So, in yesterday’s post, I outlined what I thought was, for a long time, one of the most significant problems with Agents of SHIELD - a lack of balance, and lost focus, in terms of its approach to its key strength, the characters. Ultimately, of course, the issue was resolved; across the course of the most recent season; I’ve been really impressed with SHIELD as of late.
Now, in today’s post, I want to discuss something which has been a long standing bother of mine. As you can no doubt tell from the title, that’s Hydra; another interesting facet of SHIELD’s development, given the manner in which it helped reinvent the show, before eventually becoming stale and needing a reinvention of its own.
Let’s take a moment to look back on the early days of Agents of SHIELD, back before Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released. The show was, essentially, competent and entertaining but also largely underwhelming - high expectations had been placed upon it, leading to a pretty unforgiving audience. I know that I myself was pretty unfair on the show; I almost gave up on it a few times, but having rewatched the episodes since, there wasn’t exactly much wrong with it.
Generally accepted consensus, though, is that SHIELD picked up massively after the episode Turn, Turn, Turn; the episode that tied directly into The Winter Soldier, typically considered to be amongst the best of the Marvel films. It was a fraught, tense ending to the series, with a run of six episodes which are still amongst the best set of consecutive episodes that the show has ever produced.
The second season, however, did little to follow up on the promise of Hydra as it was previously established. Part of what was so compelling about Hydra was that it was SHIELD – this insidious infiltration had run so deep, ever since the beginning, that the two agencies where one and the same. Hydra were no longer the pulp fiction Nazis that they had been in The First Avenger, but something rather more interesting – they were us. Hydra represented every questionable decision ever made by an authority “for the greater good”. The Winter Soldier built in deliberate parallels between the Operation Insight surveillance plot and various real world events – and that was what made the Hydra we saw in The Winter Soldier such interesting and compelling adversaries.
Following that, though, we never really saw this again. In season two, we’d returned to the pulp-y Nazism stories – quite literally, with a long lived contemporary of Red Skull being the initial villain – and things took on a far more James Bond veneer. Hydra became a very generic organisation of evil spies, showing almost Austin Powers levels of incompetency, albeit very good branding skills. (One does question why, exactly, a clandestine organisation openly uses the name Hydra and places their big Octopus Skull logo on the walls, but hey, that’s probably what evil spies do, right?)
I’m being a little overly critical, of course; Hydra was reasonably entertaining, the majority of the time, but it was a real shame to see the potential for a more nuanced adversary be quashed, leaving us with rather one dimensional villains, almost as though out of a cartoon. SHIELD fought Hydra, simply because they were super spies and super spies need to have an equal and opposite number - like GI Joe and the Cobras, I suppose.
You can see it most clearly epitomised in the character of Grant Ward, though, and the changing approach to his character that we’ve seen across the show. Ward was revealed to be Hydra at the end of Turn, Turn, Turn; it was a twist that, admittedly, felt a little “well, he’s the only one who’s spare”, but I’m just being cynical. It was an interesting addition to a character who, up to that point, had been defined primarily by his apparent status as a model agent. There was something interesting about that, really; the one character who could be described as the perfect SHIELD agent was, of course, aligned to Hydra all along.
Initially, he was shown to be quite conflicted over his actions – despite a greater loyalty to Garrett, his mentor within Hydra, Ward demonstrably still considered the other characters to be his friends. There was clear anguish as he sent FitzSimmons to their potential death, and the narrative used flashbacks to deliberately imply that he was trying to leave them with the potential to survive.
Further, he described Hydra as “a means to an ends”, and always viewed himself as “a spy, just doing his job”, rather than a Nazi, as he was accused of being. Realistically speaking, in season one there’s little that Ward does differently as a Hydra agent that as a SHIELD agent – it’d be naïve to think he had never killed before when working as a SHIELD agent, and the same is true of both Coulson and May. The source of the tension was merely that Coulson and the others couldn’t get past what they saw as Ward’s betrayal, never acknowledging the ways in which he was similar to them; something which could have been interesting to examine with the “real SHIELD” arc that came into play during the latter half of season two.
Of course, that’s not the Ward we see now. Despite toying with an abuse backstory for a while, Ward eventually devolved into a more or less straight psychopathic character; torturing people and revelling in it, we’ve come a long way since the last time Ward was depicted as sympathetic.
In fact, we’ve now actually reached the point where Ward is the zombie host body of an alien eldritch abomination – which rather neatly brings me back around to the most recent reinvention of Hydra. Across the first nine episodes of Agents of SHIELD season 3, it was slowly revealed that Hydra, rather than being an offshoot of the Nazis, were in fact the modern day remnants of an ancient cult who worshipped a powerful, evil alien. Which is… certainly quite the twist, obviously.
It was a necessary reinvention, I think, and a good way to ensure that Hydra remained relevant to their current ongoing storylines. Certainly, it’s more interesting than the Nazis of season two – though I still wish that we’d stuck with the nuanced adversaries of The Winter Soldier.
Alongside the introduction of this ancient evil, however, we’ve also seen the very narrative of Agents of SHIELD invoking such themes, and examining what the place of that sort of content is in the MCU…
…which is where we’ll pick up tomorrow!
Check back tomorrow for the concluding part of this triptych of Agents of SHIELD posts, entitled “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Darker Side of the MCU”.