“This is how S.H.I.E.L.D. works. You make a plan, the plan turns to rubbish, you make a new plan.” And in that one statement Hunter confirms all my suspicions that S.H.I.E.L.D. is completely aware that they are not performing at the top of their game. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work out pretty consistently. The age of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a top level covert intelligence agency is almost certainly gone. Welcome to the new Wild West, where a ragtag team of do gooders fight against the unseen evil, hell-bent on taking over our lives. If that scenario sounds vaguely familiar it’s because the same sum up can be made of most every Whedon-influenced show ever created. And it’s not the only way that the Whedon hand can be felt.
Beyond being awesomely quotable, last night’s episode makes it clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., much like other Whedon-helmed shows, is beginning the process of reaching out into a kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. That’s not to say this is a bad fit. It’s a pretty natural progression, and while it still seems like an easy out to, once again, lay blame on Hydra, I can’t fault the show for trying to ask some bigger questions. It’s actually where Agents excels. The clandestine cloak and dagger of a spy show, or the grey zone morality of most law and order dramas never seems to settle well on this production team’s shoulders. While from time to time we get a stand-out episode with regards to these, the reason that Season Three is much stronger than the seasons that preceded it is that this season marks a departure from trying to put those topics we expect at center. I expect a spy show to be about top-secret operations, tough choices, and emotional fall out, but Agents does it’s best work when it’s not trying to be a spy show. Or a superhero show for that matter. So what kind of show is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. meant to be?
The honest, though perhaps overly simple answer, is horror. Yes, horror. Not science fiction, though there are certainly elements of that, but genuine out right horror. More and more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is asking the question: what makes someone human? What forced inside and outside ourselves should we worry about taking away this humanity? And that’s what horror really is. It’s anything that asks us about our primal fears. Maybe asking these questions doesn’t make us want to close our eyes or scream in terror, but it does do what the most effective horror pieces do: make you wonder and leave you with a sense of unease that stays planted at the back of your mind for days, sometimes weeks after the fact, all by asking you a seemingly straight forward question.
That’s certainly what happened last night with Will, and while part of me mourns the Will and Fitz rendition of Pretty In Pink that will never be, seeing the exposed bone in Will’s leg after thinking that he and Fitz may just make it out alive hits more than a few horror buttons.
First, there’s the pretty obvious body horror. Agents has excelled at this one since the beginning, not just by showing us nasty gun shots, exposed bone, and bloody torture, but in a deeper, more disturbing sense. When Guillermo del Toro talks about body horror (and seriously we should all take a moment to listen to Guillermo del Toro talk about body horror) he describes that what’s truly terrifying about the human body is that we often can’t be 100% sure what’s happening inside ourselves at any given time. We don’t have complete control over every cell and something could be wrong without us even knowing. That lack of control is a primal fear of which Coulson alone could trigger plenty of nightmares. Add in inhumans, not just in being different, but also in the very process by which they become inhuman, and suddenly what on the surface plays as a science fiction adventure becomes a bit more insidious. A bit, dare we think it, horrifying.
Then we encounter that cosmic horror. Whatever that thing inside Will really is, it’s clearly much more powerful than any of us, and for the most part completely indifferent to our existence, which makes it all the more terrifying. Villains who are angry or hateful, vengeful or cruel are predictable. They may have a lot of power, but knowing their motivation means you can out-think them. It leaves us with hope that we can still win. But this thing, this inhuman, if that’s actually what it is (I have my doubts), is completely indifferent to those that surround it. We know this not only through its words, because nothing’s a better giveaway for evil than dispassionately discussing the demise of lost civilizations, but also through it’s actions. An evil creature, power hungry and vain, would have sided with Ward and his Hydra team the moment it knew they were there essentially to worship and empower it. But this creature doesn’t care for that. It chooses to side with Fitz arbitrarily. And a creature without a clear motivation can’t be predicted, and sorry Powers Booth, but that means it can’t be controlled.
There are other horrors here tonight; psychological, emotional, good old-fashioned murder, but it’s important to recognize the significance of “maveth” itself. Yes, in Old Testament Hebrew “maveth” means death, but it’s more specific than that. “Maveth” refers to death by violence as a penalty. The word itself invokes a kind of ethical horror that we rarely explore in such stark, dramatic terms. The idea that someone’s death, specifically Ward’s, should be inflicted on him as a way to right his many wrongs probably isn’t very far from our own minds. We may even think it’s fair. Ward’s descent from easily drawn-in loner, to full-on psychopath (or maybe, as his brother indicated last week, from concealed psychopath, to open psychopath) has certainly left a trail of destruction. I doubt any of us shed a tear as Coulson dolled out some serious maveth tonight.
The horror comes from the ethical implications of such an act, because even though Ward falls back on a very cliché “we’re not so different, you and I,” he’s not wrong. Both Coulson and Ward have left bodies in their wake, both in the name of what they consider to be a just cause. If the universe demands maveth for Ward’s actions, shouldn’t it demand the same for Coulson’s? And if the universe’s maveth for Ward isn’t just death, but death followed by the horror of whatever has taken control of him, how much more punishment will Coulson have to face for doing “the right thing”? How much punishment do any of us deserve for doing the right thing? Oh, and there it is. That feeling of doubt sitting at the very top of your spine, just in time to leave you alone with your thoughts while we all go on winter break.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.