Warning: Spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 15 to follow — proceed at your own risk!
The Framework: a world in which your deepest regrets have been rewritten and nothing is as it seems. The Framework is the dream of Dr Holden Radcliffe; a world with less suffering, a world with less pain. When Aida imported four new minds into the Framework, she rebooted it — creating a new, complex reality that subscribes to the deepest, hidden desires of our heroes' hearts.
With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. going on another mid-season break, we've got until April 4th to ponder the mysteries of the Framework. The latest episode, "Self-Control," saw Quake and Simmons hack into the Framework in a desperate attempt to find their friends. It closed with a tantalizing glimpse of the complex reality that Aida has created, and left us with a lot of questions: just how did this world come to be?
First, An Important Lesson
Before we look to the Framework, though, we have to cast our eyes to an important conversation — one between two LMDs, replicas of Coulson and May. The Coulson LMD explained the benefits of the Framework; a world without regrets, a world without pain. He posited that Phil Coulson has always secretly imagined a world where he never joined up with S.H.I.E.L.D., where he never got plunged into all the insanity of gods, aliens, and men in armor.
The May LMD rejected this. She argued that our regrets are what define us; the choices we make along the path shape our character. The same is true of pain; a life without pain is also a life without character. In offering a world with less pain and less suffering, in casting the S.H.I.E.L.D. team into that world, Radcliffe has undone some of his victims' most important lessons. The longer they spend in the Framework, the less these people will become at all recognizable to us — or to Quake and Simmons, for that matter.
So welcome to a madhouse mirror of the world we know and love, where anything can happen; where friends can be foes, where villains can be heroes, and where history has run down a very different course...
Let's start with the most dramatic revelation of them all; in the Framework, Hydra rules. Given that the Framework is based on the lives of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team, we can assume that Hydra followed a similar plan to the one we saw in the mainstream #MCU; that they infiltrated and corrupted S.H.I.E.L.D., ultimately emerging to conquer the world. If that's the case, we've got an in-universe reason for why we won't see any hint of the Avengers, or any of the world's other champions; Project Insight was a success, and in the Framework, all those heroes have been killed.
Shockingly, we learned this because it seems that Agent May has become a major figure in Hydra. We know May's greatest regret; in the Season 2 episode "Melinda", we saw flashbacks in which May went up against an Inhuman child with the power to manipulate minds. In a moment that broke Agent May's heart, she was forced to kill that child. From that point on, May's whole life spiralled out of control; she blamed herself, and her unchecked emotions wrecked her marriage. In the Framework, this death never happened, her marriage never failed, and she never took on a desk job as a result.
Staying in the field, living a life without any regrets, changed May; and it likely wasn't helped by the lack of Coulson (more on that in a moment). We can assume that, in the Framework, she was approached by Hydra, and she no longer possessed the strength of character to reject Hydra's advances.
Here's the intriguing thing; the #Inhumans are still part of the Framework. Somehow, even in the twisted history of the Framework, the Terrigen was spread across the world; men and women are developing powers you wouldn't believe. Naturally, a Hydra world order would fear the idea of random people developing powers that could mean they were overthrown. So Inhumans are on the run.
When Daisy entered the Framework, at first she thought that her lost love Lincoln was still alive in this reality. It's more twisted than that; in the Framework, she's with Grant Ward. The chemistry between the two back in Season 1 was strong, but it's yet not clear whose twisted regrets fashioned this particular aspect of reality. What we don't know, though, is whether the Daisy of the Framework ever underwent Terrigenesis; does she have powers at all? Whatever the truth may be, given Ward's commitment to Hydra should still be a part of the Framework reality, it suggests that the Framework version of Daisy works for Hydra too.
In another fascinating twist, the Framework is a world where #Coulson and Mack don't matter. Coulson is just an ordinary schoolteacher, happily teaching Hydra propaganda — including why Inhumans should be feared. Mack, meanwhile, lives an ordinary life, with his family — including his lost daughter, Hope — at his side.
What About Fitz and Simmons?
For Fitz and Simmons, things have taken a deeply disturbing twist. Season 4 has hinted that Fitz's deepest hurt is connected to his father, who abandoned his family when he was a child; in the Framework, this never happened. It seems that Fitz never went to S.H.I.E.L.D., never met Simmons, and — working side-by-side with his father — has become a wealthy, successful industrialist. Remember: this is a Fitz whose confidence was never shaken by his father's dismissive rejection of his genius, this is a Fitz who has never suffered loss. The episode teases that he's in a relationship, and deliberately avoids showing us who he's with.
That's when we get to the most sickening twist of them all. In this world, Jemma Simmons is dead. Given the Framework wasn't built around Simmons, it seems likely her Framework life followed a similar pattern to the one we know and love, and that she wound up a member of S.H.I.E.L.D.. If that's the case, she likely died when Hydra rose to power.
The Coulson Factor
Now let me add one final twist; Aida and Doctor Radcliffe may have made a terrible mistake when they added Coulson into the Framework. Cast your minds back to the episode "Lockup," and you'll remember that one of Coulson's deepest, gnawing regrets is that he has no memory of what happened to him when he died. That's why he quizzes May about her own 'death experience' - he wishes he had an answer to that existential question.
If the Framework is shaped by our every regret, then it's entirely possible that adding Coulson has introduced something new - something quite toxic - to the Framework. Radcliffe sought to create a world without regrets, where we didn't experience death; but he's just added someone whose regrets include the fact he can't remember what it is to experience death. No wonder Aida had to do some reprogramming when she added the S.H.I.E.L.D. guys to the Framework!
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This is a crazy, mixed-up world loosely based on the one we know and love. Yes, it's a world with less pain, with less suffering; but it's also one where Hydra has taken control, where heroes have been reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves, and where we truly see the horror of a world where we have nothing to regret. The third 'pod' in Season 4 is set to be a ground-breaking one in which our beloved heroes are dramatically rewritten, with Quake and (presumably) a resurrected Simmons desperately seeking to discover the truth behind the lies.