Welcome back! After six weeks away, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has returned for its third and final arc of its fourth season. In a way, everything so far has been building towards these final episodes, not just this season, but all series. The remaining episodes will not only be jumping off from the LMD and Framework story we’ve seen so far, but will likely serve as a way to introduce all sorts of references to and appearances from past characters and plots. And while “What If…” mostly serves as a table-setting episode, orienting us to the new status quo of life inside the Framework, it also gets into what all good fantastical fiction does best: examining the social and political ramifications of the real world through the lens of alternate history.

In fact, it’s right there in the title. While “What If…” serves as a reference to Marvel Comics’ line of non-canon concept stories, it also follows the precedent of works like The Man in the High Castle by pondering how our reality would look if a key moment from history had occurred in a slightly different way. In the world of the Framework, it’s actually several key moments, but they’re personal instead of historical. We see how one change in our protagonists’ lives can alter their path. Of course, with such important figures as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a personal choice can have global implications. In fact, it could be argued, based on this new reality, that one change in May’s past impacted the entirety of the MCU in a massive way. That’s a bold stance for a Marvel TV show to make, especially one that’s so often been sidelined by the movies. In a way, it’s a bit of a cheeky in-joke, but it also shows how fearless this show has become when it comes to crafting their own world and not being dependent on the larger one established by the films.

Case in point, while a few of the movies have dabbled with social commentary, most notably The Winter Soldier, this arc of SHIELD looks like it will be going pretty deep into that territory. In the comics, this is nothing new, but only a few of Marvel’s Netflix shows and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy have attempted it in live-action superhero media. I won’t go so far to say that an ABC show is making some sort of political statement, but it’s pretty hard not to tell a story about totalitarianism, Nazis, and Hydra without getting into the muck a bit. When you factor in all the real world parallels, the writers and producers surely knew what they were doing when they set out on this journey. So we find ourselves in a world where fear of the other has allowed a fringe group of racial hardliners to grab power, reorganize the government and society, crush dissent and a free press, and place the idea of the state over the individual. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Obviously, the clearest correlation is the various Axis powers of World War II, who all wanted some form of this control. And while we can nitpick their different versions, it all amounts to the same thing. Now, in the modern Western world, the idea of a government or state holding power over individual freedoms is hardly a popular one. Luckily for those who desire this form of power, they’ve learned a few tricks over the past few decades.

Like Hydra, they’ve corrupted the narrative. They’ve masqueraded an oligarchy as a state devoted to the individuals. In reality, a few individuals have bastardized the idea of a collective that values individual freedom as long as it doesn’t diminish the equality of the community, while they’re actually just lining their own pockets at the expense of everyone else. It’s more or less how Marx’s idea of Communism became modern day Russia and China’s version of it. And ironically, many Western leaders are now doing the same thing all while decrying such commie, hippie ideas. It would be a masterful con if it wasn’t so frightening. And while SHIELD will never get that bold, they’re essentially highlighting the same thing. As Coulson says in class, there used to be different opinions and multiple newspapers and everyone had their own idea of the truth. Obviously, we’ve seen how that can be problematic in the real world. For Hydra, the solution was to unify everything into one voice: theirs. And just like fascists today, they balk at the association. You can see how frosty Hydra is about being called Nazis. Coulson demonstrates it, and Ward did the same a few seasons back. But as Simmons and her young friend know, they’re all Nazis, every last one of them. Sure, it’s a broad use of the word, but it amounts to the same thing. A totalitarian regime led by a godlike figurehead who marginalize groups based on perceived ideas of genetic inferiority with no basis in fact. Of course, it’s a tricky argument for a show like this to make. After all, SHIELD is a pretty fascist group themselves. And any comic readers will know they’ve got a long history of shady decisions. Even Nolan’s version of Batman walks the same line, as the Dark Knight has long been criticized of being a heroic example of fascism.

But my dissertation aside, this is still a superhero show, and a fun one at that. And while I can appreciate the political similarities and use fantasy as a jumping off point for a real world discussion, I can also get lost in the wild new world this genre show has offered up for me. In future reviews, I’ll stick more to the specifics of the episode, but this felt like the right time to dive into these themes since most of what happened was laying the foundation for the remainder of the season. All in all, I’m invested in this new world and think it’ll bring out the best in the show and actors. The performances have already been top notch, and the new plot will allow the series to get back to its spy roots. Every season seems like it could potentially be the last for SHIELD, but if this is the end, it looks to be one hell of a last ride.


4 Shallow Graves out of 5. Thank god they didn’t bury Simmons too deep down.


  • Okay, so as much fun as this was, the overall logic is bizarre. I trust the writers that it will all make sense and Aida has some sort of plan, but I don’t quite get how Simmons was able to port into her dead body. She’s supposed to have not had a regret-free avatar built in time, but wouldn’t she just appear? Or she shouldn’t even be able to enter the Framework in the first place.

  • So was Daisy’s one regret that she cut her hair?

  • “Is that a thing we do now?”

  • I love that this show has never gone to the well of Daisy forgiving Ward or falling back in love with him. She’s genuinely disgusted by his presence the whole time.

  • I’m still not clear on why Inhumans are hunted since the entirety of Hydra was built around the worship of them. Really hope they explain this.

  • For an organization as strict as Hydra, why does Skye get to dress so casually?

  • That Hydra statue is creepy.

  • As spies, they’re pretty bad at realizing Skye isn’t herself.

  • Essentially, the erasure of May’s one regret leads to an even bigger thing to regret.

  • Hey, Fitz’s fashy is finally appropriate .

  • Windows is the Hydra of computers

  • Wouldn’t a totalitarian state like Hydra have cameras and listening devices everywhere? Especially in their base.

  • I’m also curious how Aida/Radcliffe knew their regrets in the first place.

  • I’m sure we’ll get a ton more references in future episodes considering how packed this one was already, but Coulson’s memory folder had a few including Agent Blake (who’s of course a hero in this reality), Lola, and the Cellist.