This post contains spoilers through Agents of SHIELD season 1, as well as cast interview information and speculation on where the show will go in season 2.
The first season of Agents of SHIELD was kind of a bumpy ride. For those of us that stuck with it, it definitely picked up in the back half of the season, especially since its major story arc tied in with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The pacing of the show was inconsistent up through that point, but everything seemed to pick up after the movie tie-in. Once the show was allowed to say “Hydra” on air we got a real doozy: it was revealed that Grant Ward was secretly with Hydra all along! Gasp! He’s evil!? No way is he evil! He’s… yeah, he’s totally evil. His evilness was confirmed over and over again in the final episodes of the season, in which Ward turned out to be a misogynistic, murderous asshat in league with Garrett and working to take apart Coulson’s team. He even dropped Fitz and Simmons to what he had to think was their ultimate doom, so it’s pretty well established that he’s cold and calculating, and does not care even a little bit what happens to this team that he supposedly cared about.
To me, this reveal was just about when this show really got interesting. Here we had the brooding guy with hints of a dark past who is apparently a love interest for the leading lady, and to be honest, until the big reveal, he was pretty boring. Surprising us with the truth that he was with the bad guys all along actually made him a lot more interesting, and having this extra stuff to work with actually seemed to suit Brett Dalton more than his role had done up to that point. So what’s alarming me now as we head into season 2 is the idea that Grant Ward may find redemption. In this interview with io9, Dalton gives his perspective on where Ward will go in season 2, and I find this part particularly unsatisfying:
Some of my favorite scenes are towards the end, when Skye tells him ‘You’re basically a Nazi,’ and he’s like ‘No, no, no, it’s not like that.’ How is it not like he’s a Nazi?
Well, look. Hydra’s re-branded, OK? We’re getting away from the Nazi thing. We’re getting more into the slick beard [strokes his own beard] — we’re changing things up. No, I don’t know. That was an interesting thing to do. But as I said, his loyalty was more to Garrett than it was to Hydra. So I think that he’s still a good guy — and Hashtag #StandwithWard!
I don’t know about you guys, but “re-branding the Nazis” doesn’t sit well with me. Hydra has, of course, evolved in the years that it’s been hiding out in the guts of SHIELD, but lets be real–it’s an evil fascist organization reborn in the guts of Nazi Germany. Trying to rebrand it to make it (and Ward) more palatable is a tall order indeed, and one that I would argue is both unnecessary and beyond the capabilities of SHIELD’s writing team. To be fair, the interview was with Dalton, not the writers, and I know better than to put much stock in what the actors have to say, as they usually have no idea what the writers are going to do with their story arcs. But even still, the idea that they might “re-brand” Hydra… it’s unsettling.
Hydra are the bad guys. The whole point of bad guys is to have someone for your heroes to work against and defeat, to great celebration and viewer satisfaction. It’s a pattern as old as storytelling itself. We’ve seen other shows try to humanize their bad guys, sometimes to great acclaim–Battlestar Galactica stands out as the best example–but it’s a very hard sell. I’m honestly not sure Agents of SHIELD can manage it. The best shows have a hard time doing it without completely neutering their bad guys in the proces–and when the bad guys go soft, the show gets boring fast. If there’s anything we need less than SHIELD getting boring again (let’s be real: everything up until the Winter Soldier tie-in was pretty dull), I don’t know what it is.
But let’s get back to Ward. The thing about Ward is that he’s better as a villain. I want this show to embrace that, not try and fight it. Ward has already shown himself to be cruel and heartless toward the team that he had been a part of when he dropped Fitz and Simmons into the sea. He has further shown himself to be completely loyal to Hydra’s cause, as seen in the way he followed Garrett’s directives despite knowing that Garrett was completely off his nut. If that’s meant to show us he’s blindly loyal to Garrett, then it’s also showing us that Ward is simple-minded enough to be blindly loyal in that way–and this show has made a point of telling us over and over again that Agent Ward is smart and capable. So to me, Ward is either evil, or he’s really badly written. I’m going to give the writers a pass this time and go with evil.
I want Agents of SHIELD to commit to this wholeheartedly. I don’t want them to waffle back and forth, I don’t want to see Ward feeling regret and moping about Skye. And most importantly, I don’t want to see the SHIELD team, made of strong, intelligent people, cave to sentiment and begrudgingly let him back on the team and give him a second chance.
To be quite frank, we’ve already seen what happens when Angel gets his soul back. We know how that story goes. Angel even got his own show to show us in detail how that story goes. We’ve seen the brooding bad guy go good already once from Joss Whedon. What I want to see is what happens when he never had a soul in the first place. We have that opportunity with Grant Ward. I just hope the writers at Agents of SHIELD have the guts to go there.
Agents of SHIELD returns on September 23rd at 9pm on ABC–and I can’t wait, for very specific (spoilery!) reasons.