Chloe Bennet

CHLOE BENNET

I suppose there was always only the slimmest of chances that Agents of SHIELD would give a fair shake to the freedom of information movement. After all, disruptive, potentially anarchic institutions like Wikileaks and Anonymous strike fear into the hearts of governments and giant corporations (like Disney, which owns Marvel and ABC). I’m no apologist for self-righteous hackers, but I’d hoped that the show would tease out that particular ethical ambiguity of SHIELD, particularly its extensive surveillance activities and extralegal existence, a little longer, if only to give the audience a little intellectual meat to chew on. Sadly, “Girl in the Flower Dress” was a bare-bones affair, as well as a big drop-off in quality after last week’s high benchmark. It was also a hit job on the free information movement, half-heartedly represented by Miles, a selfish goon who sells his hacking wares for a measly million bucks, as well as a weepy Skye who confesses to Coulson, “It’s [why] I learned to crack systems, why I joined the Rising Tide. To find any details I could about my parents.” By reducing Miles and Skye’s motivations for hacking to greedy and/or personal reasons, the show deprives from the Wikileakers of the world any philosophical or ethical authority — the effect of which is to take the show further from a recognizable human world toward a good-versus-bad cardboard universe.

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I can’t be the only one stricken with flashbacks to the 90s by the Agents of SHIELD pilot. When gruff G-man Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) self-seriously intones, “We protect people from the news they aren’t ready to hear,” I half-wondered whether he would grow up to be the Cigarette-Smoking Man in The X-Files. SHIELD dredges up the same debates between secretiveness, effectiveness, and safety on the one hand, and transparency and freedom on the other, that its paranoia-fueled predecessor fostered and thrived in. Those debates, which are more topical than ever, are framed in a whole new way, though: it’s the “good guys” who justify cover-ups and their antagonist, a bouncy hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet), who fights for exposure. More than anything else, the pilot of Agents of SHIELD is a mission statement: there’s a battle between “the truth” versus “world peace.” (We can hash out in the comments how necessary or artificial this dichotomy is; I sure hope the show will address it at some point.) Also borrowed from The X-Files is a fear of government omnipotence and omniscience. Skye’s broadcasted questions — “How will you come at us? From the air? From the ground? How will you silence us this time?” — are legitimately scary, though the goofy-serious delivery softens the impact. Perhaps even more creepy, though, is SHIELD’s obsession with surveillance and identification, as when Mike (J. August Richards) is categorized as “an unregistered gifted.” And there are layers of secrets within SHIELD itself: though Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is the leader of his team, he himself suffers from […]

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