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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 3, Episode 7 – “Chaos Theory”

"Chaos Theory" offers a narrative fork in the road by reinventing Lash's backstory.

As I mentioned last week, the comic book version of Lash has a significantly different backstory than the one portrayed on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. In “Chaos Theory”, viewers were given the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) version of the origin story in detail. Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) sent over Jiaying’s (Dichen Lachman) journals and materials. One of them was booby-trapped with a Terrigen crystal. When Dr. Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood) opens it, he triggers the mist; within moments he’s cocooned. When he emerges from the black shell, his dormant Cree manipulated genes activate, along with an insatiable desire to be near Inhumans and, as he understands it, to cleanse the Inhuman race of those he deems unworthy. With that certainty, Lash started his killing spree on Inhumans.

In the comic books, Lash was chosen. Terrigen was in short supply and used judiciously. Not everyone capable of transforming was given the opportunity. When King Black Bolt unleashed the Terrigen mist on New York, he did so to create a bigger army of Inhumans to fight against an imminent threat. Lash’s campaign of cleansing derived from possessing a near-religious fervor based on belief that not all Inhumans deserved their powers. In the comic books, those created by the mist are called Nuhumans, to differentiate from the older, even ancient Inhumans.

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Lash, is himself, a “nuhuman” having been triggered not by ancient ritual but by a “modern” trap. In order to compensate for the lack of historical context, the writer decided to create a villain who motivation arises not from ritual but instinct.

Story arcs on television often require narrative sacrifices to keep stories compact. In this case, while there is an ancient connection to Inhumans, telling the backstory would require the introduction of new characters and new sets — something that may appear in a future Inhuman movie, but is likely beyond the capabilities of a weekly television show, especially one that’s already juggling multiple storylines.

To retain the turpitude of Lash, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. writers chose to pit Garner’s humanity against his rising Inhumaness. Lincoln (Luke Mitchell) points out that Garner is insane as he attempts to rationalize his instinctual drive to kill Inhumans with a “moral obligation”. It’s the human side of Garner that’s seemingly asserting a moral compass into a creature who neither wants nor needs one; the human, as it were, trying to put a “human face” on the monster inside. The Lash of the comic books has no need for ambiguity or rationalization; he does his work out of a moral belief and without ambivalence.

This particular narrative sacrifice of the real backstory sets up a very different approach for a key character. His confusion isn’t going to get any better when, or if, Garner reappears after having committed murder and attempted murder on actual humans. Lincoln informs the team, after his revelation to Coulson and Rosalind Price (Constance Zimmer) that Garner is Lash, that he won’t remain able to switch between forms; it’s a temporary, transitional ability.

Meanwhile, Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who, earlier in the episode, recommitted to her ex-husband, revealing that she found happiness in him, and looked to him for the kindness and the generosity she couldn’t find in herself, fires bullets into the human Garner to force him into a S.H.I.E.L.D. containment pod. We see her moral struggle play out across her face as she sits in an airline seat heading back, presumably, to S.H.I.E.L.D.

If all of this seems less than integrated with the bigger Hydra narrative, regardless of the Hydra attack on Garner being the precipitating incident that leads to May’s discovery of his secret, a phone call fixes all of that. Viewers are presented with another one of those narrative sacrifices, which reveals that not only is Price working Coulson as much as he’s working her, but Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), who is working Ward (Brett Dalton), is a confidant of Price’s — perhaps even a well-placed confidant of the President of the United States. Relationships and trust circles, plans within plans, all hinted at in a haiku of a phone call at the end of the episode.

There are plenty of loose ends to string along audiences after that call without those viewers worrying about the series’ differences from the comic books. The narrative discontinuities and television compaction create universes that have diverged to the point that comparisons means little, and are most likely misleading rather than informative. Comic books fans, however, are well-prepared for the discontinuities and alternative universes from their reading, and those not familiar with science fiction of any sort are probably not watching the show anyway.

In contrast to the all the violence and disappointment, we find Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) watching a sunset together, something of a symbolic act for Simmons. Fitz reveals that there are many ways, it seems, to get back to Planet X; the portal stone was just one option. The other options will require time, so the two scientists decide to take the world, and their relationship, one day at a time.

That’s good advice for viewers as well. Doing a lot of backstory investigation through the comic books isn’t going to prepare you for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plots, or help you understand the characters any better. The MCU followed a road through a yellow wood, and they’ve chosen a fork less traveled by. We’ll have to watch to see what difference that makes.

RATING 7 / 10