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The Strange Changes: 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Season Three and Its Real-World Analogues

The fallout from the events of season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. serves as an excellent metaphor for contemporary social and political shifts

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

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming Na-Wen, Chloe Bennet, Brett Dalton, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Nick Blood, Adrianne Palicki, Henry Simmons, Luke Mitchell
Network: ABC

Change is inevitable. It is everywhere and in everything. But some change is more foreboding, more catastrophic: the loss of a loved one, a divorce, and major injury.

To the characters in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, those very human changes mean perhaps just as much as they do to any fictional character, but as Marvel’s Inhumans expose their powers and their capabilities, change will be much more challenging, at the personal level, for those evolving into some other form of human; it will also mean enormous change for those still constrained by their traditional humanity.

At the heart of season three, we will watch the changes these characters face mimic much of the evolution of society and technology that affects the viewer in the real world. We will see the tension between not wanting things to change, as we just experienced with Kim Davis, the county clerk unwilling to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. We see those trying to control change in the legislative battles in Washington, DC. We watch those who embrace change, and push headlong into it, and some, either more picky or less adventuresome, who want to choose which changes take place. Elon Musk and Bill Gates are good examples of this faction. Gates with his foundation are looking to reshape education, while Musk is reinventing transportation. For all their embrace of progress, however, both have been vocal about their fear of human displacement by automation and the rise of intelligent weapons guides by autonomous artificial intelligence. Acceptance and reaction to change falls along a spectrum.

I predict we will see similar manifestations of embracing or averting change in season three of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads his rag-tag band of agents and Inhumans. Coulson will try and contain the threats posed by aliens and the less-than-nice among the human hybrids, or perhaps employ them when necessary. We will see Hydra try to turn them to their cause, and we will see the Inhumans themselves, like a band of seemingly invincible teenagers, plunge headlong into a future where they see themselves as superior to non-transformed humans. Of course, we will definitely see military action to contain perceived threats — and we will see very real human issues as people deal with either their own changes or the changes in those around them.

Some of this change is ecological. At the end of season two, the crystals that Jianying (Dichen Lachman) was planning to use to kill or transform the S.H.I.E.L.D. assault team, opened up in the ocean and entered the food supply, fulfilling Jianying’s plans without her participation. It is implied that the marine food supply will be the source that unleashes Kree transformations across the planet.

Season 2 featured another transformation as Cal (Kyle MacLachlan) turned into Mr. Hyde, seemingly the ultimate evil incarnation of the character’s self-experiments. Rather than destroy everything in a fit of Hulk-like rage, however, Cal finds reason in his shared desire with Coulson to save his daughter Skye (Chloe Bennet). That was his first turn: from enemy to colleague, delivering death to Jianying to temporarily halt the war with S.H.I.E.L.D. He transforms again, agreeing to undergo the T.A.H.I.T.I. protocol and becoming Dr. Winslow, a friendly veterinarian. From wannabe enhanced human, to chemically transformed maniac, to sympathetic father hero, to mild-mannered vet (all due to the use of alien technology), Cal lives change and transformation as much as his daughter Skye.

As for Skye, her acceptance of transformation reaches a peak in the season finale as she adopts her birth name of Daisy, embraces her powers, and reunites with S.H.I.E.L.D. She manages to remain sane, despite her growing propensity to (literally) shake things apart, the deadly embrace of her own mother as she drains life from her, and her mother’s death at the hands of her father (and those are just the highlights). Ah, the resilience of youth.

Change culminates at the end of season two as Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is consumed by a weird, state-shifting Kree rock — just as she has intimated that she loves the still-recovering Fitz (Iain De Caestecker). Fitz approaches normality after season one's catastrophic brain injury, just in time to have his world shaken again. In the beginning of season two, following his near-death, it was Fitz who returned from the hiatus a very different person. While highly unlikely that Simmons is dead, it’s pretty inevitable that she will not emerge from the Kree stone unaltered.

The changes that runs through Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D plot and characters reflects the chaos of our times. It magnifies the sense of uncertainty we all experience. We don’t face daily threats from extraterrestrial invasion, nor from ancient DNA being expressed through chemically induced metamorphosis — but we do mourn the passing of loved ones, watch the volatility of financial markets, experience jobs displace by automation, cringe at torture and killing by extremists on television and on the web, and swim (and sometimes drown) in the constant soup of outdated/updated technology.

Entertainment is often meant to reflect our daily lives. In comedy, it makes our lives caricature; in drama, it magnifies all those things we’re fearful to try, or terrified might actually happen. Entertainment takes what is overwhelming and uncontrollable in our own lives and makes it seem more manageable in the light of what the fictional characters must endure; it is cathartic. That your daughter, who got a little drunk at a party she didn’t tell you about, can become a thankful moment in retrospect: at least she isn’t part alien and able to cause earthquakes. Writing it makes it sounds trivial, but in the moment, our brains make that connection.

Marvel conceived S.H.I.E.L.D. as a kind of fictional relief valve. The counter-terrorism organization came into being in Strange Tales #135 (August, 1965) under the deft guidance of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. While the meaning of the letters has changed, the need for an agency to help manage chaos and uncertainty wasn’t lost on its early readers, and isn’t lost on its contemporary television viewers. We can read and watch the chaos, and on one hand, be thankful that our troubles are so terrestrial. On the other hand, we can recognize, in the show’s dialogue and action commentary, a satire of the current state of world governance, and even perhaps alternative approaches that would make sense in the right hands. Entertainment, yes, but underneath, social commentary: a show about managing change in an age of change.

The change continues on September 29, 2015, at 9 pm.

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