Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Biggest Flaw with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2

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I had been planning to post my review of Big Hero 6 this week, but I decided to put that on the backburner for a week.  You see, the last few weeks I’ve been watching the first two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  There are a lot of really good moments in those seasons that you don’t notice until you know where the story is going.  I would actually recommend rewatching the series before season 4 starts in about 6 weeks.

If you remember from my reviews last summer, I personally think that season 1 is a lot better than most people gave it credit for at the time.  The writers do a fantastic job of introducing the characters, exploring the dynamics between them, and laying just enough groundwork for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  When they get to the Hydra uprising, all of that groundwork pays off in a big way when the agents are left in utter confusion trying to figure out who’s on which side.  And when Ward is revealed as a Hydra mole it may be the single defining moment of the entire season.

All of that being said, season 2 does a lot of things better than season 1.  The series moves forward at a much faster pace.  The reveal of Skye’s/Daisy’s powers positions the show much better in terms of its place in a superhero universe.  They work in a lot of good espionage elements.  Both Whitehall and Jiaying make for compelling adversaries in their own right, with Jiaying making for an incredible villain at the end of the season.

However, something about season 2 has bugged me for over a year, but I could never quite figure out exactly what it was.  Fortunately, while watching through it for the third time or so I finally figured out just what it is that bugs me so much.  What is it?

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Gonzales.  Simply put, Gonzales is the biggest flaw with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2.

What makes Gonzales such a flawed character is just how little we actually see him doing.  We know quite a bit about him from Coulson’s description of him as “one of the best commanders in S.H.I.E.L.D. history.”  He left S.H.I.E.L.D. for a while after his wife’s death.  He is a “brilliant tactician” and a “good man.”  But all of these descriptors are told to us.  We don’t get to experience him being a “good man” or a “great commander.”  The only time we really see him being a “brilliant tactician” is when he succeeds in planting Bobbi, Mack, and Hartley as spies on Coulson’s team.  When we see his flashback of the day S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, he was taken by surprise every bit as much as everyone else in S.H.I.E.L.D. (except Blake and Hand) and was barely holding on when Bobbi and Hartley rescued him.  Then he showed himself to be completely unable to control his remaining loyal agents when they made the decision for him that they would retake the ship.

Ultimately, the writers tell us far more about Gonzales than they show us.  That wouldn’t be a problem if he were a minor background character.  But it is definitely an issue when he is the secondary antagonist for half the season.

However, even that would be forgivable if what they did show us about him were to match up with what they told us about him.  Unfortunately, that just is not the case.  There are a number of times during the half-season when Gonzales flat-out contradicts his characterization.

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Hartley’s Death

In the first two episodes of the season, Isabelle Hartley is maimed by contact with a Diviner while S.H.I.E.L.D. is infiltrating an Air Force base to both secure the Diviner (to keep it away from Hydra) and capture a quinjet in order to retro-engineer its cloaking technology.  After Hartley’s injury, Hunter decides to take Hartley and run to a hospital, but they are ambushed by the Absorbing Man on the way.  Later in the season, Gonzales points to Hartley’s death as one of his many accusations against Coulson:  Coulson’s search for alien artifacts directly led to Hartley’s death.

Really?  Is that really the conclusion that this “brilliant tactician” came up with?

Gonzales should have known by then from Mack that Coulson’s secondary objective was to get a quinjet for the cloaking technology.  Hartley was injured by contact with an alien artifact, but it was the secondary objective that led to the team splitting up and placed both Hartley and the artifact in such an exposed position.

And who has an aircraft carrier loaded out with quinjets?  Gonzales.

I’m not saying that Gonzales is solely responsible for Hartley’s death.  But when assigning blame for Hartley’s death, he does need to think about things he could have done differently so that Coulson would not have been in that position.  Even if he had just allowed Mack to “find” a quinjet in an “old abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. facility,” that may have altered events enough.

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His Attitude toward Enhanceds in General

Agents Calderon and Weaver both have a legitimate reason for mistrusting enhanced people.  In “One Door Closes” (2x15), Calderon tells Bobbi (and the audience) that when S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, Hydra released an enhanced at the Academy.  We’re not told who/what the enhanced was, only that it was allied with or controlled by Hydra and that it killed most of the Academy students.  Weaver held the enhanced back and fought it off until Calderon arrived with reinforcements.

With this kind of history, it makes sense for the two of them to mistrust people like Skye/Daisy and Mike Peterson.

But the same doesn’t really hold true for Gonzales.  He is just as mistrustful of enhanced people as the other two, but we don’t have a reason why.  At the same time, as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent he should have plenty of reasons for being willing to work with enhanced people, considering S.H.I.E.L.D.’s longstanding mission of helping enhanced people, not just protecting the world from them.

For a “good man” to not only mistrust Skye and Mike but also to objectify them and refuse to consider them as human beings (Bobbi is the only Council member to not refer to them as “thing” or “it”) is patently dishonest.  That he would give the “normal” S.H.I.E.L.D. agents a choice of joining or leaving while he would not give the same consideration to Skye and Mike strikes me as hypocritical.  And refusing Bobbi’s advice against sending an assault team to take Skye down does nothing for his credibility as a “good leader.”

At the same time, they could very easily have made him a more compelling character and still retained his mistrust for enhanced people.  Coulson revealed that Gonzales’ wife died, but nowhere is it stated who she was or how she died.  If they had just made the move of explaining that she was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent killed in the line of duty while protecting civilians from an enhanced (maybe Man-Thing since he was already namedropped in season 1), that would have given Gonzales a reason for mistrusting enhanced people.  If one of the dead agents in Gonzales’ conference room during the Hydra uprising had been a trusted enhanced agent who turned out to have been brainwashed by Hydra, that would have given him an even better reason to mistrust enhanced S.H.I.E.L.D. agents specifically.  The latter, paired with a good understanding of how everyone was betrayed in the Hydra uprising, would help him retain his objectivity.

Ultimately, Gonzales’ attitude toward Skye is not that of a “good man” but that of a fearful and judgmental man.

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His Approach to the Inhumans

However, none of Gonzales’ other flaws as a character can really compare to this one:  his handling of the Inhuman “threat.”  Now, I’m not saying that S.H.I.E.L.D. should not have been concerned and fearful when they discovered an entire race of super-powered people living among them.  I’m not saying that Gordon didn’t pose a major threat to S.H.I.E.L.D. with his ability to appear and disappear at will, bringing with him any number of potential threats to S.H.I.E.L.D.  No, S.H.I.E.L.D. had every right to be fearful.  But this doesn’t excuse them from actually thinking things through.

The key thing with the Inhuman “threat” is not what they could do, but rather what they have done.  Based on Coulson’s encounter with the Kree scientist Vin-Tak (corroborated by Sif), the Kree experimentation with Terrigenesis took place thousands of years ago, at which point the Inhumans were created.  This means that the Inhumans have lived alongside humanity for millennia without coming to the attention of humans.  Even just looking at the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. there are only 3 real incidents (before Skye’s Terrigenesis) in which Inhumans interacted with S.H.I.E.L.D.  The first was when Agent Carter and the Howling Commandoes rescued Jiaying from Reinhardt in 1945 (just before S.H.I.E.L.D.’s founding).  The second was in 1989 when S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra forces captured Jiaying for Reinhardt/Whitehall.  The third was in 2008 when Coulson and May encountered an Inhuman mother and daughter in Bahrain and May was forced to kill the girl in order to save everyone there.  In two of the three incidents (Jiaying would claim to Skye that it’s actually all three), the Inhumans in question were threatened by humans who feared or coveted their power.  In none of the incidents are the Inhumans really aggressors; it is the humans who approach them.  This, in conjunction with Skye’s insistence that the Inhumans want nothing more than to be left alone, should have been enough to at least give S.H.I.E.L.D. (and specifically Gonzales himself) pause when considering their response to the threat posed by the Inhumans.

However, how does Gonzales (whom we are told is a “good man”) respond to the Inhumans?  He is so fearful of the threat they pose that the so-called “brilliant tactician” can’t figure out that they are not an active threat.  And then rather than seek peaceful cooperation with them, he actively threatens Jiaying by telling her that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s goal is to protect humans by “stepping in” when a bad person with powers threatens innocent lives.  Maybe he didn’t realize that he was actively calling her judgment into question (after all, she’s the one who decides who goes through Terrigenesis), but if he’d gotten all the facts, he would have realized how undiplomatic that was.

Ultimately, Gonzales’ behavior with regard to the Inhumans is not that of a brilliant tactician who gets all the facts before making a decision, and it is not that of a good man who values humans (or in this case, Inhumans).  Jiaying certainly overreacted when she murdered him, framed him, and coerced her people into declaring war on S.H.I.E.L.D., but I am inclined to believe that if Gonzales had been more diplomatic in both his attitude toward her and his intentions toward the Inhumans, he may have been able to avert that crisis.


Was Gonzales the absolute worst part of season 2?  No, I don’t think so.  Does he make the season completely unwatchable?  No; there are enough good moments to make up for these negatives.  Could he have been a better and more compelling character?  Absolutely.

I don’t even think that the problem is with Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of the character.  I think he lends the character a lot of dignity and wisdom.  Instead, I think the real reason for all of these problems is that the writers did not show us enough of his good qualities before we saw all of the bad qualities on display.  I really hope that in the future they will be more careful in their characterizations and let us come to sympathize with the characters (particularly recurring antagonists like Gonzales) instead of tilting the scale so much in favor of Coulson and his team.  Fortunately, they did that pretty well in season 3 with Rosalind and Malick; hopefully they will do the same in season 4.

What did you think of season 2?  Did you like Gonzales as a character?  Am I totally off base in my assessment of him?  Let me know in the comments!

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