One of the common complaints about the first season of Agents of SHIELD was its focus on Phil Coulson as its main character. I had my own reservations about whether the character could or should anchor the show, and during the original broadcast airing I felt that at least some of my fears were realized. As a secondary character, I enjoyed Coulson very much -- he would walk on from offstage, be competent, and walk off again. It hurt when he died, but it was only a twinge, not a mortal wound. When word came down that he would not only come back to life but be the lead character on AoS, I was actively annoyed. For one thing, I'm not a fan of the "death is never forever" meme that permeates comic book stories, because death has no meaning when we know that it can be reversed with the stroke of a pen, and I was disappointed to see the MCU play this card so early in its run. But I was also frustrated because, in an extended Marvel universe with so many opportunities for diversity, they were chosing to make yet another media property centering around a middle-aged white guy. It wasn't surprising, I suppose, but it still disappointed me.
Except not really, because on rewatch, it becomes clear that Coulson wasn't the true focus of the show after all. The first two seasons of AoS tell the superhero origin of Daisy Johnson (aka Skye aka Quake), and almost everything that happens to Coulson in Season 1, and many other major plot points along the way, are in service of her story.
- Coulson's death and resurrection introduced the TAHITI project and put Garrett/the Clairvoyant/HYDRA on its scent. Every HYDRA project we see in this season has the ultimate goal of developing a stable source of powers -- Centipede, Reyna and Quinn, sending Akela Amador after the alien writing in "Eye Spy" (which is very early in the season, Episode 4), the Deathlok technology. Although HYDRA's presumed goal in seeking out this info is to give themselves a stable of powered people, starting with Garrett, its purpose in the narrative is to provide Coulson with enough knowledge about TAHITI that he can seek it out when Skye is fatally shot.
- Because Skye has Kree DNA, she not only resists the pull of the alien writing, she immediately recognizes the symbols as a map -- the map the team then follows to the temple in Puerto Rico, where Skye's powers are activated.
- Once Skye comes into her powers, the Inhumans seek her out, which in turn motivates SHIELD to trace her back to Afterlife. Jiaying and Lincoln help her accept her new abilities and learn to control them.
- The two final action set pieces (rescuing Mike and Lincoln from HYDRA and the battle with SHIELD/on the aircraft carrier) give Skye an opportunity to use her new powers in the field, to show her confidence and control, to become the superhero in fact that we always knew her to be at heart.
Other characters are also often defined by their relationships with Skye. Coulson and May are her mentors and represent two different approaches to working with the Inhumans and other powered people: as potential partners, and as threats to be contained. Fitz and Simmons also provide a contrast. Fitz's brain injury gave him the perspective to consider that Skye's changes -- and his -- were to be embraced and nurtured, not feared. Conversely, Simmons reacts with fear and a desire to extert control, thanks to Fitz's disability and Trip's death. This push and pull gave Skye motivation to seek out help, and to embrace her powers while learning to control them.
In the first season, Ward's attraction to her, and their tentative move toward a potential relationship before it's destroyed by the reveal of his true loyalties, led to several defining character moments for Skye: her leading him away from the base, calling him out as a Nazi (the only person in the MCU so far to use that word to describe HYDRA since the end of World War II), the way she lures him in to the fight with May. She defines herself as opposed to Ward at every step along the way.
And of course everything that happens with the Inhumans revolves around Skye. She's our way in to that group and a partial catalyst for Jiaying's decision to take action. All of Skye's experiences with SHIELD, and especially her knowledge of the good they can do, lead her to ultimately reject Jiaying and her plan to kill all non-Inhumans. Just as with Ward, Skye is forced to set aside her feelings for Jiaying when she learns her mother's true agenda, and she is instrumental in stopping Jiaying and her people.
Skye's loyalties are tested again and again, and she always comes down on the side of helping people -- including both her family of Inhumans and her family at SHIELD. She is not only the hub around which the plot revolves, but the moral center of the show. And all indications in the first episode of season 3 suggests that she will move into an even greater leadership role, both on the show and on the team. By reclaiming her identity as Daisy Johnson, she picks up where Jiaying left off: finding Inhumans as they come into their powers, making sure they know they aren't alone, teaching them the control they need to survive. The main difference between Daisy and her mother is that she doesn't isolate herself from non-powered people. She prefers to work within the resources of SHIELD, helping make the organization a save haven for other Inhumans, where they can, like her, work with SHIELD to help make a difference. Still underground, sheltered from the rest of the world, but not as distant as the Afterlife compound on the mountaintop. And maybe, someday, the world will be ready for them to integrate back into society.
And what I love about this, especially if it was planned this way from the beginning, is how the show creators used a premise focusing on a middle-aged white guy as a way to give the world a show about a powerful young woman of color. Coulson isn't the star of Agents of SHIELD, and he never was. Instead, he was the Trojan Horse who allowed Daisy Johnson's story to be told. And that makes all the frustrations of the first half of the first season worth the trouble, at least for me.
A few more thoughts on the final episodes of Season 2:
- I can be a little iffy on media creators sneaking in commentary on fandom, but when Agent 33 said "I stand with Grant Ward," I laughed, loudly and long. I suppose we will continue to see mental gymnastics from Ward fans, attempting to justify why he isn't *really* a villain, and why SHIELD is actually to blame for all the terrible things he's already done and will do in the future, but his last scene in Season 2 sets him up as the future face of HYDRA. It's going to be a lot harder for the fans to talk their way out of that one. I've always preferred Ward as a straight-up villain, so I hope the show sticks with taking him that route. (And maybe Season 3 can be his last?)
- Reyna: so not dead. Very comic book death. I lay odds that she'll be back.
- I'm not sure how I feel about the redemption of Cal, while Jiaying is found to be beyond help and therefore allowed to die. I suppose putting him through the TAHITI protocol is as good a way to wipe the slate clean as any, and I don't blame Daisy for asking that he be given this second chance. In his own way, he was only trying to protect her. Then again, the same could be said for Jiaying.
- On the other hand, I was pleased to see the reintegration of SHIELD, and it will be interesting to see how the two different philosophies of running the organization work together. Mack coming back was especially important to me -- he's a good foil for Coulson, and I like Coulson better when he's being challenged.
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