Hi, guys. I had a fragile Tuesday which made watching AGENTS OF SHIELD a little more treacherous than usual. Luckily, “Hot Potato Soup” was just what I needed in just about every way you could imagine. You’ve got the moral and ethical status of robots, Koenig shenanigans, an American politician with Russian funding (omg!), and yet another entry in the long, long list of why I love FitzSimmons all slotted perfectly into the action/exposition formula that makes Agents of SHIELD work so well.
In a bit of a twist, there wasn’t action in this episode so much as intrigue. The plot structure that usually hangs on confrontation and martial arts got by on the mystery and suspense of where the Koenigs hid the Darkhold, who, why, and how. It proves that you don’t always need boom boom to move the story forward, though this episode stands out largely because its unique in that regard. The last time we saw any Koenig at all was in the post-Ultron episode flashback where he was setting up Coulson’s helicarrier. That might seem like ages ago, but the last time we saw any Koenig in the present was even further back in the season 2 winter finale. I’d wondered where they’d got to and I always find it immensely satisfying when this show uses characters it already has. Putting all the Koenigs in charge of getting rid of the Darkhold is a great way both to use what’s already there and to bring them back into the story. The post-Ultron episode also included the post-it note reminder: “call your sister.” Bless them for remembering that, and for making LT just as wonderful as all the Koenigs we already know and love. I know it’s hypocritical to love that she bullied her brothers when they were little but she’s so fun and sardonic that I was constantly amused. (Sidenote: I’m still waiting for them to remember Ward said he had a sister. 1×19, ~9:45, check it.)
I’m particular about my robot stories, but so far this show has hit every single one of my persnickety preferences right on the head. Robot Radcliffe debating with FitzSimmons about whether a copy is really Radcliffe, “singing” like a canary, and repeating their own words back at them was the perfect mixture of jerk and actual ethical debate. The real kicker was Mack and Robot Radcliffe discussing whether machines can have souls. I always love the question of souls, manufactured beings, and humanity because it harkens back to the 17th century philosophy of Dualism and the mind-body problem. Dualism is the idea, argued by Rene Descartes, that the mind and the brain are not one and the same. By this philosophy, the mind exists on some metaphysical plane removed from material existence which conveniently instills humanity with a divine “otherness” that animals and objects do not possess. Elisabeth of Bohemia challenged Descartes argument by pointing out that there’s no way for an incorporeal “soul” to influence the material reality of a body. Where that plays beautifully into debates about robot souls and robot civil rights in this particular case is that the Robot version of Radcliffe and May are technically full neurological replicas of actual people. But the brain itself is incorporeal—it’s literally made of light. So, in Mack’s metaphysical religious sense, are souls something bestowed by a divine creator at birth or does the soul arise from consciousness which originates in the brain? I think a more salient question would be whether copies of someone made against their will have the same rights as copies made with consent, so I hope they also go there eventually. I still want Robot May to be the one to save Original May. Is Agents of SHIELD deliberately calling on 400 years of science history? Doubtful. But the fact that they’re picking up the debate so well speaks to the quality and intelligence of the writing and their awareness of philosophies that permeate science fiction, if not early science.
Speaking of robots, agency, and also my neverending crusade against terrible romance tropes, I am so pleased that Coulson not only figured out May was a robot but was super mad about it. See, Actual May might really want to kiss him but the weird, manipulative, uncertain nature of the situation is treated exactly as it should be. To take that kiss at face value would be to betray May and use her against her will and Coulson wouldn’t stand for that. There hasn’t been a bad, off, or misplaced kiss this entire season—no not even weird robot kisses—because they all fit with the stories being told and aren’t forced. Simmons—my stoic weirdo who I bar from emotional declarations of any sort—even told Fitz she was in love with him and got a big liplock in return for her sweetness and intelligence. It was all nose-scrunchingly perfect and all of it needed to be there. See, there’s one okay thing about this show being completely awful for a whole season and it’s that they seem to have learned a lot of lessons. Particularly, they’ve learned lessons about agency, romance, and character integrity across the board. This season is doing an excellent job with every character and every plot thread so far. It does honestly feel a bit like they’re tailoring the thing to my preferences. I’m not complaining. Also, just for good measure, hi guys if you’re reading this!
For a hot minute I thought they were going to drag out Radcliffe being “captive” for the whole episode and the twist was going to be that he was faking. I was not into that, so when he gave up the farce after only about ten minutes I started settling into the story. What I’m especially pleased with is not just that the Russians are bankrolling bigoted US Senator Nadeer but that these particular Russians go directly back to the episode from last season where Bobbi and Hunter got written out of the show. I still hate that episode and think it’s pointless but one of the continually great things about this series is that it never shies away from the stuff it screws up. It tends to acknowledge that everything happened and tries to use it all for something better in the future. I also was honestly caught off guard that the thing the Russians want to destroy for “causing” all the alien problems isn’t SHIELD, but Coulson himself. It’s nice to put him and all of his issues front and center again! Now maybe he’ll get to come out to the world as alive specifically because his life is being targeted. Who knows.
Now I must talk about Fitz. I mean, first: A+ letting Fitz and Simmons deal with their issues and figure out not just Radcliffe but that May is a robot as well. Every episode this season has used FitzSimmons to drive the plot forward which has always been their most important function. On a few previous occasions that purpose has gotten lost in jargon and drama, so I greatly appreciate that they’re being used appropriately. But more to the point, I’ve railed against “4,722 Hours” since it aired. That particular episode was also penned by Craig Titley which forever mystifies me. One of the many, many things I found so disturbing about it was casting Simmons’ father as a paragon whose approval she lives by and who turned her on to science. None of that reads right for me, not least of all because no one who behaves like Simmons comes from a good situation. I don’t appreciate them using some schmaltzy ideal of a father as a cheap plot device when it doesn’t jive with what they’ve told us previously. So all that to say: they started talking about Fitz’s dad for the first time ever on my fragile Tuesday and I was like “this has the potential to be a disaster very shortly.” Because I come from bad people and bad situations. My head is incredibly screwed up because of it. Fitz and Simmons have always felt like my kind of outsider. Their weirdness and their vague backstories of shy isolation don’t scream “happy childhoods” to me. The only other time Agents of SHIELD has even tried to give someone an abusive family was with Ward, and they got bored with that halfway through. What’s more, I am sick as hell of characters—particularly brilliant characters—only achieving things in their lives because of their parents. It perpetuates the bizarre falsehood that your intelligence and drives are somehow inherited and that you have no control at all over your own identity. Suggesting that your parents utterly define your path in life reinforces the idea that you are your programming and there’s no way to break out of the cycle. That idea makes me physically ill.
Which brings me to Fitz’s dad, who no one has ever mentioned before, not once. I always noted the omission, so when they finally said something about it I was like “well, here it comes.” I worried they’d do some stupid reveal like “oh he’s Tony Stark’s half-brother” or some other Marvel mythology nonsense. Like he’d be the son of some genius or superhero rather than his own self with a passion and path that he chose. That is one of the things on my list entitled “Ways to F— Up FitzSimmons.” But they didn’t go there. My dear Fitz is brilliant in spite of his father’s bullying and abandonment. I very personally needed Fitz to reject his dad. I needed for him to say “don’t care, I’m out of that loop” rather than have some big family drama that drags on and ends in faux reconciliation. I needed that. I needed it from anyone. It’s rare for stories to tell you it’s okay to reject people who’ve abused you, especially when it’s a parent. To give it to me from Fitz, of all characters—Fitz who I already love more than anything—that bolsters me right up. It validates the fact that I ran away and completely cut off the people who held me captive and treated me like garbage. You don’t need awful people in your life. You don’t need their approval. You don’t have to let them turn you into a closed off mass of calluses. You can love in spite of that.
For years I’ve told myself Fitz and Simmons are my best life. They’re what I could have been if I’d gotten a halfway decent start, or got away sooner, or a whole host of other coulda-shoulda-wouldas. I lived vicariously through those two because they were my only escape and they represented the fantasy life full of love and adventure, intelligence and agency that I could never have. But that’s not true. They’re what I could be anytime I want because what happened to you doesn’t define who you are. You are not your programming. You’re more than that. So, Craig Titley may have once gutted me so hard I curled up in a ball on the floor for two hours, and there was that one time where he got me locked in a mental institution for a week. But he also told me exactly the thing I needed to hear from the two faces I’d be most likely to listen to: you are your own person, and compassion is a strength not a weakness. That’s what Fitz and Simmons have always said to me but it physically hurts to have that driven home so well.
Someday, I’ll write that personal essay about what Agents of SHIELD means to me and how it’s basically saved my life for four years but I think you get the point. So on top of, you know, fulfilling some of my own desperate lonely emotional needs it threw in my favorite metaphysical debates, on-point political commentary, some action and suspense, and a big mess of Koenig silliness. I couldn’t objectively grade this one in a million years.
Season 4, Episode 12 (S04E12)
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays at 10PM on ABC
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
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Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor