Last week, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent a full episode inside the Framework for the first time. The hour (titled "What If…") raised a lot of questions about the fate of our scattered and imperiled heroes. First and foremost among those questions for some will likely pertain to the Marvel comics background of Madame Hydra. Viewers who are less familiar with the source material than some were likely flummoxed by Aida's sudden transformation into Hydra's villainous leader; and though S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a blend between adaptation and original material, this is actually one instance where the writers are borrowing straight from the comic books themselves.
This is the third role that actor Mallory Jansen has played on the show, after the original Life Model Decoy, Aida, and the LMD's human inspiration, Agnes. Although Aida and Madame Hydra never had any connection on the page, there's a lot audiences can learn about the latter based on her comic book history. Although various villains have taken on the alias "Madame Hydra" over the years (including Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine and Elisa Sinclair) the character most commonly associated with the title is Ophelia Sarkissian, a Hungarian orphan who was taken in and raised by members of the evil organization, and who quickly rose in their ranks until she became Hydra's bloodthirsty leader.
Ophelia's devious exploits frequently brought her into conflict with S.H.I.E.L.D. — and, more specifically, her nemesis Captain America. (In fact, she was first introduced in the pages of the Captain America series way back in 1969.) Madame Hydra herself didn't possess any superpowers, but she was often described as a super-spy who is both a martial arts expert and a brilliant criminal strategist. She was also fond of using poisoned weapons and snake motifs… which earned Ophelia her second nickname, Viper, which she used whenever she wasn't working for Hydra. (Over her nearly 50-year history, she had something of an on-again-off-again relationship with the Nazi organization.)
Given Ophelia's Hungarian background and her enmity with Steve Rogers, it seems that S.H.I.E.L.D. has more borrowed the general title of "Madame Hydra" — and her trademark green color scheme — than the specific character of Ophelia Sarkissian. In fact, Aida seems to have more in common with the second Madame Hydra, the Contessa, than with Ophelia. Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (or "Val" for short) was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who had a romantic relationship with Nick Fury and was revealed to be a secret Hydra agent during the Secret Warriors storyline.
La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, quite a mouthful.— InfiltratorOfSHIELD (@SHIELDrat) January 22, 2014
Do I have to call her full name even in a gunfight? pic.twitter.com/QrwIoceJ5K
Like Val, Aida started out on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side (helping decipher the Darkhold to rescue Coulson and Fitz and defeat Eli Morrow) before revealing her true villainous intentions and branding herself as the leader of Hydra. Furthermore, she currently has a romantic relationship with an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. — not with Nick Fury, but with Leo Fitz inside the Framework — and as you may already know, the show has been heavily influenced by the Secret Warriors storyline ever since Season 3.
If Aida's version of Madame Hydra is being influenced by the Contessa, then that could mean very interesting things for her character. In the comics, Val eventually betrayed Hydra for a second evil organization — the shadowy Soviet spy agency Leviathan — resurrecting its leader, Orion, and leading an army of Leviathan agents against Hydra. Eventually, she was defeated and put in prison… but even knowledge of her duplicity and betrayal didn't stop her former lover Nick Fury from trying to break her out.
(The third and most recent Madame Hydra, Elisa Sinclair, was involved in the controversial Captain America-is-Hydra storyline, as a false memory implanted in the hero's brain to temporarily make him think he was a double agent.)
In the new timeline created by Kobik, Steve Rogers was recruited into HYDRA by a woman named Elisa Sinclair. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/ROWKnavFMX— Kieran Shiach (@KingImpulse) March 6, 2017
Casual viewers may not know this, but this is actually not the first time the character has been seen in a live-action adaptation of the comics. She was previously seen in the 2013 film The Wolverine — although in that X-Men movie, she was operating under her Viper alias, not in her role as Madame Hydra. Her recent introduction on S.H.I.E.L.D. makes her only the second character to ever be shared between Fox's X-Men universe and Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, after the mutant/Avenger Quicksilver.
Ironically, two different iterations of the character — both Viper and the Contessa's version of Madame Hydra — appeared together in distinct incarnations in the 1998 made-for-TV movie Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. That cheesy adaptation starred future Real Housewife Lisa Rinna as Madame Hydra, Swedish actor Sandra Hess as Viper… and David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury.
Will Aida's version of Madame Hydra take cues from a specific comic book character? Or has S.H.I.E.L.D. simply borrowed the title for its own original storyline? Answers will be coming soon, as Season 4 only has six more episodes to go before it — and the Framework, and (hopefully) Aida's tyranny — will come to an end.