Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 has returned with a potent message of resistance that couldn’t be more timely.
The impact of the Trump administration on popular culture and art may not be the most important consequence of the 2016 election, but it is a significant one. At its finest, art channels the challenges of the times into stories unfettered by time.
Hopes and anxieties, commentary and extrapolation play out across canvases from the page to the big screen — and even to serialized cable television.
But with the new administration a scant 100 days old, few branches of fictional media have been able to take up this baton. Impressively quick on the draw, the showrunners and writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have stepped into the breach — and they haven’t looked back.
Current events — burgeoning bigotry and emboldened hate groups, for example — have been an undercurrent of the show since season 3, when the Inhuman-hating Watchdogs came on the scene. The early acts of season 4 added a deliberately political dimension to this fictionalized xenophobia in the person of Senator Ellen Nadeer, an anti-Inhuman crusader leading her carefully named “Humans First” movement on a campaign of intolerance and fear-mongering.
That changed — drastically — as the show entered its third and final act of season 4, plunging characters and audience alike into the gray-stained world of the Framework. Influenced by the resolved regrets of several characters, this impossibly intricate virtual reality is a world turned upside down.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is decimated. Familiar protagonists have morphed into villains. And Hydra’s totalitarian regime controls its citizens like a many-armed Big Brother.
According to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s showrunners, the comparisons to current events are intended to be blatant.
“We’re trying to just paint the reality where, what if the world just turned upside down?” Jed Whedon told EW. Co-showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen clarified the point: “We’ve definitely found ourselves in a world we don’t want to live in,” she said.
References to Trump’s America within the Framework range from the profoundly exaggerated to the ruthlessly pointed. Inhumans stand in for immigrants and minorities, with loud posters decrying their dangerous and untrustworthy nature. The violent tragedy of the “Cambridge Incident” — a terrorist-like attack carried out by a lone (and incidentally foreign-born) Inhuman — serves as the official excuse for widespread prosecution. Inhumans and insurgents are hunted down in sweeps reminiscent of ICE raids, detained, and dehumanized.
Those who stand opposed to the regime call themselves the “Resistance,” seizing on patriotic ideals and symbols. But of course, Hydra is in constant control of the narrative. Only state-sponsored media outlets exist, feeding “alternative facts” to the populace like doses of poison.
“Sip a little bit every day. You don’t even notice until it kills you,” Ward observes bitterly.
Sanctioned cultural amnesia extends backwards as well — history books sanitize the past, obliterating Hydra’s link to Nazism and perpetuating, as Simmons notes, “blatant lies [and] complete disregard for historical or scientific fact.”
And in its most terrible and subtle destabilization, the Framework infuses distrust and despair into our most familiar and beloved realities. For those of us in the real world, this might be the electoral process or the EPA, the National Park’s Service or the Oval Office itself. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it is Fitz who represents the vertigo of sudden change — and the true demands of resistance.
Within the Framework, sweet, romantic, morally-centered Fitz morphs into a bloodthirsty agent of Hydra’s regime. Sporting a Richard Spencer-esque haircut and a profoundly punchable expression, Fitz boasts of Hydra’s dominance over threat of Inhumans and subversives.
“We will defeat these terrorists,” he says, hollow-eyed. “And we will make our society great again.”
A puppet of Madame Hydra, Fitz nevertheless willingly engages in brutality and murder, the fearsome avatar of all that Hydra has to offer.
Through Fitz — not our Fitz, but Fitz nonetheless — Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. offers a pointed lesson. The facts of the darkness cannot be changed; Simmons’ weak protestations that this is #NotMyFitz fall without impact into skeptical ears. It does no good, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. suggests, to stamp one’s foot or argue with reality, Framework or otherwise. The only parameters the Resistance can work within are the ones set before them.
In short: We can try and change our own Framework, but we cannot deny the demands of its existence.
Of course, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing more in this final act than just aping American social unrest. While the set pieces are recognizable and obvious (“Nevertheless, she persisted,” Fitz gripes about a defiant Daisy) the commentary spooling out of “Agents of Hydra” is more subtle than it initially appears.
For all of the clear allusions to Trump’s America, the president himself remains unparodied. The mistress of the Framework’s perversities is Aida, as Madame Hydra, and it’s hard to imagine a more different figure from Trump’s blistering bluster. Secretive and subtle, Aida is the image of ruthless competence, closer in fact to a nightmarish alt-Hillary Clinton than to Donald Trump.
By omitting this easiest and most obvious point of satire, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. broadens its message beyond straight contemporary commentary. It is easy (and desperately tempting) to place blame all of our ills and evils on a current administration, and easy to pin all the ills of the Framework on Aida. But an element of individual responsibility burns through, both in our own lives and in this fiction.
Aida, after all, is not the Framework’s only author; this dark alternate world was built, at least in part, by our heroes themselves. And conversely, a free and equal society, however tenuous, cannot be destroyed by one man alone.
“Remember,” Coulson beseeches the Framework’s prisoners, “There are more of us than there are of them… we all have the opportunity to be patriots. Will you take a stand? Are you going to hold them accountable?”
Past the coy references and clear parallels, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. challenges us to do the same. To take action in a world of easy inertia, to find clarity when all seems murky and gray. It would be so much simpler to fall into a Framework-like sleep, to adopt the robotic inevitability that Aida seeks to escape. Creeping autocracy, like Hydra, can seem “too imposing for any one person to fight.”
But take a cue from Phil Coulson; after all, his fight, like ours, is only just beginning.
“Now, I’m choosing to stand up,” the reborn Agent says. “To become a part of something bigger. I really do believe that together, we can accomplish anything.”