There’s an old theory by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel that I’ve always been fond of: tragedy doesn’t arise from a battle between good versus evil, but from good versus good. That wrenching feeling the audience experiences having to choose between two noble actions is essential to the tragic.
Though the end of “The Asset” wasn’t framed as a particularly tragic one, Coulson and Hall’s (Ian Hart) debate between the immediate versus the future-oriented plans to neutralize gravitonium lends credence to the power of Hegel’s definition.
Hall, taking the long view, wanted to sink the island of Malta, along with everyone on it, so that the potent element would be out of reach, and thus couldn’t be exploited. But Coulson (seemingly) destroyed Hall to save himself and his team, opting to contain the gravitonium (ugh, that name) and lock it away forever in a vault. Which, in a superhero universe, means twiddling one’s thumbs until the villain breaks out of his cage or one of his allies launches a rescue mission to retrieve him at some future date. (Also, I know SHIELD doesn’t yet know that Hall is still alive, but how do prisoners in glass cages go to the bathroom? Do the guards just politely look away?)
Both Hall and Coulson were right. Hall took the nobler, more cynical view, assuming that anything that could be weaponized will be weaponized. But Hall’s was a preemptive strike; he was only thinking of the theoretical millions the gravitonium could kill, not the many people, including his brothers-in-arms at SHIELD, who would be killed if he carried through with his plan. Yet Coulson miscalculated too: he didn’t just fail to kill Hall, he created the season’s likely Big Bad, as if Batman had been the one to throw a vial of acid in Harvey Two-Face’s, um, face.
I’m pushing this point to argue two things: that writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen absolutely blew the chance to really press the moral ambiguity of SHIELD in this episode, i.e., the one thing so far that makes the agency interesting, and had they played up that ethical grayness, Hall could’ve had a really compelling villain origin-story instead of a merely serviceable one.
SHIELD‘s brand of unambitious storytelling now makes me skeptical that narrative sophistication is even on the writers’ radar. “The Asset” seemed to deliberately aim low: not only did Hall and Coulson’s ethical stand-off, which was more interesting than anything else in the rest of the episode, get completely glossed over, but the half-assed honeypot part of the mission with Peter Thiel-like Ian Quinn (David Conrad) was completely dull and unbelievable. (Seriously, someone shoot Skye already. There’s no reason she’d be alive in the real world.)
Worst of all, Ward and Skye’s newly revealed backgrounds — as a victim of child abuse and as an orphaned foster kid, respectively — are nakedly, embarrassingly manipulative. The way they were portrayed in this episode, they might as well have been puppies scheduled for euthanization with Sarah McLachlan singing “Angel” in the background.
AoS is obviously an ensemble show, but in this hour, the center shifted dramatically away from Coulson and toward Skye — “the asset” of the episode title. Much of that focus had to do with the question of whether she’ll join SHIELD or not, a source of artificial tension I don’t care to dwell on. It seems inevitable that she will be co-opted into group; Whedon’s shows — as well as The Avengers — always herald the value of teamwork. But if she chooses to be an independent contractor like Wesley in Angel Season 4 and offer up her own perspective and resources, I’m fine with that too.
I only mind the extra airtime for actress Chloe Bennet, who plays Skye and continues to overdo the adorability of the character by mugging like crazy for the cameras. That we have to keep hearing about Skye when the mystery of The Calvary remains unsolved — now that‘s a tragedy.