‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Review: Paternity and Paternalism

By  · Published on October 23rd, 2013

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Review: Paternity and Paternalism

I suppose there was always only the slimmest of chances that Agents of SHIELD would give a fair shake to the freedom of information movement. After all, disruptive, potentially anarchic institutions like Wikileaks and Anonymous strike fear into the hearts of governments and giant corporations (like Disney, which owns Marvel and ABC). I’m no apologist for self-righteous hackers, but I’d hoped that the show would tease out that particular ethical ambiguity of SHIELD, particularly its extensive surveillance activities and extralegal existence, a little longer, if only to give the audience a little intellectual meat to chew on.

Sadly, “Girl in the Flower Dress” was a bare-bones affair, as well as a big drop-off in quality after last week’s high benchmark. It was also a hit job on the free information movement, half-heartedly represented by Miles, a selfish goon who sells his hacking wares for a measly million bucks, as well as a weepy Skye who confesses to Coulson, “It’s [why] I learned to crack systems, why I joined the Rising Tide. To find any details I could about my parents.” By reducing Miles and Skye’s motivations for hacking to greedy and/or personal reasons, the show deprives from the Wikileakers of the world any philosophical or ethical authority ‐ the effect of which is to take the show further from a recognizable human world toward a good-versus-bad cardboard universe.

On that personal note, I’m honestly not sure how to feel about the insinuation that Coulson and May are Skye’s parents. There was a sneaky wink to it last week, with Skye’s throwaway line about “Mom and Dad fight[ing] downstairs,” as well as a foreshadowing of it in May’s flirty invitation to Coulson early this hour: “We could go a few rounds, like the old days?”

On the one hand, Coulson’s stubbornness about keeping Skye around despite the misgivings of everyone around him would make sense as part of the head agent’s post-death, second-chance-at-life arc. On the other, it means we’d have to keep hearing about Skye’s Dickensian childhood (ugh), and actress Chloe Bennet, who’d struggle on a daytime soap, just doesn’t have what it takes to sell me on her character’s orphan pain. It also strains credibility that, if Skye really is Coulson and May’s kid, Mama Melinda would be so utterly clueless about Skye’s origins. Though, really, nothing was as unbelievably dumb as Skye hooking up with Miles at his apartment and thinking she wouldn’t be found. (If Melinda really is Skye’s mother, does that mean she spied on her daughter having sex this episode?)

Compared to the SHIELD in-fighting, the A-plot felt more perfunctory than usual, set up almost entirely to question Skye’s loyalties and continue the Centipede storyline, last seen giving ‘roid rage to a down-on-his-luck schmo in the pilot. The X-Men-ish premise of “I have superpowers, now what?” was given a nice twist by street-magician Chan Ho Yin’s (Louis Ozawa Changchien) hunger for fame, and if the show refuses to interrogate SHIELD’s Big Brother-ish tendencies, it at least gives the organization the difficult mission statement of helping people who don’t want help. “You were the ones killing me, forcing me to keep my gift locked up inside,” Chan tells Coulson. Sure, he’s not seeing the big picture, but he has a point in that SHIELD refuses to see the smaller one.

Ward balks at SHIELD’s paternalism: “You can’t save someone from themselves, sir.”

Coulson responds, “You can if you get to them early enough,” which definitely sounds like a very nice thing to say, especially concerning Skye, but also something that wouldn’t seem out of place coming from a British colonial administrator’s bloodless lips, either. I don’t have much faith that the show will have the courage to make SHIELD as threatening as it should be, but we can hope for now.