How Is It Even Possible for Agents of SHIELD to Be So Emotionally Powerful?

The agents of SHIELD over the green background, with an octopus symbol on it, the words read "Hail the new world order, Marvel, Agents of SHIELD"

Image: ABC via Wikipedia

Genre: Action/Superhero

Synopsis: SHIELD is tentatively united once again, just in time to face an AI gaining consciousness. When that AI threatens to undo their greatest regrets, however, the real question becomes: will they be able to bring themselves to fight against it?

Series: The fourth season is over, there will be a fifth.

I’ve Watched: All of it.

Verdict: I love this show.

Spoilers, because how can I possibly talk about such a heavy plot without them?

This half-season (though more like 2/3 of a season) really shook up the character dynamics in powerful and interesting ways. The story is split into two arcs. The first follows as an AI seemingly gains consciousness, creating problems for the main protagonists–and replacing them with LMDs (life model decoys) who have all their memories. The second involves the rescue of those who’d been stolen and replaced from the Framework, an artificial world where the characters are allowed to fix their deepest regret–an exercise which was supposed to be therapeutic, gone horribly wrong.

There are so many powerful character moments in both arcs.

LMD Arc

I will never be able to shake the memory of that brilliant, painful scene where Fitz and Jemma discover that one of them must be an LMD. There’s really only one or two episodes that deal with the eeriness of not knowing who around you isn’t themselves, who you can’t trust. But Agents of SHIELD uses those scenes to maximum effect.

Fitz and Jemma have been through so much, come so far. They’ve been partners and best friends long before they ever fell in love, and any moment creating conflict for them is always so powerfully poignant. And that scene, when we don’t know which of them is the LMD, when the LMD might not even be aware of who they are–it really struck me, the anguish coming from both of them. The speech Fitz made, putting himself out there like that.

Then of course, there’s how deeply shaken the whole thing left Jemma. How she’ll always have that memory of stabbing Fitz–even though it wasn’t really him–while he’s calling out to her, saying ‘it’s me, it’s me.’ I mean, damn.

The show follows that up with another powerful plot point, where Jemma and Daisy find each other in a den of enemies, taking so much solace from the fact that they’re not alone. The entire episode is amazing, from the emotional scenes, to the badassery of Daisy and Jemma taking on the whole base by themselves.

Not to mention, there’s the original LMD, who has all of the memories of the person she replaced in addition to some secret programming she wasn’t aware of. Her story, of discovering she isn’t who she thinks she is, of caring about people whom she can’t help but betray, people who will never see her the way she sees them–it’s downright tragic.

It’s mindblowing that this was just the set-up for the next arc, where Daisy and Jemma enter the Framework to try and wake up their friends.

Framework Arc

The Framework itself is interesting, as a concept. It was designed to fix the greatest regrets of the people plugged into them, and it does. But fixing their regrets doesn’t necessarily seem to make those people happy, or to improve their lives.

May fixes her greatest regret–and it’s still her greatest regret. (Not to mention, it snowballs into creating a much more dystopian world.)

Fitz fixes his greatest regret, and it changes his entire life. Shifts him away from becoming the empathic and compassionate person we know, into a ruthless man who cares deeply about a select few, and no one else.

Then there’s Mack, who’s greatest regret is the death of his daughter. The Framework gives him the memory of a life raising her, programs her into existence in a way that seems so real, it’s painful. Mack’s plotline follows him holding onto that reality, a world where he experiences a life with his daughter, whether she’s technically real or not. He holds onto it even as that reality crashes down around him, culminating in a heartbreaking scene.

The Framework creates a wonderfully interesting playground for our characters to navigate. Daisy and Jemma go in expecting to wake their friends up from a fantasy concocted to keep them trapped, some paradise they’d need to convince their friends isn’t real. But instead they walk into an entire other world, one that’s so realistic that pieces of it even pulls at them. Even despite them knowing that most of the people they meet are programs instead of those actual people. There are so many powerful scenes in the Framework I couldn’t possibly go through all of them.

And of course, it wouldn’t be Agents of SHIELD, if it didn’t find an opportunity to mess with Skye/Ward shippers. After teasing the ship, killing it, setting it on fire, and dancing on its grave over the course of four years–we’re finally given the metaphorical equivalent of an open-casket funeral and a nice eulogy.

The most amazing thing about the Framework arc in the end, though, is how it affects the characters when they wake up from it. Because while they do suddenly remember their real life, they also retain their memories of their lives in the Framework. Fabricated though the reality might have been, those memories are very real.

For Fitz especially, this is fascinating. Because he remembers being both a kind man, and a monster. He remembers both of those things coming to him naturally. He remembers a life with Jemma as his partner and the love of his life. But he also remembers a life with Ophelia as his partner, where Jemma was a stranger that he almost killed, because she hadn’t meant a thing to him. And all of these things feel real to him. He comes out of the Framework massively conflicted, and with a deep-seated sense of guilt. This comes at the end of the season, so the show’s had only a little bit of time to deal with it as of yet–but I’m super excited to see where this goes next season.

And finally, towards the end of the season, we do get a real situation where an AI attains consciousness and emotions. It’s an intriguing take on the subject, where the AI has the mind of an adult or a computer. But she has the emotional maturity and impulse control of a child. Naturally, she’d built herself a powerful body in the process of trying to gain autonomy, but now she’s an all-powerful blank slate–with the potential for either great compassion or callousness.

This arc brings out some truly raw emotions, and creates lasting consequences for the characters to learn to live with. The show isn’t perfect, but it so consistently creates powerful, character-driven scenes, that it’s one of my all-time favorites nonetheless.

Favorite Quotes:

“You don’t get to be modest and have a framed glamor shot on your desk.”

“To see a creature of logic and calculation now consumed with rage and hate…it’s sweet.”

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