Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 4, Episode 16, “What If…”
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. awoke from its month-long hibernation to set up the scenario that will be the season’s endgame in an episode named after Marvel’s long-time alternate universe comic.
The “What if …” series of anthology comics took the topics that fanboys would argue about for hours on end, and gave them life. So if you ever wondered what might have happened if Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben had lived, or if Doctor Doom became Sorcerer Supreme, the “What If …” books were for you.
As Jemma and Daisy acclimated themselves to the virtual environment of The Framework, the episode centered around a hypothetical of its own: What if the incident in Bahrain that turned May into The Cavalry, had a different outcome?
We learn that the Inhuman child that May virtually rescued in the previous episode (hard to remember, it was so long ago) goes on to unspeakable acts of murder in Connecticut. In the chaos and confusion of the event’s aftermath, HYDRA emerges from out of the shadows to save the day.
For the low, low price of everyone’s personal freedom, HYDRA has established order and cracked down on the Inhuman population.
In this new world, Daisy and Ward are together as agents for HYDRA, May is a company woman, herself; Fitz literally runs the place, Coulson is a teacher who is way, way into scrapbooking, and Jemma is dead.
The majority of the time this hour is spent following Jemma and Daisy as they try to get their bearings in this new world. Much of it is routine, but a shout out goes to Elizabeth Henstridge for once again carrying the dramatic weight of the episode. Her desperation to get Prof. Coulson to snap out of his dream existence is heartbreaking.
They discover that this world of the Framework is fraying at the edges a little, as there is actually an organized resistance movement opposing the rule of HYDRA. Coulson looks like he’s going to be the first to wake from his virtual haze, since the residual TAHITI protocols are not coexisting with the Framework.
It’s all a bunch of necessary setup, but credit S.H.I.E.L.D. for not dwelling on it. We get a look at everyone in their new environment, and it doesn’t take long to realize that May and Fitz are going to be the toughest sells. Most importantly and true to form in this season of S.H.I.E.L.D., the plot keeps moving. The first half of the episode is an Easter Egg hunt for longtime series fans, but once it’s revealed that Ward is a double agent, then the chase is on.
It was going to be difficult for the show to keep up its normal pace in an episode where it needed to completely redraw the universe. It accomplished this task with enough tension and fan service to keep the audience engaged while the series worked its way through the gears and found its regular break-neck pace by hour’s end.