It’s the speech we’ve known was coming all season long. Ever since the stinger in the season-three finale, when Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. first teased the arrival of Aida, the expectation was that this artificial intelligence wouldn’t settle for just being Holden Radcliffe’s errand girl. If you put a powerful A.I. on the shelf in the first act, you have to turn it against its creator in the last act. And so, after killing Radcliffe, shoving everyone into the Framework, and assuming personal control of the day-to-day functioning of this reality, Aida (sorry, “Ophelia”), the being once tasked with turning this digital realm into a better world, finally gives a monologue about the pain of being someone’s lesser sidekick. “Do you know how degrading it is to be kept in a closet? To be used? To be treated as a thing?” she asks, knowing the answer is already obvious. “Not any more.” Her rage is palpable—even Radcliffe feels it, and frankly, after however many Mai Tais he’s had while stuck in his “gilded cage,” it’s a relief to see him confronted with the emotional truth of his idiotic and short-sighted behavior.
The whole conversation comes as a blessing, and not only because we’ve been waiting a long time for it to unfold. It also gives a rare moment of steady dialogue that’s not tempered by a ticking-clock scenario in this episode. Well, even then it has a bit of one, thanks to Ward in the bushes, training his gun on Fitz until Jemma talks him down from taking the shot. Barring a few exchanges between Mack and his daughter, this entire episode flew by in a frenzy of activity, almost rushing through events too quickly for them to register enough to acquire emotional impact. Fast and nimble storytelling is one of this series’ fortes, but “Identity And Change” was a bit abrupt at times, whip-panning from place to place and story to story with such breakneck pacing, it made the few dramatic pauses into welcome beats.
With the possible exceptions of May and Mace, everyone is going through their own internal struggle involving the world around them and their place in it. Coulson, from the beginning of the episode, is fully on board once he understands the basic parameters of the situation—even the part where the entire world is a digital fantasy used to keep them under control. Much of the comedy here stems from watching the guy we’ve seen take charge and kick ass for years wander around like a clueless naif, in over his head and full of puppy-dog enthusiasm. (He even takes a moment to geek out over Mace’s Patriot suit.) Mack, by contrast, gets the more dispiriting role, forced to bend to Hydra’s demands and screw over Daisy—someone he thinks he’s never met, admittedly, but still—in order to keep Hope safe. By the end, when he appears in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s hideout, ready to help so that he can “look her in the eye” again, his arc is clear. The resurrection of Mack’s biggest loss—his daughter—brought him happiness, but it’s also placed him in a situation where he can’t be proud of the person he is or the work he does. Clearly, it’s harder to erase heroism from the mind than Aida thinks.
Daisy and Jemma are, in essence, fighting the same battle, albeit almost as flip sides of the same emotional balancing act. For Daisy, it’s dealing with Ward, a man who caused her and her friends untold pain, but here is the closest thing she has to an ally. And for Jemma, the situation is reversed, as Fitz is the one person she could always turn to, and now he’s under Aida’s thrall—to a disturbing degree, no less: Watching Fitz shoot Agnes, even if he’s been brainwashed (so to speak), was upsetting to a degree only matched by watching his cyborg doppelganger attack Jemma before she entered the Framework. Their connection makes for such good dramatic upheaval precisely because the intensity of the bond means any challenge is felt that much more keenly. So to see him give over his affections to a malevolent A.I. (“I’d cross the universe for you,” he tells her, in an ironic callout to his previous actions for Jemma) hurts us, because it hurts Simmons.
The way Aida has set up her story with Fitz is fascinating, largely because it’s just enough truth mixed in with the lies to make it both plausible and unsettling. She’s obviously explained to him that there is another world much like this one, but—as she notes again—there, S.H.I.E.L.D. won, and nothing they have exists. So far, so accurate. And even when she turns to lies (by claiming Agnes and the others are there to take their places, and destroy what they have), in a way, she’s not wrong: Jemma, Daisy, and the rest of them are there to destroy this world, and pull everyone on the team out of the Framework. They want to bring her relationship with Fitz to an end.
And this is where the real thorny questions about identity and existence start to matter. Aida, by reinventing herself as Ophelia, wants to experience the full range of human emotions. She wants love, and passion, and anger. Whether she’s getting them is another question. Does she feel Fitz’s love? More importantly, if the cyborg replacements are almost wholly the minds and memories of the original people, to what degree are they themselves real beings, à la the A.I. Melinda May that blew herself up to save Jemma and Daisy? To put it another way: Why does Aida need the real Fitz? Can’t she just use the LMD version of him to get what she wants? The answer, I suspect, is as simple as it is unsatisfying: She needs the real thing to prove she can be every bit the human that Fitz is. Only by pairing herself with a human soul will she be able to claim their feelings—and, by extension, her own soul—is authentic. That’s the falsehood at the core of her protestations to Radcliffe about how she merely carried out his wishes. Aida wants to be a real girl, and no amount of LMD data is going to convince her she can be like the real Fitz. “I guess you don’t know me at all,” Leo tells the beaten and bloodied Daisy, as she’s carried off for Inhuman testing, in both senses of the word. We can only hope, somewhere deep down, that’s truer for Aida than it is for Daisy Johnson.
- “This isn’t the world I intended! Things have gone dreadfully wrong.” Holden Radcliffe, again proving why he never learns his lesson, no matter how well-intentioned.
- Coulson: “In the real world, I have a robot hand!” Daisy: “And here, he makes his own soap.” The running soap gag = high point of the episode.
- Interesting choice of name, Aida. Presumably, she read all of Hamlet, not just the first part?
- Again, this was a nice reminder that what made Radcliffe compelling as an antagonist was how conflicted his feelings always were, especially for Fitz. “You’re not this man! You’re one of the good guys!” he cries, and he genuinely means it.
- Great performance by Henry Simmons here, when he’s forced to pretend he knows Daisy, and get her to confess her true colors.
- Speaking of which, do you think that information was provided to May by Aida herself? Otherwise, where did it come from? With all the time they spend harping on how Ward was always a two-faced, double-dealing liar, I’m going to be really disappointed if Grant Ward is again playing the long con here, secretly working for Aida. Then again, he’s nothing more than a manifestation of the man taken from digital information and the memories of Daisy and company, so it might be depressingly inevitable.