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Television

By Focusing on Androids, 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Risks Losing Some of Its Humanity

Daniel Rasmus
An android by any other name: Aida (Mallory Jansen) takes over.

Focusing on the technology is a missed opportunity for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to truly explore issues of "otherness".


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9PM
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet
Subtitle: Season 4, Episodes 9 to 14 - "LMD"
Network: ABC
Air dates: 2017-01-10 to 2017-02-14
Amazon

In the second half of season four, The Dark Hold still acts as the singularity at the center of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but gone is the side trip to Hell with Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) and his uncle Eli (Jose Zuniga). Indeed, the plot has turned in a decided science fiction direction as the show explores the idea of an LMD -- a Life Model Decoy -- a bit of a nostalgic comic book term for android. I don't think employing LMDs does much to reinvigorate an emotional response from potential viewers without a familiarity with the books, who might just be scratching their heads and asking, "What's an LMD?"

As the Trump administration broad brushes the loss of lower wage jobs in the US to "foreign" workers, in the real world of (not alternative) facts, robots displace most manufacturing labor, both here and abroad. Hey guys, let's just call an android an android.

In the comic books, LMDs are artificial life forms that duplicated a living person. The technology dated to the Renaissance (yes, that Renaissance), and the key to the technology was a rare metal -- Epidurium -- that mimicked skin. In the books, LMDs aren't secretly created under the noses of S.H.I.E.L.D., but a reverse-engineering project started by Nick Fury after his brother Jake, and Thomas Davidson, find themselves duplicated after encountering the tech.

Indeed, LMDs replicated Captain America for China, and were a tool of Maria Hill as S.H.I.E.L.D. director; even Thor has an LMD. Whitney Frost, AKA Madame Mask of Marvel’s Agent Carter, was a major player in LMDs associated with a duplicated Tony Stark, who steals the actual Stark's identity and tosses him out into the real world.

As I go over some of these old plotlines from the books, I can't help but ask why the television writers wouldn't do themselves some favors by connecting these dots, rather than rearranging them so often. Sure, to some degree Agent May's (Ming Na-Wen) doppelganger, initially unaware of its true nature, acts much like the Nazi Detite that infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. via Jake Fury, a kind of sleeper LMD that thinks it's human. Perhaps, however, sticking to the remote control and duplication story would be more believable given where we are with technology.

Of course, technology and circumstances change, so combining the LMD with quantum mental properties that draw knowledge from alternative universes isn't a bad addition. That Radcliffe (John Hannah) makes this technological leap because of a lost love, however, stretches the limits of contemporary science. Even if this is an alternative universe and Radcliffe is a lone genius capable of engineering wonders, the basic tech to make an LMD doesn't seem to exist in this universe (well, any more than the shield that Coulson uses). When the gaps between extrapolation, even the leap of discovery, forges a plot fissure too large, we need alien tech to come to the rescue. Unfortunately, I disbelieve the technological leaps mainly because the writers haven't done a good job of giving their breakthrough tech a good backstory.

One of the key items that keep people connected to a series is the ability to believably find themselves in its world; that is, that the context is right for the show itself, even if that context belies the current reality. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s big problem is a loose context. It seems the writers and show runners are more concerned with half-baked big ideas than consistent character development, reasonable explanations for unreasonable leaps of technology, and a solid audience connection. Big ideas are great, but only if they make sense and affect the characters in a consistent and meaningful way. The characters people come to love or respect need to feel the threat or the thrill in a believable way within the context of the show. Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. often misses this important development point.

Take Agent May. Beyond the LMD, Radcliffe's endgame isn't really the android, but The Framework, an artificial world where minds can exist without physical bodies. (Think The Matrix without the androids using humans as batteries.) May's LMD seeks the Dark Hold as a sleeper agent, while Radcliffe keeps the real May in the Framework.


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It isn't yet clear if LMDs on television can function without a human being alive, but that appears to be the case. In the books, most are true recreations, either used by their other selves, or used by others in place of them. For the most part, they're controlled. The first LMD on television is Aida (Mallory Jansen), who we see mature and then take on next level powers after reading the Dark Hold. We also discover, however, that Aida channels real woman Agnes Kitsworth (also Mallory Jansen), whom Radcliffe abandoned, he says, to search for a cure for her cancer. Aida, however, seems as surprised as anyone that her appearance derives from Agnes (although her attraction to Agnes' necklace hints that the connection is more than skin deep).

Being a twisted soul, Radcliffe envisions The Framework as a cure for a dying Agnes: the total disconnection of actual life for artificial, simulated life. Agnes doesn't become the controller of the Aida LMD, but merely a mind pumped into a parallel life stuck in The Framework.

The Others

While this robotic side story takes place, the show also continues to explore the idea of the other others, the Inhumans, as a metaphor for all forms of people who aren't, in this case, human. To exacerbate the current divide of America, the Inhumans' most staunch detractor is a US Senator of Indian decent in league with a Russian oligarch. This makes the Inhumans not just the targets of nationalist tendencies, but exclusive-human ones as well.

I've always liked this narrative, but I think the nationalistic nature of the television S.H.I.E.L.D. agency doesn't take the story far enough from the populist catcalls of the evening news. By making S.H.I.E.L.D. US-centric, and the Sokovia Accords global, a disconnect occurs that doesn't happen in the books. The show once again weaves a false logic of the fiction, taking people out of the world rather than enwrapping them in it. In the books, it's truly about humans vs. Inhumans as a metaphor writ large, without the bric-a-brac deference to any particular contemporary regional politics.

The Inhumans do offer a metaphor of precision for the racism of the real world. That the genetic code for Inhumaness exists, hidden until touched by Terrigen mist, means that everyone is suspect. The movies dealt with this in a most dramatic way by identifying and targeting flying aircraft carrier batteries on all who possess the gene, and all who might pass it on to future generations.

There is in the Inhumans a sense of threat from the discovery of something truly uncontrollable, something so pervasive that it’s always been there. The lack of knowledge makes it all the more menacing, especially if those who hold negative beliefs toward the Inhumans find in themselves the very gene that they despise in others.

Bringing the Stories Together

One of the difficulties of writing about weekly television come from speculation about what'll happen in the future, which gets codified in a column and then acts as proof of one's prescient incompetence when the speculation doesn't find realization in the show.

So I try to avoid the embarrassment of speculation after several wrong calls.

But, let me offer a generalization that will likely hold true even if the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. writers don't eventually take us there: the Inhumans and the LMDs have more in common with each other than they do with humans. Their shared "otherness" offers common ground for some relationship that hasn't been explored in the comic books. Racism, while it comes in systemic forms, hurts most when it manifests in the personal. It would be a good turn for this show to really take it down a notch, and go into the ramifications of otherness on relationships and futures. There's grittiness and bravado -- the DNA of the Marvel shows on Netflix -- that ABC can't take on, but ABC can do intimate and meaningful. They can find the real drama as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s characters deal with all of their otherness.

It's there, seen just behind the explosions and the car chase scenes, which show just how stupid S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance and engagement has become. There are powerful stories to be told about Daisy (Chloe Bennet) and her fellow Inhumans. They may be told in flashes probably, without much depth, but they'll be told. If the show really wants to grab people, it'll take down the action and ratchet up the humanity of its Inhumans and its LMDs. It'll make viewers care more about what happens to these characters because we will know them better -- their pain and their longing and their loneliness. Coulson (Clark Gregg) and May, Mack (Henry Simmons) and Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), Daisy and whomever.

Let's make the politics the backstory and focus on the characters. That's what the show needs, and perhaps that's what its viewers need as well.

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