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Warning: major spoilers ahead for Episode 16 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, "What If..."
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally returned to the airwaves after more than a month, and it didn't pull any punches. Daisy and Jemma had to navigate their way through the framework reality, with Daisy having to fake her way through a day as a Hydra agent and Jemma having to... well, dig herself out of the shallow grave where her framework counterpart had been murdered. There were callbacks aplenty to earlier seasons - not the least of which was the return of Ward the double agent - but the callback that took the cake was T.A.H.I.T.I., which was Coulson's one tether to real life outside of the framework.
When we first saw the framework reality version of Coulson in "What If," he was teaching a classroom full of high school students about the evils of Inhumans and denying the fact that Hydra came from Nazi roots. He even handed one of his students over to Hydra. Basically, he was not the man we'd come to know over four seasons of S.H.I.E.L.D. Luckily, Jemma showed up to try and jog his memory, and she only got through to him by uttering the immortal phrase about Tahiti: "It's a magical place."
Coulson dismissed Jemma as a crazy lady right off the bat, but we soon saw that "It's a magical place" meant something to him. He pulled out a notebook in which he'd written "It's a magical place," over and over again, Shining-style. He was already beginning to realize that something was very, very out of place. Then, when Daisy confronted him at the end of the episode, he was able to remember her, all because of Tahiti.
As it turns out, Tahiti wasn't significant simply as a buzzword in Coulson's brain. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans will remember that Project T.A.H.I.T.I. - that is, Terrestrialized Alien Host Integrative Tissue I - was how S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury resurrected Coulson after his death in The Avengers. T.A.H.I.T.I. effectively rewrote parts of his brain, which directly affected his ability to recover his identity within the framework reality. S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producer Jed Whedon explained Coulson's edge in A.I.D.A. and Radcliffe's framework, saying this to EW:
It is a pretty flawless reality, and the Darkhold gave them the ability to fill it with people who exist in this world and gave them the ability to copy our world, but it is a digital creation. Coulson is unique in the fact that he's had this done to his mind before [with T.A.H.I.T.I.], so that is something they couldn't bank on. But everybody else feels like they're pretty immersed in this life that they're living and are unaware that there's something else out there. That's a big hurdle to get over, especially now that they don't have a way out.
Clark Gregg already revealed earlier this year that longtime fans would get to appreciate some major nods to earlier seasons of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I for one did not see T.A.H.I.T.I. returning in such a huge way to kind of save the day. Daisy and Jemma need all the allies they can get in the framework reality, and they really can't trust anybody who has been constructed by the framework. Ward seems like a pal now, but A.I.D.A. may be able to tweak his loyalties once she realizes how he's helping them. Coulson has an awareness that has nothing to do with the framework, and that could make all the difference to Daisy and Jemma's mission to get everybody out.
Tune in to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC to see what's next for Coulson and Co. in the framework. The ratings haven't been great in Season 4, but we shouldn't count the show out just yet. Don't forget to take a look at our midseason TV premiere guide and our summer TV premiere schedule.