Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recap: 'Identity and Change'
The alternate-universe “Agents of Hydra” story line continued to pay dividends this week. I was legitimately tense for most of the running time, and the stakes felt real, which is a challenge for parallel-reality stories and was my small complaint last week. Let’s get into it.
Coulson is relieved to find out all the conspiracy theories he believed about Hydra were right. Ranting about Hydra’s “fake news” and the homemade soap he created to counteract Hydra’s brainwash soap, Framework Coulson sounds just like a modern-day 9/11 conspiracy theorist ranting about how “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.” Except this one is right.
After missing him last week, we finally get a look at how Mack’s doing inside the Framework. With Hope at his side, he couldn’t be happier – though as we see, that happiness teeters on a knife’s edge at all times. While building drones with his daughter (she’s a wiz kid, obviously), Mack sees that Hope salvaged Hydra tech for hers, which could get them in trouble. When an armed convoy arrives at their morning bus stop, he suspects the worst, but luckily for them Hydra’s just there to pick up a prospective Inhuman. Mack and Hope are so relieved to not be on the receiving end of Hydra’s oppression this time that they can’t spare a thought for the poor sucker who was. It’s a great illustration of the true horrors of living under fascism, where you’re so desperate to survive you’re tempted to sell out everyone else.
Simmons and Daisy get a shock when they learn that Dr. Holden Radcliffe exists in this world, as a Hydra scientist working on a so-called “Inhuman cure.” They realize that with their go-to escape route shut off by AIDA, the best way out of the Framework probably goes through Radcliffe. Daisy decides to look him up in the Hydra database. It’s a risky move, and it has consequences – on the way out her door with the information, Daisy is stopped by May. She accepts her fate, sending Ward off with the Radcliffe data while she stays with Hydra.
Fitz, meanwhile, is curious about why AIDA seems intent on keeping him away from the “subversive” case. AIDA (or “Ophelia,” or “Madame Hydra,” as she goes by here) reluctantly shows him a picture of Simmons, but it doesn’t stir anything. AIDA has clearly put a lot of work into brainwashing Fitz, and it’s worked wonderfully. He’s just as in love with her here as he is with Simmons in the real world – to underline the point, Fitz even tells AIDA he’d cross the universe for her, as he once did for Simmons. They then make out, which will just always be unsettling to watch.
Through Ward, Coulson and Simmons get a meeting with the mysterious leader of The Resistance – and it’s none other than our old friend Jeffrey Mace! Coulson is still as much of a nerd in the Framework and ever, and starts geeking out about The Patriot, the legendary Inhuman leader of the Resistance. No word on whether Mace’s powers here are just as fake as in the real world, but nevertheless it’s funny to watch this topsy-turvy world’s version of S.H.I.E.L.D. be led by a smiling poser and a Hydra double agent. There are no other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to spare at the moment, so Mace dispatches Ward, Coulson, and Simmons to find Radcliffe. Simmons clearly still finds Ward hard to trust, but she warms to him a bit when he talks about how much he loves “Skye” and how he’s willing to die for her.
She’s not the only suspicious one. Fitz still has questions about Simmons, so AIDA informs him that she’s “crossed over from the other side,” a nightmare world where S.H.I.E.L.D. defeated Hydra. Her brainwashing is comprehensive! AIDA describes her life there as a slave, but leaves out the part where she started as like, an operating system for Radcliffe’s tablet.
May takes Daisy along on a raid of Mack’s house. In interrogation, Daisy thinks she’s had another breakthrough when Mack says she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent like her and calls her “Daisy Johnson” rather than “Skye,” but unfortunately it’s a trap – May ordered him to say that to trap Daisy in exchange for Hope’s life. Daisy makes a break for it but only gets as far as the Hydra lobby before May’s goons surround her and start mercilessly beating her.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. team finds Radcliffe, where it becomes even more clear that he has totally lost control of his creation. AIDA’s the mastermind of this nightmare world and has trapped him on a faraway island. According to Radcliffe, she even killed his body, leaving his consciousness trapped here like Agnes, with whom he lives in this “gilded prison.” He informs Simmons that their real-world bodies are being held at Ivanov’s drilling platform in the Baltic, but before he can say any more, AIDA and Fitz arrive in a menacing airship, looking for all the world like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader.
While our heroes hide behind some nearby foliage, AIDA and Radcliffe get into an argument. AIDA informs him that she took away everyone’s biggest regret, and what happened next wasn’t her choice. When she quotes Radcliffe back at him (“sometimes it’s okay to lie to save a life”), he gets so angry he calls her AIDA. That infuriates her, since it’s not a name but an acronym, and the first letter in the acronym stands for “artificial.” AIDA has gone through a Pinocchio situation on steroids – she so desperately wanted to be a real human like the people around her, she turned the tables and made an artificial world where they’re all her puppets and slaves. At this point her goons find Agnes, and things really turn up a notch.
After AIDA informs Fitz that Agnes is from “the other side,” he draws a gun on her. Hiding in the bushes with a sniper rifle, Ward has a clean shot on the infamous “Doctor” of Hydra, but Simmons begs him to hold off. Echoing their conversation from earlier, she professes her love for Fitz and promises Ward he would never harm an innocent woman. Unfortunately she’s wrong. After an emotional back-and-forth in which Radcliffe and AIDA take turns convincing Fitz to believe them, Fitz sides with AIDA and murders Agnes. Simmons runs out of hiding screaming at him, and their eyes meet for a moment, but then a firefight erupts and Team S.H.I.E.L.D. barely manages to escape.
As if that weren’t enough, Fitz later comes in on a beaten and bloody Daisy in her containment cell. Radcliffe’s screams can be heard nearby. Daisy takes her turn at convincing Fitz of the truth, but he doesn’t believe her either: “Guess you don’t know me that well.” On the bright side, at least Mack’s daughter was so disgusted with him for selling out Daisy that he’s now joining the Resistance.
This episode really made the alternate universe horrifying. It’s unsettling to see Fitz, whom we’ve all known as a good-hearted nerdy scientist, be transformed so completely into a heartless villain, and it’s even worse knowing there will be consequences no matter how this story turns out. Brainwash or no, Fitz has now murdered an innocent woman and brutally tortured two of his closest friends. He’s not just a Nazi, he’s Dr. Mengele – and it’s all because AIDA took the genuine emotions of his romance with Simmons and twisted them to her own demented ends. You don’t just shake that off, and I suspect no one on this show will anytime soon.
Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to handle strange new cases.