Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Love in the Time of Robots (Full Spoilers!)

If you were waiting for an episode full of rip-snorting adventure on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this was your night. Last week’s episode ended with the reveal that four more key members of the team had been replaced by Life Model Decoy (LMD) robots: Director Mace, Coulson, Mack, and Daisy. Their bodies are strapped to tables in the evil Superior’s submarine alongside Agent May, with electrode caps on their heads that keep their minds occupied in the Framework, an alternate reality almost indistinguishable from reality. Fitz and Simmons, who’ve just detected the LMDs, don’t know what to do next. Between robot duplicates and alternate worlds, nothing is as it seems. Anything can happen.

Strap in, Agents, because pretty much everything DOES happen in this episode!

First Things First: A few weeks ago, something strange happened on ABC’s press website: after Episode 415, there were no more episode titles and summaries being posted. This seemed odd, because the show reportedly had been picked up for 22 episodes this season. Were we looking at a shorter than expected season? Was their web team behind on their work? Or were there so many twists and turns coming up in Episode 415 that any mention of what came next would constitute a spoiler? If you answered yes to the last possibility, you were correct…

 

Episode 415, “Self Control”

The pre-show ABC episode synopsis was pretty cryptic: “Suspicion turns to paranoia when the team doesn’t know who can be trusted as more LMDs infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D.” The episode starts off with the camera panning across S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel locked into the Framework, while the Superior is strapped to an operating table. He says he doesn’t want to become a thing like Aida. She says he will be “many things,” as she fires up a bone saw, setting the stage for some gruesome stuff to come. Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, Jemma and Fitz are freaking out, as LMDMace, LMDCoulson, LMDMack, and LMDDaisy join them. They plan to bring all the Inhumans to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ for “protection.” Jemma and Fitz make an excuse about needing to go off and work on some captured equipment.

LMDMack and LMDDaisy will go pick up Inhumans, starting with Yo Yo. LMDCoulson and LMDMace have a corridor conversation that confirms they are LMDs just before LMDCoulson goes to see LMDMay, who is staring at snow, and freaking out. She was programmed to not realize that she was an LMD; she found it out the hard way, and when she finds that Coulson is an LMD, too, she freaks out even more. Coulson tells her that bodies don’t matter, as long as the Framework awaits, a place where there is no pain, where your greatest regret can be wiped away. He points out that it’s now possible to have an ordinary life, to be civilians.

Meanwhile, as Jemma and Fitz move their gear to a workshop, the LMD alert triggers. Jemma pulls a gun on Fitz: it’s Turing Test time, because one of them is an LMD. They know that May was programmed not to know she was a robot, so they are even doubting themselves. Fitz says it is all his fault, and Jemma tells him to cut himself to prove he is human. He does, but as she comes over to see, he stabs her in the leg, and decks her with a paint can.

Aida brings Radcliffe out of the Framework, and proudly shows him all the Agents she has collected. She reviews her directives: to keep him safe, and the Framework safe. She says Simmons and Daisy are not yet LMDs. Elsewhere, Jemma wakes up groggy and drugged. LMDFitz says that he is doing it for “us;” he wants to protect her. She struggles to get free while he incongruously mentions marriage, and manages to release an automobile engine from a chain hoist over his head. Simmons stabs LMDFitz repeatedly, until electronic bits are finally revealed in his neck.

LMDMack goes to the Zephyr, but Daisy is not there; she has decided to check out the containment rooms where the Inhumans will be staying…what she finds is a whole room full of LMDDaisies, not yet activated.

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LMDMack arrives in the containment room, and tries to pick the real Daisy out of the LMDDaisy chain. He finds one with a bra strap askew and thinks he’s cornered her, but she quakes him from behind, and takes his shotgun axe. She grabs some clothes, and hides in a storeroom, where she watches a video of Fitz lying dead, and sees LMDCoulson and LMDMace kill two Agents who discovered that Fitz was an LMD. LMDMack joins them, and works to patch up LMDFitz while the others lock down the base. Daisy notices a trail of blood and realizes she is not alone: it’s Jemma. In another Turing Test situation, Daisy decides to quake Jemma, since Jemma will then know whether or not she is not an LMD, and using the echoes, Daisy will be able to feel the difference between bones and an LMD framework. Daisy grabs Jemma and quakes her, they realize they are both human, and cling to each other gratefully.

On the sub, Aida shows Radcliffe the Superior’s new robot body, and tells him that her programming is in conflict. She has a directive to keep Radcliffe safe, but also to keep the Framework safe—she is afraid that he threatens the Framework, since he might regret building it and reprogram it and her. He says physical bodies don’t matter, and she sees a way out of her conflict. Aida slashes his wrists and pushes him into a Framework rack so he can be uploaded as he dies. He can live a safe, long, and pain-free life in the Framework.

Director LMDMace calls everyone together so that LMDCoulson can announce that Jemma and Daisy are robots. For her part, Daisy insists that to find the sub and rescue their friends, they need to hack themselves into the Framework, find the others and wake them; it’s not the greatest plan, but the best they can do. LMDMace says the Agents should shoot the robots on sight. Daisy promises to help Jemma, and to encourage her, speaks for me and many of the show’s fans, saying, “You and Fitz belong together, and this isn’t how your story ends.” They find some knockout gas, and LMDMace and LMDCoulson soon see an ATV come down the hall with gas cylinders strapped to it. It detonates and all the human Agents collapse.

LMDCoulson goes to get LMDMay, who is their last line of defense. A team of agents, led by someone I think of as Agent Pixie (because of her haircut), collapses because of the gas, but are soon to be awakened by Jemma and a handy antidote. Daisy confronts LMDMace, who is pretty darn strong—she doesn’t have her gauntlets, so she has to minimize her quake power use, but she does have the shotgun axe and her fists of fury. Daisy finally stabs LMDMace with a tool, short-circuiting him, but LMDCoulson and LMDMack shoot her, telling her they want to download her before she bleeds out. She releases a ball of massive quake power in both directions, which knocks LMDCoulson off his feet and shreds LMDMack, sending his robot skull rolling out toward Jemma and Pixie’s team. This convinces Pixie and company they can trust Jemma. One of the agents has been training to fly the Zephyr, so that’s where they head (this scene is a refreshing change from too many movies where of course everyone always knows how to fly the escape craft). Pixie and her team move out to pick things up on their way to the plane. Jemma and Daisy come down the corridor pushing a cart full of Framework interface gear, only to find LMDMay guarding the door to the hangar, sitting on a giant bomb.

LMDMay fiddles with the bomb trigger as Jemma and Daisy plead with her to let them pass. LMDFitz is back up and about, and LMDCoulson tells him to release the team of LMDDaisies. LMDCoulson finds LMDMay, who has let Jemma and Daisy pass. In the hangar, Daisy, Jemma, Pixie and the team get aboard the Zephyr and prep for their escape. LMDMay tells LMDCoulson she was programmed to get the Darkhold, but otherwise she is May; she loves Coulson and wants to protect him. She tells LMDCoulson that he is not the real Coulson, and detonates the bomb.

The Zephyr rises out of the hangar atop the blast. They pick up Yo-Yo, and hold one of those expository meetings that brings the audience up to date: Daisy and Jemma are going into the Framework. They have programmed a backdoor into it for their escape, and do not have much time to get things done. They promise Yo-Yo they will “get our guys back,” put on their electrode caps, and poof—they are in the Framework.

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The Big Reveals

The Framework is like our reality, but different, a world where everyone’s greatest regret never happened. Think of the Mirror Universe in Star Trek, where everyone gets to do all the exciting things that Starfleet frowns upon. Daisy wakes up in a bathtub, and gets a text from work; they want her and her boyfriend to come in. She walks into the bedroom and sees a vacation picture of her and Ward on the nightstand (I just KNEW he would be back somehow!). A nerdy-looking Coulson walks in front of a classroom (with a note on the blackboard that seems to indicate he is no longer fond of Inhumans). In front of a suburban house, Mack picks up a girl’s bike in his driveway (apparently his late daughter did not die after all). Fitz is rich, steps out of a limo, and reaches back to help someone out (someone we don’t get to see). There is a gravestone with Jemma’s name on it (someone help me figure that one out—I’ve got nothing). And Agent May is riding a glass elevator up the side of a building; the camera pans out and we see it is the Triskelon, the HQ destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And the building is adorned with the Hydra symbol (could May have not killed that child in Bahrain, causing a chain of events that led to a Hydra victory?).

In the stinger, the Superior wakes up in his robot body, and Aida tells him he is as good as new. She tells him his mind is fine and still inside his head, but then she motions, and he sees his head sitting in a jar on the table. She tells him she wants to feel emotions.

In the preview, we see more glimpses of the New World Order within the Framework, the world of Agents of Hydra!

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Final Thoughts

There were a lot of twists and turns in this episode. Going in, we thought we knew who the LMDs were, and now I wonder just how long Fitz had been an LMD. It was amazing how much speculation about the nature of reality, and the meaning of life, was crammed in alongside the gun battles and fist fights—Plato and Socrates would have felt right at home. It was nice to see how love and human bonds played a role as events unfolded: the love between Jemma and Fitz was tested, but as Daisy said, it is not over. The love story that was the most poignant was the relationship between May and Coulson, a love which ultimately subverted the enemy’s plans as LMDMay chose RealCoulson over LMDCoulson. Emotion and pain may have seemed like a burden to Radcliffe, but he’s constructed the Framework in a way that contradicts what it truly means to be human. Show runner Jed Whedon deserves a lot of credit for what may be the best episode of the show to date, having both written and directed “Self Control.”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. often follows in the footsteps of other Marvel tales, but in this case it seems to be ahead of the curve. Those of you who follow comic books will know that Captain America was reprogrammed last year to think that he had always been a sleeper Agent of Hydra. This summer, his evil plans are going to burst out into the open as he tries to take over the world in a comic book crossover event called “Secret Empire.” Instead of echoing other Marvel properties, with this new Agents of Hydra storyline, the TV show gets to set the pace. I’d anticipate that the remaining seven episodes of the show will primarily take place in the Framework, and it will be interesting to see what the writers do with all this artistic freedom, in a world where so many things are turned on their head. It will be tough to wait until April when the new episodes start to air.

So let’s begin the discussion—I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the episode. In the words of the unflagging Stan Lee, “Don’t yield, back S.H.I.E.L.D.!” Come to think of it, Stan is probably glad he doesn’t live in the Agents of Hydra world, because he’d need a new catchphrase–what in the heck rhymes with “Hydra”?

Alan Brown has been a fan of S.H.I.E.L.D. from its comic book beginning over fifty years ago. He still remembers reading that very first adventure in Strange Tales #135.

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