Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Watchdogs Review
For the past season and a half, there has been an odd irony with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where, despite being arguably the most accessible character of the cast, Mack is possibly the character that we know the least about. Watchdogs finally rectifies this to a certain degree, by introducing the audience to Mack’s brother Ruben, and by giving them a glance at his life outside of S.H.I.E.L.D. As a character building episode, Watchdogs was definitely a strong one, but it also had the role of building up a new antagonistic force in the form of the titular anti-Inhuman terrorist group/mediocre sandbox video game. Both serve as strong concepts to build a narrative around, though Daisy’s less than gradual slide towards extremism is starting to become a problematic subplot. Furthermore, the actual implementation of the Watchdogs organization is also undermined by the decision to have Hydra backing them, because if there is an even slightly questionable organization then it is always Hydra. In truth, they are actually the nefarious masterminds behind FIFA, Konami, and that little corner bistro that always gets your order wrong. All in all, Watchdogs has some strong ideas that contribute to a strong episode, but it is also undercut by a lack of nuance.
As I hinted at before, the emotional core of the episode is the relationship between Mack and Ruben. Ruben is entirely unaware of Mack’s real profession, instead believing him to be an insurance assessor. He is clearly a bit frustrated with his absentee brother, as he appears to be juggling a number of elements, including both debt, a layoff, and the family home, on his own. Meanwhile, Mack has clearly returned to try and center himself after the departure of Bobbi and Hunter and to remind himself of what he stands for. However, the emergence of the new online hate group, the Watchdogs, drives a further wedge between the two when the group publicly attacks and destroys an ATCU facility using nitramine. The use of nitramine is actually one of the details I really appreciate about the episode. It serves as a callback to the first season of Agent Carter, and it is a really fun reference to have in there, but it won’t impact the viewing experience of those who haven’t watched it. It simply serves as a great example of how Marvel can use such references to flesh out the world without alienating the more casual viewer. However, I do have a problem with Ruben’s reaction to the attack. Rather than have the character acknowledge some of the validity of the group’s core message, and have him take a moderate but slightly supportive stance, Agents has Ruben immediately become enthralled by the Watchdog’s actions, even going to go so far as call the terrorist attack, “Awesome.” It is frustrating since not only does his reaction not feel natural, but, at the center of this, there is an interesting and subtle debate to be had. However, the episode instead presents it to us using simplistic broad strokes.
The Watchdogs themselves are, again, an interesting idea. They have a seemingly understandable concern that is then applied to extreme actions. Ideally, they could be used to capture the sense of fear and paranoia that the public is feeling in the lead up to Civil War, but so far the lack of nuance has undercut them a bit. Having them be a tool for Hydra causes the narrative to be boiled down to a simple good vs. evil dynamic which is a little disappointing. That being said, I still do like the idea behind them, and it is nice to see Blake return. I’m really hoping Deathlok will return as well since a showdown between the two would be really intriguing. Coulson’s field testing of Lincoln was also a lot of fun. Lincoln has still felt a bit like an odd man out this season, so seeing him foster a relationship with someone on the team other than Daisy was quite rewarding. Daisy, on the other hand, is now in the habit of physically threatening hackers for information. I see what they’re trying to do with her character, but, like with Ruben, it doesn’t feel like a natural character progression. Two seasons ago these hackers could have been her best friends, and now she it taking an ends-justify-the-means approach with them. While it is clear that neither Fitz nor Mack agree with her methods, neither of them go so far as to try and stop her. Ultimately that if this episode has one primary flaw it is the simplification of morality into what are practically binary scenarios. People are good or evil. They are with S.H.I.E.L.D. or they are with Hydra. They either agree wholeheartedly with the terrorists or will cross any line to stop them. There are plenty of interesting ideas here, but I am hoping that they are given more time for exploration as the season continues.
Before I wrap up, a few Notes and Nitpicks:
- My favorite moment in the episode: “What the hell are you doing?” “…Shotgun axe.”
- While his implementation in this episode was a bit thankless, enough of Ruben’s character shined through that I’m definitely interested in seeing more of him in the future.
- I’m curious as to what the plan with the item shown in the final scene is. My first thought was a version of how widespread Terrigenesis occurred in the comics, but the spread of Terrigen in the water seems to have already had the same effect.
- May has enlisted the help of Simmons in finding Andrew. Other than that, there really isn’t much for the two of them to do in this episode.
While Watchdogs is definitely a good episode, it feels a bit haunted by the question of "What if?" What if Daisy sympathized with the Watchdogs feelings of helplessness, even as she was opposed to them. What if Ruben took a more moderate stance? What if the Watchdogs were a new organization, independent of both of the primary factions? Agents takes too much of a black and white approach with this episode, and, in doing so, hinders and sabotages some of its own idea. Still, the ideas and characters are interesting, so hopefully we will get to see them explored further and with a more delicately in the future.