Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back with a vengeance! The third "pod" started off in fine form, plunging us into the madhouse-mirror world of the Framework. This dangerously immersive virtual reality has rewritten the lives of everyone's favorite agents, and in doing so, has given us a glimpse of a world where Hydra won. But how did this world come into being? Why has the Framework reality taken this twisted shape? The key, it seems, is Agent May.
Agent May's Greatest Regret
The Framework reality began with Doctor Radcliffe's attempts to make Agent May comfortable. He started off by trying to feed her virtual experiences of pleasure and joy, but May is a fighter through and through, and she soon questioned these realities. As he considered what to do with his prisoner, Radcliffe hit upon an idea that dovetailed with his quest to rescue the human consciousness from death. He used the arcane science of the Darkhold to craft an incredible virtual reality, one where a mind and soul could live on after the body's death. He would keep Agent May prisoner in this virtual reality, as he used it to save his old flame, Agnes, from death.
Here's the catch, though; in order to trap May, Radcliffe had to program two things into the Framework. Firstly, May is a fighter — and so the Framework had to be an imperfect world, one where there were still risks, dangers, and struggles. Secondly, he decided to give Agent May the chance to relive and avert her greatest regret; a certain incident in Bahrain. In the mainstream #MCU, May was forced to kill the Inhuman child Katya. The incident that scarred her for years, leading to the end of her marriage and her retirement from the field. In the Framework, though, this went very differently...
The Consequences of Bahrain
Everything flows out of Bahrain. In the Framework reality, Katya didn't die; instead, she was rescued, and sent to a school in Cambridge. Unfortunately, S.H.I.E.L.D. had underestimated the threat Katya posed; she used her power of mind-control to cause countless deaths. The world was suddenly exposed to the reality of enhanced individuals, with #Inhumans clearly posing a massive security risk.
The show refers to this as the "Cambridge Incident," and deliberately contrasts this with the 'New York Incident' in the real MCU. In the real MCU, the world was exposed to superheroes when the Avengers took on the Chitauri invaders; in the Framework, the world was exposed to enhanced individuals when an Inhuman child went on a bloody rampage.
The irony here is that the attempt to remove May's regrets gave her more regrets than ever before. To Agent May, the Cambridge Incident was her fault; had she just killed Katya when she had the chance, all those lives would have been saved. Little wonder she was particularly susceptible when #Hydra stepped out of the shadows, offering security at the cost of liberty.
How Can She Be Saved?
The opening episode, 'What If...', has already given us some tantalizing hints that show how Quake and Simmons can help their friends remember the true reality. Coulson, for example, was already questioning the Framework; his mind had gone through brainwashing once before, and was trying to reject the Framework's programming. The episode closed with his beginning to remember, as he uttered a familiar name: "Daisy." His father-daughter relationship with Quake is an integral part of his character, and his mind refused to just give up on that.
Meanwhile, we also saw Aida's Madame Hydra seem more than a little concerned about Simmons. It's clear she believes Simmons poses a risk to Fitz; she believes his love for her is so powerful that the mere sight of her would lead to him questioning the Framework. As leader of Hydra, that's probably why she had the Framework's version of Simmons executed; she didn't dare risk Fitz laying eyes on any version of Simmons.
But what is the key to unlocking Agent May's true memories and persona? She stands at the center of Hydra, third-in-command and below only Madame Hydra and Fitz. But what does May care about so much that she'll reject this false reality? The only possibility, it seems to me, is Coulson; their friendship — which has clearly been teetering on the brink of romance through Season 4 — is one of the most important parts of her life. But it's not going to be easy to get Coulson, likely still disturbed in his mind, to Agent May; she's third-in-command of Hydra, and likely pretty inaccessible.
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I love the depth of thought that's been put into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4. In this case, Agent May's one regret has twisted the whole of reality into a horrific new shape. It's a fascinating cautionary tale, reminding us that we never know how the 'what ifs' would really have played out, and it leaves me pretty thrilled to see where 'Agents of Hydra' goes next...
What did you think of 'What If...'?
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