Last night, on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., agent Grant Ward, was brainwashed, kidnapped, and raped — and no one on the show seemed to notice. More disturbingly, the other thread of the episode was about how disturbed and betrayed Coulson is feeling because, while he was dead, S.H.I.E.L.D. did something to him he did not consent to and then brainwashed him into being okay with it. The audience is clearly supposed to understand Coulson’s position and to sympathize with him. The rape victim, once he’s unbrainwashed, gets punched by his lover. I guess this is supposed to be funny or understandable or something.
“Yes Men” was, in many ways, a great episode. Finally, after a long season of the show not quite having a narrative purpose or overarching story, pieces are starting to fall into place. We know there’s a bad guy, The Clairvoyant, even if we haven’t met him or her yet. We know that The Clairvoyant is dying to know how Agent Coulson is able to keep his thoughts hidden from The Clairvoyant. And we see The Clairvoyant’s minions doing evil things like shooting Skye. Last night’s episode dealt directly with the fallout of Skye being shot, almost dying, and then being revived. It also directly linked to Marvel’s larger world. Loralei, an evil Asgardian with the power to bend men to her will merely by the sound of her voice (or, if they’re particularly tough, her touch), has escaped her Asgardian prison and come to Earth to raise an army and take over. Sif, in a cross-over from the movies, has come to recapture her. Coulson and his crew must help her. It was exciting and fun, except for what happened to Ward.
Even though the episode was all about how and whether you can get past the bad things that happen to you — Sif talks about wanting to kill Lorelei but having a duty to deliver her alive to Odin, Coulson and his whole situation, Coulson feeling like he did something wrong to Skye by letting Simmons inject her with liquid alien innards — Ward’s situation isn’t given the gravity it deserves. The show doesn’t seem to recognize that what happened to Ward actually was a bad thing, on par with the other bad things characters are going through on the show, something that might be hard for Ward to get past.
This show was supposed to be a look at the human beings who make up the Marvel world, what it’s like to be a person in a world inhabited by superheros. Frankly, though, last night’s episode convinced me that the show has no idea what it’s like to be human. For a human being, what happened to Ward would, to put it mildly, throw a person for a loop. It seems to me that what happened is that the show got caught up in the deliciousness of certain pop culture cliches — ooo, what if you got to have sex with this really hot chick but it wasn’t like you were cheating because you couldn’t help yourself? Or ooo, what if these two people who really care about each other had to knock the crap out of each other? Who would win?. But those aren’t questions that tell you something about what it means to be a person.
In real life, when you get raped or when a loved one knocks you around, it’s not cool. It’s not something you can just bounce back from. Not having control of your own body is terrible. And the worst part is that the show knows this. Earlier in the episode, when Skye and Ward are talking about their discovery that Mike Peterson is still alive, Ward is unforgiving of him not saving Skye, but Skye specifically mentions that he’s not in control of himself. This is presented as if it’s unfortunate and a reason we should have sympathy for Peterson.
So, why isn’t Ward granted the same sympathy? Maybe there’s some chance that this is the start of a thread that will play out over upcoming episodes. But it seems to me more likely that the show doesn’t ever see this for what it was. Even by the end of the episode, the focus wasn’t on what happened to Ward but on whether he could patch things up with Mae–like he did something wrong or, my god, like it makes sense for Mae to take the word of his rapist about him not loving her!
I’ll give it to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in this regard. I had, up until last night, found Ward to be one of the blandest characters on the show. But now he has my sympathies. Because that character is stuck in a world where terrible things happen and, when they happen to him, no one cares.