Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (AoS) has gone through its ups and downs over the past four seasons. With the 5th season of the show coming up, I decided to sit down, re-watch and re-hash the first four seasons of the sometimes forgotten branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Agents of SHIELD was born out of Marvel’s Avengers movie. In the movies leading up to Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) had been little more than a run of the mill G-man making the rounds through the backgrounds and post-credits scenes of the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies leading up to the Avengers team-up. As the franchise grew, it was revealed that Coulson wasn’t just a faceless agent, but a huge Marvel fanboy who acted as a surrogate for all of our nerd impulses. When Loki stabbed Agent Coulson, the Avengers had someone to avenge. However, the viewing audience wasn’t ready to let Coulson die and started a ground-swell of requests to bring Agent Coulson back in some capacity. What resulted was the “Coulson Lives” movement that sprouted from the fandom around 2012.
Marvel and the Whedon’s listened. In 2013, Joss Whedon worked with his brother, Jed Whedon, and wife, Maurissa Tancharoen, to revive Coulson as the center piece of a new TV series based around the agents of the SHIELD organization. An organization who’s inner workings hadn’t really been delved in to deeply during the Marvel movies beyond being the supplier of foot soldiers dressed in black suits.
When the show begins we find Agent Phil Coulson alive and well, running operations as the leader of a specially chosen SHIELD team with direct orders from Nick Fury. The first season deals largely with answering a question that Coulson himself doesn’t even know the answer to: “How is Agent Coulson alive”? Coulson actually has no idea that he was even killed, he believes that he was just badly wounded by Loki. Nick Fury has tasked him with leading a team consisting of top science Agents Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz (aka Fitz-Simmons); combat specialist and all-around hard case, Melinda May; and the all-around perfect agent, Grant Ward. They are continuing SHIELD’s work of investigating people with exceptional abilities.
They start off by picking up a hacker named Skye, who’s trying to leak secret information to the public, including information about SHIELD’s activities. In the beginning, the season is about Skye converting from being a lawless hacker to becoming a member of the SHIELD team. Ward becomes her trainer and he and Skye start to develop a romantic relationship, but that never really gets the chance to fully blossom. The team starts to deal with the persistent attacks of a powerful foe known only as “The Clairvoyant”. Behind all of this, people on the team are keeping secrets. May is keeping secrets from Coulson, Skye is keeping secrets from everyone and Coulson’s business is keeping secrets from everybody. Of course, the person keeping the biggest secret is Agent Garret, the man who trained Grant Ward. In episode 17 of season 1 (entitled “Turn, Turn, Turn”), the events of the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier reveal that the evil organization HYDRA has been hiding within SHIELD for decades. Garret is a member of HYDRA as well as the Clairvoyant that they’ve been tracking. On top of that, Grant Ward is a double agent planted by Garret on Coulson’s team.
In addition to the revelation of HYDRA, other character’s secrets are revealed. Skye’s big secret is that she has spent her life hunting for her parents and that they are somehow connected to SHIELD. May’s secret is that she’s been reporting to Nick Fury about Coulson’s mental state after his resurrection. Coulson’s got many secrets, but the one related to Garret is the mystery of how he came back to life. While Coulson helps clean up the HYDRA mess, he digs hard into his own past and discovers the truth behind the TAHITI project that revived him. The project used a substance called “GH-325”, DNA from a long-dead Chitauri alien to miraculously heal the body and SHIELD doctors implanted new memories in Coulson to help him deal with the trauma of his resurrection. Coulson himself had once been in charge of the project before recommending that it be discontinued due to the mental deterioration it caused in patients. The program was originally meant to be used on a fallen Avenger and Fury decided that Coulson fit that bill.
All this searching ultimately leads to a final confrontation between Coulson’s team and Garrett and Ward. By this time, Garrett has injected himself with the GH-325, which is causing him to go mad. With the help of Maria Hill and Nick Fury, Coulson is able to bring Ward in, but Garret is killed in the conflict (somewhat comically). In the aftermath of this conflict, Coulson’s team has gained a new member in Trip, one of Garret’s old proteges. However, they have sustained injuries. Fitz-Simmons were dropped into the sea by Ward. While trapped underwater, Fitz confessed his love for Simmons before allowing her to escape the death trap. Nick Fury rescues them but not before Fitz drowns, leaving him with brain damage due to lack of oxygen. Coulson is also entrusted by Fury with the keys to SHIELD kingdom as he is made the new director. However, it’s also shown that Coulson has begun to have compulsive drawing/carving fits similar to the ones that Garret had before he went mad from the alien blood.
At the start of season 2, Skye is now a fully operational field agent and Ward is in SHIELD’s custody inside their new base. They have a new mechanic, Alphonso “Mac” Mackenzie. Fitz is still on the mend after recovering from drowning and forms a bond with Mac, who never knew the undamaged version of Fitz. Simmons has left the team to go on an undercover mission inside HYDRA in order to keep her distance from Fitz. SHIELD is still dealing with the fact that a large part of the public doesn’t trust them after the revelation that many of their members were actually HYDRA agents. One such person is General Talbot, who’s made it his personal mission to hunt down and shutdown any remaining SHIELD agents. Talbot gets caught up in the hunt for a mysterious object known as “The Obelisk”. Someone else who gets caught up is a seasoned mercenary named Hartley (Lucy Lawless). She is killed trying to unknowingly retrieve the Obelisk. Hunter, the surviving member of her team, ends up joining up with Coulson to avenge her. Hunter is eventually joined by his ex-wife, Barbara “Bobbi” Morse aka Mockingbird. Bobbi is a long standing SHIELD member who is particularly skilled at interrogation and espionage. She was stationed inside HYDRA as back-up for Simmons.
The Obelisk is being searched for by two distinctly different parties. The first is Daniel Whitehall, a ruthless scientist who was around during the era of Peggy Carter and the Red Skull. Through inhumane experiments on Inhumans he was able to prolong his life so that he is un-aged to the current day. The other person is Cal, the man that is revealed to be Skye’s father. While having good intentions, Cal is a monstrously violent man who is trying to reunite his family while leaving a trail of bodies behind him. Having lost everything else, Ward has fixated on the idea of getting Skye back by helping her find her father, and he gives little hints along the way that help them keep up with Cal and his hunt for the Obelisk. Eventually, Ward is able to escape when Coulson tries to hand him over to his brother. He quickly joins Whitehall’s HYDRA cell in an attempt to stay in the mix with Skye and her father.
Eventually, all of these parties converge at an ancient buried city. It turns out that the Obelisk, more accurately called “The Diviner” is a device meant to lead people to this city, but not just any people. The city, and a chamber inside the city is meant for people who carry a DNA marker resulting from human experimentation conducted by Kree aliens in order to build a race of human weapons. Even though the experiment was eventually abandoned, the genetic markers are still passed down. Today, those people are known as Inhumans. Any Inhuman who goes through a process called Terrigenesis, can active their Inhuman gene and gain powers. However, any non-human who is exposed to the Terrigen is killed. Skye ends up going through this process and emerges with the power to control vibrations. During the conflict over the ancient Kree city, Whitehall is shot dead by Coulson, taking away Cal’s chance at getting revenge for what Whitehall did to his family.
After going through Terrigenesis, Skye (who’s real name is revealed to be Daisy Johnson), goes through a lot of uncertainty. She is unable to control her powers and is unsure of what this means for her life as a SHIELD Agent. On top of that Coulson’s team has been infiltrated by another group of SHIELD agents calling themselves the “real SHIELD”. Mac and Bobbi were planted in order to infiltrate Coulson’s team and help bring him under the control of the council running this new SHIELD, headed by Commander Robert Gonzalez. The events that led up to this played all the way back into the day that SHIELD fell, during the events of the Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Around this time Skye is approached by an Inhuman named Gordon who has the ability to teleport. He offers to take her to a place called “Afterlife” that is meant for people like her. When the new SHIELD faction comes to detain Daisy, she accidentally uses her powers against them and calls for Gordon to take her away.
Once at Afterlife, Skye/Daisy meets a young doctor named, Lincoln who helps her learn about her powers. She also meets Jiaying, the leader of Afterlife and her biological mother. Jiaying connects the dots for Daisy about what happened to her family. Years ago, Whitehall had experimented on Jiaying in order to obtain the secrets to her prolonged life. The procedure left Jiaying torn to shreds and Cal painstakingly pieced her back together, letting her healing powers do the rest. After that, Cal went on a mission of vengeance and carnage. When he returned to the village where he had left Daisy, SHIELD had taken her. This led both Jiaying and Cal to go on a bloody search for their daughter, but Jiaying eventually gave up the hunt to return to her duties helping the Inhumans. Jiaying leaves out two important parts of her story. The first is that her prolonged life comes from her absorbing the life force of others. The second is that she hates humans and is plotting to start an all out war between them and the Inhumans.
One of the other revelations regarding the Inhumans has to do with how May got the nickname, “The Calvary”. She and Coulson were on a mission tracking a person they believed to have powers. The woman they were tracking seemed to have the ability to make others fight for her. However, it turns out that the woman was actually being controlled by a little girl. What they never knew was that the girl was an Inhuman and her mother had gone against Jiaying’s wishes to put her through Terrigenesis. With the girl’s powers going out of control, May was forced to kill her before she killed anyone else.
One of the big issues that the “real SHIELD” has with Coulson is his secrets. In particular the “Theta Protocol” and the black box that Fury left Coulson. This leads to May being put in charge of Coulson’s base and Coulson going off on his own with Hunter and Fitz. He even ends up having to reach out to Grant Ward for help.Ward has now fallen for a former SHIELD agent (known as Agent 33) who was brainwashed and controlled by HYDRA. His ultimate goal is to get her back with SHIELD so that she can have a chance at redemption. When that fails, he and Agent 33 end up kidnapping Agent Morse, and trying to torture her into confessing that Agent 33’s capture was her fault. Bobbi is eventually saved by Hunter and May, but the ordeal takes a physical toll on her. During the rescue attempt, May manages to trick Ward into killing Agent 33, who dies in his arms.
Eventually, it’s revealed that the Theta Protocol is the code name for the project that brought the helicarrier to assist the Avengers during the events of Age of Ultron. Once those events pass, Coulson happily gives over Fury’s black box, along with the information that Fury is still alive, something Gonzales was not aware of. Coulson agrees to once again become the Director of SHIELD, but to submit to the oversight of the SHIELD council, a decision that is immediately put into action when they decide to go meet with the Inhumans. Gonzales and the council insist that Coulson not be the one to meet with Jiaying because of his personal involvement with Skye.
When Gonzalez goes to Afterlife, Jiaying tries to instigate a war with the Inhumans. Jiaying kills Gonzales and makes it look like he attacked her. Initially the Inhumans fall for her ruse, but the truth is soon revealed. Jiaying plans to release a huge amount of Terrigen mist that will kill anyone who’s not an Inhuman. While attempting to stop the release of the mist, Coulson, Mack and Fitz have to take on Gordon. They manage to take him down, but Coulson grabs a vile of the Terrigen to stop it from breaking. In order to save Coulson’s life, Mac cuts his arm off with an axe. In the final confrontation, Jiaying attacks Daisy, who is trying to stop her before Cal arrives and kills her. During the conflict the Terrigen crystals are dropped into the ocean, contaminating the food supply. Cal is taken in by SHIELD and released back into the public after having his memories erased.
At the end of the season it’s shown that May is taking a break from SHIELD with her ex-husband Andrew. Ward is assembling a new HYDRA to take down SHIELD. Coulson is getting used to not having a hand anymore and working with Daisy to start forming a new Inhuman task force. SHIELD has also captured a Kree weapon called the “Monolith”, which was feared by the Inhumans. In the last moments of the season, Fitz has just made a date with Simmons. After he leaves to go set up the details, Simmons is suddenly swallowed by the Monolith.
Season 3 sees the start of a worldwide change. With the release of the Terrigen into the food supply lots of unsuspecting people are going through Terrigenesis without knowing what’s happening to them. With no more Afterlife to act as a shelter, these people are out in the open. Skye is now going by her real name, Daisy Johnson (which Coulson and I have a hard time adjusting to). She is leading SHIELD’s efforts to track these people and trying to bring them in, but they are being combated by another organization called the ATCU. This organization is headed by Rosalind Price, a woman who actually shares an attraction with Coulson. Both groups are surprised to learn that there’s a 3rd party hunting Inhumans. This party only seems interested in killing Inhumans. For a while this sews seeds of distrust between the two groups as they think these mysterious killings are the result of the other group’s work. They spend the first few episodes butting heads before reluctantly agreeing to work together. Given that SHIELD is still not a sanctioned organization, the partnership is actually beneficial. Even so, they don’t completely agree on each other’s methods. Particularly decisive is the ATCU’s practice of placing Inhumans in to a suspension matrix in order to protect them from themselves. Over time, Coulson and Rosalind actually fall for each other and start a relationship.
In the meantime, Grant Ward has been building up HYDRA in order to take out SHIELD. While he’s doing that, Coulson has authorized Hunter to go after Ward on his own. Eventually Hunter manages to make his way to Ward with the help of May, who’s been reluctant to return to SHIELD after her time away with Andrew. When they corner Ward, he reveals that he has people prepared to take Andrew out. Hunter takes the shot at Ward, but fails to kill him. However, Andrew ends up surviving the attack. Shortly afterwards it’s revealed that Andrew is actually transitioning into becoming an Inhuman. When he changes he’s known as Lash, and his sole purpose is to kill Inhumans.
Since leaving Afterlife, Lincoln has been in the wind only keeping sporadic contact with Daisy despite her trying to bring him in. With Lash killing his friends from Afterlife, he figures out that Lash is likely a SHIELD agent and comes to join them with the news. Around the same time, May learns about Andrew’s true nature. He kidnaps her, leading to standoff between himself, SHIELD and the ATCU. May is able to talk Lash down before shooting him. They agree to use the ATCU’s suspension matrix in order to give Andrew more time before he completely transitions into Lash.
The other major story line of the beginning of the season has to do with what happened to Simmons. Fitz has been desperately searching for her, but all signs point to her being dead. She is, in fact, quite alive and stranded on an alien world. There is one great episode in this season that’s dedicated to showing how she survived there for months by herself and with the help of a stranded astronaut named Will. It’s revealed that the Monolith is one of many portals to this world. People were sent through as sacrifices to the true power behind HYDRA, a being that many of their earliest members believed to be a God. Fitz manages to figure out how to open the portal up and saves Simmons, but Will dies trying to buy her time against this being. This event catches the attention of Gideon Malick, the last remaining head of HYDRA (not counting Ward). Malick convinces Ward to join him in trying to figure out how SHIELD was able to bring something back through the portal so that they can finally realize HYDRA’s true purpose and bring this being back to earth.
Ward joins with Malick and announces his intentions to Coulson by assassinating Rosalind out of revenge. This move sends Coulson on the warpath, as he redoubles his efforts to take down Ward and HYDRA. Playing Coulson’s anger, Malick uses the chance to kidnap Fitz-Simmons and force them to reopen the portal. Their plan succeeds and Malick sends Ward through the portal to retrieve “it” aka Hive. Once they arrive on the alien world, usually referred to as Maveth, Fitz tries to find Will, hoping to save him. Will and Fitz escape and head back towards the exit portal and Ward is ambushed by Coulson, who jumped out of a plane, through a castle, and into the portal to follow him. Fitz discovers that Hive has taken over Will’s body and sets him on fire with a flare. Before they leave, Coulson collapses Ward’s rib cage to get revenge for all those Ward has killed. Unfortunately, Hive is able to infest Ward’s corpse and return through the portal to Earth.
Back on Earth, the Inhuman situation is picking up speed. Daisy is still slowly recruiting members to her team. The first is Lincoln, who stays with SHIELD after the Lash incident. Then there’s Joey Gutierrez, who they save at the beginning of the season. Later they recruit Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez, a young Latin woman who’s just trying to do the right thing. An anti-alien (anti-Inhuman) group called the Watchdogs also surfaces. These people are essentially a hate group with their targets set on Inhumans. After returning from Maveth, Coulson is appointed as the shadow head of the ATCU in order to help address the Inhuman problem. Officially, the organization is lead by Talbot, but Talbot is immediately compromised by Malick, whom Coulson went out of his way to threaten after Rosalind’s death. Coulson and his team are able to restore order, but it comes at a price. While trying to track Malick, Bobby and Hunter get intertwined in an attempted coup/assassination with an Inhuman trigger man. When they stop the coup and kill the Inhuman, they get caught up in a diplomatic web that leads to them being disavowed, meaning that they can no longer work for SHIELD.
After a run in with an Inhuman who forces people to see their future, the SHIELD team finds out that Grant Ward has returned to Earth and that he’s now infected by the parasite from Maveth, Hive. Daisy is also left with a disturbing premonition of a member of SHIELD dying in space. While the show was airing, this became a point of contention because they focused a lot of the advertising of the back half of the show around learning “who will die”. It was a gimmick that may have alienated more people than it intrigued. The vision only shows YoYo’s necklace and a SHIELD jacket. So, to play around with the audience, the show decides to play hot potato with the items for several episodes, having them handed between different members of the team.
While Coulson struggles to come to terms with whether or not killing Ward was the right thing to do, Hive is busy supplanting Malick as the new head of HYDRA. That position is short lived. After Hive kills Malick’s daughter in front of him, Malick defects and gives up HYDRA’s remaining infrastructure to SHIELD. This allows Coulson to coordinate a strike with Talbot that takes out the rest of HYDRA. Hive turns his attention away from HYDRA and towards recreating the Kree experiment that created him in the first place. It’s also revealed that Hive has the ability to “sway” Inhumans, bringing them under his control. He uses this power on a number of them, including Daisy, who was infected and used to kill Malick. In order to bring his plan to fruition, Hive kidnaps a scientist named Holden Radcliffe who specializes in modifying and augmenting humans. Hive sets up shop in a small town in the middle of nowhere in order to develop the procedure while SHIELD tries to mount a counteroffensive.
In the midst of this battle, the events of Captain America: Civil War take place. This leads Talbot to show up at the base demanding to register the Inhumans that Coulson has under his command. He unwittingly ends up in the midst of a ruse being employed by the SHIELD team against Daisy. They know that she’s hacked into their systems, so they have Lincoln pretend to escape on a Quinjet. Instead, they send Lash to kill Hive. Lash manages to badly wound hive and remove his influence from Daisy, but he is killed before he can finish the job. Daisy does manage to return to SHIELD with information that lets them know what Hive’s true agenda is. With Radcliffe’s help and the Kree blood running through Daisy, Hive manages to create primitive Inhumans that he can control. Using a warhead stolen from the ATCU, he can turn a large portion of the human race into primitive Inhumans.
After SHIELD thwarts his initial plans, Hive uses the information he got from Daisy to steal a Quinjet that he plans to use to fly his weapon into the sky. While the rest of the team fights against Hive, Daisy is going through withdrawal symptoms as a result of Hive’s sway being removed from her. She eventually tries to have Hive take her back, but Lash’s influence makes her immune to him. Daisy attacks Hive in a rage, but he manages to escape with the jet. Coulson and the rest of the team go after the jet, but with Hive’s plan at an advanced stage, they are running out of options. Coulson’s plan is to load the weapon onto a smaller jet and fly it into space, preventing it from infecting anyone. Daisy is sure that it’s her destiny to be the one in the vision, but Lincoln sneaks onto the jet and, at the last moment, blasts Daisy off of it. He flies into space with Hive and the weapon on it. Lincoln sacrifices himself to save Daisy and the World.
Six months after Lincoln’s sacrifice, Daisy has left SHIELD and is now a fugitive who’s dedicating her life to helping Inhumans. Coulson and Mac are partners, and Coulson has given up his post as the Director of SHIELD. Radcliffe is also shown to have had his name cleared of any wrongdoing, but he is now working on a new project: Life Model Decoys.
Season 4 begins with the introduction of a new character: Robbie Reyes aka The Ghost Rider. Daisy has been on her one woman crusade to take out the Inhuman hate group called the Watchdogs and has become known as the vigilante “Quake”. After Lincoln’s death, Daisy is trying to honor his memory,while also trying to keep herself away from anything she cares about. When attacking some of the Watchdogs, she comes across Ghost Rider and believes him to be an Inhuman with some particularly bizarre powers. Eventually, it’s revealed that Robbie is inhabited by a “spirit of vengeance” that was given to him by the original Ghost Rider after a nearly fatal accident. Most fans assume that the bestower was the character Johnny Blaze, although he is never named in the show and the original rider is simply referred to as “the good Samaritan”.
The rest of Coulson’s SHIELD team has been dispersed among a new SHIELD. May is still in the field, but working with a strike force. Coulson and Mac are partners in the field. Fitz-Simmons are still together, but Simmons has become the personal science liaison to the new director, Jeffrey Mace aka The Patriot. Even though Daisy is off on her own, they are still trying to bring her back in. When reports of burned and mangled bodies start popping up around her recent location, they go to investigate. Instead of finding Daisy, they get mixed up in a case of what appear to be ghosts. They are actually scientists who were caught in an accident caused by Robbie’s uncle, Elias “Eli” Morrow. The entire accident was centered around a magical book called the Darkhold. For those wondering about the MCU tie-in during this season, the Darkhold is a mystic item often associated with Dr. Strange, who’s solo film came out during Season 4. Eli became infatuated with the book like many before him and planned to use it to give himself the power to create and manipulate matter.
As the situation with the Darkhold becomes more dangerous, Coulson goes out of his way to bring both Quake and Ghost Rider in to work with SHIELD. This unauthorized action becomes problematic for Mace. Trying to make a newer, friendlier SHIELD is hard when opposing political forces are suggesting that you have a vigilante and a potential serial killer in your midst. One opponent in particular is Senator Nadeer, who has her own personal agenda outside of being a dog whistle for the Watchdogs and other hate groups. When the situation with Eli becomes more dire, Coulson convinces Mace to put his hunt for Quake and Ghost Rider on hold to deal with it. This leads to a showdown that threatens to destroy all of LA.
Before the situation with Morrow went critical, Fitz and Radcliffe had been working on the Life Model Decoy (LMD) project. It’s fruits are the life-like android AIDA (Artificial Intelligent Digital Assistant). When May was infected by the ghosts earlier in the season, Radcliffe used AIDA to help her recuperate. In order to combat Eli and save Fitz, Coulson and Robbie they have AIDA read the Darkhold. She manages to use the information in the book to construct a portal to another dimension in order to save them.
Once they have everyone back, they face off with Eli in a battle that shakes the city around them. In order to stop his uncle, Ghost Rider traps him inside of the bomb that he created while AIDA sends the entire thing through another gate. In the aftermath of the battle, Daisy is exposed to the public. Thinking quickly, Mace steps between her and the cameras and announces that she has been working as an undercover agent for SHIELD. This brings Daisy back into the fold at SHIELD.
Unfortunately, using the Darkhold comes at a cost. After looking into it for a moment, Radcliffe becomes obsessed with it. He attempts to have Aida retrieve it, but makes it look like she’s gone rogue. This results in the original Aida being destroyed by Mack, but not before a 2nd one is constructed in secret by Radcliffe. Using Aida’s increased capabilities, he also replaces May with another LMD in order to retrieve the Darkhold from SHIELD. They keep May sedated inside a computer simulated world that Radcliffe calls the “Framework”. In order to keep May properly sedated, Radcliffe and Aida work to make the Framework a more realistic simulation that would be undetectable as a false reality.
As they do more and more work on the Framework, Radcliffe realizes that the Framework is the solution to his greatest regret. Radcliffe is in love with a woman named Agnes, he started his research into human augmentation when she was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Even though her body can’t be saved, Radcliffe realizes that she can live a full life inside the Framework. After snatching her out from under the noses of Mack and Coulson, Radcliffe uploads her to the Framework. With the love of his life saved, Radcliffe starts to spend more and more time inside the Framework, becoming obsessed with his new virtual world.
Radcliffe also partners with a man named Ivanov, aka the “Superior” or the “Superior Man”. Ivanov is the man behind the Watchdogs. He and Radcliffe were introduced by Senator Nadeer before the Senator was killed by one of Ivanov’s agents. Ivanov’s true target has been the person that he believes to be at the center of all of the alien activity on earth as of late. When he looked into the Chitauri invasion of New York, the spread of Inhumans, and the tragic execution of his own former Russian comrades, he always found the same man standing in the shadows. That man is Phil Coulson. In exchange for his help in acquiring the Darkhold, Radcliffe gives Ivanov information on Coulson and leads Ivanov right to him. This leads to a huge confrontation between Ivanov and SHIELD where Daisy is finally able to put down the lead Watchdog. However, during the mission several members of the SHIELD team (Coulson, Mack, Mace, and Fitz) are captured by Aida and replaced with LMDs.
As a result of using the Darkhold Aida has become self-aware. With Radcliffe spending more and more time in the Framework, she has been running his operation while still under the constraints of his programming. After the other SHIELD agents are captured, she uses the Framework as a loophole to her directive to protect Radcliffe. She kills Radcliffe, but keeps his mind alive inside the Framework. Along with Radcliffe the other agents are all living in a shared virtual reality where Aida has removed one great regret from each of their lives. For Coulson, it’s the choice to give up on living a simple life to join SHIELD. For May, it’s killing the little girl in Bahrain. For Mack, it’s the death of his daughter Hope. For Fitz, it’s not having his father in his life.
After realizing that their friends have been replaced with LMDs, Daisy and Simmons are left as their last hope. Along with a handful of SHIELD agents, they fight their way out of the SHIELD compound. The May LMD ends up holding off the rest of the LMDs in order to allow them to escape. Unlike the 2nd wave of LMDs, the May clone was programmed to think that she was actually May. So, she does what May would do and sacrifices herself by blowing up the base along with the rest of the LMDs. With the base being blown up and not knowing who they can trust, Daisy and Simmons head out on the Zephyr and hack their way into the Framework to wake their friends up. This leads to, in my opinion, the best story arc in all four seasons of Agents of SHIELD: the “Agents of HYDRA” arc.
When they get inside, Daisy and Simmons find a world that is completely backwards. In this world, HYDRA won the war and their friends have no memory of their real world lives. Coulson is living as a history teacher, who promotes state propaganda about HYDRA. Mack lives with his daughter and tries to keep both of their heads down so HYDRA doesn’t notice them. May is a high ranking operative in HYDRA. Daisy wakes up to find that she is also a HYDRA operative, without her inhuman powers. She’s also in a relationship with Grant Ward. It turns out that, even in this world, Ward is a double agent. He is secretly working with SHIELD, led by the heroic Jeffrey Mace. In this world Inhumans are screened for and hunted by HYDRA and Ward knows that Daisy has Inhuman DNA. Meanwhile, Simmons was killed in a HYDRA attack on the SHIELD academy. So, when she enters the framework, she wakes up to find herself in a mass grave. The biggest change happens for Fitz. He is now the 2nd in command at HYDRA and is known as “the Doctor”. He spends a lot of his time performing inhumane experiments on Inhumans and working on a device for his girlfriend and the leader of HYDRA, Madame Hydra aka Aida (or Ophelia as she’s known in the Framework).
The majority of this story arc involves Daisy and Simmons struggling to reach out to their friends. Not only do they have to fight against HYDRA, but they have to find a way to get their teammates to believe that they are telling the truth about their world not being real. Fortunately, because Coulson’s mind has already been rewritten by the TAHITI project, his brain works a bit differently than what Aida could anticipate and he is able to remember fragments of his real life. As Daisy, Simmons and Coulson end up with SHIELD they have to fight against HYDRA in order to get close enough to their friends to save them and find a way out of the Framework. Mace ends up being killed during the fighting, but his death helps to open May’s eyes to the problems with the world they live in. They also have no way of reaching Fitz because of his position in HYDRA and the hold Aida has on him. Things get even worse when Simmons goes to try to use Fitz’s father as a hostage and ends up killing him in the process.
Fitz does not remember his real life, but Aida has told him about the “other world” and how she was enslaved to SHIELD in that world. She has him use Darkhold tech to build a device that will allow her to construct a body for herself inside the real world. So, as SHIELD causes a revolution in the Framework, Daisy, Coulson, Simmons, May and Mack head to the backdoor exit to escape. Fitz tracks them in order to get revenge on Simmons. Fitz ends up being tricked by Radcliffe who throws him through the door at gun point. Everyone manages to escape the Framework except for Mac who decides to stay with his daughter, even if she isn’t real. Fortunately for Mack, YoYo decides that she’s going to go into the Framework and pull him out or die trying. It takes until the last second, and involves a lot of tears, but she does manage to save him.
When everyone wakes up, they find themselves in the middle of a whirlwind of problems. After the explosion at the base, the remaining SHIELD members are being hunted by Talbot as traitors. Ivanov has been turned into a hive of robot duplicates by Aida and is trying to kill anyone who woke up on his base. His men are trying to shoot the Zephyr out of the sky. Perhaps their biggest problem is that Aida has completed her body and is now a real person. She also reveals that she has multiple Inhuman powers. While the rest of SHIELD deals with their other problems, Aida teleports away to a remote beach with Fitz, who she’s in love with. She is being overwhelmed by her new found ability to feel feelings and Fitz is trying his best to help her cope with this while he is coping with the feelings of dealing with all the horrible things that he did in the Framework. All of this comes to a head when a broken Fitz tells Aida that he doesn’t love her. Not being emotionally mature enough to deal with the feeling of heartbreak, Aida lashes out and becomes determined to destroy SHIELD and make Fitz suffer.
Just as Aida prepares to use the Darkhold to ruin everything and everyone, the Ghost Rider reappears from the hell dimension that he was sucked into. After spending a good amount of time just fighting his way through these other dimensions, the Ghost wanted him to return to Earth to deal with Aida, whose body is made out of the same dark matter as the Darkhold. Conveniently, Aida is weak against the Rider’s powers. After a brief skirmish that results in Talbot being shot in the head in order to frame SHIELD, they are able to trick Aida into getting close enough to the Ghost Rider for it to turn her body to ash. With the danger over, the SHIELD agents are left in the literal rubble of their base as fugitives from the law. They agree that whatever they do, they will do it together.
At the end of season 4, the tag scene shows the SHIELD team being “captured” at a diner by some shadowy agents who freeze them in place. Coulson wakes up on a spaceship before saying it’s time to go to work. This led to a lot of early suggestions that season 5 could involve the space-based counterparts to SHIELD, the agents of SWORD. SWORD (Sentient World Observation and Report Division) is an organization that was also created by Joss Whedon in the comics, so it makes sense that they could appear in this series. There are a few problems with this idea. One of them being that SWORD may be too closely tied to the X-Men to appear in a non-Fox/Sony production. Another issue is that the promo material shows a SHIELD logo on a space-craft and SWORD is it’s own independent organization.
Whatever the team affiliation is, we know that season 5 of this show will take us to space. I’m hoping that they continue with the momentum that they gained at the end of season 4.