Iain de Castecker and Mallory Jansen (Screengrab: YouTube)

The foundations of any new society are built upon the ruins of the old one, but the same thing can be true for relationships. Everyone who entered the Framework is coming out slightly different than when they went in. Most of them have another life—another set of memories, feelings, and experiences—contained within their minds. Phil Coulson was a teacher. May was a high-level Hydra agent. Even Daisy and Jemma, who entered as themselves and were free from the reconditioning of Aida, went through significant emotional changes that have given them new perspectives on their lives. It makes them look at the real world afresh, with different viewpoints and concerns. And the interactions between all of them are ever so subtly changed. Or, in the case of FitzSimmons, profoundly altered.

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It took returning to our world for Jemma to realize just how real the digital one was for the others. “Not a dream,” May tells her, when Simmons asks if it’s just like waking up from slumber; “A life.” With that, the full weight of Fitz’s state of mind finally becomes clear. He’s not shaking off the remnants of a bad dream. In his mind, everything he did was of his own volition, a series of deadly and brutal choices he made that speak to who he is as a man. The presence of his father and the relationship with Aida/Ophelia altered the nature of his personality, making him a cold-blooded sadist in many ways, but it didn’t change his sense of himself. That was him, just as this despairing soul in our reality is him as well.

The big nurture-not-nature thesis the show has advanced during its “Agents Of Hydra” storyline was best exemplified by the Framework’s version of Grant Ward, a man who demonstrated that, given the right environment and upbringing, he was just as capable of goodness and empathy as anyone else. That message was driven home in “The Return” by Fitz’s bitter realization of the obverse lesson, i.e. the potential for evil that he has within himself. He thinks his teammates won’t forgive him for what he did in the Framework, but it’s just a way of evading the obvious: He won’t forgive himself. And when Ophelia (as she sees herself, now—she refers to Aida in the third person) points out the obvious evidence that his father’s pernicious influence shaped that other version of himself, Fitz, in true S.H.I.E.L.D. ”all subtext must be made text” fashion, calls it out. “Just like Ward,” he says, quietly. “I’m just like Ward.”

This has been one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s strongest skills all season long: Showing the way that all villains are just distorted versions of the good guys, flawed and traumatized souls who can’t escape the network of bad decisions that led them down the wrong path. Fitz has achieved a rare empathy, but it’s not too far from what Daisy and Jemma realized while in the Framework, dealing with the good version of Ward: Heroes aren’t born, they’re made.

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It’s that same conversation in the containment unit that demonstrates the truth of Ivanov’s observation that Ophelia is like an infant. After all her good works, her desire to show Fitz that she’s a good person (which culminates in the rescue of Mack—“the happiest moment of my life”), and her sophisticated understanding of his pain, she can’t deal with her own. The mere acknowledgment that Fitz’s real-world iteration is in love with Jemma Simmons sets her off in the most bloodthirsty of ways. Like a child denied their toy, she pitches a fit, only with the force of multiple Inhumans. Forget Gordon’s teleporting abilities; Ophelia can unleash Lincoln’s energy blasts, and even come back from being shot multiple times, thanks to a healing power. Combine those powers in the body of an all-knowing woman hampered with the emotional intelligence of a churlish toddler, and you have an entity capable of wreaking havoc upon the world. There’s only one person she loves, and with one episode remaining, it seems inevitable Fitz will have to be the one to put a stop to Ophelia. If they can think of a way to do so, that is. (Cue that final shot of Ghost Rider returning.)

Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

The implication of the team’s discovery of the smoking crater that testifies to LMD May’s bomb from “Self Control” seems to be that all the other LMDs, not just Coulson, were destroyed in the explosion. It’s a handy way to dispense with that lingering plot thread, even if it’s awfully convenient and not entirely in keeping with how that episode seemed to end. Still, it leaves an incredibly pissed-off Talbot, along with a world that thinks there may be a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. team that killed Jeffrey Mace. You’d think after all this time that Talbot would be fairly willing to believe Coulson, but the ill-timed escape of Ophelia forces everyone’s hand, with Daisy pushing the general and his men to stand down. Given the casualties on both sides, even someone as occasionally thick as Talbot can hopefully see the handiwork of the sentient A.I. Coulson must have filled him in on.

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It was somewhat surprising to see Kevin Tancharoen’s name in the credits for this one, as it wasn’t the most action-centric episode, which are usually the installments that play to his strengths. And while his gripping sense of space and dynamics lent some excitement to the fights with robot Ivanovs and Ophelia’s takedown of the agents and soldiers back at the burned-out S.H.I.E.L.D. base, it also left a few of the conversations feeling a bit rushed, like he was worried about people getting bored and wanted to return to the kinetic thrills of bodies in motion. Which is too bad, because when he let moments play out in stillness, such as Ophelia’s experiencing the beach for the first time, he conjured a quiet beauty rarely seen on the series. (Mallory Jansen’s superb performance didn’t hurt, either.)

Ophelia’s impetuousness leads her to return to Ivanov, albeit with the need to drink, make out, and bash in the brains of one of his bodies. Her need for revenge would be more than enough to sustain an entire finale all by itself, but there’s also the matter of Yo-Yo’s entrance into the Framework, where she seems to be strapped to a chair in a burning building—not the most auspicious start to her rescue mission. Even before Robbie Reyes made his return, this was starting to feel awfully crowded with narratives. This has been the most successful arc Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever done, but sticking the landing on this finale might require a truly Inhuman amount of luck.

Stray observations:

  • Coulson, betraying some theater-nerd roots in response to Yo-Yo’s offer to sever Ophelia’s head from her body: “Let’s take a moment and think about that, Sweeney Todd.”
  • I worry that this show learned the wrong lesson from last season’s penultimate episode, where everyone took a breath and it backfired. Here, there’s so much emotional baggage to unpack, and seemingly not enough time to do it justice. Plus, a couple of arguably unnecessary fights with robot Ivanovs, just to keep the blood pumping. (To be fair, Coulson decapitating that first one by activating his shield was pretty great.)
  • The ways in which Aida/Ophelia saw herself as a slave within the Framework are fascinating. Especially because it’s not clear to what extent she could’ve intervened in different ways—her programming imperatives are slightly nebulous when it comes to particulars.
  • I was legitimately startled to realize how long May had been incommunicado. The end of the Ghost Rider arc? It’s been a while, Melinda May.
  • I’m a little concerned that the destruction of Ivanov’s underwater base means no one else from the Framework will be using the machine to create a human body for themselves. Fitz is the one who built it; surely he can make another one? It’s the perfect way to bring over good-guy Ward, people. Now that Fitz has some real empathy for him, it would nicely set up a return next season.
  • Looks like Coulson isn’t quite ready to acknowledge what went down between him and LMD May, which is going to get silly if he keeps her in the dark very long.
  • “To be human is to suffer.” Season four’s theme is finally said out loud tonight. More on that next time.

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