Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recap: 'What If...'
Aaand we’re back – but not to a version of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. any of us should recognize. This story line, the third and final “pod” of the season, is called Agents of Hydra, and boy does it live up to that moniker.
We pick up basically where we left off, with Daisy waking up in bed next to none other than Grant Ward. That’s right: Our old friend Brett Dalton is back on the show. As he hands Daisy a Hydra badge and they drive to work at a Triskelion emblazoned with the skull-and-tentacles, it becomes clear that in the universe of The Framework, Ward’s side won. Hydra controls the world now, and they use their power to brutally repress Inhumans – taking them out of school, beating them up, experimenting on them, constantly checking people’s IDs, and so on. As a result, pretty much everyone in this universe looks sad and worried all the time.
Daisy wants answers, so she starts using her Hydra database at work. Spurred by her surprise wake-up, she looks up her other big ex, Lincoln Campbell. She finds that Lincoln was captured and experimented on by Hydra, and his powers malfunctioned in such a way that many S.H.I.E.L.D. academy students were killed – including Jemma Simmons.
Luckily, Simmons is alive and well. Okay, maybe not “well,” considering she has to dig herself out of her own grave, but she’s alive! She’s supposed to be dead, as the bullet holes in her shirt contest – although that M.O. doesn’t sound like Lincoln’s electric powers, does it? Anyway, Simmons stumbles around this creepy woodland grave until she’s finally able to flag a passing car and hitch a ride. The driver seems like a nice woman, but Simmons can only wonder at such a “lifelike” virtual person. The happy times don’t last, as the car quickly runs into one of the aforementioned Hydra checkpoints and the ID-less Simmons has to scram. Agents of Hydra is homaging several pieces of Marvel history
Checking in with the other members of the team, we find that Coulson is indeed a high school teacher. He’s helpfully lecturing his students about how the world became so Hydra-fied (the same catch-up purpose Kitty Pryde served in the comic miniseries House of M, one of many past Marvel alternate-reality story lines that Agents of Hydra is homaging). According to Coulson’s lecture, the catalyzing event was an incident in Cambridge, when S.H.I.E.L.D. agents brought a known and dangerous Inhuman back from Bahrain and tried to put her in a normal school – where she used her powers to cause mass death and carnage. Yes, that’s right: The Bahrain incident is back, still haunting Melinda May and everyone else in her world and life.
Quick note: Although Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is typically concerned with other Marvel Cinematic Universe story lines, Agents of Hydra happens to be overlapping with a similar event in Marvel comics. In the pages of Secret Empire, Captain America will reveal himself as a Hydra agent and try to bring the entire Marvel Universe under Hydra’s control. Although the series hasn’t even begun yet, it’s attracted much controversy from fans. One of those angry fans is apparently in the room with Coulson, because he asks, “Aren’t Hydra just Nazis?” Coulson denies it, but when Hydra agents immediately walk in to take a suspected Inhuman from his classroom like a bad remake of Au Revoir Les Enfants, I think the kid’s point has been made.
Back at Hydra, an even more ruthless version of May has assigned Daisy and Ward to interrogate a newly captured Inhuman. He’s going by the name “Jason Rojan,” but Daisy immediately recognizes him as Vijay Nadeer. It’s nice to see him again; I thought his story line was unfortunately truncated in the last pod. He taunts May with the Bahrain kid, which seems an effective method of torturing May to her core no matter what world it is or what exactly happened. Vijay is able to escape, but he’s brought down by Hydra agents and delivered to “The Doctor” – not Radcliffe, but Fitz! If the black suit and Nazi haircut didn’t give it away, he’s super evil now.
After not finding Daisy at their rendezvous point, Simmons decides to look up Coulson. He doesn’t remember her, of course – only his life as a teacher. But as Simmons pushes him more and more, it seems like she might be breaking through. She finds a hula-skirt doll on his desk, a symbol of Tahiti, indicating that his subconscious mind might be struggling against the Framework’s code. It’s a good showcase for Elizabeth Henstridge, who pours her heart into the scene and really gives it power from the years we’ve spent watching Simmons and Coulson’s relationship grow. Even after all that, though, it doesn’t quite work. After Simmons leaves, Coulson immediately picks up the phone to report a “subversive” to Hydra.
Luckily, on the way out, Simmons runs into the student who asked Coulson if Hydra are Nazis. Even though she still thinks of everyone in this world as creations of code, Jemma comforts him and tells him that he is right: “They’re all Nazis. Every one of them. Don’t you let anyone forget it.”
When Fitz, torturing Vijay with a gigantic evil-looking machine, is interrupted by the report of this subversive, he demands that every asset in the area be mobilized to catch her. Just as Coulson’s brain still has the T.A.H.I.T.I. connection, it sure seems like there’s something inside Fitz that remembers Jemma, even if he doesn’t quite understand how or why.
Luckily, Daisy overhears this report and goes to find Simmons. She’s interrupted by Ward, who wants to know why she’s acting so strange, but she’s able to produce a convincing in-universe excuse about their relationship. Nevertheless, Ward follows Daisy to her rendezvous with Jemma, where he makes a revelation: He’s part of the resistance! He joined this universe’s “resistance” in order to protect Daisy (secretly an Inhuman, of course, though she can’t access her powers inside the Framework). He helps them get away from the Hydra pursuers.
Going over things later, Simmons and Daisy realize that Radcliffe programmed the Framework to take away people’s pain, and it did. May’s biggest pain was the Bahrain incident, so in this universe she never killed that girl – with massive consequences for the world. Daisy’s most recent pain was Lincoln’s death, so now she’s in a healthy, happy relationship. The two women note that the universe is so lifelike it’s dangerous to stay in for very long, so they try to get out and get backup – but it doesn’t work. They’re trapped in the Framework, for now.
We soon find out why. Fitz goes to make a report to his superior, the Director of Hydra herself: AIDA! She’s closed the loophole to trap Simmons and Daisy and now wants to “tighten the noose.” But first she makes out with Fitz a bit, because isn’t that the whole point of an alternate reality?
Now it’s Daisy’s turn to try getting through to Coulson. Simmons’ attempt didn’t work, but Daisy is feeling very down about being trapped in a Hydra world, and brainwash or no, Coulson is the only real family she has. Luckily, this deep connection works, and the episode ends with Coulson asking “Daisy?”
Good premiere with lots of fun twists! Excited to see where this story line goes, though a VR world is slightly different than Marvel’s typical alternate universes and dark futures. Since most people are virtual, I think the show will need to be careful to establish the right stakes and make us care about incidental characters like the “Hydra are Nazis” kid.