him. Having him decide to take action after being unable to live with his decision to sell out Daisy works well too. Mace in the role as leader of the resistance works really well. I like seeing him as weary yet determined with no time for small talk.
Radcliffe’s role in the episode was most interesting as it forces him to answer for his behaviour in really profound ways. Aida sees him as a barrier to what she wants to achieve and deeply resents him for treating her like property. I’m no longer clear on whether she is approximating human emotion or actually feeling it and Mallory Jansen’s performance really helps to blur that line. Adding Fitz into this scenario by having him casually kill Agnes was shocking because it was unexpected as well as being something that deeply affects Simmons. She has lost the man she could turn to for anything where Daisy is forced to work with a man who betrayed everyone she cares about. It’s really complex and fascinating.
Seeing Mack deal with life without a daughter as well as Fitz and Simmons dealing with the fact that he killed as well as too pleasure in torture and May deal with the questionable things she has done should be excellent when the characters return to the real world. The weak link here was Coulson who became irritating after a while despite Clark Gregg’s endearing performance.
- the complexities around Aida’s sense of identity
- Mack’s believable choices and the way his arc plays out
- constant reminders that there are things at stake for the characters
- the shock associated with Fitz being casually capable of murder
- Coulson sometimes being too irritating and dragging down some scenes
- Mack’s family life coming across as a little too idyllic.