This review contains spoilers.
What is the ultimate purpose of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? I can take just about any show I’m watching right now and sum up its broad narrative and thematic goals in a single sentence. Supergirl is about an alien misfit doing her best to find her place amongst humanity while also trying protect it from threats. Better Call Saul is about an ambitious, but down on his luck lawyer trying to chase his dreams and taking some ethically questionable shortcuts to get there. Star Wars Rebels is about a group of broken idealists uniting in an attempt to fight back against a fascist regime and restore freedom to the galaxy. But what is S.H.I.E.L.D. about? The answer varies not from only season to season, but even episode to episode, and this inconsistency is at the heart of why the show’s quality has been similarly unreliable. This week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually one of the stronger episodes the show has had in a while, but even as this episode hits the mark, I’m left wondering if the show has any coherent vision of what it wants to be.
After last week’s odd back door pilot for Marvel’s Most Wanted, we’re back into the standard flow of things with our agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. One of these agents, Mack, has taken some time off to spend with his younger brother, but when a group of anti-Inhuman terrorists under the name ‘Watchdogs’ destroys an ATCU storage facility, Mack is forced to cut his vacation short. The Watchdogs, as we learn, are a hate group that has been brewing in the cauldron of Internet message boards since the events of The Avengers. With alien and superhuman activity on the rise and high profile catastrophes like Ultron’s attack on Sokovia, they have begun to unshackle themselves from the confines of the Internet and start instigating real world acts of violence and terror under the leadership of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Felix Blake.
What makes this episode work so well is that, in the Watchdogs, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has found an opportunity to explore meaningful, timely themes that give weight to the fictional conflicts of the show. The Watchdogs’ comic book counterparts predate the Internet, but as they are presented here in the show it’s hard not to see the parallels drawn between these fictional anti-alien radicals and real life Internet-based terror groups like GamerGate. Both are groups that prey on hurting people, manipulating them in their pain to take up arms for a cause that ultimately has nothing to do with what’s causing them pain in the first place. GamerGate poked at the insecurities of emasculated young men, convincing them that there was some grand conspiracy by women to somehow harm the hobby that they had found a sense of belonging in, while the Watchdogs – as we see with Mack’s younger brother, Ruben – appeal to feelings of powerlessness to foster resentment against those who have superhuman power.
Ruben is struggling with crippling debt, a terrible job market, and feelings of isolation, and as is the human response, he’s looking for someone to blame. The Watchdogs oblige him, giving him a target on which to allow his hopelessness to crystalize into hate. It’s the exact same sinister trick that has made a Donald Trump presidency a terrifyingly plausible scenario. People who once lived a relatively cozy, happy existence are now having to fight to secure jobs that might not even pay enough to cover expenses, meanwhile groups that have long been marginalized are standing up and demanding they be recognized. Instead of confronting the true source of the problem, the very people who are complicit in it manipulate the masses into fighting each other. They draw false equivalencies and say, “Look at these people trying to rise above their station! They’re the ones taking your jobs, they’re the ones creating turmoil! Let’s put them back in their place and things will go back to normal!”
In each of these cases, it’s a lie that hides ulterior motives. A vengeful ex rallying angry young men into action to attack an independent game developer, a wealthy capitalist and TV personality tapping into racism born out of fear to promote his own personal brand, and an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent inciting acts of violence against Inhumans while secretly working with HYDRA to his own nefarious ends. And in the end, the blind, unthinking rage that drives the Watchdogs allows them to be manipulated into attacking targets that are not even Inhuman.
All of this stuff really works, as does the arc Mack goes on with his brother. What doesn’t work as well is Phil Coulson going back into villain mode in this episode, even if it is just a ruse. Coulson takes Lincoln along with him as he goes after Agent Blake in order to test the young Inhuman and make sure he’s a good fit for the team. He questions whether Lincoln is willing to follow orders and be a team player or if he’s just in this for his own agenda. To those ends, once they have cornered Blake, he orders Lincoln to murder the ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in cold blood. Lincoln protests at first, but Coulson insists, and Lincoln reluctantly acquiesces, revealing that Blake was never really there – they were speaking with a hologram. Coulson did know all along, and thus was not actually ordering Lincoln to commit murder, but why would Coulson use cold blooded murder – even simulated – as a test of loyalty? I re-watched The Avengers the other night, and I was struck by how profoundly this show has changed the character of Phil Coulson, and not in any way that’s for the better. In Phase One of the Marvel films, the appearance of Coulson was something fun. You liked this guy and enjoyed his dry wit and quiet optimism. This is a guy who geeks out over the appearance of Captain America and even gets to be funny as he’s dying from a wound inflicted by Loki. The Coulson we have now is angry and motivated by vengeance and is inching ever closer to out-and-out villainy. Charcters should change and evolve – half the joy of this shared universe is watching how these characters are affected not only by the events of their own films, but the films that surround them, but you can only bend a character so far before they break. Coulson has broken, and I’m not sure if there’s even a way to repair him at this point.
And that’s ultimately the problem with this show. It has no idea what it wants to be, so it goes along in what seem to be largely improvised story arcs which end up forcing characters into roles they never should have been put into. The entire concept of this show seems to have originated not from a story idea or a theme but instead from an opportunistic promotional tie-in. Marvel wanted to get into the TV business, and they wanted to do so by piggybacking off the enormous success of The Avengers, so they brought back the one recognizable character from the film who would work on a TV budget and raced ahead without any idea of what the show would be about. Now, two-and-a-half seasons later, the show still doesn’t know what it’s about. Occasionally you’ll get an episode with a really strong, clear, concise theme like this one, but even this episode is only barely building on themes established in prior episodes, and is unlikely to have much bearing on future episodes. Two weeks ago the Inhuman story was being used as a metaphor for abortion and now it’s being used as a metaphor for online hate groups. The versatility of the idea is definitely a feature, and it’s one that Marvel has used for years with the X-Men, but you can’t just jump all over the place willy-nilly like this. There needs to be some sense of cohesion to the themes of the season and the themes of the series as a whole, and that’s something Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never achieved. I applaud them for dealing with bigger more ambitious themes this half-season, but ambition isn’t enough. When dealing with these big ideas, you have to have a clear, deliberate focus, and focus is the very thing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always lacked.