Warning – FULL SPOILERS for Tonight’s “No Regrets”:

Not unironically, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might have regrets spending so much time in the Framework. That’s an admittedly harsh reading for the series’ likely best season, and its most appreciably out-there arc yet, but as much as I try to suspend disbelief of this VR arc as an alternate reality, the major events of an episode like “No Regrets” are all so frustratingly meaningless. Mace is gone! But, he died saving a building full of children that don’t technically exist, and he never remembered who he was in the first place. B.J. Britt’s Tripp is back! I don’t know how many fans really remember Tripp since his Season 2 demise, and – like Ward – it’s not really him regardless.

That’s the hurdle Season 4’s final arc is still grappling with; that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying to present this “What If” arc through two different lenses. On the one hand, Season 4 is asking Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet to shoulder enormous burden as the only active characters who understand the nature of this reality. On the other, “No Regrets” offers multiple scenes of un-awakened characters like Mack, Mace and Ward interacting, with enough shades of their real-world relationships to read like meaningful development, but the added frustration of knowing it won’t advance their memories.

After all, however in-character it might seem for a half-aware Coulson to veer off-mission for a bunch of his abandoned “students,” Simmons is there to remind us that none of those children actually exist. The same goes for a Hydra-fied May becoming disillusioned with her Framework persona, and drawing rebellious inspiration from Mace’s heroic effort to save the captured youths from a collapsing building; they’ve attached dramatic weight to a sacrifice that ultimately equates to Mace dying for nothing. No children were actually saved, and one of Season 4’s best additions is lost without ever knowing that.

“Just like this extra we both accidentally killed, right? Jason?”

I’d like to believe Season 5 is still in the cards for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it certainly feels like the “Agents of Hydra” pod exists to take a victory lap with past stars like Brett Dalton and B.J. Britt, or subtle callbacks like the Mr. Hyde formula powering up May. “No Regrets” also gave us our first return to the outside world – if only to confirm Mace’s actual death – and it’s continually difficult to say what character beats like Fitz’s imagined relationship with his father (David O’Hara), or Simmons pondering the “ones and zeroes” of Mack’s daughter will mean in the real world. Not to mention, the rules themselves are still head-scratchingly opaque in the framework; that May could toss down a Terrigen crystal and restore Daisy’s Quake powers, but Aida/Madame Hydra couldn’t overwrite that with a snap of her fingers.

*It’s plausible, however unlikely, that the use of Cal’s formula foreshadows Kyle MacLachlan’s return to the series. Even so, it feels like a missed opportunity to pump May up with that super-strength, without reprising/improving on the ridiculous “Mr. Hyde” make-up that came with it. Ming-Na would be game!

Don’t get me wrong, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. deserves to celebrate its accomplishments, and it’s wonderful to see some of these old characters again. I just can’t help feeling like the effort in getting there comes at the expense of newer additions like Jason O’Mara’s Mace, and isn’t really making clear what value these experiences have when we inevitably return to the real world. The limitations of this particular “What If” gimmick are not lessening by any means.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • Again, so Mace is actually an Inhuman in this reality? He talks like it, but it’s never made clear.
  • Anyone find any notable names on that wall of Cambridge casualties? I only looked up a few; mostly producers and crew.
  • “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Eye-roll.
  • ‘Memba Daniel Whitehall? ‘Memba?
  • Ten-to-one odds Simmons actually uses “we’re having a baby” to shock Fitz back to reality. The usual TV signs aren’t there, but it would make sense after Radcliffe’s comment.
  • Is there a reason Mace needed to wear the actual Patriot suit in their infiltration?
  • Britt is far from the only former series star spurring rumors of a return, but it sure seems like they’re teasing Luke Mitchell’s Lincoln.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 will continue Tuesday, April 25 with “All the Madame’s Men,” airing at 10:00 P.M. on ABC.

Check Out 100 TV Facts You May Not Know!