Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Knight In Tarnished Armor: Why this Coulson fangirl wishes he'd never gotten his own show

I literally added this so there would be a relevant picture in the link preview. This blog is so professional.

          Spoilers for the final season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (mild) and the first season and a quarter of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (extensive), if anyone cares.

Alternate title: Reason #282 why I hate Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

          So by now I’m sure you’ve all seen the Honest Trailer’s hilarious take on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you haven’t, watch it immediately. I laughed hysterically throughout, and they seem to have hit every complaint I could make about the show except one, which I’ll get into here. I rage quit the show halfway through the sixth episode of season two, so some of this may have been addressed since then but 1. I doubt it 2. Frankly, I don’t care. The first person to comment “Oh but it’s getting better now, you should watch it again,” had better hope I don’t develop Scanner powers. Look, when I watched the show and complained about it, you yelled at me for that. Now that I’ve quit, all I hear is that I should watch it again. Your options are I watch it and complain or I don’t watch it and only complain about the part I sat through when someone else like Honest Trailers brings it up, those are your options.

          Of all the things wrong with AOS, I have to hand them one thing. They’ve created, hands down, the most complex and sympathetic villain of the MCU, and it’s a shame he’s not going to be the villain for Captain America: Civil War, because that would be interesting and then I might actually care. To whom am I referring? Director Adama? Nope, I didn’t even get to him (and have never bothered to learn the character’s actual name). Garret? I liked Garret quite a bit up until they decided that the audience was too stupid to know he was evil if he wasn’t ripping people’s ribs out and stabbing them with them, but no, he was never sympathetic. Raina? *derisive giggle-snorts* Don’t make me laugh. That infantilized, pathetic weirdo needs to go back to the Kim Possible episode she escaped from.
Actually no, she doesn't have enough dignity to hang with these people. And would get her butt kicked by Kim so fast it wouldn't be sporting.

          If you know anything about what a huge Coulson fangirl I was during Phase I, and actually still am as long as I manage the gargantuan task of ignoring the show I put up with for far too long, you’ll probably be shocked to learn I’m referring to the man himself, Agent Coulson.

          In a better TV show, Coulson would be either the troubled antihero lead or perhaps even an antagonist. In fact, he kind of was – I can’t be the only one that’s noticed that he’s basically a less efficient, less overtly sinister version of Sloan, the man who introduces us to the dark heart of the Federation, Section 31, from Deep Space Nine. Let’s take a look at their similarities – aside from both of them being seemingly whitebread middle-aged white guys. Both of them are fanatically devoted to their respective agencies and “the greater good,” they claim to serve, both of them disregard the very laws they say they’re upholding, and both of them are willing to sacrifice innocent people for “the greater good.”

Shockingly, the guy in the ominous looking black leather uniform was a bad guy. Sort of.

          “Fanatical is a bit unfair to Coulson, don’t you think, Jess?” you might be asking. But wait, who presses on and agrees to be head of a now defunct organization despite being hunted by the government? Who (in a bit of writing I think is incredibly terrible for numerous reasons) has been a part of that organization since he was eighteen-years-old? Who gave up the chance to return to his normal life and devoted girlfriend, whom he loved very deeply, just to remain with this (again, completely defunct) organization? Who’s passing up an opportunity to go work in the civilian sector or even for the CIA or FBI and still continue doing good for society just so he can keep the banner of S.H.I.E.L.D. waving? Even after finding out how S.H.I.E.L.D. had betrayed him by using a drug he had begged them to stop testing on him and wiping his memory? Very shortly after finding this out, in fact? S.H.I.E.L.D. is so paramount to his purpose for being that he’d rather keep working for a defunct organization that betrayed him and was infested with Nazis than go and work for a legitimate organization that didn’t and wasn’t. Huh, suddenly he doesn’t sound so different from Sloan, does he? For those non-Niners out there – the last time we see Sloan is in his own mind (Inception-style, don’t ask). Part of him acknowledges the wreck he’s left his family in and that he’s been a terrible person, and tries to give Bashir a cure for the genocide he’s causing (among the Federation’s enemies). Another part of him kills that part before he can. It disturbs me how easy it was, this most recent time I rewatched that episode, to imagine Coulson in that scene. How few words would have to be changed, how believable to his character that would be. Just put a weeping Audrey (his cellist girlfriend) in place of Sloan’s wife, replace all the instances of “Federation” with “America” or “my country,” and there you go. Try to find that scene, watch it, and tell me with a straight face you can’t see it being modified to fit Coulson very easily. Except, of course, that I doubt Coulson is as conflicted as Sloan about it – for reasons I’ll get to in my conclusion. Or he might be – Sloan never gave any surface indication of being conflicted about what he did for Section 31. Maybe Coulson is a mess inside. Or maybe not.

          “Coulson doesn’t break the law!” Hell yes he does. Rather than take his chances coming in to explain himself, he continually evades capture and works to subvert the US government. That’s not entirely fair to hold against him is it? Hmmm. What about the fact that he casually invokes the NSA multiple times, or that he casually implies Ward will be tortured for information? Well he does have the force of law there, so maybe you can let that slide even if it is morally reprehensible. Except that before any of the Hydra stuff happens, he 1. Disobeys orders to find out more about how he was brought back. (This one at least, is understandable.) 2.  Allows a suspect (the sleazy millionaire person who shot Skye, I barely remember him) to be beaten and subjected to light torture while in his custody and refuses to turn him over to his superiors for questioning 3. Leads the breaking and entering of a secure S.H.I.E.L.D. facility to get a cure for one of his people. Which, I remind you, gets at least two guards killed. Hmmm. It looks like the laws only apply if it doesn’t affect one of Coulson’s people. Just imagine how Coulson would have reacted if Stark had done any of that crap to save Pepper? If Garret had done that to try to save Ward? It’s almost like the only reason we were supposed to root for him during this is, “He’s the good guy.”  

          “But wait, Jessica, Coulson would never sacrifice innocent people!” Wanna bet? He basically sacrifices his own team by taking away any recourse they would have to escape if they chose to leave. He does this in a very incidental scene in which he tells Skye to wipe all evidence they ever existed. (I doubt you could do that, especially for Coulson and May since, you know, paper records are a thing and used to be all we had, but whatever.) He doesn’t do it with malevolence, but there’s a reason that the whole “If anybody wants to leave, I won’t hold it against them,” cliché is so common. It’s so Jessica Chastain doesn’t look like an asshole when she asks her crew to spend an extra year in space to save Matt Damon and so Sisko doesn’t look like an asshole when he asks his crew to risk their lives and Starfleet careers to save one man and so Colonel Travis doesn’t look like an asshole when he mounts the hopeless defense of the Alamo and … you get the idea. It figures that the first cliché this damn show found that it didn’t immediately throw to the floor and make passionate love to was the one they absolutely should have used.
Well it's a good thing none of them ever got injured and had permanent brain damage or anything that make it unsafe for them to stay ... oh.
          “But that’s not really a sacrifice. That’s nothing on the level of the crap Sloan pulls.” Oh, but there is something else. There’s something in here that Sloan never even dreamed of. Let’s set aside the two guards Ward and Garret kill in the Safe House because that really wasn’t his fault, and he seems sorry about getting them killed when … oh yeah. When Simmons wants to make her research on the drug public, and suddenly it has to be a state secret (literally – how convenient that it wasn’t included in the files Romanov dumped online during Winter Soldier) because “two good men laid down their lives for it.” Which, again, didn’t seem to bother you when one of your people needed it, Coulson, but whatever. Let’s set that aside and look at what he’s saying. Yes, the drug in its current form is unusable by the general public due to it having a side effect of “makes you turn rib-stabbing batshit crazy,” and given that its key ingredient is dead alien juice, is probably only reproducible on a very limited basis, but Simmons is talking about turning it over to be researched by the finest minds in the world. Within a few years, with the whole world working on it, somebody could find a substitute for alien juice that doesn’t cause homicidal lunacy. Hell, this being the Marvel Universe where you can do science in an hour, somebody would probably have it by the end of the weekend. Even if you assume an extremely limited usage (unlikely due to the effects we see in the show), the applications for emergency medicine are simply enormous. There’s something called the Golden Hour – if you don’t get treatment for a life-threatening injury within an hour of receiving it, your chances of survival and survival without permanent injury plummet by the minute. All those innocent bystanders who arrive at the ER thirty minutes too late to be saved from bleeding out after being shot in a drive-by? All those people with head injuries that were caught twenty minutes too late to save their life? Those kids with aggressive infections whose test results came back just a few hours too late for the doctors to know which antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral to use to save their life? All those patients who die on the operating table during risky surgery? Sorry. You’re just going to have to keep dying, because Lord Coulson has deemed you unworthy to live. Why? Because a S.H.I.E.L.D. order says so. One he himself disregarded when it was someone he cared about in danger. This line is snarked often enough, but never have I meant it this strongly: Our hero, ladies and gentleman – someone who withholds the literal cure for death from the world.

All though as a long time Star Trek fan, I don't know why I'm still shocked by characters claiming that letting people die is for the greater moral good.

And honestly, I wouldn’t mind any of this if there was any indication that it was the least bit intentional. The character in the films was hardly an angel – he looks like he means it when he says he’ll taser Tony Stark if he doesn’t start complying – and it stands to reason that the spy business would occasionally get nasty. And I don’t object to the concept of having the protagonists do evil things in a series on principal. The aforementioned Deep Space Nine has many morally gray characters who are ultimately aligned with the good guys but have … very questionable moments, and it’s my favorite series ever. There’s an entire episode devoted to the captain wrestling with his conscience after taking part in a massive deception and allowing someone to get away with murder just to get a new ally in the war in which his people are getting slaughtered. I love it when series acknowledge morally gray areas and run with it.  

But this isn’t intentional. It very clearly isn’t. Coulson is our main character, but we don’t have any scenes where he sits there and agonizes over whether to let Simmons tell the world. No sad music playing. Simmons never even questions him on it again.  He just gives his orders and that’s that. We don’t see him consider taking another job. We don’t see criticism come from an outside source that isn’t immediately shown to be wrong in some way. Hell, he has to kill his best friend and he never agonizes over it. Never has nightmares about it, doesn’t even seem particularly sad about it. Just spouts off a Bond one-liner and moves on with his life. (The fact the Internet found said one-liner hilarious even in context disturbs me more than a little.) Yes, Garrett was a very, very evil person - but that doesn't change the fact Coulson knew him since he was an eighteen-year-old kid, trained with him, and fought at his side for years. The fact he was able to so easily assign him to "bad guy who needs to be killed" category doesn't make me impressed with his moral certitude - it adds fuel to my "Coulson is a fanatic" point and makes me concerned he might be a sociopath. He doesn't kill him in a fit of rage or because he has to and then feel bad about it later - he kills his former best friend and then smiles about it. Damn, Phil, the Punisher is scared of you now.

If you want to have a deeply flawed, morally ambiguous hero, that’s fine. That’s actually better than having a perfect, flawless person who is never wrong. But what upsets me about this show is it pretends to have the latter, when it has the former. There is never going to be a scene where Coulson looks at the camera and acknowledges all the evil he’s done in the name of good, and decides he can live with it. (Which is a shame because Clark Gregg is a damn fine actor and could easily pull it off.) Because the show seems to have the idea that evil done in the name of good ceases being evil. It’s a fine distinction, but one that’s a bit disturbing to miss. According to DS9: “The good guys are the good guys because they always serve the greater good but many things they have to do in order to achieve this end are bad, and this diminishes them as heroes but they still ultimately align with the light side.” According to AOS: “The good guys are good guys because they’re good guys so everything they do is good.” The problem with that is 1. It’s one thing to argue that the end justifies the means. It’s another to say that the morality of the means doesn’t even have to be considered given the end. 2. Every villain thinks they’re the hero of their own story. It is up to you, the writer, to show me, not tell me, which of your characters are the heroes and which are the villains. To illustrate: You want to know the DS9 character Coulson reminds me of the second most, after Sloan? Weyoun. Think about that. They’re both mid-level bureaucrats who kind of get field promotions (Coulson due to Fury going to deal with the “rats that didn’t go down with the ship” in Europe where he will be very inconspicuous as the black, six foot, one eyed former head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and everyone else either dying, being a traitor, or doing the sane thing and getting the hell out, and Weyoun due to the Founders’ chronic inability to give a crap until they’re doing more harm than good) who are completely, utterly devoted to their cause and don’t even blink at doing less than savory things to serve it with no sign of moral introspection. Oh wait, that’s a really unfair comparison. Weyoun commands a lot more respect from his underlings, and he did have that one clone that defected to the Federation to try to stop the killing and oppression, and was willing to die to do so.
Pictured: Approximately 250% more heroism than Coulson has displayed in the entire run of his TV show.
But hey, maybe I’m misjudging it, maybe I’m not being fair to the show and its intended audience. Maybe they're perfectly aware of how morally reprehensible Coulson can be
From the tvtropes "Gushing About Characters You Like" page.

Or not.      

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