Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

The question of whether people are fundamentally good or bad is a fun thought experiment and philosophical discussion, but it doesn’t have much application in the real world. Each of us might make different decisions, were we placed in a wholly separate context than the world we know. In fact, numerous studies suggest our intrinsic sense of morality is far more flexible than we’d care to admit. This is maybe best put by Philip Zimbardo, architect of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. There’s no such thing as a “few bad apples,” he has argued—only bad barrels that turn people into bad apples. If you were placed into a nightmarish alternate reality that your brain accepted as real, how long before you just went with it in order to survive? And that’s if you had a choice; for the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., being placed in the Framework also involved some brainwashing. What happens to your ethics when you have to be told what your ethics are?

Questions of character aside, that is how you tell a dystopian alternate-reality story. Forget the fact that “What If…” literally borrows a page from Marvel Comics tradition, posing a hypothetical world and then seeing what it would mean for our heroes. What’s important is how the show pulls it off so spectacularly. This could’ve been a sodden slog through too-obvious reveals and portentous doom and gloom. Instead, S.H.I.E.L.D. kept its fleet and efficient pacing, but bent it to the service of a dark and compelling narrative arc already paying dividends in terms of rewarding long-time viewers with deep-pull references and stories. Nearly every chapter of these characters’ histories came into play this episode, as the team is stuck inside the Framework, Dr. Radcliffe’s digital wanna-be-utopia whose primary appeal (removing the most painful aspect of people’s memories) has turned his dream world into a nightmare.

Photo: Jennifer Clasen/ABC

There’s a lot to unpack, but for now the important thing seems to be the new history of Hydra. Thanks to Radcliffe removing May’s murder of the girl in Bahrain, the little evil child managed to kill a lot of people, thereby clearing the way for Hydra to successfully seize control at some point along the timeline from that moment. Now the U.S. is a totalitarian state: road checkpoints, school indoctrination, random testing… and no cellphones for anyone, it seems. But it can’t have all happened too far in the distant past, if kids are still challenging that version of events in school. In ways big and small, it’s clear that Hydra has to continually exert such a force because—even in the Framework, under the direct control of Aida—people (and programs that mimic people) are refusing the current state of affairs. What will be really interesting is to find out whether Aida actually accounted for all this, and it’s built-in, or if the Framework works in ways she can’t always control.

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There’s arguably no one better to test the theory of bad apples vs. barrels then Hydra agent Grant Ward. If we’re to believe him, he joined the resistance in order to help protect Inhumans—specifically, Daisy (née Skye, as we’re reminded), meaning he’s still acting as a duplicitous double agent and mole. (Great how Jemma managed to excoriate him for that, even as he’s in the middle of saving them.) Ward and Skye have a relationship, but it’s not clear yet how strong that bond is, since she filed paperwork for them to move in together and he apparently refused. Still, both the unveiling of the relationship and the reveal of Ward fighting Hydra were cleverly handled, allowing Brett Dalton to play an interesting variant on his former character. As far as ways to reintroduce people long gone, this was as good as it gets.

Poor Jemma. This was a rough start to her adventure inside the Framework. Crawling out of a grave wearing the clothes of someone seemingly executed has to be among the less-pleasant ways to come into a world (or leave it, I would imagine), but it didn’t get much better for her throughout the day. Scrambling to remain ahead of the perpetually present authorities, getting shot down and then reported by Coulson… thank god Simmons finally lucked into finding Daisy. All of her encounters suggest that it’s not going to be very easy convincing the rest of the team of the truth.

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Especially when they’re on top of the world, like Leo Fitz. “The Doctor,” as he’s referred to repeatedly (did anyone else have a split-second hope Kyle Maclachlan was about to appear?), isn’t just one of Hydra’s top scientists and busy doing research on (read: torturing) Inhumans like Vijay Nadeer. He’s also very intimate with Aida, though it’s unknown whether she has genuinely created some sort of relationship for them or if this is just a way to more closely keep him under her thumb. Obviously, her refusal to let him see the footage of Simmons suggests close bonds are the main weakness of the Framework’s brainwashing capabilities. Between that and Coulson suddenly remembering Daisy after she called him “family,” it looks like blood is thicker than lines of code.

We’ve only begun exploring this world, but it’s already a staggering and cool accomplishment, and the show deserves praise for managing to swiftly launch this most unusual of arcs. I’m a sucker for a great alternate-reality storyline, so this was already an easy sell for me. But the inventiveness on display in “What If…” shows that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (sorry, Agents Of Hydra) is ready for some dangerous games.

Stray observations

  • God bless Jemma’s wide-eyed indignation: “I think Hydra murdered me!”
  • May is the one who’s been here the longest—I don’t think it’s a coincidence she’s also the one who seems to be mentally most committed to this state of affairs, though Fitz is a close second.
  • What teenager just gives their car to a total stranger? Simply because they spray-painted that stranger’s ride? Least believable thing about the Framework, and I don’t care how much that kid hates Hydra.
  • It is fascinating to consider what was taken from each person. We may never know, but do you agree that Jemma was the thing excised from Fitz’s mind?
  • Nice to see Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet reestablish a brand-new relationship for their characters. They both appear to be having just enough fun that it actually sneaks into their characters’ stressed-out faces. Just a little.

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