Review: Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Episode 1 (2013)

This review is delayed due to life stresses and a shortage of spoons (and a need for people to send me winning lotto tickets), but I am here to tell you that SHIELD is the NSA. Not literally of course, but there are disconcerting parallels and a way of narrative structuring that make the show highly uncomfortable to watch and that make it difficult to root for the title group, even without added issues relating to race and class.

Spoiler warning for under the cut:

Your mileage may vary, of course, and it is very easy to get caught up in the action and how “cool” and “wonderful” everything SHIELD and SHIELD related is, but that is part of the problem. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD would be a very different show if the actions of the title group and its individual agents were not presented unquestioningly and in a celebratory manner. Instead, the narrative is set up to make us feel how great and awesome SHIELD is even when their actions include abducting someone in broad daylight and putting a bag over their head in the process, injecting someone with an extremely potent drug and leaving them alone in a room with someone else who has been told to do what they want with them for as long as they want, and hunting down a group whose only/worst “crime” is disagreeing with their actions and operations and wanting greater transparency from them.

I purposefully excluded gendered pronouns in the above description because the abduction would still be disturbing if Skye was male and the truth serum scene is not okay because Agent Coulson injected Agent Grant Ward with it instead of Skye and left Skye in charge of him in his drugged state. Some people might view or describe it as fair turnabout but to me it is not. I was disturbed and distressed watching Coulson talk with Ward and pull out the vial of and injector for the super-strength truth serum and that state did not abate when Coulson entered the interrogation room and stuck Ward with the injector instead of Skye. Regardless of whether he finds Skye attractive or not, Ward did not consent to having the serum used on him and to being left alone in a room with Skye and to her being given free rein to ask him anything she wants while he is unable (given how the truth serum was shown to operate) to refuse to answer or to answer with something other than the truth. He also did not consent to Skye sexually harassing him, which is what her loosening her top and leaning in closer was (besides being a gratuitously “sexy” scene bit). Agent Ward finding Skye attractive is not consent to any of that and the scene being gender-flipped does not make it okay, even though it may ‘seem’ like it because of the relief of it not being Skye who is injected, because Agent Coulson does it, and because the result of the scene is that Skye now trusts Agent Coulson to some degree, which is important to the plot and to adding another (female) member to the team and someone the audience is supposed to identify with and use as a point of view character.

On the topic of Skye, it is also troublesome that she and the group she is a part of, the Rising Tide, are set up as potential questioners of SHIELD as all that is great and good and then immediately shot down (or at least shot down by the end of the episode), whether by assimilation or vilification. The movement and framing of the narrative propel us towards going along with SHIELD and celebrating them and their actions, even to the point of going along with them in their reaction to the Rising Tide when they are a group who, through what we are given in dialogue in the episode, disagree with the actions, activities, and especially the secrecy of SHIELD and use various forms of media on the internet to discuss that disagreement and those problems. They have not committed any violent crimes against anyone (upon checking again on the show’s site, it ‘is’ apparently members of the Rising Tide that Agent Ward ends up fighting in the process of the mission he is called away from in Paris, so I am including that for thoroughness, although as of this first episode they are still not making ‘or’ executing threats against the public or against public or private spaces/buildings, occupied or not, or attempting to execute hits on anyone), made any violent threats or acted upon any, or done anything other than disagree with the premise that SHIELD is great and good and its actions and authority unquestionable.

It is not a huge focus of the episode but there is the fairly standard “cool” dispatching of the agents to, and discussion of, tracking down a “rogue” group and apprehending a member/important member … and it happens in such a fast and exciting manner that one may not even notice or realize that the group they are tracking down (and do a broad daylight, bag over the head abduction of a member of) is not a dangerous group of terrorists bent on causing the public harm. They are simply a bunch of internet savvy people who disagree with the spying, information gathering, and other activities of a group with a lot of power, authority, and resources and who are meant to be acting in the best interests of the American people … and aren’t. Sound familiar?

And Skye, the only individual member of the Rising Tide we see and who is allowed to have a voice and to represent those who are not one hundred percent on team SHIELD, is assimilated into team SHIELD by the end of the episode. This may change/may have changed (since I have been holding off on watching the next two episodes or seeing any spoilers until I was able to write this), but I think it is unlikely, given how important it was to the narrative and that this is the first episode of the series and so is the tone setter for the series to come. As well, that narrative thrust and the importance and celebration of her assimilation into SHIELD also contribute to other problematic aspects of the episode and its ending scene(s).

One of my hopes after seeing the opening scene/sequence of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD was that Mike Peterson would be a major (positive) player in the episode and that the narrative (potentially also setting up a pattern for future episodes) would be about a regular person with superpowers and what they decide to do with them and why and how that interacts with SHIELD and their ideals and operations, especially their (apparently already in existence) mutant registry and hunt-down-the-superhumans tendencies, as well as the place of privilege they operate from in terms of authority and resources. And, again, seeing a regular person with superpowers and without the resources (Tony Stark/Ironman) or connections to resources (the Avengers) of the big name/getting movies and attention superheroes of Marvel and what that means and looks like for them.

Instead, I quickly ended up a mixture of disappointed, disconcerted, and downright upset as Mike Peterson was rather quickly turned into the baddie to be taken down and nice sounding and nice looking things were substituted for, used to pass over, and/or bumbled unawares over things that are important, intersectional, and relevant.

To some it may be trivial or “silly” to bring up but Skye using slight of hand to get Mike’s driver’s license in order to get his personal information after he refuses to give it to her and to “go public” as a superhero like she tried to pressure him to is not a trivial moment showing her being clever/awesome and also setting up for SHIELD to later be able to track Mike down and get all his personal information, even though that is what the episode treats it as. It seems to be stating the obvious but people do not carry more than one valid driver’s license at a time and driver’s licenses are not replaced for free when lost or stolen. Skye takes Mike’s driver’s license and does not give it back and Mike, as shown and told both before and after this moment in the episode, is in serious financial straights. In the state of New York it is “only” around $18 for the fee for a new driver’s license but that is ‘not’ an inconsequential amount of money for everyone, even if it is for some people and for some viewers of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

That money is toilet paper, is soap, is pain killers and other non-prescription medication (and of course prescription meds are even more, especially if you are without insurance or even if you are, depending on coverage), is stamps, is dish soap, is toothpaste, is a toothbrush, is money for the laundromat to have clean clothes, is paper for printing resumes and cover letters or taking notes at school, is so many “minor” things that are not minor when you have limited finances. And that is without the added element of having to obtain the replacement driver’s license. Doing it online eliminates having to go down and wait at a DMV office on a day when one is open (and the cost and time of a transportation method to get you there) but it also requires access to the internet and also having an address for the replacement driver’s license to be mailed to, and the in person option involves limited days on which the DMV is open, the distance to the “nearest” one, cost, access to, and wait time for transportation, and lost time that could have been spent on other matters such as job hunting and childcare.

Skye’s actions are not without consequences, but the show acts as though they are, and this continues on through the show’s final moments when Mike Peterson’s fate is waved off with green green grass and Skye telling Agent Coulson that she told Mike‘s son that his father will be home soon and then Skye and Coulson flying off in his car Lola to Skye’s new future as an agent of SHIELD. It is so easy to get caught up in this and the ending for Mike and his son does look and sound nice on the surface and I did enjoy Coulson’s flying car, but the ostensibly happy ending is not actually one, at least when it comes to Mike and his son. Mike still has no job, his home is still about to go into foreclosure or is actually in foreclosure, and while he is about to get out of the hospital and be reunited with his son, he will still have hospital bills to pay and no way to pay them since he has no job and no health insurance and also possibly a criminal record from the ill effects of the Project Centipede technology and SHIELD’s manhunt for him, which will make it that much harder for him to find employment and also housing. But, again, the show waves off his fate and future with shots of beautiful green grass and children playing in the distance and Skye telling Coulson and thus the audience that Mike will be out of the hospital soon.

There was also a heavy handed shot of a diversity mural in the train station before Mike makes his speech (which makes valid points, but then gets dismissed by Coulson’s speech in response and then a shot to the head for Mike),  the weird exchange of smiling Twilight stares between all the members (and soon to be member) of the Agents of SHIELD after one of them shoots Mike in the head (to cure him, ‘of course’, and with the special gun flashed briefly early on in the episode, but that does not take away from the visceral impact and it is not verified until the green green grass ending sequence that he is alive and will be okay, at least in being-alive terms), and the aforementioned really nice sounding speech from Agent Coulson that also has the underlying (or more) message of “It’s not what you have, it’s how you use it,” said to someone who is truly struggling and just spoke on behalf of himself and others like him, but I really do need to finally finish this and catch up on watching before there is yet another episode released so …

In sum, the show looks cool and/or “cool” (which seems to be one of its main aims), Coulson is back and there does genuinely seem to be good storytelling potential there with what actually happened to him and what he’s been told and led to believe, Lola is there ‘and’ she’s a flying car this time, … and the show is just too problematic in terms of intersecting matters of race, class, and current events involving government spying and privacy violations and worse for it to be a middling but fun show or to be something more like it could have been if handled differently (there is/was great potential in Mike as a truly regular guy superhero and in exploring issues around medical testing, disability, workplace treatment of employees, and exploiting those in disadvantaged positions, just with this first episode and the information and background that was given in it). And even if the Rising Tide does turn out to have more violent intentions and actions than in this starting episode, the show will still have vilified (and likely not added in alternates for/counterpoints to) the only people questioning SHIELD and its actions and agency and lack of transparency and there is no way that is not problematic and deeply troubling.

Leave a Reply