So, this is posted a little late. The downside of commenting on Doctor Who is that there isn’t much wiggle room to work with when there are internet problems on Saturday. But all works out well in the end, I suppose.
Though only two shows in my lineup aired this week, they were both very good and very well done… well, mostly. I have some issues with Doctor Who, but I’ll elaborate on that in a moment. Agents of Shield, on the other hand, certainly did not fail to deliver! 🙂
4.18 “No Regrets”
For the second episode in a row, one of Aida’s Framework prisoners has been killed. Last episode, it was Agnes. This episode: Mace.
Jeffrey Mace, the Patriot, and Shield’s latest Director, is dead.
They are clearly not holding back as we approach the season finale. The interweaving threads, the action, the tension, the questions about life and reality, and this may be the single most personal arc to the characters that we’ve had yet in the entire series, complete with emotional pile-drivers.
Over at Hydra, Aida is queen of the world. Fitz serves her with absolute devotion, May fights for her without hesitation, and her creator is imprisoned in torment. But there are always cracks in any regime, especially that of Madame Hydra.
Fitz has doubts, and they are only quelled by his father. Ah-hah! It is his father’s abandonment that Fitz regretted! I knew it! And as I guessed, his father is one sick piece of work, one that has taught Fitz that sympathy is weakness for his entire life. His existence in the Framework is entirely so Fitz will love and serve Aida. But this posturing, apathetic cruelty is not quite so unbreakable as it seems. Fitz buries his concerns about having killed Agnes, but bury something like that enough times, and it leaves the psychological ground on which one stands ever more thin and fragile, just waiting to crack open and swallow you whole. I’m guessing he’s going to start cracking pretty soon.
May is Hydra’s greatest weapon, their most zealous and capable anti-Inhuman warrior, but that devotion comes from her using her guilt over the Cambridge incident as a means to bury her compassion. But her guilt is rooted in her compassion for the victims, meaning her devotion to Hydra has its foundation in her belief in what Hydra does, which is based on lies. So, all it takes for her to turn on Hydra is for her to see the truth.
Daisy and Radcliffe are both imprisoned, both tortured, both at Aida’s nonexistent mercy. But they’re also imprisoned right next to each other. One person who knows the truth is powerful, but two people who know the truth are dangerous together.
Fitz tortures Daisy, trying to get the truth, and Daisy gives it to him, the same story, over and over, contributing a little to his doubts. So Aida steps in, and tries to bribe Daisy. This is, after all, a world where one great regret is taken away, and Aida offers to soothe the pain of Daisy’s loss. She offers to “bring Lincoln back.” That would tempt many people, but Daisy knows the truth: this world is false, and Lincoln would be an illusion as well. She refuses, without really needing to think about it.
Radcliffe, having his dream warped around him, even more warped than it already was at its beginning, has had everything he values taken from him. This isn’t what he wanted, what he intended, and for his hubris, he has lost his home, his dignity, his pride, and he’s even technically lost his life already in the real world. And most of all, he’s lost Agnes. The woman he loved, gunned down in front of his eyes. That is what hurts the most.
Safe to say, as the real-world Aida feared, Radcliffe regrets creating the Framework and would happily see it destroyed now.
So, when Daisy talks to him through the vents, he reveals where the agents’ real bodies are being held, and that he created a back door of his own, one that Aida couldn’t simply remove. She’s probably put security measures in place, and I imagine that is what Project Looking Glass really is: a means to either cut off or secure the Framework’s emergency exit. But, all that said, if Daisy and/or Simmons can just get there and get through, they can lead Shield in a rescue mission.
They still have a long way to go, but now they know where the finish line is, at least.
Meanwhile, over on Shield’s side, the agents are gaining a little momentum. Mack has joined up, and he’s an invaluable asset, just like in the real world. Mace and Coulson are running missions together, the one being an Inhuman super soldier, the other being a regular Joe that Hydra agents won’t recognize. They make for a pretty effective team, actually, easily stealing a bus from Hydra’s agents while it was on route to a Hydra “Enlightenment Cultivation Center,” aka, where they take the troublemakers. Mace was hoping to find Daisy and/or another friend on board, but all they found was dead bodies. Fortunately, Mack is able to touch up a few details so the bus isn’t immediately flagged as stolen, and they raid Hydra’s camp directly. Mack is also able to hack into Hydra’s communications, so they can listen in.
Simmons tells Mace and Ward the whole truth of the Framework, and they take it about the only way one could: even if it’s true, they’re going to operate as if the simulated world is real. Simmons is adamant that it’s not real, not at all, it’s all fake… that is until she sees Mack with his simulated daughter, Hope. That finally gives her pause, seeing someone, one of her friends, actually experiencing some happiness with his daughter.
I think what Simmons hasn’t realized is that just because something is simulated, that doesn’t make it “not real.” A lie might be false, but it’s still real, and it and it can still hurt, terribly. A story, a movie, they might not be true, but they’re still real. A video game might be a simulation, but what we do while playing it is still real. The Framework might be a massive illusion, but it’s still real. And ending it will have real consequences for all of them.
So, while Simmons might see the whole world within the Framework as fake, but she still can’t bring herself to intrude on Mack’s time with Hope, and the simulated Ward really is offering the best apology he can for what the real-world Ward did. Oh, and death. Death is very real.
It doesn’t take long for Hydra to notice the incursion into their camp, and they send reinforcements in the form of a quinjet and May, the latter being juiced up on the super serum that Mace was taking in real life, which is based on the formula created by Daisy’s father. Mace and Coulson are freeing prisoners left and right, among them one Antoine Triplet – I immediately lost my cool shouting “Trip! Trip! Trip!” so, you can guess how much I love seeing him again 😉 – and they also get some intel Trip collected on the super secret project, but Coulson has to go one step further. He sees that this is where they took his student, isolating him in Quarantine, and he can’t do anything but rescue him. So, they’ve been doing pretty good for themselves, but then May and the reinforcement show up.
May gets the drop on Mace, and delivers some good, strong blows, but the Inhuman is simply too strong and the serum wears off too quickly. She accuses Mace of being a terrorist, a killer, a thug, to which he responds simply by walking away, proving her wrong with his choice not to kill her. And then it goes even further. May reports Mace’s entry into Quarantine, so they shot a missile at it, bringing the whole thing down. But, not satisfied, she goes in to be sure the job is done.
And that is when she sees the truth.
Quarantine apparently isolates and destroys that single most virulent and dangerous of all diseases: free thought. Kids, teenagers, are locked in place, suffering under Hydra’s brainwashing techniques. Coulson and the others free them, and they run out, past May, who is shocked by the kids’ presence. Even more, she sees Jeffrey Mace, the Patriot, shielding a boy from the falling rubble, and holding up the building so everyone can escape. But that means he can’t get out. He’s stuck, unable to escape, as the entire structure collapses in on him.
In the real world, Aida watches over her charges, including the one which flatlines before her eyes.
Interesting, though. In the Framework, Aida is smiling as Fitz and his father toast the Patriot’s death, but the real-world Aida seems a little displeased by this. I wonder if that’s significant.
I didn’t always trust or understand Mace. It took time for that to be built. But Mace really was a most capable Director, a man who believed in the good of humanity and put his body where his beliefs were, and he was a hero who was willing to give his life for others. Jeffrey Mace. Director of Shield. The Patriot. Rest in peace.
Shield saves kids from Hydra. Shield’s Director gave his life saving them all. May can’t pretend she hasn’t seen that. In that moment, she saw the truth, and nodded towards Mace in understanding. Then she went to see Daisy, asked if it’s true that she’s Inhuman. Daisy answered yes, and powerful enough bring the whole place down. To which May responded, “I hope so,” and broke a terrigen crystal, turning Daisy truly Inhuman within the Framework.
Hydra’s lies have been broken by the truth, and so their hold over May is also broken, and she intends to see Hydra broken for it.
Mace gave his life in a virtual world, and with May back on the right side, that choice may well be the one that saves the rest of the agents.
Here’s the thing about telling intriguing, entertaining, terrifying stories: nothing is sacred. There is always some new way to freak people out.
Smiling is an act of joy and happiness, and sometimes even strength, so long as it’s perfectly natural and truly heartfelt. A forced smile is an abomination, a perversion of joy into something sick and twisted and insane. Happiness can not be forced and it can never be permanent. Even the mask of a smile, the pretense of happiness in the midst of its complete lack, can only be maintained for so long before it falls off.
…so, when your life depends on having to maintain a smile, no matter what, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to die. I’m not sure I can think of any despair more terrible.
The episode opens with a human woman, a field worker, a colonist, coming in from the fields with her accompanying robots, to be told that she has to keep smiling as she’s told of the deaths of several friends. She doesn’t know what’s going on, but because she’s not smiling, the robots kill her, reducing her body to bones in an instant. The same happens to her screaming friend.
Later that day, the Doctor comes passing through with Bill. He’s ignoring Nardole’s reprimand that he stay and guard the Vault, as he swore to, and taking a little break. He brings Bill on a tour of one of the first human colonies in space. It is a beautiful place, practically radiating with wonder and hope… except for how empty it is of human life.
It doesn’t take long for the Doctor to realize that something’s up. Something very dangerous and deadly and tragic. He and Bill put together a few clues, and the picture begins to form: the terraforming of this planet and the construction of the colony was performed by robots under the direction of humans. The robots are nanomachines, with a larger, emoji-using robot acting as an interface for humans. The humans were part of colonizing effort, the skeleton crew that was chosen to look after and direct the machines in readying the settlement for the main body of colonists. It worked rather well, at first. The entire city is made of these nanomachines, all linked together like human body cells. Every need and want was seen to, all for the purpose of making people happy, making them smile.
Then something went terribly wrong. The machines malfunctioned and murdered everyone who wasn’t smiling, all in one day, likely in one morning, and adding their bones to the fertilizer for the garden.
Upon realizing this, the Doctor immediately decides on a course of action. First, he gets Bill back to the Tardis, to protect her. Then he goes to blow up the entire colony before the main body of colonists arrive and walk into the “giant, smiley abattoir.” Bill follows him back, and he can’t talk her out of it, so they proceed together.
They find, at the heart of the city, the spaceship that brought the humans and their robots to this world. The Doctor means to blow it up the city by blowing up the ship. He still tries to minimize the danger to Bill by leaving her behind, supposedly to direct him with a map. She doesn’t like that, but it turns out serendipitously, as Bill meet a little boy and takes him to the Doctor, who then realizes that there is only the one colony ship. The other colonists are in cryo sleep, and waking up now because he and Bill entered. He unwittingly nearly killed them all, and with them all waking up now, it looks like he’s unwittingly brought on the very crisis he wanted to avert.
Also serendipitous: as Bill was trying to catch up with the Doctor, she found a dead body. As in, someone who died of natural causes and they arranged a funeral for her. At her feet is a record of the humans’ history, and while Bill is struck with horror at how this colony seems to be all that’s left of humanity after their birth planet was consumed, the record provides a vital clue. It ends shortly after this woman’s death, first a few, then more, then many more, then the last few humans. The Doctor realizes that the machines are programmed to serve human happiness, and no one thought to mention the concept of grief to them. To the machines, it was unnatural, a plague they had to contain by eliminating the hosts, but it spread too fast and too far, so the entire work crew was sterilized to preserve the rest of the population from this mysterious disease that prevented people from smiling.
The humans were wiped out by the mechanism they built to keep them happy, in the name of keeping everyone else happy. Make of that what you will.
So, now the Doctor knows the source of the problem, but he has no time at all to figure out how to solve it. The colonists from are about to walk into the slaughterhouse unawares, and he can’t destroy the slaughterhouse, and he can’t keep the slaughterhouse from operating. So he tries to warn the humans, who, upon hearing that the machines are malfunctioning and have killed their loved ones and will certainly kill them to, do the most natural thing in the world: they take up arms, ready to fight to the death. Unfortunately, they’re going up against very fiber of the city itself, and they’re just a few humans with blasters, refusing to listen when the Doctor tries, very badly, to talk them down. They’re doomed.
And then they have to go rescue the boy Bill and the Doctor met earlier, and they’re just in time. They save the boy by shooting one of the emoji robots, but then all Hell starts breaking loose. And the Doctor sees that the machines are actually angry. Which means these machines, machines that learn, aren’t simply malfunctioning: they’ve become a newly-emergent intelligent life-form, albeit one with a sever misunderstanding of their purpose and of humanity. So the Doctor, to save both sides of this conflict, turns them off and back on, resetting them, wiping out the system error that caused them to kill any unhappy human.
As this takes effect, the humans are now safe, and the Doctor negotiates on the robots’ part for the humans to occupy the city in exchange for paying rent.
And thus Bill and the Doctor go back to the time and place they departed from… to find it has changed… drastically. More on that next week!
So… the human colonists get to wake up, having expected a paradise to await them, only to find the garden filled with the bones of their loved ones, who were killed by the machines because the machines malfunctioned, and suddenly the machines are somehow actually alive and simply misunderstood the situation and, after killing so many people, they get to charge the survivors for living in that was built for them.
…there is something very wrong about all of that.
For one thing, having the machines suddenly be alive feels like a deus ex machina. The writers painted themselves into a corner and suddenly changed the rules so the Doctor could save the day.
For another, these people are waking up to a nightmare where their nearest source of food is currently being fertilized by the remains of their loved ones. Do they not get any consideration, here? The robots killed their families, and now they get to charge the humans for living in the city that was built explicitly for them to live in? What assurance do the humans have that this won’t just happen all over again?
It just feels like they botched the ending of this episode, ya know?