Over the course of Agents of SHIELD., Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) has emerged as one of Marvel’s best female characters and superheroes. Her development has come out of many points of evolution, including her gaining powers, experiencing family drama, and struggling in her work as a member of a team as volatile as SHIELD. Through it all, she has managed to capture the perfect combination of relatability and aspirational qualities, making her someone who is easy to become invested in.
When we first meet her in season one, Johnson isn’t anywhere near the hero she has become. She has given herself the name “Skye” and is living out of her van, wisecracking and hacking her way through life. She doesn’t trust SHIELD but finds herself involved with Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team of agents while maintaining her connection with the conspiratorial hacking group Rising Tide. When we meet her, Skye is essentially a plot point waiting to blow up.
That’s the real magic trick of Agents of SHIELD: the show manages to take this anti-establishment character and, over the course of a few seasons, transform her completely. She’s got powers and becomes a great superhero, but more importantly, she’s a great hero based on who she becomes as a character. She’s not deified, she’s never perfect, and sometimes, she’s not even on the right team. But the show never lets Johnson devolve into being less than the sum of her parts. Every experience plays into who she becomes and, at the heart of it all, the Skye we know and fall in love with from the beginning is never lost.
It isn’t long before this Skye we start with is part of the team. Coulson becomes something of a father figure for her, her teammates come to be her closest friends and SHIELD? Maybe they’re not so bad after all. In this team (and on their tricked-out plane), Skye realizes that she can work with people instead of against them, that she can stop running and settle down. You know, as much as a SHIELD agent can settle down.
That’s going well right up until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier when HYDRA is revealed to have infiltrated SHIELD. The events of that movie brought major repercussions to the show’s narrative and the threat of traitors to Skye’s newfound team. This is the first time we get a real sense of Skye’s values and loyalty. It’s a moment when she could remain true to the organization she chose to believe in, she could choose the wrong side, or she could just quit. Spoiler alert: she makes the right decision, and that speaks volumes for the person we know her to be. She’s not someone who takes the easy way out, though she was presented with the perfect opportunity to. She’s in it for the long haul.
The most profound change we see Skye go through is with her acquisition of powers. The central storyline of season two involves Skye’s hunt for her parents, which leads her to discover that she is an Inhuman (perhaps her Kree origins remind you of another female Marvel superhero…). Skye has a lot thrown at her: the discovery of her parents, the fact that she’s of an alien race, and the fact that there are more like her. Although we don’t want her to, it’s hard to blame her when she decides to live with her mother and the Inhuman group. She hasn’t given up on SHIELD, but there’s something irreplaceable, to her, about being with her own.
Of course, this choice isn’t without its conflicts. Skye makes every attempt to mediate between her SHIELD family and her real one, but the Inhumans want more than just acceptance. They want domination. The girl who had no family suddenly finds herself having to choose between two, both of which believe they have her best interest at heart.
Illustrating the divide between SHIELD and HYDRA on a more personal level for Skye, the choice she has to make is one that shows her independence and her ability to not only follow her heart but to also follow her head. That sensibility isn’t exactly something we’re used to getting from female characters; we’ve thankfully moved away from the emotional female characterization, but it’s not often that you see a female character have to independently and pragmatically go against their emotions. Skye facing this choice explicitly paints her as someone who is more than her emotions and knows it. Way to go, Agents of SHIELD!
When we find her on the tail end of that decision in season three, she’s a changed person. She doesn’t simply revert back to the Skye she was before; she’s now taken to her real name, Daisy Johnson, and she fully embraces her seismic powers. She’s on a mission to find and help Inhumans as their powers emerge, reflecting her individual beliefs that Inhumans are not all bad, that they shouldn’t be eradicated, that she can be a leader to help them.
Coming from the Skye we meet at the start, Johnson’s shift to being a hero is one the show smartly follows through every step of the way. She’s got plenty more shifts to go through between season three and where we find her at the end of season five, which I’ll let you discover on your own, but Johnson’s characterization is strong. She’s never strictly good or bad, never just a hero or a superhero or a leader or a follower. She’s all of it, all the time.
In all the character development and changes in team alliances we see Johnson go through, it’s evident that what she is searching for is a family. She finds it over and over again, from SHIELD to her real family to a group of Inhumans like her, only to have something tear at their unity. What she’s looking for is stability, but she’s a misunderstood species aligned with SHIELD; stability just isn’t in the stars for her. She’s a bit of a tragic character.
But the show doesn’t let her wallow in her misery. She never becomes someone defined by her failings or by the tragedies she has to face. Johnson is defined by what she decides to do next. We might not all have seismic powers or a team of SHIELD agents behind us, but we can certainly take something away from who Johnson is as a person: someone who is always committed to the causes she believes in.