Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Rethinks Regret

In the fourth season, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are forced to face one of their greatest foes yet: their own regrets.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4

Note: This article contains spoilers for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Though its ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t quite as explicit as they once were, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has turned out to be an interesting series in its own right. Led by the indefatigable Phil Coulson, the agents of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division have saved the world from numerous threats, both terrestrial and alien, in the show’s first three seasons. But the show’s recently completed fourth season forced them to face one of their greatest foes yet: their own regrets.

To recap, season four contains three distinct-though-connected storylines. In the season’s first storyline, Coulson and his team seek to recover the Darkhold, an ancient alien, possibly even demonic, tome that offers its readers limitless wisdom and power — but at an unimaginable cost.

In their quest for the Darkhold, S.H.I.E.L.D. encounters Ghost Rider, the guy with the flaming skull. When I first learned that Marvel’s (in)famous spirit of vengeance would appear in Agents’ latest season, I was pretty skeptical — due, no doubt, to visions of the Nicolas Cage movies. But Ghost Rider’s inclusion was far more interesting than I thought it would be, due in large part to Gabriel Luna’s nuanced performance as the Rider. (No Cage-like histrionics here, thankfully.)

Even with the infernally powered Ghost Rider on their side, however, the Darkhold proves so dangerous that Coulson et al. turned to another unlikely ally: an android (“Life Model Decoy” in Marvel-speak) named Aida that was created by Holden Radcliffe, a brilliant but careless scientist introduced in season three. Radcliffe believes that Aida, being an android, can read the Darkhold without being adversely affected, so he turns the tome over to her in a bid to save several characters who’ve become trapped in another dimension. He is, however, overly optimistic, as we see in the season’s second and third storylines.

Through the Darkhold’s influence, Aida becomes sentient and, now aware of her limitations as a machine, puts in motion a plan to ultimately become a person. This plan involves replacing several key agents with android doppelgängers, which throws the whole team into disarray, leads to some truly gut-wrenching scenes of deception and betrayal, and threatens the existence of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is already viewed with suspicion by the government). Furthermore, the replaced agents’ consciousnesses are uploaded to the Framework, a virtual, Matrix-like environment.

The series’ third storyline takes us into the Framework, and there we see the brilliant final piece of Aida’s plan. In order to keep the agents placated in the Framework, Aida has programmed the virtual world to fix their biggest regret in life. For Coulson, that means indulging his fascination with history by making him a high school history teacher. May no longer carries the weight of having killed a child on a mission gone wrong. Fitz is reconciled with his father. And Mack is reunited with his daughter who died when she was a baby.

Interestingly enough, these changes do not result in a utopia, personal or otherwise. In the Framework, Hydra — the evil organization that S.H.I.E.L.D. has battled throughout the years — has triumphed and rules with an iron fist, à la 1984. Propaganda fills the airwaves, and distrust — especially towards super-powered Inhumans (humans given super powers through alien genetic engineering) — is everywhere.

In a twisted version of the butterfly effect, we see how the slightest change — even something that seems positive, like removing a painful regret or memory — can have wide-ranging consequences. Consequences that affect, not just our lives, but also the broader world, changing it in ways that we could never foresee.

Much of the Framework’s horror is a direct result of “fixing” May’s regret. In the real world, the child she was forced to kill was a powerful Inhuman. Killing her saved lives, but it broke May, who then pushed herself to become the perfect agent in order to ensure something like that would never happen again. In the Framework, however, the young girl lives and comes to America, where she becomes a mass murderer. The public outcry over her actions ultimately allows Hydra to rise up, defeat S.H.I.E.L.D., and take over.

Whereas May’s fixed regret affects the world, Fitz’s fixed regret has much more personal results. In the real world, Fitz is a brilliant engineer whose awkwardness and earnest bumbling has often made him the butt of the series’ jokes, but whose fierce sense of loyalty also makes him one of the series’ most endearing characters. In the Framework, however, he’s Hydra’s chief scientist, a cold and ruthless man who oversees horrific experiments even on children.

What brings about this dramatic change of heart? In the Framework, Fitz is reunited with his estranged father, which should be a good thing. But we quickly see that his father is callous and brutal; he is constantly goading Fitz to man up, to show no weakness to those around him. Since the Framework, as we learn, rebuilds entire lives, it’s safe to assume that Fitz has heard that advice throughout his (virtual) life, turning him into the kind of man who executes people with no reserve or remorse.

Both Coulson and Mack’s fixed regrets have some positive side effects, but even they are ultimately twisted by the Framework. Although Coulson may be living the quiet life of a history teacher and is just as nurturing and encouraging as he was while S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, those qualities are now in service to alternative facts and a corrupt agenda intent on rewriting history. And while Mack now gets to be with the daughter he tragically lost, and become the father he’s always wanted to be, it’s still in service of a lie — one that he’s willing to believe even after he sees the truth of the Framework with his own eyes.

Our regrets are (naturally) viewed in a negative light. They weigh us down, flood us with guilt, and haunt us throughout our days. But through the Framework, we’re given a glimpse of how our heroes’ regrets — or at least, the actions that lead to their results (e.g., a mission gone wrong, a broken parental relationship) — have actually shaped the world for good.

As I watched the events of the Framework play out, I was reminded of Romans 8:28: “[W]e know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Here, the Bible promises that all things — our biggest regrets in life and even the terrible things that we’ve experienced — can be redeemed, that God can work something out of our failures and brokenness that’s far greater than we can ever imagine. And lest we think that’s just a nice platitude, the death and resurrection of Christ epitomizes this redemptive work of God.

From the Christian perspective, the crucifixion of Christ — when the perfect and holy Son of God was unjustly put to death in a most barbaric, brutal, and shameful manner — is the worst thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world. But through that atrocity came the greatest blessing for humanity: the possibility of true and eternal reconciliation with our creator and Heavenly Father.

At the end of Agents’ fourth season, our heroes emerge from the Framework, but not unscathed. Of all of them, Mack — who, for what it’s worth, has shown evidence in previous episodes of being a religious man — seems to have the best perspective. On the one hand, he still carries with him the experience of raising his daughter and mourns losing her, in a sense, for a second time. On the other hand, as he puts it, those (virtual) years give him a glimpse of the sort of life he could have in the real world, which bodes well for his relationship with the Inhuman speedster Yo-Yo.

Arguably, Fitz comes out of the Framework the most damaged (which isn’t too surprising given the series’ tendency to put him through the wringer). Unable to forget the things he did in the Framework, he’s understandably worried about what they mean. Is he really, deep down inside, the sort of cruel man his father would respect? What do his Framework actions mean for his relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. and, more importantly, for his relationship with fellow agent Simmons? Some reconciliation occurs in the season finale, but I suspect this will be explored further in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fifth season. (And no doubt, the Fitz fans among us will go through the wringer along with him as he wrestles with his darker aspects.)

Regret will follow us wherever we go, and whatever we do. Sometimes the regrets are minimal, even trivial. We regret eating something we shouldn’t, we regret staying up too late at night. But often our regrets are far deeper and more affecting. We regret a relationship we had, or alternatively, a relationship we never pursued. We regret the rash words we said in anger, words that can never be unsaid. We regret the hurtful things we’ve done to friends and loved ones, and even if we’ve been forgiven, we know that the relationship has been altered in ways that can’t be fully repaired, not on this side of eternity anyway.

But we’ll never know the true effect of those regrets. We may occasionally play a game of “What If?” but life’s near-infinite complexity means we’ll never be able to determine how our regrets played out in the world around us. Even still, Romans 8:28 gives us hope that, while our regrets do shape us, they need not ultimately define us. Indeed, we — along with our favorite covert agents — can trust that something good may come of them yet, not just for ourselves, but for the broader world through which we move.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .