If you're wondering why there's a different name at the top of the review, regular reviewer Lisa is currently away. She'll be back next week!
Three episodes into the Framework arc, and it's clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is in its element. In a season that's seen so many aspects of the show click into place, this final 'pod' has so far been a terrific showcase of the way in which it has improved drastically over the course of its run. Alternate realities are potentially fascinating bases for stories, but they come with their own inherent minefields - a supposed lack of stakes, because nothing is 'real', and a potential feeling of gimmickry, with the trip into a 'what if?' world seemingly coming about as a cheap trick, as opposed to saying anything meaningful.
This week's episode, No Regrets, admirably circumvents both of those problems in a way that's in turns thrilling, rewarding, and then somewhat cruel to watch. It fleshes out the Framework both as a political allegory for our current times by layering on sharper details of HYDRA's fascist subjugation of its people through the gaslighting of an entire populace, and as a medium through which S.H.I.E.L.D can tackle characters of past and present through a fresh and interesting perspective.
With a gut-punch of a major death and a stirring cliffhanger to cap it all off, and the end result is another stellar hour of television in what is proving to be one of the most inventive and consistent comic-book shows around at the moment.
A perennial theme of alternate reality stories is the question of nature and nurture, as familiar characters are placed into new contexts thanks to different circumstances in their lives, and No Regrets slotted neatly into that tradition through its exploration of Fitz, and the changes in his personality that the presence of his father brought about. After last week's shocking reveal of his violence, Fitz proved to be an intriguingly layered presence this episode.
His intense devotion to the HYDRA cause remained, but Iain de Caerstecker did an excellent job of dramatising the ways in which the real Fitz begins to shine through in places through the smallest doubts and flickers of conscience. The fleshing out of the specificities of this alternate Fitz's situation also allowed S.H.I.E.L.D. to delve into some tough questions of nature and nurture.
If Fitz can be so drastically altered from what we know by a different influence in his life, in this case, his hardline and uncompromising father, No Regrets suggests, then the supposed virtue and goodness of any of our heroes rests upon a thin foundation of chance and circumstance.
It's a surprisingly tough stance on an issue that many shows shies away from, and the way in which Fitz's changes are taken seriously as a different path in his life as opposed to the cheap option of brainwashing gives his 'evil' actions more weight, because they're coming from the person we know in all of his complexities as opposed to a mindless drone programmed to follow AIDA's path.
The flipside of that dark idea that good can become evil in the right circumstances, of course, is that evil can become good, and that's where Grant Ward comes in. Ward is, it's safe to say, a pretty polemical figure amongst fans, liable to spark strong opinions on either side of the aisle, but I think this arc has done a very good job of taking a third path, taking Ward's past destructive actions seriously by charting their brutal emotional impact, while suggesting a greater depth to the character beyond simple evil.
As No Regrets indicates, Ward isn't defined by good or evil as such as his loyal, almost fanatical devotion to wider causes through which he can make a difference. He's the opposite of Fitz in this case, swapping his devotion to HYDRA in the real world to a devotion to S.H.I.E.L.D, but the core of the character remains - he's almost uncertain of his own individuality, eager to follow the words of authority figures (here Mace, there, Garrett) who give him a path to follow. S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't reinterpreting his character - it's simply investigating it from the other side of what it did before.
There's an intriguing ambiguity to everything that Ward's involved with, too. Brett Dalton, a performer who's evolved immensely since he was last the good guy, is very good at portraying Ward's rugged sincerity in this world, but it's hard to shake the fact that we're used to seeing Dalton as a bad guy, which makes us attuned to every little note in his performance that suggests something deeper and darker.
The show also seems to give a great deal of weight to the idea of Ward as an anti-legendary figure, inspiring a sub-conscious revulsion in Coulson and a very conscious revulsion in Jemma as every appearance drags up a fresh batch of Ward-provoked trauma for them to reckon with - while Ward is on the side of the angels here, S.H.I.E.LD. treats him much like it does Fitz as a villain; something that seems deeply wrong and out of place, even if it forces us to reckon with some new insights into the hidden depths of these characters.
The final piece of what works about this episode is the way in which it finally begins to really challenge the notion of a stable reality. In the past two episodes, it's been straightforward: the Framework is a lie from which the characters have to escape to the real world. Fitz's gunshot moment blurred the lines, however, and No Regrets begins to explore the uncertainties of a 'real world' that's only true for a handful of people in a seemingly living and breathing world filled with its own infinitely complex history. To explore that, No Regrets puts Jeffrey Mace, the Patriot, to the fore, for his most memorable episode yet.
It's also his last episode, but we'll get to that later.
Mace is a fascinating character, because he's both the ideal incarnation of the rugged all-American hero, and also a deconstruction of it in how normal he is. The punch-line, a few episodes back, was that his great narrative of using his powers to save people and lead S.H.I.E.L.D. was just that - a narrative concealing a hollow man with good intentions but no way to translate them into action. There's still a key element of that normality in No Regrets.
Mace is the most plainspoken of everyone in his reaction to Jemma's claim of the artificiality of the Framework, sticking to his simple principles and rejecting her complex suggestions of false realities. He even gets a backstory, which is about as everyman as you could possibly expect.
But, for the most part, No Regrets allows Mace to be the hero he never could be in the real world. He has the powers that were an illusion before, allowing him to get out into the field and make a practical difference, and most crucially, he's able to perform the act of selfless, memorable heroism in lifting a building to save a group of his friends and the vulnerable that, in the real world, was the specific fiction sold to the public about his heroism portrayed in the photo that he keeps above his desk.
Mace's death is a powerful emotional moment in of itself. Mace has quickly become a likeable and complex character after his initially frustrating characterisation in his early appearances, and Jason O'Mara was always great at juxtaposing straightforwardness and a sense of calculation in his actions.
His death also, however, serves to puncture the clear barriers between the real world and the Framework. He flatlines in his Framework machine in the final scene just to underline that, bringing home the tangible stakes of this virtual world that Simmons described as just 'ones and zeroes' and showing how it's finally become a concrete reality of sorts where people can discover their true selves without the limitations of the real world.
Suddenly, Fitz's turn to the dark side, and the beaten-down status of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team seem much harder to simply undo, having all the weight and consequence of a 'real' situation thanks to the life-or-death stakes that have now been established. It's going to be a long road to getting out of this 'hellscape'.
Still, there's a few glimmers of hope elsewhere. Radcliffe tells Daisy of a potential back door out of the Framework, while May is galvanised to reject her HYDRA conditioning and offer a Terrigen crystal to Daisy, indicating that the reteaming of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team in the Framework is continuing apace.
There's even an old face to recognise in the form of Antoine Triplett, gone but certainly not forgotten, who slips back into his ways of referencing his grandfather's adventures and striking up cool friendships with literally everybody within seconds. This isn't a hopeless, or gloomy show, and even a grim reality like the Framework has its bright spots of optimism. A way out is clear, at the very least.
No Regrets is a very strong continuation of this Framework arc, considering some weighty philosophical questions and delving deep into some challenging new interpretations of our familiar characters, while Mace's death provides the sudden, emotional reality check that the story arc badly needed.
There are some flaws to be had here - the depiction of HYDRA's fascism often strays into very obvious imagery of cliched dystopian ideas, such as the brainwashing of the children, while that lack of subtlety can often carry over to dialogue that can stamp out the subtleties of what S.H.I.E.L.D is trying to convey.
Nonetheless, it's absolutely clear that this show is at the top of its game right now, and it's going to be a hell of a lot of fun figuring out where it goes next.