Warning – FULL SPOILERS for Tonight’s “All the Madame’s Men”:

I’ve been hard on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. using the Framework as a free pass to play with alternate timelines and series alum, rather than expand the “LMD” arc into any meaningful endgame. Last week in particular, Jeffrey Mace’s death felt like a frustrating sacrifice to this inconsequential video game-like world. And while “All the Madame’s Men” couldn’t help playing more nostalgia cards like Sunil Bakshi’s return, tonight’s outing at least made an effort to define Aida’s ultimate plan, and why the Framework world might actually matter.

The constraints of this “What If” dimension are still somewhat flawed, that for as many familiar faces like Bakshi, Ward* or Trip as we get to revisit, it’s difficult to see these characters as more than lines of code approximating their past. “All the Madame’s Men” definitely sought to bend that narrative a bit with Coulson’s suggestion that resolving this world’s Hydra conflict might return them to real life (essentially trading The Matrix for The Wizard of Oz). It’s not the most convincing excuse to stall Daisy’s search for an exit, but It’s at least balanced by the explanation of Aida’s Framework endgame of building an actual flesh-and-blood body. Further shades of Age of Ultron, sure, but that’s somewhat unavoidable in the A.I. / Pinocchio sandbox, and it’s a nice tie back to Eli’s use of the Darkhold in the Ghost Rider arc.

*If indeed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. survives to a fifth season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ward got to use “Project Looking Glass” to become a real boy again. His attempted sacrifice is still an expression of Daisy’s memories, but Dalton at least made the moment appropriately sad, to ask if *his* Skye might return. Not to mention, the writers clearly miss him.

“Fine, we’ll do it Hive!”

Now that we know what Aida and The Superior actually want with these characters in the Framework, “All the Madame’s Men” finally moved to start awakening them to their true selves. Not only was teacher Coulson starting to embrace a leadership position among the S.H.I.E.L.D. resistance (even quipping enough to elicit a smile from Daisy), but the character took charge to deliver a public* wake-up call to Hydra citizens, and officially declare himself an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m still waiting for a moment where characters attain complete awareness of their past lives, but Aida at least focuses that sentiment early on; to realize May would always end up the warrior; Mack the protector, and so on. May in particular made such a quick turn from devoted Hydra muscle to the resistance, that tonight did well to flesh out her new cause to fight for.

*Like B.J. Britt’s Trip, I question how many really remember, or had any interest in seeing Sunil Bakshi again. We at least got a notable Bill Paxton tribute out of it, and two more cringe-worthy Trump references. We get the comparison, guys.

We’re likely nearing the end of this Framework arc, now that The Superior tracked down Simmons and Daisy’s bodies in the real world, so there’s no use nitpicking the little pieces (Aida/Ophelia’s virtual body getting paralyzed). I did like some of the smaller emotional beats tonight had to offer, like Daisy and May getting a chance to team up again, or Radcliffe defiantly taunting Fitz’s father. I also hope Agents of Hydra finds some meaningful resolution for this altruistic, if computerized Ward, given the work Dalton has put in to showcasing a different side of him.

In a more immediate sense, at least, “All the Madame’s Men, finally gave us a sense of what Aida’s virtual reality endgame actually entails, which was sorely lacking last week.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • Boo to Madame Hydra entering from Cap’s Winter Soldier elevator, and not using it for any kind of fight scene.
  • Nevermind why Aida’s body could be paralyzed in the Framework, why does her actual body need to be hooked up like a human’s?
  • Simmons has awfully pressed hair for a dingy underground resistance base.
  • Man, Victoria Hand really got short shrift across the whole series, to only get a casual namedrop here.
  • So … what, Aida needed Fitz’s mind to complete the Darkhold device?
  • Why is it that Aida hasn’t sent an army to the S.H.I.E.L.D. base she’s been to in real life? How is that not the first place you look?
  • I’ll take that tie moment as confirmation Philinda will remain a thing in the real world.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 will continue Tuesday, May 2 with “Farewell, Cruel World!,” airing at 10:00 P.M. on ABC.

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