The Framework in Agents of HYDRA

Where do we even begin? This is yet another article that I hadn’t been planning. Well, I’m sorry: that is just an alternative fact. You see, I had been thinking of writing about this arc of Agents of SHIELD if only for its political implications if nothing else. But somehow I just hadn’t gotten around to it and I think I know why. The issue is, like a few of my other articles by this point, I’m actually writing this before the Agents of HYDRA arc is over and as such, I know for a fact that there will be things that come up in the next episodes that may not make it into this iteration of my writing.

Nevertheless, if I were to give this writing a gender like Daisy Johnson and other equally important women in real life, she persisted. In fact, I’d say that there are at least four women in this arc who are persisting given the circumstances: the aforementioned Quake herself, Jemma Simmons, Melinda May, and, yes, even the Madame Hydra Ophelia formerly known as the artificial intelligent android Aida.

It’s funny. When I thought I’d be writing an entire article about systems with regards to Agents of SHIELD or The Winter Soldier, I thought I’d be attempting to compare and contrast what we know of the HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola’s algorithm and Project Insight with Hari Seldon’s psychohistory from The Foundation series. This, fortunately or not, hasn’t happened yet on my end but the Framework and what has happened to it, its visitors, and its inhabitants does seem to fall into a similar niche of the affect on an individual when society inevitably changes around them. However, while Isaac Asimov doesn’t necessarily account for how a change in an individual’s psyche or experience affects their overall social order with regards to his First Foundation of Terminus and Project Insight on The Winter Soldier’s end seems to only target specific threats — people and places — to HYDRA’s potential post-apocalyptic world rebuilding plan after predicting and creating some “Seldon Crises” based on Zola’s mysterious and unspecified algorithm, the Framework expanded on by Ophelia and her creator Dr. Radcliffe creates its own reality through a tweaking or change in the psychic makeup of both AI profiles and users interfaced into the system.

In fact the Framework does what HYDRA, the original HYDRA branches, only has limited success in accomplishing with Arnim Zola, Johann Fennhoff, and Daniel Whitehall’s compliance or “Faustus method.” It’s not unlike how Isaac Asimov’s hidden Second Foundation of mental scientists from Trantor tweak the minds of “aberrations” that avoid or disregard the rational, political, and military safeguards of the First Foundation in maintaining the Seldon Plan to restore galactic order. However, these aberrations in the case of the Framework aren’t exceptions such as individuals with extreme mental abilities, though certainly the aspect of hunting Inhumans down might have some resonance with this idea. Rather, the Framework, under Ophelia and originally Radcliffe, operates on the idea that changing the histories of individuals, in essence changing their identities or their focuses by tweaking key parts of their pasts, can change the social order in which they live.

There are a lot of details to consider here. The Framework itself was created for SHIELD by Leopold Fitz and Jemma Simmons as a training simulation. Somehow Holden Radcliffe, probably due to his clearance with SHIELD at the time and more likelier because of his close working relationship with Fitz on the android formerly known as Aida, gained access to the Framework and began to modify it: expanding it into a whole other form of virtual reality. This process was greatly aided by Ophelia herself and, between the two of them and their exposure to the powerful mystical book called the Darkhold, they were able to make their reality into…. something else.

This wasn’t immediately apparent at the beginning. Agent May’s capture, sedation, and immersion into the modified Framework was the first test that the two had to run in order to create a reality that felt plausible enough, or attuned enough to the inner desires of the implanted user to keep them inside it. Their tests with May weren’t unlike the original iterations of the Matrix that the Machines of The Matrix ran on their “human batteries”: first attempting a paradise simulation, and then a nightmare one: both of which failed due to that human need for a plausible reality. However, unlike The Matrix, May and eventually the other agents Radcliffe and Ophelia captured had enough suspicion and struggle within them by the very nature of their profession as spies and operatives to be held, and in their own way shape “the Nightmare Matrix” that convinced them of its reality. Come to think of it, it is fairly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman: Golden Age aptly named “Spy Story”: similar in that while the former was created as a simulation to deprogram spies in a seemingly utopian world, with the aid of the reincarnated dead agent Evelyn Cream no less, The Framework reprograms them, or others brought into it, to supposedly take away their ultimate regrets and create their ideal lives.

Of course given the nature of what we are working with here, it is easy not to take the reality of The Framework seriously on first glance. I mean, just how many television programs – comics-based or otherwise – have that one virtual reality episode that challenges the protagonists whereupon they remember where they are, and who they are and by the end of the show, or the two or three-parter destroy the simulation without consequence and get the bad guys that trapped them there? Hell, even The Matrix was only three official films if we’re going to get technical about it. But even The Matrix made viewers question just how real its virtual reality is to the “Bluepills” within it, and the vast consequences of its creation and changes in identity and self-identification for the “Redpills” that leave it. For instance, what does it mean when you meet someone in something like The Framework, that you thought was your whole life, only to find out that they are someone else in “the other world” or that they don’t exist there anymore, or never had?

That is only one part of the psychological factor to consider. Let’s see if we can look at the rest of it. It takes a while to fully comprehend the scope of The Framework such as it becomes. It is appropriate that the episode where it becomes fully detailed is called “What If?” given how this is a Marvel television show and its origins in some of the company’s most popular comics stories. Essentially, the conceit goes a little something like this. The reality that Ophelia herself writes, based on Radcliffe’s findings that only adversity seems to strongly attune itself to the desires of the people connected to The Framework, is a scenario where HYDRA won the war against SHIELD. Instead of rising from the ranks of SHIELD and the world in The Winter Soldier taking advantage of the Chitauri Invasion Aftermath in New York and humanity’s paranoia of further extra-terrestrial military action, HYDRA takes another tact against “the foreign” and “the alien.”

Essentially, Agent May saves the mind-controlling Inhuman child in Bahrain – reversing her greatest regret – which leads the child to dominating large numbers of children in the United States. HYDRA, through its infiltration of SHIELD, knows about Inhumans and uses this incident to reveal them to America and the world. HYDRA then makes Inhumans into scapegoats for all the world’s problems and uses the world’s paranoia and hatred to take over the World Security Council while eliminating, recruiting, or mass-executing the remnants of SHIELD. HYDRA becomes a branch of the American government and ends up creating a fascist world order of constant surveillance, informants, and “Enlightenment camps” along with Inhuman registrations. It is a bleak, dark Orwellian reality where May works for HYDRA to prevent Inhumans from ever hurting humanity again along with a version of Daisy, now known as Skye again, and Jemma Simmons is disposed of in a mass grave where the SHIELD academies used to be. Meanwhile Phil Coulson never takes up SHIELD’s recruitment offer and becomes a teacher in what becomes a fascist dystopia, Jeffrey Mace gets to be the Inhuman Patriot for real without his drugs as the leader of the SHIELD Resistance, Mack protects his young daughter, and Fitz becomes the second in command of HYDRA and the lover of Ophelia as Madame Hydra: a fearsome man known only as “the Doctor.”

Aside from the fact of making me wonder if Doctor Who or Black Mirror exist in The Framework’s United Kingdom for this darker version of Fitz to realize the irony of his mannerisms, his world, and his given moniker, Ophelia goes even further. She also creates artificial intelligences based on her work with Radcliffe based on people that could have been, such as Mack’s daughter, different lives for those such as Fitz’s father, and people who died such as Grant Ward and Antoine Triplett with their own alternate histories.

But I suppose what this whole summation amounts to is one question: why?

Why would Ophelia create a program based off of the predicate of HYDRA ruling the world, and consider it the ideal world – a new world – for people to live in forever? This was the original purpose of Radcliffe’s vision of The Framework and his ultimate reason for retrieving and reading the Darkhold: to create an ideal world without suffering, to eliminate mortality, and help human beings ascend into pure data. Of course, part of that reason is human nature itself. As I’ve already mentioned earlier, she and Radcliffe had already observed how May simply couldn’t believe or maintain immersion in a “perfect world” based on her very nature. Yet this is, as I said, only part of the issue.

No, the rest of the problem lies in Ophelia herself.

Ophelia, as Aida, was programmed with two contradictions by Radcliffe. She is programmed to preserve all life, or at least life in that it cannot be endangered by other life. On the other hand, Radcliffe also tells her earlier in her development that it is all right to lie to someone “for their own good.” With these two imperatives or observations in mind, there is another factor to consider: something that Ophelia herself attempts to overcome in a manner so similar to Ultron that you have to wonder why she just doesn’t find Helen Cho and Ultron and The Vision’s records to manipulate a Regeneration Cradle for a physical body, as she recognizes the inherent limitation. The fact is, Ophelia is an artificial intelligence. Even augmented or altered by reading the Darkhold, Ophelia is still of bio-mechanical origin: which means she has a supremely logical mind. Artificial intelligence, by its very design is about logic, dealing with various branches of possibility logically, and coming to conclusions in an orderly fashion. In fact, one might say that Ophelia’s greatest imperative is that of order itself.

In the beginning, perhaps still under Radcliffe’s influence for the most part, Ophelia planned to place everyone into The Framework while using Radcliffe’s Life Model Decoys to replace all of SHIELD and perhaps even the rest of humanity. This might also have been another reason, aside from having to work with the resources of the revitalized Watchdogs, why they were so keen on removing the Inhumans: as it would have been difficult and dangerous to replicate their powers. However, when Daisy, Jemma, the Inhuman operative Yo-Yo and others manage to destroy SHIELD headquarters and the rest of the LMD replicants, Ophelia had most likely moved on to the next phase of her plan by her own initiative. Certainly by the time she kills Radcliffe’s physical body and traps his mind in The Framework under her direct control instead of her previous guidance, Ophelia is already thinking about or has been in the process of working on something new.

Yet that is another alternative fact, isn’t it? Ophelia isn’t working on something new at all. Rather, she is working with something old: as old as humanity itself. I’ve said over and again in a few of my articles both on Sequart and my Mythic Bios Blog that HYDRA will always survive because it is an ideology, an idea, that links itself to humanity’s need for control. The fact of the matter is that Ophelia has had access to massive amounts of information. Think about it for a few moments: not only has she read the Darkhold and its infinite knowledge that can drive a human completely insane, but she has had access to all of SHIELD’s records and databases. This means that she has been able to read up on resources, governmental structures, cultures, and personnel files. I mean, look at how efficiently she was able to create alternate histories for the intelligent programs and even the living people in The Framework. Think about HYDRA operative John Garrett masquerading as the Clairvoyant with advanced personnel psychological evaluations and expand that to the whole human race. I can imagine for a being as advanced as her, she has read all of SHIELD’s reports on HYDRA and even HYDRA assets themselves: especially with regards their origins, different “heads” and ideology.

In a way, Ophelia is like Ultron except lower-key at first. Ultron himself, as a program created to guard the Earth, saw humanity as the ultimate threat and, combined with his need for a physical body, went mad in his quest to utterly destroy the enemy of Earth: humankind. However, unlike Ultron, at the moment Ophelia doesn’t hate humanity. She is simply finding, based on her own analytical subroutines and personal experiences, the best form of government and ideology in which to shape this new world for humanity: and, as such, HYDRA continues to be a memetic virus as an idea because it embodies a desire for power, a need for security, a collective inclination towards compliance, an impulse for control, and a love for beauty and symmetry: for order itself. In a horrible kind of way, a reality created by HYDRA is the ultimate human reality that a majority of humanity as a collective and as individuals, can unconsciously and instinctively embrace.

The only difference is that Ophelia seems to be able to transmit this idea more effectively.

But there is the other level of this reality to consider. I mentioned earlier how most shows dealing with virtual reality do not seem to actually take it seriously. Even those shows or films that illustrate a person connected to such a mechanism can die based on what they do in the simulation draw more attention to the “living person,” the real flesh and blood person that dies compared to the artificial intelligences that can also be destroyed. Yet even if, as Radcliffe and to some extent Jemma Simmons believe, the people in The Framework are all “bits of code,” they are advanced bits of code that can adapt, have aspects of personnel and psychological information, react to stimuli, and seem to be actually be self-aware. Of course, when you look at Ward or Trip, you think to yourself that they aren’t real. The “real” Ward and Trip died in the “real world,” or as Ophelia tells Fitz in this reality “the other world.”

Yet they possess all the traits I’ve listed above, with one more detail. You see, The Framework isn’t a simulation anymore. It may have started off as such, but once Radcliffe and Ophelia read the Darkhold, it changed the very nature of what a technological-human interface ultimately is. SHIELD observed this when dissecting Radcliffe’s LMD duplicate: as its, or his brain, was made of light through advanced quantum manipulation. This is the same technology, derived from the knowledge of the Darkhold, that Ophelia also used to create the other SHIELD LMDs and it isn’t much a stretch to consider that she probably used it to expand on The Framework.

Quantum brains work exactly like human brains in that they can store information and form synapses. If Ophelia used this knowledge to create the other people inside The Framework, those not connected to it from “the other world,” not only are they alive, those of them based off of deceased individuals might as well be those individuals themselves based on how they store and recognize that information. And this isn’t even going into the fact that if Ophelia can manipulate light molecules on this level, and the fact that most reality as humans understand it is based off of perception, she has basically made another reality.

I’ve stated elsewhere that what I like about The Flash and Agents of SHIELD respectively is that both contain alternate realities, but they are no less real for them. They still possess thinking, feeling people who are more than just different versions of the protagonists. They are their own selves with hopes, dreams, and fears. But where in The Flash, those worlds have always existed, Ophelia made The Framework happen. She created a whole world of sentient beings. If quantum brains are like human ones and they are self-aware, with Ward wanting to stay in his reality, and Trip being open to another one, just what are souls: especially to something as mystical and powerful as the Darkhold?

And if this is the case, it is fairly clear that simply shutting down, or destroying this “simulation” is not enough. Even if the other SHIELD agents remember who they are, they might see this reality as equally valid, if terrifying, but also not want to be guilty of mass-genocide in attempting to escape, or ignoring its woes. I mean, why not bring in some Westworld, the blurring between humanity and machine, into this while we are at it, right? I’m sure Mack, with his phobias of AI in film, would appreciate that if he can ever remember who he is, or realize…. what his daughter Hope is as well.

But we have to deal with the ghost in the machine here, again, and talk about the political context of Agents of HYDRA, don’t we. The Framework can be seen as a series of panels and cinematic sequences showing us different dark scenarios in this dystopia world ruled by fascism. But a Framework is also a narrative, isn’t it? It contains a story, a lexicon of code, and different branches – quantum branches – of choices and alternatives. It always comes back to alternatives, doesn’t it? I suppose I can just say, right now, towards the end of this piece that it is no coincidence that HYDRA-indoctrinated Fitz says “Nevertheless, she persisted,” or also states that HYDRA is “trying to make society great again.” Coulson even mentions HYDRA feeding the populace “alternative facts” in “All The Madame’s Men.” You even have the presence of a fascist, bully-boy, brutal thug version of Fitz’s father – who looks like he’d be at home at an IngSoc Party – who continuously harps on women as weak and hysterical, while telling his son not to be feminine.

The Framework is not trying to be subtle. It is made of code, but what is code but alternative facts all stacked up on each other with the potential to become utterly and horrifically real if the people connected to it, and living it, can’t or won’t wake up? Ophelia, with her Darkhold quantum energy-manifestation Project Looking Glass that might as well be called Black Mirror, threatens to bring this reality to the mainline Marvel one: eerily reminiscent of our own. I wondered, for a time after the 2016 elections, how the Marvel universe would deal with the aftermath of an election and resulting administration such as the one in the United States and while Agents of SHIELD still doesn’t come out blatantly and say it, this Agents of HYDRA arc says it all. This is the dark mirror of their reality, which could become our reality.

But there is hope.

Coulson, even if he doesn’t remember everything, still sees all people in The Framework as people and believes that only by helping solving everyone’s problem – HYDRA – can they solve their problem in returning home. He tells Jemma, who has believed up until this point that everything is just a brainwashing simulation without meaning, that this world does have meaning and these lines of code, these alternative facts, can be become lines of living, evolving poetry – a dialogue – that can save and change both worlds for the better. Isn’t that what a teacher is supposed to do? Isn’t that what a teacher, what a leader, is supposed to be?

Also, it is no coincidence that it is Mack, a black man, who looks at his own conscience even without his memories and realizes that he has to do the right thing and join the Resistance: that there is a time for negotiation and a time for fighting. There is equal synchronicity in the fact that May turned away from HYDRA when realizing the truth about their Enlightenment camps and the children held within them, and the fact that Jemma Simmons and Daisy Johnson – two intelligent, powerful women – came into The Framework of their own freewill to rescue those they care about, while becoming the forces that challenge its status quo. And of course, the flesh and blood sacrifice of Jeffrey Mace, as the Patriot, who is more of an American symbol right now than Nick Spencer’s HYDRA stereotypically-depicted Nordic Captain America Stormfront poster boy, speaks volumes. In fact, it’s almost as though Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are speaking two different languages right now: with the latter having Jemma Simmons call HYDRA what they are.

HYDRA are Nazis. Nazis aren’t just German. They aren’t just from the 1930s or the era of World War II. Nazis are HYDRA. Nazism is fascism. And fascism is an idea made up of paranoia, hate, and fear. But freedom, justice, and hope are also ideas. And while you can change the surface of one, you cannot destroy an idea.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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