Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Paradox of Whedonism

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. definitely got better as its first season drew to a close. In that finale, however, the dangerous ideas behind Joss Whedon's incredible storytelling reared their head once again.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—I’ve watched and own every a minute of television that Joss Whedon has spearheaded. His storytelling is superb, his characters well-crafted, his dialogue is delightful. I don’t regret a single second I’ve spent in seclusion as I binged, caught up with, or repeated (mostly in the case of Firefly) his episodes. He is a true master of his craft, certainly one of the living best, if not ever. Yet, in spite of all this reverence, every once in a while there is a moment or episode that induces cringes or eye rolling as I wonder how someone who understands so much just doesn’t get it.

I’m talking about how Tony Stark grabbed a nuclear missile and flew it into a wormhole to blow up the invading alien fleet with no regard for his own life in The Avengers. I’m referring to when Spike disintegrated into dust in Buffy to close the Hellmouth for good and finally earn an “I love you” from Buffy. I’m pointing to Dollhouse when Topher gives his life as he destroyed the world’s tech to redeem himself for creating it. Most recently, I’m responding to the finale of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Since the first episode of Agents, I’ve been committed to the cause. Through the highs and lows (mostly lows), I dedicated myself to seeing where it was all going. And after the release of Captain America: Winter Solider, I was glad I did. The show found its voice by embracing Whedonism. No longer did they represent a powerful centeralized organization with a presence in every corner of the globe. They transformed into a ragtag (the title of episode 21) group of self-motivated defenders of the good. And since they no longer had orders to follow, each of them not only had to figure how to fight, but why they should. It was compelling in all the right ways—narratively, psychologically, thematically.

Then the end began.

For Agent Phil Coulson and his team, the denouement of their first year concluded in the opposite manner which it began. The show started with the happenstance recruitment of Skye by Coulson and the intentional recruitment of Mike Peterson by “The Clairvoyant.” As both characters descended down their respective rabbit holes, they struggled with the same issue—the repercussions of their intense personal entanglements on their involvement in a seemingly impersonal conflict. Skye was forced to stifle her natural tendency toward empathy by following SHIELD protocol. Peterson was forced to follow The Clairvoyant’s orders to ensure his son’s safety. They walked the path of necessary evil for the sake of a greater good.

Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released and Hydra happened. The midseason twist that will forever define Agents is reminiscent of Doyle’s death in Angel. The revelation of Hydra’s infiltration into and subsequent swift destruction of SHIELD transformed a run-of-the-mill procedural born of comic book inspiration into a full-blown Whedon affair. Our heroes were the power no longer. They were fighting it…and it was all for the sake of what they cared about most—each other.

Here is where both my appreciation for and frustration with Whedonism is born. A natural and complex conflict grows out of a premise that features a group of people operating outside the system to reach their goals. The protagonists will not only fight the system’s infrastructure, but its ideas. Likewise, because they’re not aligned under any formal organization, the heroes will constantly clash with each other. This double-edged conflict is enough to propel a series through a decade of seasons without losing narrative momentum because it allows the characters their independence.

In Whedon’s stories, the characters are never defined in comparison with each other. Their individuality is constructed and then they’re thrown into the blender of the plot. The relationships that further shape them are a consequence of their personalities and purpose, not a cause. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one as it celebrates the individualism that defines humanity. For most of its initial season, Agents’ character struggled with mustering this self-expression. They were stifled for logistical reasons. Their mission was to follow Coulson’s orders no matter what. Melinda May and Grant Ward were tight lipped and buttoned up. Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons were deer-in-the-headlights who actively suppressed their opinions. Even Coulson himself was forced to swallow his internal struggle, for he wasn’t the man at the top of the hierarchy.

The destruction of that hierarchy let these characters loose. They were literally forced to consider what they were fighting for. Their backstories and motivations were fleshed out. The emotional depth behind May’s fierce loyalty pierced its way to the surface. Fitz and Simmons attempted to assert themselves emotionally and strategically. Skye was no longer afraid to make decisions on her own for fear of being reprimanded. Coulson, well he was no longer a random one-liner machine, but a deeply driven and scarred hero with a laser-like focus on justice. Then there was Ward.

Perhaps no character benefited more from the definitive twist than Ward. Though he flipped from hero to villain, he was no longer a stoic solider and measured ladies’ man who is “everyone’s type.” What the audience discovered was a man who was snatched out of a troubled childhood by an evil that never let him go. The battle with that evil was his life in the same way that it was the real conflict of the show’s first season. And the culmination of that battle leaves his character shrouded in intrigue in the same way it leaves me disappointed with Whedonism.

The Clairvoyant, the main antagonist of the first season of Agents, turned out to be a high-ranking SHIELD and secret Hydra operative named John Garrett, Coulson’s close friend and Ward’s mentor. His influence on both men gave his reveal a powerful emotional resonance. His motivation took it away. Though he was a part of Hydra, a group seemingly bent on world domination, Garrett’s goals were much more short-sighted. Mortally wounded decades ago, his sole purpose was to keep himself alive through advanced robotics in the same way he transformed Peterson after “recruiting him.” His aim in creating super soldiers was never to empower Hydra, but save himself with the serum used to stabilize their systems. When he finally dosed himself with that serum (from the one and only vial that ever existed), his servile approach to the self grew to grandiose proportions.

Claiming to have seen the big picture and being labeled as crazy by former SHIELD head Nick Fury, Garrett explained, “You remember that speech you used to give us Nick, about how one man can accomplish anything once he realizes he can be something bigger? Well, now I am.”

“A part, a part of something bigger,” Fury replied.

“Is that how it went?” Garrett asked snidely.

“Not a great listener,” Coulson quipped.

“If you tell me this whole Hydra path thing you took is because you misheard my damn one-man speech…” Fury bantered.

“I am the key to the future of the universe. I am the origin of all things,” Garrett declared in his delusion.

Fury turned to Coulson, “You got it, right?”

“Totally. Loud and clear,” Coulson affirmed.

This exchange very clearly defines the sides. You can either be part of the something bigger or evil. Garrett’s quest to stay alive could be a noble one. Our lives are arguably all we have. At the very least, they’re the root of all we have. What was flawed about Garrett was the methodology he employed in preserving his life. It’s why he ultimately went crazy. He drove himself over the edge by demanding others sacrifice their lives for his. The problem here is that we never get a reason as to why he chose these tactics beyond that he was fighting for himself, so we’re forced to equate fighting for yourself with being evil.

As Garrett commanded Peterson to aim at Coulson and Fury, Coulson drove this point home. “Fury was teaching us something you never want to hear, John, because you only think about yourself. That’s the difference between your side and our side and why we’re always gonna win.”

“What lesson, Phil? Please, enlighten me,” Garrett mocked. However, it wasn’t Coulson that told the audience the lesson. It was Peterson and his son.

In a secret message sent by Skye that was designed to show Peterson he no longer had to follow Garrett’s commands (and bookended the duo’s season arc beautifully). Sky transcribed Peterson’s son words:

“Dad, what are we?
We’re a team?”

Immediately Peterson turned his weapon on Garrett and fired, destroying him. The team, both Peterson and his son and Coulson’s, had defeated the self.

Look, I would never in a million years defend Garrett. The guy was pure evil. He sought and brought destruction wherever he went. My issue is that in Whedon’s works the villains usually seek that destruction in service of the self and the heroes, despite all the screen time spent focusing on their internal development, must ultimately sacrifice themselves to prove their true heroism.

When a writer fills a page, he does so with the utmost intentionality. There are any number of ways to resolve a conflict, redeem a character, and/or demonstrate heroism. That Whedon’s execution of these events almost always climaxes in death, despair, and sacrifice highlights a core of negativity that is at odds with the layers of positivity it is wrapped in. The missile in The Avengers could have been thrown into the wormhole by the Hulk or Thor, Spike could’ve used the amulet as a key to lock the Hellmouth from outside of it, and Topher was smart enough to construct a device that didn’t demand he die to turn it on. That Whedon crafted these moments in the manner in which we witnessed shows that it doesn’t matter to him how much a person grows and becomes good, to be truly good he must abdicate the self. (Stark’s sacrifice was the most at odds with his character and positive arc, so much so that an entire movie, Iron Man 3, was needed to undo the post-traumatic stress it caused.)

The first season finale of Agents laid this tenant of Whedonism barer than it ever has been (perhaps because Joss himself didn’t write it). It likewise floated the simplistic trope of the evil corporation that also characterizes his work. This time it was in the form of CyberTech supporting Garrett’s work. Into Season 2 and beyond, I expect to see CyberTech return with a new villain (Raina) attempting to use technology and science to conquer the world for her own ends (which were hinted at, but not revealed).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Agents will continue to be a hell of a ride. I’ll gladly punch my ticket to the show weekly. I want to know what happens next with Ward and Fitz as much as anyone. Whedon is truly a master of storytelling, knowing how to pace a 22 episode season better than perhaps anyone out there. His characters are compelling reflections of, but not actual recreations of, human psychologies. My problem is just that I almost always find myself cringing at his conclusions (beyond Angel and Serenity which were arguably both products of cancellations).

Yes, people are generally good and should be loved and protected, but why portray them as such complex creatures if you’re ultimately going to define them by something so simple? It’s the paradox of Whedonism that enthralls me as much as it confounds me.