May 11, 2017

In Praise of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.


I'll admit, first off, that when Netflix gave us Daredevil, when I discovered the Arrowverse through the first season of Flash, I let Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fall by the wayside. The show, for me, had hit a high point in its interaction with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, through the remarkable decision to take possibly the most charismatic character on the team and make him a villain. It was a wonderful piece of storytelling, very much in the character of S.H.I.E.L.D.-based comics, and in keeping with the more clandestine style of narrative that the show was going for.

But in the subsequent seasons, with the introduction of Inhumanity, and interdimensional/extra-planetary mind-control creatures, I felt it was getting a bit too much into the superhero realm, rather than living on its periphery where, in the comics, S.H.I.E.L.D. is so effectively utilized. I kept up with the show, but I was far more interested in the other superhero fare that was available.

This continued into the beginning of this season. I would catch up on the show when I had run out of other things to watch, more out of loyalty than necessarily out of a love for the characters and concept. Superhero television series, and, actually, the comics that are their source these days, change all too quickly. The thought seems to be that an audience will grow bored of a particular situation in a series, so that situation has to be changed repeatedly. This is not, obviously, always the case, but since the narrative-twisting practices of genre shows such as Lost or Fringe, it seems to be the fashion. I'm not a fan of this kind of practice. I could have done with a couple of seasons of espionage-esque adventures, like the first season, before the revelation of a traitor. These kinds of paradigm shifts are, I think, far more effective when you have lulled an audience into a sense of security. Genre television is very bad at this lulling nowadays. We go into a series expecting the change, the shock, which is a pity, as the drama of a shift in perspective is so much more powerful from a complacent state.

But, I think, this is beside the point. There's not much that I've written so far that lives up to the title of this post.

The second half of this season of Agents has been divided between two discrete story arcs that are actually one larger story of an artificial person seeking to become real: the Pinocchio myth, if you will. The first half, "LMD," sucked me back in as it drew on one of the best aspects of the new version of Battlestar Galactica, the uncertainty of the affiliation, or of the reality, of any of the characters. Battlestar played it a little better, in that both audience and characters were aware of the problem, but were unaware of who was human and who was Cylon. Agents managed this uncertainty for a few episodes, but let us know who to trust and who not to trust pretty quickly. But what this replacement of major characters set up, for the second half of the story, was an alternate reality within which the "Agents of Hydra" story played out.

Now, I'm a fan of alternate reality superhero stories. It's a wonderful subgenre, and offers remarkable insights into the iconic characters that grow in superhero narratives. So I was absolutely fascinated by this storyline, in which the events of Winter Soldier play out very differently, and Hydra comes out on top. Not only this, but due to the stipulations of the Framework, the virtual reality within which this was happening, and within which one regret of each of the embedded characters was changed, some of our heroes were actually working for, and believing in, the Hydra organization.

And here's where things got very, very interesting.

The writers of the show used this depiction of a world overrun by a blatantly fascist organization to level a series of shots at the treatment of the people, of the media, and of the idea of America itself, by the current U.S. administration. And they weren't even subtle about it. As one of the favourite major characters, Leopold Fitz, now second in command of Hydra, finishes interrogating a former teammate, he notes that in her "lies," "still, she persisted," hearkening back to the silencing of senator Elizabeth Warren by male colleagues as she contested a fellow senator's nomination to Attorney General. The same character, Fitz, as he is briefing his underlings, uses 45's own words while blatantly lying about the intentions of the resistance in this virtual world. He claims that by working together, they'll "make this country great again." The significance of these words issuing from an unapologetically, and unambiguously, fascist character cannot be underplayed. Further, after taking over the Fox News-esque mouthpiece of Hydra, Phil Coulson (probably the MCU's greatest contribution to Marvel's shared universe) exposes the lies of Hyrda, using terms such as "alternative facts," rewritten history, and the silencing of scientific thought. There is absolutely no way that we can read this storyline in any other way: it is a protest. It is the use of a popular medium to demonstrate the ways in which the transmission of free thought, of freedom, is being shackled by a wave of populist, far-right dogma across, sadly, many parts of the world. I was stunned and awed often throughout these episodes. As these words issued from the lips of characters I had come to have affection for, I was moved. Mac, a fantastic character in the show, offers the perspective of a man, a black man, living in fear in this totalitarian world, keeping his head down, saying all the right words, and hoping against hope that he isn't randomly detained or killed. Leo Fitz's father, a brutal man, demonstrates for us the very worst of patriarchal rape culture, articulating the need for men to be detached and emotionless, and brutal. The series writers took the opportunity of this alternate version of their world to show their viewers that this alternative isn't really so alternative. It's just that the things that happen in our reality are a little more pronounced, and little more simply depicted, in theirs. Which, really, has always been the strength of the superhero genre. And, in praise of the writers themselves, they managed all this while still telling a compelling and interesting story, remaining true to the characters, to the premise of the show. This was some expert use of fiction to "teach and delight." Sidney had it so very right all those centuries ago.

So, go watch it. Even if it's just these last five episodes or so. Have a look at a story of a world in which the bad guys (and make no mistake, the "Alt-Right," 45 and his cronies, are the bad guys) won. And let its similarity to what we see in the news everyday wash over you. The storyline concludes, sort of, in revolution, in the people realizing the lies, realizing the hate, and doing something about it. I shudder to think of the chaos, but very often these days I worry that there isn't much other choice except revolution to unseat the hatred that has overcome American (but not just American) politics. I guess we'll have to see if the genre we inhabit, often characterized as dystopian future fiction, can undergo the sort of paradigm shift our fictions find so easy.


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