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REVIEW: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 4×21 “The Return”

Not since Season 1 have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers been given an hour-long season finale. The past two years have doubled-up, airing the season’s penultimate and final episodes back-to-back over the course of two hours. This year, viewers are getting the episodes as they’re meant to air, making the intensity of, “The Return,” feel that much greater. Unlike years past, we now have to wait the standard week before finding out how this dramatic arc, and season, will come to a close. And, considering how this episode ended, we’re in for one hell of a ride.

Spoilers ahead!

Picking up in the worst version of Atlantis ever, Coulson and May are still dealing with the mental and physical side-effects that come with awakening from a virtual reality. In addition to the understandable sluggishness, the agents are dealing with two lives worth of memories fighting for attention in their respective brains. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a veritable army of Russian androids that wants nothing more than to kill them. Luckily, the combination of May’s natural badassery and a heavy dose of epinephrine means that she and Phil are able to respectively outpunch and outwit the numerous Anton Ivanov’s coming for them.


Less lucky is the fact that another Russian android is getting ready to torpedo the entire base to flood it… and everyone still in it.

This includes Mack who, as we know, made the choice to not leave the Framework with his friends. Something that Daisy has the misfortune of explaining to YoYo after the S.H.I.E.L.D. gang over on Zephyr 1 manage to evade the aerial assault looking to blast them out of the sky. Explaining to YoYo that Mack didn’t want to leave his daughter, and couldn’t even remember her in the virtual reality thanks to Aida’s control of the program, Daisy tells her friend that their best option is to protect his real body in this world before something bad happens to it.


Speaking of Aida…

Now officially going by Ophelia, our resident Pinocchio has whisked Fitz away to an apartment that is identical to the one Madame Hydra had in the Framework. Evidently, her goal was to give him something familiar to help him segue back into the real world. Explaining that she’s now capable of feeling, and that her former self was simply programmed to make everyone happy, Opheliaida thinks she’s doing good and is starting a new life with Fitz by her side. But Fitz is a genius and realizes that everyone includes the Russian… meaning that his friends are in danger back where they left them. Begging Opheliaida to use her newfound ability to empathize, Fitz convinces her to teleport them back to the underwater base…

Which is now sinking into the ocean.

While the gang still on the Zephyr managed to roll up just in time to pull Coulson and May to safety, none are able to go back down to save Mack but, just when they’re about to be forced to leave him behind, Opheliada pops up on the airbase with Mack and Fitz in tow.

Of course… she is immediately ICED by Jemma, as is Fitz, and sequestered in a containment pod in the Playground that was previously designed to contain the last teleporter the gang had to deal with, Gordon. Whilst they’re stuck in the Tardis version of a white honeycomb (bigger on the inside) Fitz has a bit of a breakdown as he laments who he was in the Framework and how, thanks to his despicable actions, his relationship with Jemma is likely over. He makes a point of detailing that he loves fully, and only has room in his heart for one, and… can you believe Aida actually thought he was talking about her?!


No, Fitz only has room for Jemma… a fact that, though somehow missed the first time around by Aida, is one that causes the fresh (In)human to dial up on the crazy. Something that’s hard to believe is even possible considering we’re talking about someone who used to be a robot, created an alternate universe and trapped a boatload of people in it, proceeded to kill anyone who interfered with her plans, and then had the audacity to blame the whole thing on Radcliffe and his programming of her.


Anyways, Aida is NOT happy to hear that Fitz doesn’t love her and proceeds to flip every sh!t that there is to flip… which is how we learn that teleportation isn’t the only gift she’s chosen to bestow upon herself. Apparently, the testing that Hydra did on Inhumans in the Framework was a bit more like extracting and now Aida has them all. While the containment room was designed to keep her teleportation at bay, it was not designed for the powers she seems to have stolen from one Lincoln Campbell and she promptly short-circuits the power until she can escape. Literally insane at this point, Aida goes on a full-blown murder spree on her hunt for Fitz- the man who introduced her to heartbreak, jealousy, and pure rage with a single utterance of, “Jemma.”


Luckily, our resident scientist manages to escape and quickly tell May to get the Zephyr the hell out of the Playground before Aida manages to hop on board and kill them all. Less lucky is the fact that the rando S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that we barely had time to know and love were essentially sacrificed so the big guns could get away. Though the gang did manage to escape, it seems that their victory will be short-lived considering Aida immediately makes her way back to the Russian and begins plotting on how to make everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. suffer.

Part of the plan? Making the world of the Framework real.

Oh, and speaking of the Framework, YoYo has hooked herself into the virtual reality and awakens strapped to a gurney as screams echo in the distance and a fire blazes around her. It seems that the quick departure of Hydra’s biggest and baddest, as well as the new resistance fighters that brought their sins into the light, has left the Framework in a bit of a mess.

Did I forget to mention that, emerging from the rubble of the Playground this week was one Robbie Reyes? That’s right, Ghost Rider is back and, if I remember things correctly, seeking vengeance. But against who, or what, remains to be seen.


It’s no surprise that, “The Return,” was as high-octane and emotional as it was. Scribed by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, both of whom are known for tearing fans’ hearts out and throwing them in every which direction, this week’s penultimate episode was laced with twists, turns, and a slew of heart-pounding moments that make next week’s finale seem simultaneously too close and too far.

Aida seems to have quickly realized that being human isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be and, now that she’s not restrained by those pesky protocols, it appears as though she’s more than willing to kill absolutely anybody and everybody, whether they’re an actual threat to her or not. It seems that anger is her preferred emotion (she certainly taps into it easily enough) and will be used to propel the events of the finale.

How the show will tie up all of the insanity dropped this week is beyond me but… I guess it’s all the more reason for ABC to #RenewAgentsofSHIELD

Episode Grade: A-

Episode Highs:

  • Kevin Tancharoen has grown to be one of my favorite directors in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s rotation (Skye’s S2 one-shot fight sequence remains one of the more epic of the series) and he did not disappoint this week. The man has a penchant for hallway fights and continued his streak this week with a battle royale between the Cavalry and an army of Russians. And, while the action sequences always stick out, the emotional moments from tonight’s episode were shot beautifully and in a manner that simultaneously showed and evoked the most intense of reactions. Leading us to…
  • Only Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain de Caestecker can infuse that much emotion into a scene with absolutely no dialogue. The much-anticipated FitzSimmons reunion was a poignant one, both dealing with the residual trauma from the Framework, made even more so by the heartbreaking performances of the characters’ portrayers. The scene felt a bit like a mash-up between the hospital scene in the back-half of Season 1 and (as avid fans might remember) the deleted scene between the two that occurred after Trip’s death in Season 2. Fitz and Simmons have always been two people so innately connected that words often aren’t necessary. Their silent communication, whether it be in comedic scenes or gut-wrenching, is what further highlights the fact that the two are forever linked.


  • While Aida and everything about her/this arc really creeps me out, it can’t be argued that Mallory Jansen went all out this week. I still felt more unnerved than sympathetic during Aida’s whole, “I just want to feel, I did everything because I was programmed,” phase, but her rapid turn into murderous psycho was thrilling to see thanks to Jansen’s performance. The look of stunned shock on her face as Fitz reiterated his love for Jemma, followed by the animalistic scream she released as she described how hard she worked to have a choice (him) was great to watch.

Episode Lows:

  • I’m still really not caring at all about Ivanov. He doesn’t feel like a bad, let alone a big bad (I maintain that he’s essentially just Grant Ward with an accent), and the fact that characters and viewers alike are meant to view him as such is baffling to me. Aida is genuinely psychotic at this point, the literal definition of a loose canon, and I just can’t see how the Russian is meant to be an equal to her.

Additional Thoughts:

  • How do you think Robbie will play into the final episode? Is the Rider the only one who can stop Aida for good?
  • Did my eyes deceive me or did YoYo get the comic treatment? From what I could tell, her Framework avatar was severely lacking in arms… which could mean that we might see the bionic limbs that her comic counterpart is known for.

What did you think about the latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

About the author

Silje Falck-Pedersen