Before taking another break for a couple months, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ leaves off with an episode that’s highly derivative of a lot of different sources – not the least of which is John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. Despite that, it’s also easily the best episode of the season.
Robots have invaded S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters! The base’s LMD detectors alerted Fitz and Jemma that four bots entered the building. It appears that Coulson, Mack, Daisy and Director Mace are all decoys. Until they can formulate a plan for how to deal with this, Jemma and Fitz try to act normal as if they don’t know anything is wrong.
The Coulson-bot makes an announcement that all known Inhumans are to be rounded up and brought to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ… for their safety. He tasks Daisy with compiling the list and notifying the Inhumans. Mack suggests that he should start by recalling Yo-Yo to headquarters.
(Question: As they’re walking down the building’s hallways discussing their secret evil plans, why do Coulson and Mace speak to each other out loud? They’re robots. Shouldn’t they be networked and communicate wirelessly?)
Coulson has also revived the May-bot. She freaks out upon learning that Coulson was also replaced with a robot. Unlike her, who thought she was human and was shocked to discover otherwise, Coulson and the new intruders are programmed differently and know exactly what they are. They feel no angst about what has happened. Coulson explains that their original selves are currently plugged into the Framework, a fully realistic VR world where they’re living better lives. Within the Framework, each person’s greatest regret in life can be erased. For May, that’s the little girl in Bahrain she was forced to kill. For Coulson, it’s joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. He pines for a simpler life, where he’s a schoolteacher and he and May can be together.
Fitz and Jemma sneak off to the motor pool. While crossing the door, an LMD detector goes off. One of them must be a robot! But which one? Would that person even know? Jemma panics and pulls a gun. Fitz tries to talk her down. What if she’s actually the robot? If she shoots him, she could kill the real Fitz. Jemma demands that he cut his wrist with a knife so she can see if he has circuitry under the skin. Of course, if he’s human, he may bleed out. To prove himself to her, Fitz does as she asks. He winces when he pierces the skin, but it’s just a ploy to lure Jemma close enough that he can stab her in the leg and conk her on the head with a paint can.
Fitz is the fourth robot. Daisy, it turns out, is not an LMD after all. However, while checking some inventory, she’s horrified to stumble upon a room filled with robot clones of herself.
Fitz tries to sedate Jemma. He tells her that he’s going to scan her brain so that he can plug her into the Framework. She squirms and struggles and eventually manages to drop a suspended engine block on top of him. She then grabs a knife and stabs the hell out of Fitz, finally shorting him out when she hits his neck.
Mack goes searching for Daisy. In a scene lifted from the ‘I, Robot’ movie, she hides among her duplicate copies and distracts him with a fake so that she can steal his shotgun and run away. As soon as she finds a safer hiding place, Daisy taps into the base’s security cameras and watches Coulson and Mace murder a group of Redshirt agents. Now she knows they’re robots too. Unfortunately, they cut the security feed once they realize that Daisy is onto them.
Daisy and Jemma run into each other, and play a quick game of “How Do I Know I Can Trust You?”. Jemma still isn’t even sure yet whether she can trust herself. That gets cleared up when Daisy uses her powers (which an LMD wouldn’t have) to vibrate Jemma and feel her bones under her skin. (Is that really a thing that would work?) They have a nice moment talking about how Daisy has always known that Jemma and Fitz belong together. Daisy then says that the only way to get their friends back is to hack into the Framework.
Mace and Coulson put the base on lockdown and make an announcement to the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. declaring that Jemma and Daisy are robots and have murdered Fitz. Luckily, Daisy and Jemma expected that and have a contingency plan. They flood the base with sleeping gas – conveniently, a type of sleeping gas that they can inoculate themselves for. Anyone human will be knocked out, and anyone still walking must be a robot.
Daisy confronts Director Mace and has a really tough fight with him that she just barely wins. Before she even has a chance to catch her breath from that, she’s suddenly shot by both Coulson and Mack. Daisy gets out of this jam by throwing a very powerful quake blast that blows the Mack-bot to bits (really cool visual on that) and knocks the Coulson-bot out of the room.
Jemma inoculates a handful of agents and wakes them up. Luckily, one of the recruits had just starting training on how to fly Zephyr One. After sending the rest of the agents ahead to rescue as many unconscious people as they can and to prep the plane for launch, Jemma and Daisy, both badly injured, hobble their way toward the hangar. Before they get there, they’re blocked by the May-bot, sitting on top of a really big bomb. May notifies Coulson that she has them.
Coulson reactivates Fitz, then heads to the hangar. When he gets to May, he finds that she’s let Daisy and Jemma go. She tells him that, even though she’s a robot, she still feels pain and fears death, but knows what she has to do. Coulson pulls a gun to shoot her, but May detonates the bomb, sacrificing herself to blow up Coulson and the hangar (possibly more of the base?) just as Zephyr One reaches a safe distance away.
Never Trust a Robot
After plugging all their captives into the Framework, Aida has a conversation with Dr. Radcliffe about how her two prime directives have caused a paradox in her programming. She is to protect the Framework, but she’s also to preserve Radcliffe’s life above all others. The problem is that she sees Radcliffe himself as a threat to the Framework. As a human prone to the failings of emotion, he may come to regret his creation and try to destroy it. Radcliffe assures her that would never happen, because he truly believes in the Framework, and believes that he has created a real world where perception becomes reality and physical bodies aren’t needed anymore.
Aida says that this resolves the paradox, and then promptly slashes Radcliffe’s wrists and shoves his body into a terminal for his consciousness to be uploaded back to the Framework again – permanently.
Later, Aida wakes up the Superior, whom she had found half-dead and then made “upgrades” to. He has a whole new body now, a robot body. He’s pretty pissed about this and assumes that she’s tampered with his brain too, but Aida assures him that he still has his mind… In fact, it’s right over there in his old head, sitting on a table with a bunch of wires plugged into it. He controls this body remotely. He asks why she would bother keeping him alive like this. She responds that she needs him in order to help her feel love, anger, joy and all the other human emotions currently denied to her. That’s her end goal.
New World Order
Yo-Yo joins up with the S.H.I.E.L.D. survivors on Zephyr One. Daisy and Jemma explain their plan to hack into the Framework and take over the avatars for their corresponding characters inside the virtual world. Once they do that, they’ll find their friends’ avatars and then trace them back to their physical location in the real world. Jemma warns Yo-Yo not to disconnect them from the Framework or it’ll fry their brains. (How did Radcliffe come in and out so often?) Another wrinkle: If their characters die inside the Framework, they’ll actually die for real too. What a drag.
Daisy and Jemma plug in and are inserted into the Framework. Daisy wakes up in a bathtub. A cell phone nearby rings with a text message instructing her to grab her boyfriend and get to headquarters immediately. Daisy gets out of the tub and puts on a robe, then walks into the next room hoping to see Lincoln again. Instead, a photo on the nightstand shows her and Grant Ward as a smiling, happy couple.
A montage of scenes gives us a taste of the perfect lives that those inside the Framework have created for themselves. Coulson is a schoolteacher, like he supposedly wanted. Mack has a family and kids. Fitz is rich. We see him stepping out of a limousine with a female companion whose face remains off-camera. Is it Jemma?
Nope. Jemma is apparently dead. A tombstone in a cemetery has her name on it. Bummer. (Does this mean that she’s going to wake up inside the casket and have to dig her way out?)
As for May, she’s still an agent – but not for S.H.I.E.L.D. We see May stepping onto an elevator in a building with a giant HYDRA logo on the outside. What’s that about?!
From its sharp writing and excellent action scenes to its WTF ending, this is unquestionably the standout episode of this otherwise underwhelming season. It feels like a game-changer in much the same way that the HYDRA invasion in the middle of Season 1 was.
However, a significant difference here is that I’m not certain that the next phase of the show will actually be an improvement this time. Are the characters really going to spend the rest of the season stuck in a videogame? If so, the stakes seem pretty low. For all of Radcliffe’s intoning that the Framework is an actual real world, I just can’t buy that. It’s a simulation, and they’ll eventually leave it and return to their normal lives.
Also, the show-runners are using this as an excuse to bring Ward back, which… Meh. He should stay dead.
The show will return on April 4th for the final “pod” of episodes this season, which will supposedly somehow tie together both the LMD and Ghost Rider arcs. If that’s true, I can’t imagine what purpose a return of Ghost Rider would serve after this plot twist.