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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Girl in the Flower Dress (Review)

The first few episodes of any new show are about finding the right balance, striking the right tone. You experiment a bit, you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you try a number of new things knowing that only a few will pay off. The problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t that none of the show’s experiments are coming to fruition. It’s that the show seems completely afraid to try anything new at all.

The Girl in the Flower Dress is the show’s fifth episode, but it already feels like something of a reheat, taking the best parts of The Pilot and The Asset, and synthesising them into a single familiar story.

The problem is that the best bits of The Pilot and The Asset weren’t anything to write home about.

A chip off the old block...

A chip off the old block…

There’s a moment early on where it looks like the show might be on to something vaguely interesting. A street magician is doing tricks that are completely impossible – controlling fire with his mind. When a pretty girls goes home with him, she asks him about his interest in magic, and he reflects that he’s become a bit disillusioned. “There’s no real magic there,” he concedes. “Only tricks.” It’s an interesting hook, disguising incredible abilities as magic, and exploring what “magic” might actually mean in a universe populated with gods and monsters.

More than that, though, magic is a common metaphor in stories about entertainment, because it allows writers to explore what entertainment actually is – the line between what the audience knows to be real, and what can’t possibly be; the ability of impossible objects to influence and even move them. As such, “magic” seems a pretty nice hook for any piece of fiction involving superheroes – those larger-than-life icons and recognisable characters capable of impossible deeds.

Playing it Coulson...

Playing it Coulson…

It’s a fairly basic and obvious connection, but it would feel more substantial than anything else in The Girl in the Flower Dress. After all, this is what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really should be – it should be magic. It should something inviting the audience to suspend their disbelief. It should be pure spectacle. It should be, as Coulson himself has already argued, “a front row seat at the craziest show on Earth.” Sadly, it actually seems like a front-row seat to a mediocre network procedural.

Maybe the NCIS comparison is too harsh, but it’s something I keep coming back to when I watch it. After all, NCIS is the other show to beat on network television on Tuesday nights. However, it feels like a bit of a shame to take a pretty impressive premise and to turn it into a clone of another show that has been successful enough to secure its own spin-offs. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is never going to out-NCIS NCIS, so even trying seems like a cynical move. The show needs to find its own voice rather than offering a half-hearted imitation of another.

Exploding on to the scene...

Exploding on to the scene…

The Girl in the Flower Dress feels familiar. And not just because the show seems to be shaping into another generic procedural. The plot is a hybrid of The Pilot and The Asset. Given that these three episodes have been the first, third and fifth episodes, it seems that “lame supervillain origin story” is going to be the series’ procedural of choice. Chan is just an even less-developed version of Peterson from the pilot – the guy who was promised the American Dream, only to end up just scraping by.

I’ll admit that I’m quite surprised at how incredibly conservative the show seems to be. That’s obliviously bled through in the way the series has tried to deal with surveillance culture – hey! Coulson’s a cool guy! who cares if he reads your emails? – and it reverberates through the treatment of Peterson and Chan. Peterson and Chan are both presented as hard-working stiffs who struggle to make ends meet. They seem to have been sold on the fantasy of doing great things and accomplishing the impossible, only to realise that the world doesn’t work that way.

A frikkin' laser...

A frikkin’ laser…

Peterson is portrayed as relatively sympathetic, even if the show patronises him a bit. The Pilot seemed to take him at face value, even as it suggested that maybe he just wasn’t up to handling any sort of power with any sort of responsibility. In The Girl in the Flower Dress, Chan’s dissatisfaction with how his life turned out is portrayed as nothing short of sociopathic entitlement. Although Coulson concedes that his file didn’t hint at sociopathy, “It did say he was a bit of a tool.”

So Chan’s desire to make a living and to pursue the fantasy of the American Dream is presented as a character vice. “You want to be recognised for your gift,” the eponymous handler goads him. “To be remembered. To be seen for what you really are.” Okay, phrased like that, he sounds like a bit of a sociopath. However, the show treats him as an idiotic monster because he dares to be uncomfortable with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempts to micromanage his whole life. “Claimed we were hampering his artistic expression,” his handler sighs.

Too hot to handle?

Too hot to handle?

Yep, I hate it when the person I’ve told never to use their talents dares to question my right to do so. Joss Whedon, credited an executive producer on the show and director of the first episode (and brother and brother-in-law to the showrunners), has written superhero stories recognising superpowers as a metaphor for what makes people different. His first Astonishing X-Men arc handled unintended super-powers as a metaphor for sexual orientation. Whedon also did an uncredited polish on Bryan Singer’s X-Men script, the sequel to which gave us the very pointed “have you tried not being a mutant?” line.

Those films recognised that telling people to hide a key facet of themselves was wrong. In contrast, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be a show about a bunch of people who ask that question without a hint of irony. Note that there’s no indication that S.H.I.E.L.D. has done anything except assign Chan a case officer – who almost seems like a probation officer designed to “keep an eye on him.” There’s no hint that the organisation so much as offered him a weekend course on safely using his gift, let alone offered an avenue through which his gifts could be used or harnessed if he wanted. Instead, they seem to have simply shown up and told him that under no circumstance could anybody know what a freak he is.

Too hot to handle...

Too hot to handle…

To be fair, these are supervillain origins. They’re very much in the style of Stan Lee or Brian Michael Bendis or Geoff Johns’ take on villains as characters who can’t get past their own satisfaction. So characters like Chan and Peterson are part of the superhero genre, and – to a certain extent – it makes sense to see them here. The problem, however, is that supervillains tend to be offset by superheroes. For every Norman Osborn who uses his power to get ahead in the world, there’s a Peter Parker who uses his gift to do the right thing. Maybe it’s not a one-for-one thing, but there’s a definite balance.

Because, at their root, superhero stories are an expression of the American Dream. Spider-Man is just an ordinary high-school kid who becomes something extraordinary. Superman is the ultimate immigrant-made-good. The X-Men are able to carve out their own identities while still contributing to a wider community they remain isolated from. Superhero narratives are built from the sort of exceptionalism that one associates with the fantasy of the American Dream.

Inject a bit of life into this, stat!

Inject a bit of life into this, stat!

Even within the shared Marvel movie universe, Iron Man is literally a self-made man and Captain America is a scrawny kid who thought he could step up to the plate and give something back to the community. So when these characters come up against entitled and selfish individuals who demand what was promised to them, these truly exceptional characters get to slap them back and tell them that they just aren’t good enough. You need to be as brilliant as Tony Stark or as pure as Steve Rogers.

The problem is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have superheroes. So we haven’t seen any characters who dared to chase the American Dream of self-betterment and were worthy of being labelled exceptional. Instead, we have a bunch of state-sanctioned people in black suits telling working-class members of the community that they just aren’t good enough. Instead of offering an ideal to strive towards, Coulson and his gang seem to spend their time telling people who strive to be exceptional to get back in their boxes. The message isn’t that only the truly exceptional get to be special, it’s that nobody is special and anybody who wants to be is a trouble-maker.

"This is torture..." ((Insert gag about watching the show...))

“This is torture…”
((Insert gag about watching the show…))

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just seems highly reactionary, and that plays out in its attitudes toward surveillance culture. The show has broached a couple of concerns about how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates, but those criticisms tend to come for hypocrites and sociopaths, so there’s never a sense that the show is reflecting on itself. For example, in Eye-Spy, Skye felt sorry for a woman whose every action was being watched by a sinister conspiracy; somehow overlooking the fact that she’s working for a massive organisation with access to everything anybody does.

Skye continues to be a part of that here. She helps S.H.I.E.L.D. track down an old friend. “I’m going to see if any credit card charges match up with any known hackers,” she observes, suggesting that she’s not securing a warrant or anything before making presumptions of guilt. Kind in mind that this is the character who was originally a hacker – she should be questioning how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates, not actively helping them.

Betrayed by his faithful Ward...

Betrayed by his faithful Ward…

To be fair, Skye does ask some questions when Coulson reveals that S.H.I.E.L.D. has an “index” of meta-humans that it monitors and occasionally needs to deal with. “How are they monitored?” Skye demands. “The methods vary,” Coulson responds, and it’s left at that. Rather pointedly, Chan was identified by an “informant” rather than through any more questionable information technological sort of way. When Skye wonders about keeping a list of people because they have different genes, Coulson helpfully replies, “A short list. Meant to protect them.”

The Girl in the Flower Dress does raise some concerns about S.H.I.E.L.D., but the script clumsily hides them behind ad hominem attacks. In The Asset, Quinn used his championing of freedom of information to his own ends. Here, it’s revealed that the two hacker guest characters are far from idealists. Rather than affording Skye and her old friend dramatic credibility, Skye is revealed to be an opportunist and her friend is a hypocrite. Skye isn’t really a champion of free speech. She’s just got issues due to a mysterious past. So immediately the show jettisons any sense that Skye might serve as an ideological counterpoint to Coulson and company.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Still, that’s nothing compared to her colleague. At first, he’s presented as reckless, in the same way that Julian Assange was portrayed in The Fifth Estate. It’s a credible enough position for the script to adopt, even if it seems a bit heavy-handed. “People can’t be trusted to know the truth,” it seems to suggest, “because they’d do stupid things with it.” S.H.I.E.L.D. is just a paternalistic big brother organisation that knows much better than you do. This immediately undermines the hacker’s position.

However, it gets worse. The Girl in the Flower Dress then makes it clear that he doesn’t believe any of the philosophy he is spouting either. “All said, it’s about a million dollars,” Ward announces, revealing bank transfers that were surprisingly easy to find on a master hacker. “What the hell were you thinking?” Skye demands of her old friend. “It was a million dollars,” the guy responds, as if that’s all we need to know about him as a character. He’s not just too stupid to be trusted, he’s a damn hypocrite, too. Again, the show seems a little reactionary and a little knee-jerk conservative.

Making his mark...

Making his mark…

The problem is that the show never engages with any of the concerns raised by the characters. Yes, Chan might be a “tool”, but if you take away or restrict his use of something that makes him exceptional, you naturally limit his options. On the plane ride with Skye, her boyfriend raises several legitimate questions about how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates. “I guess due process isn’t really S.H.I.E.L.D.’s protocol,” the hacker remarks. The best that Skye can offer is “they don’t have time for it.”

That’s the rhetoric of 24, which was able to paste over the problematic aspects of that philosophy with incredible pacing, an amazing lead actor and an occasional willingness to deal with the fall-out from such decisions. It also helps that the show had played out some of the more uncomfortable internal discussions in the American zeitgeist in the wake of 9/11. For all the show’s problems (and I’m a massive fan), it had a lot more thought than anything Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has offered so far.

Blowing the lid off...

Blowing the lid off…

“These people are denying our basic rights,” the hacker protests here, and it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have a point. Individualism is one of the cornerstones of American popular mythology – respect for a person’s autonomy. There are obvious limitations on that, but that’s why American free speech law is such an iconic part of American popular consciousness. American liberal democracy, in its most idealised form – which is arguably what superhero stories tend to explore – is very much about championing individual rights. That’s why the vigilante is so popular, rather than a state-sanctioned superhero.

“This isn’t about us,” Skye responds, simply. “They’re trying to save someone’s life.” Which seems to neatly sum up the political philosophy of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a show about how a large organisation takes it upon itself to decide what rights are important, and what rights aren’t. The state (or an internationally sanctioned intelligence organisation) will decide what rights you need, so don’t worry your head thinking about it.

I'll drink to that...

I’ll drink to that…

Don’t get me wrong. The politics of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are not indefensible. In fact, there’s an interesting debate to be had about how the existence of superpowers would justify the state’s authority to restrain and repress your rights. The problem is that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. simply isn’t interested in having that discussion about lawful and moral authority. Instead, we have some very pretty people in their underwear!

The depth of the philosophical discussion on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be neatly summed up with Fitz’s reaction to Skye’s betrayal. “Why Skye do this to us for him? I thought Skye was our friend.” The team isn’t offended that Skye’s betrayal compromised the unit and could represent treason. Instead, the bigger deal seems to be that she lied to he friends. (Aw!) Because that’s all S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be, a big bunch of friends who sit around and hack into your phone lines and credit card bills. That’s something that the show should absolutely expect the audience to accept at face value.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

SImilarly, Coulson’s decision to drop a cooperating witness in Hong Kong with no money and without the ability to use any sort of technology while letting Skye pretty much off the hook seems like a strange storytelling choice. The guy sold information to terrorists; I can understand locking him up and confiscating the money he earned. Coulson channeling that money to the family of an agent killed in action is sweet, but dropping that guy off like that on the other side of the planet seems tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. He can’t even get through an airport security scanner. Instead, the show treats it as “Coulson is cool and quirky, even when he doesn’t play by the book.”

In contrast, Skye gets some stern and disapproving looks, while presumably getting to keep her position on the team. One wonders if her bracelet interferes with technology – as that would render her pretty much useless to the team despite keeping her around. But hey! It’s okay, because she’s a main character on this show – so she’s safe and free from repercussions for her actions. There are no dramatic stakes here, no reason to be too concerned about anything that’s going on or anybody it happens to.

They're watching you... in a non-intrusive, non-creepy way...

They’re watching you… in a non-intrusive, non-creepy way…

I am growing more and more frustrated with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’s not because it is bad television. It’s mediocre television. I could have this on in the background while I cooked dinner and never need to pause or rewind. However, given the production values and the talent involved, there is absolutely no sense that anybody behind the scenes is doing anything remotely like trying to make this work. Gregg Clark’s charisma will only carry the show so far, and it’s a credit to him that I’ve stuck through five episodes, and Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen are doing the best they can with the material. Ruth Negga is fun as the villain of the piece here, but her character isn’t defined at all beyond “sociopathic.”

However, it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just isn’t trying. There is potential here. There is talent. There are good ideas. And that makes this mediocrity especially frustrating. Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon are, at the very least, much better than this. Dollhouse was a failure, but it was an ambitious one. At this point, I’d kill for an ambitious failure. It’d be better than the mediocre success the show has had so far.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

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11 Responses

  1. This was the first episode where it really hit home for me – “oh yeah, this is just another procedural but it has superheroes in it”. Great post; I absolutely agree that it needs to be a bit bolder and less conservative, with plotline as well as politically.

  2. “Rather than affording Skye and her old friend dramatic credibility, Skye is revealed to be an opportunist and her friend is a hypocrite. Skye isn’t really a champion of free speech. She’s just got issues due to a mysterious past. So immediately the show jettisons any sense that Skye might serve as an ideological counterpoint to Coulson and company.”

    The show just got more boring for that reason alone.

    “I have dark, deep, parent-related issues.” Ziva in NCIS, Beckett in Castle, Neal in White Collar, the-main-character-whose-name-I-can’t-even-remember on The Blacklist. Yawn. There ARE other ways of doing character development, TV writers.

    • That’s pretty much it exactly. So far, the show has been suggesting that the only reason characters might object to the work of SHIELD is because of daddy issues or greed. Which is an incredibly shallow way of trying to get drama from the show’s basic set-up. Give us philosophical conflict! Provoke something! Give us drama rooted in something beyond the fact that these are a bunch of angst-y attractive people!

      But no, the safer option is apparently always best.

  3. Agreed. This episode was plain bad, confirming the show’s lack of ideological depth. If you wan’t to criticize a political view or do social commentary, you have to give the other side a compelling, gut-wrenching narrative.

    At this point, I’m wondering whether Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is really just cheap propaganda. (Insert conspiracy theory about the U.S. government covertly hiring the Wheedons for damage control in the wake of the Snowden case here.)

    • Yep, I don’t think it’s anything conspiratorial. I just suspect that ABC and Disney are pretty much demanding “don’t do anything that might make the show harder to sell anywhere!” The same way that World War Z spends two-thirds building towards China… and ends up in Wales. Because Wales won’t block the release of the film. Here, Disney and ABC are probably just worried about provoking the wraith of pundits for adopting anything approaching a critical position, or even alienating good wholesome family viewers with a hint of subversion or challenge.

  4. Yeah I had to blog about this episode as well….I’m still pissed they are dragging their feet with this series and its NOT Sunfire!

    • To be fair, Sunfire is an X-Man, so he’s off the list of possibilities, right?

      • I just don’t like how they put in a character on the show that was exactly like him, but wasn’t him, you know what I mean?

      • I can understand that.

        That said, outside of being Asian descent (was Chan identified as Japanese?) and controlling fire, was Chan that similar to Sunfire? I actually really like Sunfire, but part of what I like about him is the fact that he’s pretty much the Japanese superhero. He’s arrogant and headstrong, stubborn and difficult to work with. (That original All-New X-Men line-up was awesome, wasn’t it?) I didn’t get any of that from Chan; Chan was an idiot with no higher aspirations and a weak character.

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