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Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets sharply political—and a surprisingly moving guest star

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i gets sharply political—and a surprisingly moving guest star
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Holden Radcliffe has been disastrously wrong about a lot of things, but he’s absolutely right on one count: An entire life, an entire personality, can be permanently altered by just one sentence. It doesn’t have to involve choosing the road less traveled when you come to a fork in your path—it can be something as simple as choosing the right time to speak up. Just look at Alphonse Mackenzie in the Framework. When he felt diminished in his daughter’s eyes, he left everything behind to join the S.H.I.E.L.D. resistance. Hell, even lack of action, deciding to not speak up, can change your life forever. It’s not clear what changed in his past, but at a key moment, Leo Fitz chose to follow his father’s path. And it has had fatal consequences—for more than one person.

Seriously, did we just witness the death of Jeffrey Mace? This episode was as much about the idea of the Framework itself as it was our characters’ experiences inside it, but of all the surprises “No Regrets” revealed, the Patriot’s noble end was not something I foresaw in any permutation of the show. We had just started getting to know Mace. It wasn’t until the LMD arc that we really got into who he was and what he wanted, and now he’s gone, a casualty whose veracity I didn’t really believe until we saw Aida disengage him from the machine back in the real world. It was a move straight out of The Walking Dead: Finally let an increasingly enjoyable character reveal their backstory (As he tells Jemma tonight, Mace was a New York kid, a popular Marvel comics origin story), and then immediately off them. At least Mace died a hero’s death, protecting innocent kids and even giving Hydra agent Melinda May time to exit the building before letting it collapse on his head. The only potential reboot here would be for Aida to follow her core programing—she pushed Radcliffe into the Framework when she killed his body in order to keep his mind alive, so if the Framework appears to have killed someone’s mind, perhaps she’ll do her best to save his body? It seems unlikely, though, given how much the show treated Mace’s death as a somber and serious affair. R.I.P., Jeffrey Mace. The powers you lacked in the real world were finally yours in the Framework, and you used them to save people, right to the last.

Illustration for article titled iAgents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i gets sharply political—and a surprisingly moving guest star

But while Mace got an honorable goodbye, the magic of the Framework managed to surprise just about everyone with the reintroduction of Antoine Triplett. The character has been gone for so long, it’s easy to forget what an appealing presence B.J. Britt was on the series. The actor has a casual manner that always fit well with the team, and the likable and fey charisma he brought to Trip made the agent’s untimely death back in season two feel like a missed opportunity. Given how rushed Trip’s ending felt, it’s surprising to discover that his return actually triggers a real wave of emotion. I was startled by my own reaction—more of an affinity for him than I had expected, which means the subtle and underplayed way they brought Trip back was a smart decision, the opposite of the series’ usual penchant for doing way too much setup for this kind of payoff. It’s yet more evidence Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is improving with each year.

And with his return comes a rise in allegory, to the point where it can’t be chalked up to coincidence or minor topical relevancy. Despite the alternate reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it tends to keep pace with the times in our world in lots of other ways. And the moment that Fitz, when describing Daisy’s refusal to bend to Hydra’s will, utters the phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted,” it became clear the show was leaving behind its former tactic of satisfying itself with coy allusions and nods to the contemporary political reality in the U.S. The Framework is giving this series an opportunity to express its displeasure with the current administration, for better or worse, and “No Regrets” unapologetically dives into that oppositional stance. The title ironically evokes the advice given to Fitz and May this episode (more on that shortly), but it could also be applied to the decision to actively use this dystopian digital world as a way to comment on Trump’s America.

Winking references to Elizabeth Warren aside, the main source of this critique comes from Jemma’s conversation with Mack. Flipping through Hope’s history book, the two express disbelief at the ways history has been rewritten by Hydra, and while the chat could be viewed more innocently when devoid of context, the stories and comparisons surrounding it make the political critique obvious. “The blatant lies, the complete disregard for historic and scientific fact…” Simmons expresses with surprise and disgust—sound familiar? It’s a very normal comic-book tactic to use larger-than-life adventures to comment on political issues (it’s the reason for the X-Men’s entire existence in the first place), especially to push agendas that shouldn’t be as controversial as they are (tolerance, diversity, basic scientific fact). So perhaps the surprise shouldn’t be that S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking a stance against a political leader and coalition that denies and distorts fundamental truths with impunity, but that it took this long for it to become so overt.


And other elements of this political parody are even more effective, due to being integrated into character beats. The most significant of these (and another surprise already ladled into an overstuffed episode) is the debut appearance of Fitz’s father, played by reliable character actor David O’Hara. When Fitz asks for advice about how he should feel after killing Agnes, his father gives the speech and uses the classic defense of Nazi Party members from World War II. “In a hard world…we don’t buckle to guilt,” he counsels, echoing the words of all the guards at camps and stormtroopers who needed reassurance they were good people. That’s how you know you’re a decent person, the explanation goes—look at the ugly things you’re willing to put aside your personal hangups and carry out for the greater good. Fitz’s transformation is the hardest to witness in part because, like May, he seems to be doubling down on it in order to purge his own doubts.

On top of all that, the “Agents of Hydra” arc is also leaning into the philosophical conundrums that come with the Framework. For all Simmons’ dismissals of the “codes” walking around everywhere, Ward’s point is well taken. If Jemma can be moved by Mack’s love for Hope, “Doesn’t that make it real?” These people may not have corollaries in flesh outside the program, but much like LMD May, if they believe they feel, what’s the difference between that and, you know, feeling? Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is firmly on the side of metaphysics, judging by the sympathetic hearing given those who only exist in the digital landscape.


Even Daisy isn’t immune to the possibilities of this world. Despite her torture and avowed loathing for Aida and her fiefdom of ones and zeroes, the idea of getting Lincoln back stops her, if only for a moment. You can see in her eyes the hunger for that reality manifest, almost as quickly as she then shakes it off, and refuses Aida/Ophelia’s offer. But thanks to Radcliffe’s very audible mourning, Daisy has a secret. She knows the backdoor to this reality, a way out that Aida can’t destroy, even if she might be able to put up some roadblocks. And though we’ve lost Jeffrey Mace, Melinda May just threw down a Terrigen crystal and gave the world a new hero—and this one is very, very pissed off.

Stray observations:

  • I’m curious to what degree May being confronted with the reality of Mace and the other’s actions triggered her change of heart, and to what extent it was also informed by Coulson’s brusque, “Snap out of it, May!” The people that are like family seem to get the best results with that move, thus far.
  • I assumed Hydra’s strength serum was just the Framework’s equivalent of what they gave Mace in our reality, but I was pleased to hear the delightful partial list of ingredients. “Gorilla testosterone…even a dash of peppermint!”
  • A Little Too On-The-Nose, case file #84: Coulson, talking about the feeling he gets every time he looks at Ward: “I get this itch—like hives.”
  • Similarly, it was a bit over-the-top having all the kids strapped in to watch brainwashing videos, Clockwork Orange-style, but it possessed a visual pop.
  • Chloe Bennet continues to gives affecting performances. Her tears at the end of that first conversation with Fitz were moving.
  • “Mount up, Flugleman.”

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