I’ve been recapping ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over at Vulture this year, and while I think I’ve enjoyed it more than most critics, there was once thing that nagged at me as I watched last night’s episode: The internal logic of S.H.I.E.L.D. is rapidly crumbling, and it may already be too late for the show to fix it.
The problem comes down to Skye (Chloe Bennet), a talented hacker with extensive ties to an Anonymous-esque group called the Rising Tide. Though Skye agreed to join S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end of the pilot, it was revealed in the show’s second episode that she was still in bed with the Rising Tide. In the Marvel Universe, New York City recently endured an attack by aliens that was foiled by the Avengers, which forced S.H.I.E.L.D. to reveal itself to the public. “We’re the line between the world and the much weirder world,” explained Agent Grant Ward in the pilot. “We protect them from the news they’re not ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe.”
Not exactly the kind of people who would trust a hacker with extensive ties to an anti-government group in the first place — but it was easy enough to let that implausibility slide in favor of a potentially interesting story about an idealistic mole who comes to realize that her ideals have been misguided all along. It was only when Skye was found out by her S.H.I.E.L.D. friends in the show’s fifth episode that the cracks began to show. The betrayal is essentially a blip on the radar, and it’s resolved by the episode’s end: Skye apologizes and offers a maddeningly cliched explanation about being an orphan looking for her parents, and Coulson agreed to help her find them.
This is the agency that’s supposed to be protecting the Earth for extraterrestrial forces? “I know I lied to you guys, but I was trying to protect my ex-boyfriend,” reiterates Skye at the outset of last night’s episode. “She apologized to all of us. What more could he ask?” complains Fitz when Ward gives Skye the cold shoulder. For a little while, it looked like Ward was the only sane member of the team — but by the end of the episode, he’d forgiven her too. At the end of the episode, Coulson was scolded by a fellow agent for failing to sacrifice one of his team members despite director orders — but S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently has no problem with Skye, confessed traitor whose actions led to the death of at least one agent, remain on the team.
All of this would be less of a problem if the show was merely aiming to be pulpy, ultimately disposable fun. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a flagship program for Marvel: A direct spin-off of the third highest-grossing movie of all time, and a show that’s supposed to lay the groundwork for no less than five other Marvel TV projects. The show is clearly interested in engaging with important real-world questions about disaster management and governmental transparency, and there’s never been a better time to do it.
But if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to drop names like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, there needs to be some dramatic weight here, and some sense that the actions of its characters actually have consequences. Yes, Skye is being monitored, but the S.H.I.E.L.D. we’ve seen in the Marvel films would never stop there. She should be biding her time in a cell, until a time when the group has no choice but to turn to her expertise — and when her motives would be less trustworthy than ever. Alternately, her loyalty to Rising Tide could have remained a secret longer, when the revelation would have had more of an impact on the team that had learned to trust and love her.
Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is desperately straining to make it seem even remotely plausible that anyone would let Skye stay in this group now, which requires almost everyone to be out of character. Coulson may be “different” since his death, but he’s not an idiot. A traitor, no matter how talented, puts the safety his entire team in jeopardy. “I”m done with you,” he tells Skye in the episode, but it doesn’t take much for him to change his mind:
Ward’s already thinly-drawn character is basically defined by the fact that he can’t even trust the right people, so his decision to let her back in is doubly baffling. And S.H.I.E.L.D., as an organization, is so careful and conspiratorial that not even the Avengers know that Agent Coulson is alive. Why would any of the top brass at S.H.I.E.L.D. allow an acknowledged traitor to keep working for them?
I suspect these are problems that the creative team behind the show is still hammering out, because it’s not all that clear what kind of organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be in the TV show. Is it Agent Coulson and his altruistic band of jet-setters? Samuel L. Jackson’s outsized Nick Fury, who shows up to complain about the destruction of a minibar? Or the shadowy, vaguely sinister figures who insist on hiding the truth, even from a top-tier agent like Coulson? Whatever the answer, we should have some paranoia about their agenda, because that’s what made S.H.I.E.L.D. such a fascinating presence in the films anyway.
There is one last wild card Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could play: a second, more realistic reason for S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep Skye in the field. That reason could even tie into the question of her parentage; I suspect that Skye is the daughter of some Marvel supervillain, and a Vulture commenter floated the possibility that she’s the daughter of Melinda May. But whatever the explanation, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to come up with a better explanation for keeping Skye around — and until it does, it’s going to be hard to take it all that seriously.