Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4!
'No Regrets' was a breathtaking episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., possibly one of the best in the show's four seasons. It was also a stunning rejoinder to critics; many have complained that, with the team locked inside a Matrix-like digital world, nothing that happens actually matters. That argument's pretty hard to make after this stunning episode!
The Death Of Jeffrey Mace
Alas, poor Jeffrey; we barely knew you. Jason O'Mara's Jeffrey Mace has been one of the highlights of Season 4; he started out as a petty bureaucrat, but gradually become a wonderfully well-developed character. When Coulson finally exposed Mace's backstory, it was heart-wrenching; he's simply a man who was in the right place at the right time, and dreamed of being a hero. In the Framework, he got his chance; and, sadly, it led to his death.
There's a beautiful symmetry to the way Mace's death is handled. In the real world, he gained fame after someone snapped a photo of him apparently shielding a body; actually, he didn't even know they were there, and tripped over them. In the Framework, he gives his life using his own body to shield a child from falling rubble. In the real world, he faked super-powers to pretend to be a hero; in the Framework, he seems to have actually been an Inhuman, and he used those super-powers to truly be a hero.
Back in 'Wake Up,' Simmons guessed that death in the Framework would mean death in the real world too. Now, tragically, we know that's true. The episode gives us a glimpse of the real world, showing us Aida monitoring her prisoners, and noting that Mace's life-signs have terminated. 'No Regrets' is a powerful episode, reminding us that the risks our heroes take are real. The Framework truly does matter.
Simmons and Daisy Struggle With The Framework
Meanwhile, 'No Regrets' added to the show's emotional pathos by giving Simmons a glimpse of the Mack she'd never have known in reality: Mack the father. This is Mack at his best, a Mack who got the chance to be a dad, and who loves his daughter so very much. Even though Simmons insists these people are just binary code, she can't help but be drawn into the experience, watching with real joy as she sees Mack fulfilled in a way she knows he never will be in the real world.
Daisy, too, has her moment of crisis within the Framework. Aida offers Daisy a temptation that comes so very close to breaking her: Aida offers her a life with Lincoln, and a chance to find peace and satisfaction within the Framework. Chloe Bennet has grown so much as an actress since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, and this moment demonstrates her skill so very effectively. The wound of Lincoln's death is still raw, and for a fleeting, instant her eyes seem filled with hunger and longing. It's probably one of the most powerful moments in the show's four seasons.
Rumbling under the surface is an ominous metaphysical question that the show seems eager to explore. However hard Simmons may try to dismiss the Framework, it was built with the arcane power of the Darkhold, and it really does seem more like a seductive-yet-broken alternate reality than just a computer simulation. As Ward points out, if even Jemma can be moved by Mack's love for Hope, "Doesn't that make it real?"
The show is clearly eager to tackle this metaphysical question. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dipped its toes into this pool of thought in the LMD arc, with the LMD of Agent May ultimately proving she could overcome her programming. And yet, LMD May's story ended with her death; will the Framework arc head in the same direction? Will Mack have to leave the Framework, losing his daughter Hope yet again? Will all these lives (which seem so very real) be wiped out?
The Ominous Prospect Of Project Looking Glass
That said, the "Agents of #Hydra" arc is now heading in a logical, yet very dangerous, direction; both sides are looking to find a way back to the real world. On the one hand, Radcliffe has told Daisy about the "back door" — the way to leave the Framework. On the other, though, Madame Hydra is continuing to work on the ominous Project Looking Glass, which seems to be her way of taking over Aida's body in the real world.
But how would this affect the heroes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Their minds have essentially been rewritten; it's naive to assume they'll simply "reboot" back to normal when they return to reality. In fact, I can easily envision Madame Hydra orchestrating matters so the Framework Fitz took over — a shocking twist that would cause so much heartbreak for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, and could even set him up as the main villain in the increasingly-likely Season 5.
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All in all, Season 4 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is proving to be one of the strongest yet. 'No Regrets' was a powerful, emotional episode that draws the Framework disturbingly close to the real world. Critics have asked why this story matters; 'No Regrets' proves the point in such a devastatingly powerful way.
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