Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
You’ve been warned. Once you go to Level 7, there’s no way to go back.
Among the squee-worthy moments for diehard Whedonites—and there were many—a brief exchange might well be king of them all. Not only did this sequence feature The Avengers‘ Cobie Smulders & Firefly‘s Ron Glass conspiring, it also captures a classic turn of Joss Whedon’s screenwriting. Need a reminder?
Following his cinematic death, Coulson thinks he went to Tahiti—calling it repeatedly “a magical place.” Truth more real than he knows. What happened? Marvel producers & execs may have the secret locked away (more securely than the Tesseract, one hopes) but for right now, Coulson doesn’t even know there’s a secret. That’s bound to change, and likely in the near future. But here’s the thing—we know. Well, we know in part. We know more than Coulson does: he’s alive when he shouldn’t be. How did this come to pass? For what purpose?
Secrets wrapped in secrets: Coulson also doesn’t know about Centipede before Skye’s interrogation. Top-flight Agent Ward implies that he only knows Coulson was killed (kinda) before the Battle of New York because he held clearance Level 6…even the Avengers still think the same. The motivation behind Skye & the Rising Tide. Unregistered Gifteds, and Agent May’s backstory, and the mysterious voice behind the Professor’s super-soldier serum/gamma rays/Extremis devices, and….
Ward comes out and says it: S.H.I.E.L.D.’s very existence and purpose is to keep secrets and protect others from the fallout. George Eliot writes, “There is a great deal of unmapped country within us.” Everyone has secrets; we are subterranean catacombs, even to ourselves. Especially to who are Gifted, or skilled, or highly-regarded Mr. First-Name-Is-Agent himself.
Look, it’s a spy show airing in the age of Wikileaks & NSA domestic surveillance whistleblowing. Who’s surprised there are seekrits? And where Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films failed to capitalize on the emotional truth that keeping secrets to protect others often does more harm than good, I have no doubt Whedon will mine it for narrative gold. The truth is complicated, and sometimes the good guys look like the bad, and the villains seem to be heroes. No, it’s more than just appearances: the pilot turns out to be riffing on Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he discloses that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Coulson is right: it matters who we are. So is Mike the hero, the villain, or both? Skye? S.H.I.E.L.D.? The problem is, we just don’t know who we are finally. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
After a truly enjoyable romp through the heroic Lilliput of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think I look forward the most to discovering more about who these Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. truly are—how about you?