(This post contains spoilers.)
I’m almost up-to-date on AoS again, so it’s time for some more pros and cons—this time for episodes 4-8. (Click here to see my pros and cons for episodes 1-3…) There are more pros than cons, and one of the cons is mainly nitpicking on my part, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still rocking a lot of sexist tropes and idolizing the cis-white-dude. I had a lot to say this time, so let’s jump in, shall we?
• The writers have finally figured out how to make Ward an effective character.
I’ve said before that a show like AoS (which is a live action comic book) needs a compelling and complicated villain against which to pit its heroes, and Ward is growing into that villain. With the twists and turns the writers have given his back story in the past couple episodes, Ward has come to far outstrip both Daniel Whitehall and Skye’s father in terms of believable menace. Whitehall is the two-dimensional evil man that you love to hate, and Skye’s father is beautifully over-the-top, but Ward’s ambiguity makes him threatening in a way that neither of the others are or, I suspect, ever will be. At this point, there’s really no way to tell whether his past was truly tortured or if the tragedy of his childhood is just a story he told himself to justify a life of terrible deeds. And honestly it doesn’t matter at this point; in fact the uncertainty adds to the drama in a fantastic way.
• Through it all, none of the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Coulson straight on down the roster, have been willing to give Ward an ounce of sympathy.
And that’s exactly as it should be at this point. Skye’s consistent refusal to give Ward the time of day is particularly gratifying. Whatever happens with his character in the future, he and Skye should never, ever be together. Ever.
• Contrary to my fears, the writers have continued to handle Fitz’s storyline very well.
The writers have avoided giving Fitz’s aphasia a quick fix, they have steered clear of magical negro tropes in developing his friendship with Mack, and they have even included some in-narrative corrections of ableist treatment of Fitz by Simmons. I really love that AoS now has a disabled team member character who is valued, respected, and cared for by the other characters, and I love that the writers are taking a nuanced approach to a topic that needs a lot more exploration and media representation. I’d be delighted to see other disabled characters, like Akela Amador, make an appearance as well.
• The will-May-have-to-kill-Coulson-because-alien-DNA-is-making-him-erratic storyline got wrapped up quickly and without a lot of angsty fuss.
I wasn’t a fan of the way the writers rushed to explain the mystery of Coulson last season. It was somewhat understandable given the need to introduce Kree elements to the story for the purposes of developing an Inhumans narrative, but at the end of the day, I felt that the revelation fell flat. (To be fair, the implications are having more of an impact now that they can breathe than they could when the series really needed to get to a jumping off point for The Winter Soldier and then deal with fallout from the same.) Needless to say, I didn’t particularly want to see the writers drag out a Coulson-centric subplot that, in many ways, was a rehash of a story that they had already told. However, the story of Coulson’s increasing need to carve, and understand, a strange and inexplicable pattern, and what it meant for his long-term stability, was actually very well paced. The writers used it efficiently to advance interesting plot elements without dominating the main story lines and then retired it, and that was a smart move.
• It’s great to see Bobbi Morse, but I really wish we were seeing her as something other than yet another female character whose function is to make Lance Hunter look good.
Bobbi’s debut was really promising. She entered the story with a bang; she was cool and capable, and she didn’t appear to be fazed by the fact that Hunter was still holding a grudge against her. For a minute, it looked like Lance Hunter was going to be a Matt-Fraction-esque Hawkeye type—a loveable fuckup with a string of exes who still care about him but can’t take him seriously. Since the MCU has gone a somewhat different direction with their actual Hawkeye, the characterization makes sense. But the writers almost immediately started undermining it. At first it was just the constant bickering. Then Bobbi was used to make Hunter look like a better operative during the hunt for Ward.
(As a side note: Trip was also used this way during the same sequence, and this bothers me for a couple of reasons. First because it aggrandizes the cis-white-dude at the expense of his minority partners, and second because it’s just shoddy writing. A few lines of dialogue could have easily made the sequence look more like the team effort that it probably would have been in a real-life covert operation of this nature. Ward knows Agent Triplett by sight; he presumably knows Agent Bobbi Morse [or knows of her] as well. He has no reason to know Hunter the freelance merc. If the writers had staged the manhunt scene as a coordinated effort to drive Ward to a specific pursuer and a specific destination, it would have felt more believable and less lazy. More on that sort of thing below.)
There are other examples of Bobbi’s role as the designated woman who makes Lance Hunter look good—during her meeting with the Japanese demolitions expert when she needed to be saved by him and after her failed interrogation of Bakshi led to an argument-followed-by-a-romantic-interlude between the two—and I can tell you: I am not here for Bobbi Morse playing a lovesick second fiddle to Lance Hunter. Not here for it at all.
• S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to stop being depicted as a happy family and start being shown to function like an espionage agency.
This is a problem that has carried over from the first season. At times, I feel like the people who work for S.H.I.E.L.D. have no idea what that means. Skye’s constant questioning of Coulson’s orders and insistence on knowing every bit of intel is a relationship that looks more like a teenage daughter rebelling against her dad than a serious operative working with a superior, and his indulgence of her is even weirder. This is just one example of the way S.H.I.E.L.D. often doesn’t seem to be written like a realistic organization. The manhunt for Ward sequence that I mentioned above is another example, as is the way several characters criticized Simmons for “abandoning” Fitz as if she had not in fact been directly ordered by her superior to run a dangerous and invaluable covert mission that payed huge dividends for the agency. The misfits on a bus vibe needs to be tabled; it occasionally makes the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. look incompetent. I’m not saying you can’t have a show where a group of professional agents develop family-like ties (NCIS is a great example of a show that has done this trope beautifully), but the agents need to be professionals first and family second.
• The repeated, graphic torture and/or murder-death-kill of women (of color) needs to stop.
I am not kidding around here, writers. I want you to stop. Just. Stop.
In episodes 4 through 8 alone, we’ve had a girl-on-girl fight that ended in death by disfigurement for the loser, an unnamed character who was known only by the codename Agent 33 and who was written in for the sole purpose of being depicted in scenes of torture, being deployed as a double for Agent May, and then a being written out again with a violent and meaningless death (1). (And let me tell you, if there’s one thing I love it’s expendable female characters. Bonus points when they’re women of color.) We’ve also had the torture, degradation, and defanging of Raina—previously one of the most powerful and compelling characters on the show. We’ve had the graphic torture, experimentation on, and dismemberment of Skye’s mother, who also has not yet been given a name. And we’ve had the brutal murder of a woman in a classically sexist “Mr. Goodbar” scenario (2). (So remember not to have one-night stands, ladies, because you will totally get murdered and then the story will focus on a married-with-children, middle-aged white dude who is put in peril by the same murderer but totally survives, natch!)
Please just stop, writers; I’m asking you seriously and properly. Stop.
There are other ways to show us that Daniel Whitehall is an awful, irredeemable villain than by showing him to be a senseless torturer and killer of women. And, frankly, when you’ve got your heroes acting in a similar way (Melinda May has no qualms whatsoever about the fact that she just killed a brainwashed woman who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. before being kidnapped? Coulson is fine with tagging Raina like a dog because she’s a bad guy and anyway payback’s a bitch?)—when you’ve got your heroes acting in a similar way as the villains do, it doesn’t tell the story you think you’re telling. If the point is that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are still as ethically compromised as the forces they are battling, that’s one thing—although in that case you need to have a come-to-Jesus moment soon—but if you want your heroes to be above the forces they’re fighting, then they need to be above them. Or, at the very least, they need to be having hard conversations with themselves (and therefore with the viewers) about what price freedom and how to fight a battle of this nature without becoming what you behold.
1) EDIT: It has come to my attention that Agent 33 was recently revealed to be alive after all. I will address this development in a future “pros and cons” post.
2) Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a 1977 erotic thriller that stars Diane Keaton and Tom Berenger. The film focuses on the sexual exploits of Keaton’s Theresa, who at the end of the film is beaten, raped, and stabbed to death by a man she picked up in a bar for a one-night stand.