Photo: John Fleenor/ABC

“What the hell—she can teleport now?!” Those were the words that escaped my lips during the climactic scene from “Farewell, Cruel World!”, the antepenultimate episode to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fourth season. We knew real-person Aida would make an appearance, thanks to the completion of the machine and some nice special effects that started in the fourth act, showcasing the construction of the all-too-human body the A.I. planned to inhabit. And sure enough, Aida arrived at just the right time, throwing Fitz’s already-fragile mental state completely for a loop, and urging him to join her once more. But when she grabs him and they vanish in a flash of blue energy, it was a startling twist. Clearly, Aida has made some upgrades. But what could have felt like a cheap, out-of-nowhere gimmick instead felt earned, largely due to the clever and methodical work the show has put into the character. It played like a true comic-book reveal, in the best sense of the term.

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This whole arc has played like gangbusters, as I argued last week, and this episode was no exception. Despite the big showdown at the exit from the Framework taking place in yet another dreary and drab setting (perhaps a cost-saving maneuver to offset all those genuinely good-looking CGI effects?), the whole narrative was a headlong rush toward the conclusion, with multiple surprises and smart storytelling choices along the way. From the moment Yo-Yo ordered the cloaking turned off to the instant Aida and Fitz disappeared, everything was a breakneck surge toward that ending. Even during the small moments of conversation—Coulson and May talking about her refusal to believe, Trip acting bummed out that he didn’t date any of his S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues in our reality—were tinged with an air of desperation, a ticking clock of expectation that big things were in store.

Notice in my description of the ending, I stopped before that last scene with Mack, Trip, and Hope. If there was a weak spot among all this adrenaline-pumping excitement, it was the use of Hope as a giant flashing neon sign advertising “DIGITAL AVATARS ARE PEOPLE, TOO.” She was less a character than a prop for that one clumsy narrative choice to have Mack remain in the Framework. It’s understandable that giving someone a child, and creating the bond that results from that, would lead to a situation where that person stays with the kid—in fact, it’s pretty obvious, especially if they have no memory of their previous life, à la Mack. Which is why S.H.I.E.L.D. belaboring the point, over and over, was wildly unnecessary, gilding the lily so hard it breaks. It was jarring to stop the action dead in its tracks so that Daisy could participate in some gentle banter with Mack’s daughter about alternatives to “ass.” The story didn’t need any of that. It’s a minor quibble, given the strength of everything around it, but the superior quality of the rest of the episode only served to highlight the extent to which this subplot was given excess embroidery.

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It does lead to an interesting question, though: How will Mack get out of the Framework? Given that I don’t think the series is stupid enough to once again do away with the only black guy on the team, there are a number of possible variables at work here. First of all, I can’t see S.H.I.E.L.D. keeping Mack’s body stored in the Framework in perpetuity, shut away in some closet, a feeding tube and IV of fluids hooked up to him. So something will need to happen. Perhaps we’ll see more of the Framework next episode, and Hope will again die senselessly, pushing Mack to rejoin S.H.I.E.L.D. in this reality. Or perhaps Aida will yank him out, as part of a plan that includes flushing the Framework. Regardless how it happens, I’ll be genuinely astounded if this is the last we see of Alphonso Mackenzie.

Similarly, there’s almost no way someone else isn’t going to use the human-making machine, right? Again, the most obvious move would be to utilize it in order to return someone to the show. Triplett is one option, though given Daisy’s urging for him to become the new Patriot in the universe of the Framework, that doesn’t look as likely as it might have otherwise been. More appealing is the idea of newly good Agent Grant Ward. They didn’t even have a proper goodbye to the character, as he was absent the whole episode, which would be a weirdly abrupt end to his return. I’ve talked before about how much I’m enjoying this iteration of the character, and having him suddenly appear once again, all flesh and blood and noble intentions, would be a great wrench to throw into the works of the team. Especially now that Fitz appears emotionally devastated by the events of the past few episodes.

Leo Fitz is a good man, as Jemma insists to Alasdair during “Farewell, Cruel World!” while holding him at gunpoint. “No, he’s a great man,” the brutal thug retorts, before dying at her hands. And that distinction—becoming a great man often means no longer being a good one, when it comes to cold-hearted ideologues—gets at the heart of Fitz as a person. His humanity grew out of his rejection of the mentality of his dad. But being confronted with his actions in the alternate reality, where his relationship with his father never fractured, creates a thorny existential dilemma. Did Fitz really do those things? Yes and no. “I ordered the airstrike that killed Director Mace,” he almost whispers, the color draining from his face. He’s terrified this means he’s a bad person. But the Fitz we know wouldn’t do something like that—in many ways, they are different people. And yet. We saw how the Fitz over there wanted desperately to believe the people closest to him were right, and was troubled by doing awful things to support that version of reality. Aida insisted people eventually returned to their true selves in the Framework; we’re about to see if she’s really right. As we head into the last two episodes, there’s barely anything keeping our heroes safe. And now their nemesis can teleport, for God’s sake. Teleport!

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Stray observations:

  • Radcliffe, for all his shitty behavior, turns out to be someone who does try to make amends. Perhaps it was the loss of his love, but he chooses to betray Fitz in order to save him, rather than get his reward of a return to our world. His exchange with Simmons was more touching than all the Mack-Hope hokum, by far.
  • Speaking of which: “I don’t want to live in a world without Hope.” That was a real eye-roller.
  • Coulson and May, on the other hand, were a delight. “I was a little squirrelly on the other side.” “It was kinda cute.”
  • Really enjoyed the effect of the Framework resetting after Coulson passed through, though it might’ve been more consistent to do it after every character’s passage.
  • Trip, reacting to an effusive hug from Daisy: “Hey, person I don’t know.”
  • S.H.I.E.L.D.’s continuing fight against the Trump administration: May saying she’s had it with the whole “fake news” thing.

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