Warning – FULL SPOILERS for Tonight’s “What If ... ”:

Even after the closing montage of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “Self Control,” I didn’t immediately put together that the third “pod” was intended as a de facto “What If?” reality. It’s a clever means to play with alternate timelines and re-imagined characters (without necessarily breaking the context of the larger Marvel Universe), and an idea writers clearly had their fun playing with. Still, this was definitely a bumpy reentry into Season 4, and doubly so for anyone who lost sight of the Life Model Decoy conflict, or harbor concern ABC might not order a fifth season.

After all, alternate realities and extended dream sequences are tricky, as the Flash and Supergirl musical proved, and writers can lose themselves in superficial tweaks without accounting for the characters underneath. In that particular CW case, we ended up watching Barry as a passenger to fake characters singing cover songs to other fake characters. And while S.H.I.E.L.D. has a leg up to feature the “real” May, Coulson, and Fitz entranced within this Hydra-fied world, I find myself reminded of yet another alternate reality trip: What are the rules?

Skye Daisy and Simmons know the “Framework” reality is fake, but what exactly are the rules for awakening a May blunted by the Bahrain* mission? Or a “Doctor” Fitz who appears never to have met Simmons, but has a curiously romantic relationship with Aida / Madame Hydra? Why does Coulson manage to break through the delusion with enough reminders of his real life, and what does Ward’s apparently-heroic turn mean, if the character only represents a facsimile of Skye’s memories?

*The underlying suggestion here is that May’s rescue of the little girl from the Bahrain mission led to a Stamford-like “Cambridge Incident” that facilitated Hydra’s successful rise (no real-world parallels there), though Coulson’s absence from the spy life or Fitz’s ignorance of Simmons seem don’t necessarily fit that. There’s no mention of the Avengers here either, but then again, the characters may not think about them often enough to necessitate any explanation in their subconscious’ Framework.

“You know, I at least got to hang out with Spider-Man in my cartoon teaching job.”

Again, the short answer here is that producers missed working with Brett Dalton. And where Ward’s character was written into a nefarious corner, the “What If ... ” return lets the writers play to Dalton’s strengths as a charmingly heroic rogue. It’s fun to re-imagine this world in a Hydra context, and not necessarily worry about the “how” or “why” of it. The wider arc reiterates all of Coulson’s heroic attributes, and I presume the goal is to do the same for May and Fitz over time, in a manner that serves these characters’ emotional growth more than explains the exact rules of their imprisonment.

Seeing as we don’t check in with Mack or Mace, it’ll take at least one more episode to settle into this new reality as well. Only six or seven hours remain in Season 4 overall, leaving an open question exactly how much this “pod” will divide between “Agents of Hydra” and closing out the year. My only hope is that S.H.I.E.L.D. more carefully plots that balance between exposition and actual story, given what “What If ... ” stumbled to accomplish.


  • If you’ll notice, “Skye” managed to cover her ID badge’s last name with her thumb. Was it really worth it, to not fill out that detail for one isolated episode?
  • I’ll also presume that producers realized Simmons clawing up from six feet under was unrealistic, thus the headstone in the montage last time, but the shallow mass grave here.
  • Hey, Vijay Nadeer’s back ... but not to touch on his second husk in the real world. Sure.
  • Was Elisabeth Henstridge sick, or just really in-character with a hoarse voice?
  • Yeah, Iain de Caestecker is not threatening, no matter what score you use.
  • How is it Simmons didn’t inquire about the resistance when Coulson’s student first mentioned it?
  • Let’s quietly overlook the subtext of Fitz having a physical relationship with the LMD he’s been working on all season.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 will continue Tuesday, April 11 with “Identity and Change,” airing at 10:00 P.M. on ABC.

Check Out 100 TV Facts You May Not Know!