Mace proves his heroism while another familiarĀ face returns
Credit: Eric McCandless/ABC
ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." - Season Three

After another roller coaster of an episode, I think it’s safe to say that the Agents of Hydra storyline has this show operating at its highest level. It’s a payoff for story lines that were planted earlier this season (and even before), as well as a welcome reunion with some familiar faces, and man is it wrecking me emotionally.

This week’s episode barely pauses for breath after last week’s heartbreaking ending. Coulson and Mace stage a car crash so they can hijack a Hydra bus, hoping to find Daisy. Unfortunately, there’s nothing but body bags onboard. The whole premise of Hydra taking over the Marvel Universe is very big right now, but I love the way this show’s version of the idea constantly throws in these little horrible details to underline just how cruel and authoritarian the society of the Framework is.

Similarly, I love the way AIDA (or Ophelia, or Madame Hydra, or whatever new name she’s given herself inside her personal sandbox) has brainwashed Fitz. He tells Daisy that he knows the truth about her world, because AIDA has told him they’re all invaders from a parallel world. Which is just enough of the truth to work, especially since it already plays into Hydra’s bigotry and xenophobia. One of the key ways fascism enforces order is to keep pointing the finger at new scapegoats, and that’s what AIDA has done here. But before they can totally focus on the new invaders, Hydra has to deal with the scapegoat they had already: The Patriot.

Mace, in this universe, is a true hero. His powers even appear to be natural Inhuman powers, rather than the serum-induced kind that underlined his personal superficiality back in the real world. When Simmons tries telling him that his world is fake and meaningless, Mace refuses to accept it. He’s watched friends die in his arms fighting to “stop hate,” and there’s nothing Simmons can do to disabuse him of that. Simmons’ case is eroding anyway, especially since her whole proof for why this universe is fake is that Fitz would never kill an innocent woman. Except he did, and the woman he killed was real. The line is blurring, even for a rationalist like Simmons.

Despite his commitment to brutality, Fitz has been unable to successfully interrogate Daisy. In his words, she was beaten within an inch of her life, but “nevertheless, she persisted,” quoting Mitch McConnell’s recent line about censoring Elizabeth Warren in the U.S. Senate that went immediately viral and has become a motto of the anti-Trump #Resistance. It’s the first of two nods I caught to real-life contemporary politics this episode, which means that unlike the upcoming comic event Secret Empire, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is very interested in drawing lines between its nightmare dystopia and current political trends.

So AIDA tries her hand at interrogating Daisy. She notes, once again, that all she did was fix everyone’s biggest regret. The algorithms did the rest to create this world, just as Radcliffe would have wanted – prompting a darkly hilarious interjection from the prisoner next door that “this isn’t what I meant, you sadistic witch,” followed by the sounds of electro-shock and much screaming. AIDA even offers to bring back Lincoln Campbell, whose death set Daisy off on her solo Quake adventures, but Daisy has learned that sometimes, “what people want isn’t good for them.” She asks AIDA what she wants out of all this, and AIDA responds that she just wants choice, like anyone else. Naturally, she’s done this by taking “choice” away from everyone else. This misunderstood misfit is so angry at some wrong done to her that she’s decided to make up for it by brutally subjugating the entire universe to her will. It’s a classic fascist formula.

Another great thing about this alternate Framework world is you can see how easily our heroes could have been terrifying villains, with just a slight tweak here or there. As Radcliffe explains to Daisy, one action or statement does have the potential to change a person’s entire life. In the characters who have changed the most inside the Framework, you can see the same old characteristics that make them who they are, just channeled to new ends. Ward is still devoted to a bigger cause and the people close to him, but instead of Hydra and Garrett those energies are directed at S.H.I.E.L.D., Mace, and Daisy. May is still dedicated to saving lives and doing the hard stuff that no one else can, but here that means torturing and killing people for Hydra instead of saving them for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fitz is a slightly bigger mystery, but kudos to Iain De Caestecker for making this villainous Fitz so eerily believable. His motivations come into focus when his dad shows up as another Hydra scientist. Though he’s technically lower ranked than his son The Doctor, Papa Fitz clearly has total psychological control over his life, like the Hydra version of a showbiz parent. When Fitz shows the slightest bit of remorse over killing Agnes, his dad re-orients him to brutal fascist thinking. Seems like Fitz’s regret was not having a better relationship with his father, and taking that away created this monster we see now.

May, similarly, had her regret about killing that girl in Bahrain taken away – only for that girl to then kill scores of people in Cambridge and help catalyze the Hydra takeover. She’s still determined to make up for her mistake, just like the real May would be – but here, she does it by volunteering to take a risky new super soldier serum in order to take on The Patriot. That’s right, Mace’s own trick being used against him (but don’t blink or you’ll miss the shot of Terrigen crystals in the Hydra fridge next to the serum).

She finds Mace at a Hydra “enlightenment center,” where he and Coulson are trying to free an important Hydra prisoner. That prisoner turns out to be none other than our old friend Antoine Triplett, back from the dead here just like Ward. Trip got some important information about Hydra’s top-secret project, but unfortunately got busted. While freeing him, Coulson sees some of his former students being herded into a quarantine building. That building turns out to be full of high school students being subjugated to Hydra propaganda, A Clockwork Orange style.

Trip and Coulson start freeing the kids as Mace takes on a juiced-up May. Turns out nobody can beat Mace at his own super-strength game, and he wins the fight by throwing May through a brick wall and pointing out that if he really was the terrorist she thought he was, he’d have killed her. This seems to trigger something in May, but she’s stubborn, and still calls in a Hydra airstrike on the building.

When May enters the collapsing building to confirm Mace’s death, she finds him and the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents struggling to save kids. She apparently didn’t know there were kids being brainwashed here, and is astounded to watch her mortal enemy endanger himself to save them. Ultimately, Mace does sacrifice himself to save everyone else, which means his real-life self is also gone for good. It’s very sad, but also gives a heroic death to this guy who spent his whole life trying to be one. Mace, like Ward and Mack, actually seems to have a more fulfilling life here than he did in the real world, which is another great element to this story.

Thankfully, Mace’s sacrifice was not in vain. He managed to convince May that he and his friends were telling the truth, and she responds by sneaking one of those Terrigen crystals to Daisy to give her powers back. It’s go time now.

Episode Recaps

ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." - Season Three
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to handle strange new cases.

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