Friday, March 27, 2015

What's the Deal with the "Real S.H.I.E.L.D."?

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Warning:  Spoilers for “Love in the Time of Hydra” (2x14).

This week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Love in the Time of Hydra” (2x14), saw the payoff of a huge plot point from the first half of the season when Mack took Hunter to the headquarters of the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” and introduced him to his boss, Robert Gonzales.  This answered a lot of our questions about Bobbi and Mack—among other things, they’re not Skrulls.  However, we seem to be left with even more questions now:  Who is Gonzales?  Why are Bobbi and Mack working for him?  What is the point of this second S.H.I.E.L.D.?  Was that really an honest-to-goodness helicarrier that they were on!?!?!

We don’t know a lot about the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.,” but we can piece some things together from “Love in the Time of Hydra,” as well as a few of the earlier episodes.

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The History

If you remember from my article last week on the same subject, I was very curious how this organization was started:  Did Fury himself start it?  Is it a secret level of S.H.I.E.L.D. that has been in operation under the surface all along?  Is this just one of a number of splinter groups that coalesced together after Hydra came out in the open and started a turf war with the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D.?  While we can’t answer these questions definitively just yet, we can at least make some educated guesses.

The fact that Gonzales claims not to know that Fury is still alive makes it unlikely that Fury was directly responsible for the formation of this group.  He may just have said he thought Fury was dead for Hunter’s benefit, however, so that possibility isn’t entirely off the table just yet.  At the same time, that he is going after Coulson and trying to unseat him personally (even though Coulson has Fury’s behind-the-scenes backing)—without any overt involvement from Fury—does make it less likely that Fury is in any way involved with Gonzales and his group.

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The sheer numbers at Gonzales’ command lend some credence to the possibility of this being a shadow S.H.I.E.L.D. organization which developed within the original S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside of Hydra.  How else could Gonzales have come into possession of so many quinjets and other planes—along with a freakin’ carrier to put them on!?!  More to the point, how could he have acquired so much tech and kept it out of the US government’s hands, given how persistent Talbot was between the end of last season and beginning of this season in trying to bring all the former S.H.I.E.L.D. assets under his own control.  Either they have a friend very high up in the US government, or they have managed to keep themselves entirely off the government’s radar and outside of US territorial waters for around a year—no mean feat.  However, one flaw with this theory is Gonzales’ admission that Hydra “had him dead to rights” in the uprising.  If this were a “Shadow S.H.I.E.L.D.” created before the uprising to combat the Hydra infiltration, I would have thought they’d do a better job vetting their personnel.  Could a Hydra agent have gotten in?  Yes, but I don’t think they could have gotten enough sleeper agents inside it for them to consider Gonzales “dead to rights” apart from Hartley’s miraculous intervention.  Likewise, it appeared as though everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D.—including Fury himself—was blindsided by Hydra.  If someone within S.H.I.E.L.D. suspected what was coming and started squirreling away assets off-books to combat it, then I’d think they would have at least mentioned something to Fury (unless they thought he was Hydra, too).  Either way, I don’t really buy the “Shadow S.H.I.E.L.D.” theory.

I think it is more likely that Gonzales was one of Fury’s top lieutenants in the old S.H.I.E.L.D., and that after S.H.I.E.L.D. fell he began recruiting the surviving loyal agents and bases into his own “New S.H.I.E.L.D.”  I think that he began entirely independently, without any involvement from Fury.  He must have been one of Fury’s top guys (or one of the Council’s top guys—not the same thing) to be one of the top officers on a S.H.I.E.L.D. carrier.  It’s likely that he was either in charge of the carrier or second-in-command since he seems to have been one of Hydra’s chief targets there.  It doesn’t seem too farfetched to imagine that he was in command and Hartley was his second-in-command (in the same position as Hill in The Avengers), given that she was in position to save his life.

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The People Involved

Thus far we know seven members of the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” by name; of those seven, two are just names, while four of them are characters that we have met before.

The first two people involved are of course Mack and Bobbi.  We don’t know exactly how Mack is connected to the others, but Bobbi and Gonzales appear to have a very longstanding relationship.  She worked for him before (was she on the carrier when Hydra attacked?) and clearly admires him—I suspect that is at least part of the reason that she is working for the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.”  That he can inspire such loyalty from his followers will make it all the more challenging for Coulson to come out on top in the coming confrontation.

We also know that Agent Hartley was working for the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” before the nasty combination of the Diviner and the Absorbing Man killed her (or is she dead… come back Sunday for my article on “Death in the MCU”).  Gonzales revealed to Hunter that when Hydra came out of the shadows, he, Hartley, and Bobbi (I think) were in their base, and the Hydra agents had him “dead to rights” before Hartley saved his life.  Following the Hydra uprising, I would guess that Gonzales found out that Coulson was starting his own S.H.I.E.L.D. splinter group and decided to send Hartley and Bobbi undercover to learn more about Coulson’s iteration of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The last agent we had met previously is Agent Anne Weaver—better known as Fitz and Simmons’ professor at the S.H.I.E.L.D. Science and Technology Academy.  In the episode “Seeds” (1x12), Agent Weaver was the head of the Academy, and made it clear that she was close with Fitz and Simmons (especially Simmons).  Then in “Turn, Turn, Turn” (1x17), when Simmons is doing further research on Skye’s blood, she attempts to contact Agent Weaver for a consultation. However, the Hydra uprising intervenes and Weaver only has enough time to warn Simmons not to trust anyone and tell her to find her before the connection cuts off.  I think this may be setting up a surprisingly interesting subplot for a future episode when Fitz and Simmons find out that Agent Weaver not only survived the Hydra takeover but has joined the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.”  Given the obvious respect they have for her (especially on the part of Simmons), which side will they fall out on?  Will Simmons decide to leave her difficulties with Fitz and Skye behind in order to join Weaver and start fresh with the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.”?  Might they both decide that they would rather leave all of the conflict over Skye behind and start over together with Weaver in the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.”?  Could they instead convince her to join them at the Playground with Coulson?  Whatever they decide, it could have serious ramifications for the series.

The only new agent we know anything about is Robert Gonzales, who appears to be the leader of this group.  As I’ve said above, he is definitely likeable, and clearly commands loyalty from his followers.  From listening to his conversation with Hunter, we can see that he believes in what he is doing.  He believes that his S.H.I.E.L.D. is as legitimate as Coulson’s—and more so, because he has corrected the problems within the original S.H.I.E.L.D.  Given the inevitable confrontation coming between Coulson and Gonzales, it is clear that this will not be a physical confrontation, but rather a philosophical and ideological confrontation.

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The “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.”s Philosophy

In his conversation with Hunter, Gonzales makes it clear that he believes that all of the problems with the original S.H.I.E.L.D. can be attributed to a lack of transparency from its leadership.  If Fury had been more transparent instead of keeping so many secrets, then perhaps the Hydra infiltration could have been discovered and prevented before S.H.I.E.L.D. could be completely infected.  Given the secrecy in which Fury operated, this is a very tempting position, and one can see a certain logic in it.

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From what we pieced together between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1, the Hydra infiltration primarily affected the higher-level agents.  There were many who were loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D., but there were enough Hydra agents—and in enough key positions—to eliminate most of the high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists quickly upon coming out of the shadows.  How were these Hydra agents able to place themselves in key positions at every base, fill base security teams with Hydra agents, and ensure that key groups within S.H.I.E.L.D. (STRIKE and Insight especially) were entirely composed of Hydra agents?  Because of Fury’s culture of secrecy.  Certain information was only available to agents with a certain security clearance, and if Hydra sleeper agents could determine who is given access to which information, then they could keep the loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the dark.  It would have taken a long time for Hydra to work its agents up the ranks in S.H.I.E.L.D. without drawing suspicion, but the level of secrecy made that long-term plan not only possible but successful.  By operating with a high level of transparency, I believe that Gonzales hopes to avoid the danger of agents attaining high positions within the organization while harboring ulterior motives—and make it impossible for the leadership to operate from an ulterior motive without being caught.

Looking back at the end of season 1, Coulson seemed to be heading down that same path at first:  he eliminated the concept of security clearances, allowing all agents to have important information.  However, since the season 2 premier, Coulson has begun keeping important secrets from his people:  Fury is still alive (and personally backs his leadership)—the first major secret, most of the information about the alien city, and basic things like extra backup teams on important missions are just some of his secrets.  He keeps much of the information in Fury’s toolbox to himself.  The fact that he “stashed” Skye without telling anyone is just the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Gonzales, Bobbi, and Mack are concerned.  Why would he be hiding so much from people that he claims to trust?  Such things are too close to the circumstances that allowed Hydra to infiltrate the old S.H.I.E.L.D.

However, how much transparency have we seen from Gonzales?  He definitely allows Bobbi—and the rest of his top agents—into his briefings, but that’s all we’ve seen so far.  He didn’t tell Hunter everything, even though he was clearly trying to recruit him.  Do the rest of the “grunt” agents know that they’ve been spying on—and will be moving against—a group of their fellow former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who are also trying to pick up the pieces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and start a new S.H.I.E.L.D.?  If they don’t then that would be pretty damning for Gonzales’ efforts at “transparency.”  We will not find out for certain until at least this coming episode, if not a later one, but that is something I will be paying very close attention to.

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The Carrier

So, the million-dollar question everyone’s been asking since Tuesday:  Was that a freakin’ helicarrier that Gonzales was using as his base of operations!?!  We didn’t exactly see it flying, since none of the agents who went out on the deck to search for Hunter wore breathing apparatus, but it is entirely possible that it was a helicarrier.  We’ve only seen 4 helicarriers so far across all MCU media:  the original, which was heavily damaged by the combined forces of Loki, Hawkeye, the Hulk, and Thor in The Avengers; and the three Insight helicarriers which were completed, brought online, and destroyed virtually simultaneously during Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  However, no one ever said that “The Helicarrier” in The Avengers was the only one S.H.I.E.L.D. had.  This could be a second “Mark 1 Helicarrier” like the one in The Avengers, which S.H.I.E.L.D. kept in operation while they were completing construction on Project Insight.

Of course, the easiest explanation for this carrier is that it is “The Helicarrier” from The Avengers, which Fury had repaired and refitted, and which has been around ever since.  After all, considering that Fury launched empty rockets into the sun for years just so he could stockpile 0-8-4s, do you really think the guy would throw away a perfectly good helicarrier just because the Hulk smashed it?

So what are your thoughts on the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.”?  Is it what you were expecting from this plot twist?  How do you think the impending conflict between Coulson and Gonzales will be resolved?  Let me know in the comments!

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