‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’: Coming of Age with a Show

This may sound lame, but Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (henceforth referred to as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or just S.H.I.E.L.D.) was the first real “adult” drama show that I watched for myself. As the eldest of three daughters, I was limited in what I could watch. Everything had to be appropriate. While other girls were arguing over whether they preferred Damon or Stefan on The Vampire Diaries, I was an expert on all things Wizards of Waverly Place.

Before S.H.I.E.L.D., my experience with hour-long TV was limited to Once Upon a Time and Pretty Little Liars. I watched Once Upon a Time with my mother and sisters, and it’s as Disney as a show can get without actually being on the Disney Channel. As for Pretty Little Liars, my younger sister and I started watching it together on the recommendation of a few friends. By the time we began, our youngest sister knew enough to stay in her room while her two older sisters were watching melodramatic teen television, but kids don’t stay still for very long. As a result, Pretty Little Liars nights became special events—the one night a week where I could sit back and relax with forty-five minutes of kissing, lying and murder, no laugh track to be found.

I started out of order, watching the thirteenth episode of the first season, “T.R.A.C.K.S.” first, because it was the earliest one that the Time Warner Cable app on my phone had. Spoiler alert: the female protagonist, Skye, nearly dies in that episode. Simultaneously shocked and fascinated by the blood and violence I pressed on, digesting every episode they had on the app and then looping back later to consume everything from the beginning.

As for S.H.I.E.L.D., I watched it on my phone without any other family member present. I got my first phone in eighth grade, and S.H.I.E.L.D. was the first show to grace the screen of my cracked iPhone 4s.

To me, S.H.I.E.L.D. was different from everything else. It was dramatic but the characters were sensible, unlike most characters on Pretty Little Liars. It was fun, and it didn’t talk down to its audience like children’s shows and Once Upon a Time tended to do. More importantly, it captured humanity in a way that I had never experienced before.

For the first time, I could see myself represented on screen. As a Vietnamese-American girl, I saw myself in Skye. She was Asian, but not the straight-A stereotype. She was snarky and funny; to some she seemed like a “Mary Sue”, but to me she was my guardian angel. Furthermore, she looked like me. The few Asian girls on I had seen on TV before Skye were paler than Snow White. As a very tan Asian girl growing up in a community where white skin seemed superior, not seeing someone like me on TV sucked. Chloe Bennet is gorgeous, and she rocked her tan skin as Skye on S.H.I.E.L.D., and I will always be grateful for that. After years of feeling useless because of how you look, it’s so freaking empowering to see a pretty, tan Asian girl kick ass and take names.

Skye wasn’t the only character that mattered to me. I saw myself in Jemma Simmons: smart and compassionate and trying her best. I saw myself in Leo Fitz: awkward and shy and fiercely loyal. I had seen relatable characters on TV before, but none like these. These characters spoke to my very soul. They turned my phone screen into a mirror, reflecting my Asian-ness and my personality.

Like a baby chick latches onto a mother hen, I especially latched onto Leo Fitz. His confession to Jemma in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s season one finale gave me the confidence to confess my feelings to my own crush at the end of eighth grade. After all, if the worst case scenario for confessing your love to someone is nearly dying, a basic rejection doesn’t seem all that bad. As an awkward, determined Asian girl whose crush definitely didn’t like her back, characters like Fitz, Jemma and Skye were more than just extensions of myself. They were my heroes, my idols, my friends.

It wasn’t until I watched Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that I truly understood the power of stories. A good story is a warm hug on a cold day, giving you the comfort and warmth you need to survive the winter. A good story is an affirmation, a pat on the back, telling you that you are okay, that you did good, that you are important too.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t the best or most watched Marvel show, but it is the one that’s most important to my growth. Without S.H.I.E.L.D. I wouldn’t understand why stories matter, and I wouldn’t have the love for visual storytelling that I do today.

Of course, no good coming-of-age story is without its complications, and in my own story the complication is that though I love Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I don’t like it anymore.

I started watching the show at the end of eighth grade, and I completed the first season of the show just before I started high school. This show was my coming-of-age. As I’ve grown and changed, so has S.H.I.E.L.D.. I’ve become a different person, Skye has become Daisy, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has become a completely different show to the one I fell in love with.

I could attribute my current disinterest in S.H.I.E.L.D. to many things: the awful nature of Tumblr fandom, the ambiguity as to whether it was really a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the changing of its airtime year to year. My mom started watching the show just before season two premiered, and in my most important act of teenage rebellion, I stopped liking a show I used to want to give warm hugs to. Mostly, though, S.H.I.E.L.D. and I are like childhood best friends that happened to grow apart as people. Sure, we’ll always have the golden years, but things are different now. We’re different.

It all began in season two. The season started strong; I remember myself crying when it was revealed that (spoiler alert!) Jemma had left, and the Jemma we had been seeing was just Leo Fitz’s hallucination. But, things went downhill. I got too attached to a minor character—Kara Palamas/Agent 33, the baddest bitch in the entire series and the only “villain” who really deserved a redemption arc—who was unceremoniously killed off. As for the main characters I liked, I kept becoming frustrated with the writers’ choices for them. For example, during season two, Jemma’s feelings and screen time were routinely pushed aside to focus attention on her love interest, Fitz. It was like her own issues didn’t matter if they did not have something to do with the Fitzsimmons relationship, because women are defined by the men in their lives, right? I was a hardcore Fitzsimmons warrior before season two, but after that, I was just tired.

As the show continued, I began missing the good old days of season one. Sure, there are things I love about the later seasons—the evolution of Daisy/Quake, the Jemma and Will relationship—but the later seasons don’t have that heart that had made me fall for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. Sure, most people hate the first season, but I loved it. I loved the healthy will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic of Fitzsimmons. I loved that there was a sense of true camaraderie between the main characters, instead of there being a strange, loose confederation of allied heterosexual couples. The show went from showing how great Skye and Jemma were as friends in season one to barely showing them together on screen at all. The strong bond between the two women was one of the reasons why I fell in love with the show, and now the only significant scene I remember between them in recent years was in the season four episode “Self Control”, and that’s only because they were two of the only members of the cast not replaced by androids. Back in season one, relationships beyond the romantic (and the paternal relationship between Coulson and Skye) seemed to matter. Friendship and family were something to be fought for instead of something that everyone pretended to have.

The show became hard for me to watch, but I stuck with it. I’ve watched every single Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, and I can’t say that I enjoyed all of them. Even if I ignored my love of deep stories and just enjoyed the action, the show is just hard to look at. The color palette seems completely composed of dark blues and dismal greys, and the show seems to be lit with one lightbulb and an iPhone flashlight. Sure, I understand that they’re spies and that they have to operate in the shadows, but would it kill someone to turn on a light?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that at one point, I recommended Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to anyone that would listen. The show is so dark now, both visually and narratively, that I wonder if the viewers that remain are stubborn (like me) or just fiercely forgiving. Whenever one of my favorite characters gets to be happy, I do not allow myself to rejoice, because I know that something will come to take away their happiness. Every season has a “who is the betrayer” plotline that wreaks havoc on all of my favorite dynamics. When the traitor plot gets resolved, Fitzsimmons get together and then get separated again. They get together again, and again they become separated. It’s kind of torturous, seeing your favorite characters being tortured in the same ways over and over again.

Maybe my eyes have been spoiled by years of brightly-lit, nicely colored (if a bit oversaturated) kids’ shows. Maybe my years as a children’s show connoisseur has made me unfairly believe that sometimes having hope is better than plunging your story into increasingly darker and grittier depths. Maybe I’m bad at watching television. But if I’m wrong and immature, maybe I’m okay with that. At the end of the day, I just want better for the characters I once saw as friends and family.

When I look at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I see everything I love about television and stories in general: how it can move you, how it can teach you things you didn’t know about yourself, how it can be a comfort. A TV show can be a home.

When I look at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I see everything I want to fix about television: the idea that going darker means becoming better, the focus on big plot twists and drama rather than reasonable character development. When I’m sitting on the couch, watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with my mom, I feel like a prisoner in my own home.

When I look at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I am reminded of how much I want to be a storyteller. I love stories. I love how much joy stories bring to people, and I want to spread that joy. Stories can change how you feel for the better. Stories are so much bigger than a novel or script or an hour on a TV screen.

I have a complicated relationship with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It taught me how to love TV. It also taught me how to hate it. I don’t know how to feel, but I guess after everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve been through, I’m grateful.