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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Hub (Review)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has burnt through a lot of goodwill at this point. Offering a television spin-off from one of the most popular and successful movie franchises of the last decade (if not all time) should be easy; giving the show to long-time collaborators of Joss Whedon should only increase the series’ likelihood of success. The show has the budget and the scope to offer an exciting slice of pulpy comic book entertainment, but all the episodes so far have been incredibly generic, and could easily have been lifted from shows like The X-Files or Fringe.

At least The Hub offers us a sense that the writers are finally pitching shows to the niche filled by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a story about a massive multi-national spy organisation with dark secrets and impossible technology, which places it firmly in the show’s wheelhouse. There are a lot of problems, mostly with finding the right tone, but it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at least finally finding its own voice. It’s not a strong or distinct voice yet, but there’s still a faint sliver of hope.

Plane sailing...

Plane sailing…

A series about a team of crack government secret agents who deal with classified data on a regular basis is inevitably going to have to confront big issues. It doesn’t matter how quirky the writers make the cast, or how painfully they attempt to develop romantic chemistry, or give their cast members trite issues to work through. A show about the people in charge of protecting a world inhabited by superheroes will inevitably have to get a little political. After all, the past decade has been dedicated to countless discussions about authority and power. Even the comic books that Marvel is drawing from have waded into the debate.

The Hub sees Simmons making passing reference to “the Triskelion”, a secret headquarters that will be featured in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; the Triskelion debuted in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, which used superheroes as a vehicle to explore American foreign policy. Victoria Hand guest stars in The Hub; Hand was created by Brian Michael Bendis for his Dark Avengers, part of a long meditation on freedom and security during Bendis’ Avengers work. The title of Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes from Ed Brubaker’s charged Tea-Party-provoking Captain America run.

The matter at hand...

The matter at hand…

Even ignoring all the lingering issues around surveillance culture and wire taps that have been eating up headlines around the world for the past few months, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t help but be inherently political. It’s about agents empowered to prevent people with gifts or advanced technology from affecting the status quo. The premise of the series is highly reactionary, and runs somewhat counter to the more exceptionalist narratives of superhero stories. Stories like The Amazing Spider-Man argue that exception people can do great things; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. argues that exceptional people need to keep their heads down.

The first few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. danced around this issue by pretending it didn’t exist. “Look at Coulson and his wacky team!” it seemed to shout, as it took wire-tapping and hacking for granted, without even a fleeting acknowledgement of human rights or due process. Somehow it was okay when Coulson knew everything about everybody; because Coulson is a nice guy, right? The show was unwilling to actively engage with the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. might be a bit of a grey area, and could be considered morally questionable.

A bit of a drag...

A bit of a drag…

In a sense, you can feel the Whedonist influences pulling against the politics inherent in the set-up. Joss Whedon writes quirky outsiders who don’t fit in. Having worked with him for an extended period of time, his brother and sister-in-law have those same sensibilities. As such, you can feel an obvious tension in the way that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is essentially about a bunch of quirky outsiders who don’t fit in who find themselves working for the system. There’s a core discomfort at the heart of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the show is still struggling with it.

And the last two episodes have seen some small measure of improvement. S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer presented solely as a bunch of free-spirited well-meaning cool people who have quirky adventures and therefore should feel free to read your email. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a somewhat larger organisation, with lots of infrastructure and bases and bureaucrats. We’re  beginning to get a sense that S.H.I.E.L.D. might actually by a large organisation with a clear structure, rather than a bunch of quirky outcasts.

Talk about a cold open...

Talk about a cold open…

Of course, the last two episodes have taken the easiest path possible to dealing with the politics of S.H.I.E.L.D. In F.Z.Z.T., we were introduced to Agent Blake. Blake was willing to order Coulson to throw one of his crew into the Atlantic Ocean to save the plane. Rather than presenting Blake as a pragmatic and responsible individual, the show took the path of least resistance and suggested that he was one-step shy of outright villainy. He even menaced Coulson at the end of the episode.

Here, we’re introduced to Victoria Hand, who seems to be in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tactical operations. She’s willing to send two of her agents to their deaths, and is presented as an out-and-out villain for this. Again, the show has no room for any ambiguity or nuance. Coulson is our lead character; as such, the script goes out of the way to define him as a character who would (who could) never sacrifice Ward and Fitz like that.

He's got a lot agency...

He’s got a lot agency…

When Skye confronts him about it, it seems like the show is willing to be at least coy about Coulson’s complicity in it all. “Did you know there was no extraction planned for Ward and Fitz?” Skye demands. “That’s classified,” Coulson replies. The episode would have been much stronger had Coulson himself known and gone along with it, or had the point at least remained somewhat ambiguous. Instead, we get a rather blunt scene where Coulson makes it clear that he would never sacrifice Ward and Fitz because he knows them, and they are great guys. “I also know my men. And what they’re worth.”

This does raise questions about how Coulson got to his position in the organisation. If this is standard operating procedure – or, at the very least, authorised operating procedure – how come he’s only having a problem with it now? If Coulson is really a rebel who plays by his own rules, how did he manage to worm his way into the very heart of S.H.I.E.L.D.? It strains credibility, and it feels like the episode is working too hard to keep Coulson as a white knight character.

What's in the pipeline at this point...?

What’s in the pipeline at this point…?

Even the character’s naivety feels a little forced. Had Skye gone through Coulson’s character arc, it might make sense. Instead, Coulson seems to be riddled with angst that he should be well past at this point. “Maybe I’m getting soft, but I don’t like keeping things from our team,” he moans, suggesting that this is the first time Coulson – a high-ranked international man of mystery – has had to omit details (not actively lie, but omit details) to people under his command.

You could argue – and the episode even hints at the possibility – that Coulson’s resurrection changed him. This is a lazy and convenient answer, and the show never really confirms that Coulson would have been ready or willing to make that sort of decision before he got stabbed through the heart. It’s just a convenient way of dancing around a problem that the show isn’t willing to face; any senior figure in an organisation like S.H.I.E.L.D. will have to make questionable moral choices, and there aren’t always easy answers.

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

The Hub undermines the debate by reducing Hand to a generic obstructive bureaucrat. She spends more time passive-aggressively attacking Coulson than justifying her tough calls. Indeed, it seems like her decision to sacrifice Ward and Fitz is motivated as much by professional jealousy as it is by operational necessity. “I only know what I’ve read,” she confesses. “All I know is that Fury has a soft spot for his favourites. Not everyone gets sent to Tahiti.”

Brian Bendis wrote Victoria Hand as an ambiguous character trying to stand by her principles in an uncertain era; she was a surprisingly complex (and grounded) supporting character in a comic dominated by larger-than-life characters. That’s a very tough thing to do, but it’s what defined her as a character. Victoria Hand went on to feature as a recurring supporting character in Bendis’ regular Avengers title. This version of Victoria Hand looks like she’s being set up to be part of some grand anti-Fury conspiracy. Which is much less interesting than a complex character.

Fitz and starts...

Fitz and starts…

The Hub is clumsy, but at least it’s willing to deal with the notion that S.H.I.E.L.D. might be a bit less super fun! than we’ve been led to believe, and that the large organisation dedicated to saving the world might have more pressing concerns than impressive sky-diving stunt sequences or romantic triangles. “Everyone’s wearing the same suit,” Skye observes, which is a nice pointed observation about the organisation she signed up to as a free-spirited hacker.

We even get a sense of Skye coming into conflict with her new profession – which makes sense. She’s a hacker interested in freedom of the press. It’s about time she had a serious moral objection to something; after all, The Girl in the Flower Dress allowed her to object on purely personal grounds. The conflict is logical and reasonable and understandable. Skye wants to be included in secret briefings; S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t provide her with that information because she’s a freedom-of-information hacker who recently committed treason and has been working for the organisation for a few months at most.

He's got his finger on the button...

He’s got his finger on the button…

“I know it’s hard to hear,” Coulson tells her, “but you don’t have the clearance.” It’s a nice blunt moment that feels like a much more effective rebuke of Skye than the whole “Ward’s being mean to me” subplot of F.Z.Z.T. And it makes sense that Skye would be upset by this. She’s a hacker, and her character is just a little self-centred and entitled. “You guys might be okay with being in the dark, but I’m not into it.” Because the rules totally don’t apply to her.

There’s big problem here, in that Coulson is right and Skye is wrong. Even private companies have hierarchies of information. You aren’t entitled to know sensitive information just because you want to. Being part of a team involves some measure of trust of your superior, and while Coulson is very “touchy-feely”, there have to be boundaries. Of course, Skye inevitably ends up being correct, which feels like a cop-out that writes around the fact that Coulson has a perfectly valid point.

A bit of a stretch...

A bit of a stretch…

However, The Hub deals with all of this in a rather light-hearted manner, which really saps any tension from the episode. The gags are mostly quite tired – particularly the “the nerd does better in the field than the jock” joke that has Fitz proving himself incredibly valuable in an unconventional way. Skye and Simmons’ attempts to steal information never feel like they involve actual stakes, although Elizabeth Henstridge has some charming comic timing. “I like men who are about my height, but heavier than me,” she offers by way of awkward attempt to distract a snooping agent.

While a sense of humour is great in a show like this, and keeps with the tone of the films the movie is spinning off from, it feels a little bit too stylish and shallow. We are never too concerned about Fitz and Ward, because this is really just an excuse for some affectionate gags and quirky character dynamics. We know that Skye and Simmons will never be disciplined for their attempts to hack the Hub, so there’s no real sense of danger to their snooping. We know that the show doesn’t have the edge to make Coulson complicit in a sacrifice play involving the officers under his command, so it’s all a little safe.

The Skye's the limit...

The Skye’s the limit…

Safe. That word seems to be the one I keep coming back to. There are no consequences or nuance to the world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Everything is a gag to our main characters, everything is a source of self-aware fun. There’s no sense that any of these characters could pull the rug out from under us, and everything seems paint-by-numbers. The show needs a little edge, a little energy or excitement. It needs a surprise or two, and a willingness to catch the audience by surprise.

Right now, it doesn’t have any of those. It is at least willing to explore the implications of a show about an organisation that polices the extraordinary, which something the show wasn’t willing to commit to even two episodes ago. So maybe there’s hope yet. I’m finding it increasingly hard to care.

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

One Response

  1. Agreed on most of this commentary. The show is losing steam for me as well.

    I do think Hand was a bit more nuanced than you do, especially by the end when she gives that quirky smile at Coulson’s men getting free.

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