One chapter of “Agents of SHIELD” ends while another begins in “What If…”, the first episode in the show’s “Agents of Hydra” saga, that effectively breathes new life into the show while honoring its storied past.
Again, Hydra plays a part in another of this show’s game changers and there are plenty of call backs to the last time that Hydra rocked the SHIELD to their very core in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Life Model Decoys were a nice segue into this current predicament that the agents are facing, first making them question whether the person they see is a robot and now questioning how far this reality’s deception goes. Season 3 left things in a place that if it was a movie franchise in the MCU, it would be the last but that’s not how TV works.
Renewal, and the security it brings in storytelling, is still being kept from the fans despite the show’s creative renaissance. The Avengers entertain us with the high-octane action of saving the world from some external threat, but that leaves us with one question for “Agents of SHIELD”: what entertainment is there for a show about the Agents who clean up after the fights and what kind of development do we expect from the show’s characters? It’ll take heavy lifting for ABC to see the answer to that question, but this made a strong case.
The potential for character development is immediately clear in this first hour of the “Agents of Hydra” arc, May in particular. It represents a world where all the main characters have their biggest regrets reversed to create a world where Hydra hails supreme worldwide. Do the characters want to live in this topsy-turvy world? What’s Aida planning while all this is happening? Can the show make us feel for the computer programmed characters like Grant Ward, like they did with the LMD version of our Agents during the season’s second story arc? The showdown these philosophical questions are leading to is more exciting than any of the central conflicts the show presented its past three seasons.
These past seasons have built these characters into the strong heroes we have come to love, especially May, and it is fascinating (while also being deeply unsettling) to see them in their new roles in the hierarchy of the enemy they have faced for years. The fury viewers have come to associate with May is not quickly assuaged in this reality just because the Inhuman child who she killed is now miraculously saved as clear as her still being called “The Calvary” meaning that while their circumstances have changed these characters are the same. Aida flipped the switch completely by going from the subservient to the whims of men like Leo Fitz and Radcliffe to actually becoming the head of Hydra itself (Hi, Madame Hydra!) and being the person Leo, Hydra’s top scientific torturer, answers to directly creating a deliciously twisted dynamic. Coulson is still the voice of (albeit twisted) reason. Teaching a new generation of heroes, just like he does in the real world, this Bizarro Coulson feeds his students a phony narrative that the United States sold a fake narrative about Hydra’s goal of world domination. From these characters’ new roles, the viewers along with the self-aware Daisy Johnson and Jemma Simmons get introductions to this reality’s Grant Ward who is actually a member of the resistance against Hydra and have to face all their rewired friends.
It’s a drag this show might not have a future after this season, but this episode gives viewers plenty to get excited over and reminders of the show’s greatness. The concept of this bizarre, but familiar, world builds on the past and gives a path to the future. The students in the new Phil Coulson’s classroom offer the best example of the impact that he had on the real world, even if it’s warped to fit this new narrative, when one of his students questioned how Hydra came into power in this reality showing the rebellious nature that Real Coulson nurtured. The stage is now set for these characters to have their roles redefined after the events of this “Agents of Hydra” story arc, especially for Daisy and Jemma, despite the fact that these characters are residing in a video game.
The quickest way the show gets viewers invested in this fake world order of Hydra is by teasing the answers to questions posed in the real world, like the ID of Fitz’s daddy or Aida’s plan for SHIELD.
Swim in the possibilities of this new reality, and the consequences they present, you will see this show’s, and cast, magnificence. Pace, and whether the show can keep up the one seen in this episode, will be the key for this entire arc and the impact it has on any possible futures that the characters have in a fifth season. It is a common fan complaint that Grant Ward and, to a larger extent, this show ran out of steam back in the third season (at best) and while I disagree with this assessment, this new digital Ward gives me hope the show will continue to evolve into one worthy of the MCU. Year ago, this show was a thriller featuring superhumans, but this season has run the gamut of what comic book television is capable of: from supernatural horror to technological paranoia, which has me excited for what’s next.
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays on ABC at 10:00/9:00c