There’s an issue of trust in tonight’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which isn’t surprising when you’re following the misadventures of covert operatives. Coulson doesn’t trust Rosalind, who doesn’t really trust Coulson. Lincoln doesn’t trust May. Andrew doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D. Jemma doesn’t trust Fitz. And no one trusts Ward, except for that one flight attendant, and we all saw how that ended. RIP flight attendant. RIP.
But the biggest breach of trust has to be from show, to the audience. Rewriting the history of Hydra seems to be tonight’s goal, and while I appreciate the effort made to tie everything together neatly, there is something a bit forced about tonight’s big reveal. Maybe that’s because Hydra has spent most of its time in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as a catchall villain. Let me explain.
First, we have the Red Skull and original flavor Hydra. Yes, the Red Skull is into some pretty intense future science, but his connection to the Nazi party remains clear. He wants to create, or rather be, his own race of supermen. It’s what makes Steve Rogers the perfect foil for his plans. Steve Roger’s Captain America stands the visual representation of everything the Nazi party and by extension Hydra would want, but inside he is, well, a skinny kid from Brooklyn. It’s a metaphorical middle finger to everything Hydra stands for, and at the time of Captain America’s creation, a pretty clear middle finger to the Nazi party. Here sits the perfection you seek, but it only exists when paired with someone who could never agree with your hate-filled ideology. So yeah, nicely tied up in a bow. Hydra is the Nazi party with more science. It makes sense.
The problem is that, in the struggle to keep Hydra relevant the water’s got a bit muddy. I’ll admit that the Winter Soldier reveal of Hydra manipulating S.H.I.E.L.D. from within makes for a great plot twist, the problem is just why? Why was it necessary? Not to bring in Bucky. His Red Room story arc would be just as interesting and sets up a lot of back-story for him and the much beloved Natasha. So what value is there in reviving Hydra without the personal antagonist of Red Skull behind it?
It seems there’s this idea that Hydra’s new mission is to create a superpower aimed at protecting people from themselves; a kind of fascist utopia. It’s not a bad update. Their argument is certainly more alluring to characters who would otherwise fall on the side of good. It’s a much stronger recruitment pitch than “hey, let’s create a master race,” and obviously an organization like Hydra would have to adapt to stay hidden, but it does seem that the master race goal (because, like it or not, it’s old fashioned racism that motivates Hydra in the beginning) doesn’t exactly sit hand in hand with the new, slightly less abhorrent world domination goal. To be clear, world domination is always a great goal for an evil organization, but the old Hydra ideology was swept aside along with the update. If you’re going to do that, why make your evil organization Hydra at all? Or if you already run Hydra and while sitting down at your super evil meeting you decide to change direction from genocide to domination, why not dump the Hydra name? Especially if your organization wants to run things covertly, changing to a name not infamous for it’s participation on the wrong side of World War II seems like a good strategy. Let’s be honest, if we’ve all agreed to greet each other with a whispered “Hail Hydra,” you know Jerry in accounting with poor volume control is going to out us eventually.
Still it’s tonight’s sharp left turn that really makes me wonder what Marvel is thinking. I’d feel bad, but there’s even a bit of an internal head nod with Ward not really knowing how to respond. Because you see, Hydra isn’t about world domination through superior technology. Hydra isn’t even about genetic domination through the construction of supermen. No, Hydra it turns out, is an eternal order dedicated to retrieving a powerful inhuman from planet X. And then, ruling by that inhuman’s side once they achieve world domination. It’s just… what? There are sharp plot twists and then there’s driving the plot to the center of the Earth and abandoning it. If you’re going to make the claim that Hydra has been around for so long, then at least tell us how their mission got so off track or what they used to call themselves. Surely they weren’t always Hydra? Unless the order originated in ancient Greece, which would at least show some thought has been put into Hydra’s ancient heritage. Sadly, my suspicion is that Hydra is quickly becoming the lazy writer’s choice villain.
Like I said before, I’m a big fan of neatly tied up plots. Stories that ultimately reveal how every aspect is somehow interconnected usually work really well for me, but in this new twist of motivation, it just feels like Marvel isn’t trying. The beauty of comic books is that you have access to an unlimited number of villains and villainous organizations, all with different and varied motivations. I think you’re starting to use Hydra as a bit of a crutch, Marvel, and in doing so you took an otherwise strong, funny episode and turned it into a moment of pure exasperation.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website at www.KatherineSiegel.com or follow her on Twitter.