Friday, May 30, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: The Hugo Voter Packet

As has become traditional, the Hugo award administrators have published the Hugo voters packet, which includes ebook copies of many of the nominated works and samplers from many of the nominated people.  This includes myself and the other nominees in the best fan writer category (as well as Strange Horizons, nominated in the best semiprozine category).  I was a little mortified to discover that while the contributions by my fellow fan writer nominees ran to less than twenty pages, mine was more than twice as long, but I guess that won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog.  (For those of you who are curious, the posts I selected for inclusion in the voter packet are my reviews of Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, the first season of Elementary, Star Trek Into Darkness, and A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.)

If you're a member of LonCon 3, you can download the voter packet here with your membership number and PIN (which you should have received by email; if not, contact the award administrators at the email address on the voter packet page). 

The voter packet caused a bit of a stir this year when Orbit, the publishers of three of the nominated novels (Parasite by Mira Grant, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross) announced that they would not be including full copies of their nominated novels, but only excerpts.  It's easy to understand Orbit's reasoning.  Though there's a lot of debate about the effect that a Hugo nomination has on a novel's sales, the Worldcon membership is precisely the demographic that you'd expect to seek out your novel because of a nomination.  This year's Worldcon is on track to be the biggest in years, and in addition, the nomination of the Wheel of Time series (and publisher Tor's announcement that they will include all fourteen novels in the series in the voter packet) has caused a surge in supporting memberships--according to some accounts, over a thousand new members in the month since the nominations were announced.  It's hard to blame Orbit for choosing not to give away novels that they might have a reasonable expectation of selling, especially given that so many pundits have already declared the best novel race over and Wheel of Time the winner.

Nevertheless, the decision was greeted with exasperation and not a little ire--some of it from proponents of ebook publishing, who argue, perhaps quite rightly, that Orbit is being shortsighted, and that giving away books creates sales in the long run (both Grant and Leckie's books have sequels coming out later this year); and some simply from readers who expected to see Parasite, Ancillary Justice, and Neptune's Brood in their voter packets and now feel cheated.  Industry insiders have wasted little time in dubbing this latter group "entitled" (see, for example, this post from John Scalzi, who first came up with the idea for the voter packer several years ago and administered it himself before it was taken over by the Hugo award team), but this strikes me as massively unfair.  The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, the conversation around the voter packet has for years been taking it as a given that all nominated works will be included, and creating that expectation in voters and potential voters.  People who encourage others to buy supporting memberships in Worldcon (and to use them to vote for specific nominees) have been doing so with the argument that "you pay $50 and get five novels plus a lot of other stuff."  They might have been giving out misleading information, but I don't remember anyone with a huge megaphone hurrying to correct them.

Orbit's decision feels like a good excuse to have a conversation about the voter packet and the effect it's had on the award.  We've spent a lot of time this Hugo season, both before and after the nominees' announcement, talking about the changes that the award has been going through, the increasing effect of campaigning on the final shortlists and the growing balkanization of the voter base.  The role that the voter packet has played in this process can't really be overstated--it has made it much easier to galvanize the fans of a particular author of blogger, people who may not necessarily have any interest in the Hugos or the field as a whole, into buying supporting Worldcon memberships.  Possibly as a result of this, or simply because people like free stuff, the perception of the voter packet has shifted.  The original--and very laudable--idea was a way of evening the playing field, letting little-known authors stand alongside big names, and giving the less popular categories a platform that might encourage more voters to participate in them.  But from a method of creating a more informed electorate, the voter packet has come to be seen as a goody bag.  Does anyone think that the thousand new Worldcon members who joined after the nominations were announced did so because of a genuine interest in the award?  A sizable percentage of them, at least, probably did so in order to get free ebook copies of the entire Wheel of Time series for a mere $50.

We've already seen one effect of this in Orbit's choice to keep their full novels off the voter packet.  Another potential side effect was identified on the Coode Street Podcast.  According to the Hugo rules, to hand out an award in any particular category, it must have received at least 25% of the total number of voting ballots.  In other words, if 2000 people send in Hugo ballots, but fewer than 500 of them vote in, say, the fanzine category, no fanzine Hugo will be awarded.  This is usually not a problem--last year, even the least popular categories (fanzine, fan writer, and fan artist) came in at well over 40% of ballots.  But this year, with the huge influx of supporting memberships, we could very well see a situation where a large number of ballots vote solely in the best novel and other big categories, and where some of the smaller categories are starved out. 

In the immediate future, what this means is that those of us who care about the Hugo as an award for the whole field should feel an extra urgency about using the voter packet as it was intended, and voting in as many categories as possible.  In the long term, it would be nice if we could finally have a proper conversation about the Hugos and what's been happening to them, one that acknowledges that there is a difference between the interests of any single nominee and potential nominee, and the interests of the award and the field as a whole.  I'm already seeing more and more people talking about the unintended but deleterious effect of the voter packet (see Patrick Nielsen Hayden just this morning on twitter), and while that's not the full extent of the problem, it does feel like a good start.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Just Following Orders: Thoughts on Agents of SHIELD's First Season

Coulson: You're going to lose
Loki: Why?
Coulson: It's in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered.  Your floating fortress falls from the sky.  Where is my disadvantage?
Coulson: You lack conviction
The Avengers, 2012
Sam Wilson: How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?
Captain America: If they're shooting at you, they're bad.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014
What a long, strange trip it's been this year for Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.  Starting the TV season as one of the fall's most hyped and anticipated new shows, the expansion of the wildly successful Marvel cinematic universe into television, it quickly became one of the year's most beleaguered new series.  As the show hemorrhaged viewers exasperated with its tedious storytelling and boring characters, SHIELD's producers and stars seemed determined to make a bad situation worse, accusing disappointed viewers of not being "real" SF fans, and pretending that critics of the show were only complaining because they'd gone in expecting weekly guest appearances by Iron Man.  By the time Captain America: The Winter Soldier rolled around, SHIELD was in dire straits, too uninteresting to qualify even for hate-watching status.  The bombshell that The Winter Soldier throws into the MCU, however, is one that SHIELD was clearly created to anticipate, and in its wake the show's storytelling tightened and kicked into gear, delivering a solid, often genuinely thrilling final chapter to its first season that has had the core faithful who stuck with the show in the lean times proclaiming its arrival.  My own take, however, is more ambivalent.  While the final half-dozen episodes of the season represent a giant leap forward in the show's quality--and, more importantly, in creating the sense that SHIELD's creators and producers know what kind of story they want to tell with it--they do little to address some of the show's core flaws, and may in fact even highlight the fundamental problems at the heart of the entire MCU.

Set some time after the events of The Avengers, SHIELD begins with the (heavily publicized) revelation that Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the erstwhile agent who was killed by Loki in the film's final act, is in fact still alive.  Granted some leeway by a grateful Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Coulson assembles his own team, set to jet around the world on a mobile base, addressing the problems that emerge in a world that is now aware of the existence of hostile aliens.  Coulson's team includes the taciturn, traumatized warrior Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and scientists Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), but the pilot episode's focus is on the characters Ward (Brett Dalton), a "specialist" accustomed to working on his own who resists Coluson's attempts to get him to play with others, and Skye (Chloe Bennet), a member of the hacktivist group Rising Tide who object to SHIELD's unregulated operations and its concealment of the existence of aliens and superpowers, whom Coulson recruits for her outsider's perspective.  The first season is driven by Coulson's growing awareness that the story he's been told about his survival isn't true, and by the team's pursuit of a shadowy cabal, led by a figure known as The Clairvoyant, who are using alien technology to create an army of supersoldiers.

That SHIELD's early episodes--particularly the first, nine-episode stretch of the season, which are mostly standalones--are so unexciting is perhaps to be expected.  Most genre shows take a while to get their legs under them, and the art of writing a solid, engaging standalone hour seems to be vanishing from their writing rooms as they become more and more consumed with overarching mythology plots and soapy character arcs.  But there's something genuinely upsetting, almost infuriating, about how lazy and unengaging SHIELD's storytelling pre-Winter Soldier is.  The show seems to take its audience's attention for granted, and one could almost swear that the people writing it hadn't watched TV since the mid-90s.  Joss Whedon (who is credited as the show's producer, as well as writing and directing the pilot, but whose influence is difficult to discern) revolutionized genre TV by recognizing that savvy viewers were familiar with the stories he was telling, down to their individual beats.  By subverting those expectations (the blonde girl turning out to be the vampire rather than the victim in the Buffy pilot) or cutting through the boilerplate (Mal Reynolds shoving an uncooperative captive into a jet engine rather than listen to his belligerent defiance; Zoe immediately choosing her husband when a villain sadistically allows her to save either his life or Mal's) Whedon made these stories his own, and created a new norm for genre storytellers--one that SHIELD's writers seem happy to ignore.

In a landscape in which it has become the norm to obscure plot holes, inelegant dialogue, and trite plot points by barreling through story (on series like Heroes--whose producers, Jeffrey Bell and Jeph Loeb, are, bafflingly enough, SHIELD's executive producers--The Vampire Diaries, Arrow, Orphan Black, and many others in and out of genre), SHIELD seems content to mosey along the world's most predictable and padded standalone plots.  The show instead places most of its storytelling eggs in the mystery basket, teasing the answers to such questions as the truth about Coulson's resurrection, the cause of May's trauma, and Skye's secret origins.  But even if it were true that you can sustain a weekly TV series merely by dangling mysteries in front of the audience--a theory that TV writers have been disproving through abject failure since Lost exploded onto the scene ten years ago--the answers that SHIELD delivers to the questions it raises are as vague and unsatisfying as the questions themselves.  A mid-season episode in which Coulson is kidnapped and tortured for the secret of his resurrection ends with the discovery that he was dead for far longer than the official eight seconds and was brought back to life using secret, alien technology--something that most viewers will have taken as a given five minutes into the pilot.  The big revelation about Skye is that she is an 0-8-4--SHIELD code for "object of unknown origin"--which would almost seem like a joke about using meaningless bureaucratic jargon to hide the fact that you don't know anything if the show and characters did not treat it like a major turning point.

It comes as quite a relief, then, when Winter Soldier upends the entire MCU, and with it the show's universe.  The film's revelation that Hydra, the Nazi offshoot who were defeated by Captain America in the 40s, have infiltrated SHIELD and spent seven decades corrupting it and using its resources to further their own goal of world domination through chaos and destruction, is obviously one that the show's first season was built to lead up to.  And indeed, in its first post-Winter Soldier episode, SHIELD steps up in a big way, depicting the aftermath of this revelation and of Captain America and Black Widow's exposure of SHIELD's secrets for the organization's rank and file--whether the true believers, like Coulson, or the more ambivalent, like Simmons.  More importantly, given the film's exposure of a fifth column within SHIELD, it's obvious that someone on Coulson's team has to be working for Hydra, and the revelation that this is Ward--who is under orders from his former commanding officer, Garrett (Bill Paxton)--is suitably shocking.  For the rest of the season, as Ward first plays on his team's trust in him, and then openly joins forces with Garrett, SHIELD is an entirely different series--a tense, fast-paced story about trust and betrayal in which our heroes are grimly determined to stand up for what they believe in.  Winter Soldier gives SHIELD a purpose--to articulate not only what the MCU looks like after the film's events, but why SHIELD is still necessary in that world, and what it still stands for.

None of this, however, makes the preceding sixteen hours of television any easier to sit through.  Looking back, it's clear that the season was written in order to build up to the huge twist of Ward's betrayal, with subtle hints and Easter eggs that only make sense in retrospect sprinkled throughout, going all the way back to the pilot--which sets Ward up as the true blue SHIELD agent and Skye as a potential disruptive element, only for the show to later reveal that it's the other way around.  Rewatching the season before writing this review, I was struck by how much more interesting and watchable it becomes when you know what to expect.  It's easier to spot the games that Ward--and other characters with secrets, such as Garrett, Skye (who first joins SHIELD on behalf of the Rising Tide), and May (who is spying on Coulson for Fury)--are playing in order to achieve their goals (and the fact that the smaller mysteries set up in the first part of the season have such underwhelming solutions, or that the episode plots are so forgettable, becomes more palatable when you know to expect this).  But the show seems completely uninterested in how viewers will respond to it the first time around.  It puts no work into making its buildup interesting or compelling in its own right, or in encouraging the audience to invest in the world that it's about to tear down.  In the sixteen episodes before Winter Soldier, Ward is a straight-shooting, rule-loving, protocol-obsessed bore.  Which is interesting in retrospect when you realize that this was merely a performance, but the first time through it makes the character almost impossible to care about, and thus robs his betrayal of much of its sting.

That blandness, unfortunately, afflicts the rest of the cast as well, and isn't alleviated after the upheaval of The Winter Soldier.  Though the actors are game, often doing much with their performances to elevate the middling material they've been given (Wen and De Caestecker are particular standouts), there's only so much they can do.  In my review of the SHIELD pilot I observed that its use of the physical space of the team's plane was similar to how Firefly had used Serenity, but lacked the imagination and texture that made that setting such a believable, lived-in space.  The same might be said of the cast--May, the taciturn female warrior; Ward, the amoral bruiser; Fitz, the unexpectedly brave scientist; Skye, the mysterious girl who might have powers--but none of the characters are as well-delineated as their counterparts on Firefly, and their camaraderie and rapport aren't as captivating as they were on that show.

Nowhere does SHIELD's problem of blandness strike as brutally or as deeply as in the case of its putative lead.  Coulson won the hearts of MCU fans by providing a down-to-earth, no-nonsense contrast to the larger than life antics of Tony Stark, Thor, and Loki.  He was heroic and resourceful--as seen, also, in the Marvel One Shots The Consultant and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer--but in a decidedly uncool, dad-ish sort of way.  Clark Gregg is so well-suited to playing this kind of dry, sympathetic, hyper-efficient cog in the machine that he was doing it years before Phil Coulson or the MCU were a gleam in anyone's eye.  But in SHIELD's first season, he doesn't manage to translate that impeccable supporting role into a star turn.  His Coulson can't hold the spotlight.  His dry understatement comes off as underpowered; his hero moments as shrill and trying too hard.  That the first season finds Coulson at a crisis point--questioning his lifelong habits of unquestioning obedience, and the very company-man-with-a-soul persona that made him a fan favorite--doesn't help matters, as instead of conveying deep inner turmoil Gregg's performance makes Coulson seem whiny and sulky.  The destruction of SHIELD in Winter Soldier means that it falls to Coulson to embody the organization's ideals as they should have been--as well as, at the season's end, to rebuild it.  And yet Gregg's most persuasive onscreen moment is a scene in the episode after he and his team find out about Hydra, when he breaks down under the strain of believing that Fury is still out there sending orders, crying out, with little conviction, that "we are not agents of nothing!"

That's a great shame, because SHIELD is in a unique position to address some of the core issues of the MCU that the films, with their need to deliver blockbuster-friendly thrills and moments of triumph, can't face up to.  When Winter Soldier came out, many reviewers, while praising the film's willingness to question and even dismantle SHIELD, expressed frustration at the stark division it posited between loyal SHIELD members and the hidden Hydra agents.  As pointed out, for example, by Genevieve Valentine, the problem is not merely Captain America's division of good guys and bad guys according to whether they're shooting at him, but the fact that the bad guys are so obligingly willing to pick up arms in order to mark themselves out.  In reality, after seven decades of growing into each other, it shouldn't be so easy to separate out SHIELD from Hydra.  On the one hand, Hydra should have so completely infested SHIELD as to taint all but the most minute of its good acts--as evidenced by the fact that even the good guys, who aren't shooting at Captain America, were perfectly OK with SHIELD's rampant trampling of privacy and civil rights before these escalated to mass murder.  And on the other hand, SHIELD's protocols and organizational culture are the ones that nearly all Hydra agents were trained in, which would shape their habits of thought even as they employ their training to evil ends.  No matter who they swear allegiance too, SHIELD and Hydra agents should be pretty hard to tell apart, and the lofty or vile ideals that guide them should, in all but the most extreme cases of true believers, be less present in their psychological makeup than institutional culture.

It's hard to imagine a better illustration of how interwoven SHIELD and Hydra have become than what the show does with Grant Ward.  In the season's first three quarters, Ward is the consummate SHIELD agent.  He follows protocol to the letter, doesn't let personal feelings cloud his judgment or sway his decisions, and most of all, he obeys orders and respects the chain of command, without ever needing to know the broader context of his missions or their ultimate purpose.  The revelation that he works for Hydra means that Ward immediately begins wearing leather jackets and growing out his beard, but it changes nothing about the kind of agent he is--it just means that the orders he's following come from different people and have a different nature.  In this essay about Ward, Sam Keeper observes that Ward doesn't think of himself as a villain.  He's actually proud of having successfully carried out his mission--to deceive good people and trick them into caring about him, and then to kidnap, torture and kill them if they don't do what he wants--and angry that Skye doesn't realize how difficult this has been to pull off.  But, leaving aside the fact that no one, no matter how depraved, ever thinks of themselves as a villain, it's not clear to me why we'd expect Ward, of all people, to do so.  By his own standards--"I go in alone; I get it done"--he has achieved exactly what was expected of him.

To be sure, the fact that Ward sees no difference between being ordered to protect people and being ordered to kill them is a sign that he is, at best, scarily disconnected from his humanity (and places him in stark contrast to Skye and Coulson, both of whom repeatedly evaluate their orders based on whether they comply with their own ideals and what they perceive as SHIELD's guiding principles).  But as we learn throughout the first season, the system that taught Ward to blindly obey is as much the SHIELD system as it is Hydra.  In the episode "The Hub," Ward and Fitz are dispatched on a dangerous mission, only to discover that the extraction they were promised upon completion was a lie (it was a similar abandonment, incidentally, that spurred Garrett to renounce his loyalty to SHIELD and join forces with Hydra).  When Coulson protests, he's told to "trust the system."  But the system, as Winter Soldier reveals, is decidedly untrustworthy.  The show doesn't explicitly draw the connection, but it seems obvious that there would have been countless loyal, decent SHIELD agents who enabled Hydra and its evil precisely because of this unearned, undeserved trust, and the culture that encouraged it.

"You're a criminal ... Specialized skill-set ... No family ... That is what these people do.  SHIELD.  They prey on fear, and loneliness, and desperation, and they offer a home to those who have nowhere else to turn to." Skye is told this by Ian Quinn (David Conrad), a billionaire who turns out to be in league with Garrett.  He's describing her--she is an orphan who finds in Coulson's team the first real family she's ever had--but the description fits Ward, who was kidnapped out of a juvenile detention facility and whose abusive family abandoned him to Garrett's indoctrination, equally well.  Coulson, too, has a similar background--he was scarred by the early death of his father, and was recruited by Nick Fury before he was even out of high school.  That SHIELD and Hydra have essentially the same recruiting tactics doesn't mean that the two organizations are one and the same.  Skye finds a genuinely nurturing parental figure in Coulson, while Garrett abuses Ward in ways specifically designed to stamp out his independence and sense of self-worth.  In the season's penultimate episode we see Garrett, in flashbacks, teaching Ward that attachments--to people other than Garrett, it remains unsaid but clearly understood--are a weakness, a lesson that Ward takes to heart when, at the episode's end, he tries to kill Fitz and Simmons.  In the present day, meanwhile, Coulson praises Skye, who is berating herself for not letting Ward die when she had the chance, arguing that her compassion is a strength.  But what this similarity does suggest that how all three of these agents turned out is at least partly the luck of the draw--if Ward had been mentored by Coulson, or Coulson by Hydra chief Alexander Pierce, the whole story might have been very different.  From what we see in the show's first season, there is nothing inherent to SHIELD and its protocols and training methods that encourages the principles of selfless protection that the agency supposedly stands for.

The problem with all this--and the reason that I remain skeptical about SHIELD's ability to leverage its post-Winter Soldier arc into a meaningful improvement in its quality--is first that as much as Ward's betrayal breathes life into the show, it--and the season's other villains--are the only thing to do so.  It's not just that Ward becomes a more interesting character after he turns evil, but that the season's entire rogue's gallery comes to life as the characters are given the chance to interact and spark against each other--Paxton's hammy folksiness with a sinister undertone gives Garrett a level of charisma that Coulson never achieves, and his and Ward's perverse father-son relationship is endlessly fascinating; Ruth Negga's Rayna, a scientist with her own hidden agenda, combines monomania with a disarming manner to create something at once alluring and creepy, and her ability to effortlessly manipulate both Garrett and Ward from a position of seeming weakness suggests that she is the true power to watch out for; J. August Richard's Mike Peterson, though not technically a bad guy since he's being coerced by Garrett, is also an intriguing figure, transformed both physically and emotionally, and only able to retain some semblance of his humanity by embracing the villain role assigned to him.  (Having said this, there's quite a lot about Mike's character arc that gives me pause, especially given that until the very end of the season SHIELD consistently fails to field black characters who are not evil, crazy, victimized, or some combination of the above; the way that Mike is repeatedly punished by the narrative for trying to be heroic, and the oddly self-effacing way he behaves towards our heroes, makes me very uncomfortable, though I don't quite feel able to articulate my issues.)

Against these complex figures, the blandness of the main cast is shown in even sharper relief.  Skye, Coulson, and May light up when they're up against Ward, but go back to being inert when he's away (a particularly glaring example is the episode "The Only Light in the Darkness," in which a tense, pulse-pounding game of cat and mouse between Ward and Skye is juxtaposed with a soporific story about Coulson coming to the rescue of his cellist ex-girlfriend--Amy Acker, criminally wasted in an insipid, underwritten role).  The discovery that the organization to which they've pledged themselves has been rotten to the core for longer than they've been alive should elicit some interesting material from the show's loyal SHIELD agents, but the most the show offers are banalities about how Skye worked so hard to join SHIELD only for it to collapse under her and rousing speeches from Coulson (May, meanwhile, remains frustratingly silent on the subject of SHIELD throughout the season, and is seemingly driven solely by her loyalty to Coulson).  It's hard to hope for improvement on this front when one considers Ward's replacement on the team, Antoine Triplett (B.J. Britt), whose geniality and general agreeableness somehow manage to make him even less interesting than original, good Ward.

An even bigger problem is that I'm not sure how many of the similarities between SHIELD and Hydra are intentional, and how much the show would prefer to elide them through an appeal to personality.  Much is made of the fact that Ward is weakened by his amorality--without Garrett to give him orders, he spins out and ends up thoroughly trounced by May--while Skye is strengthened by her deep moral convictions.  But the show can't convincingly argue that Skye's moral fiber--or indeed Coulson's--are something that SHIELD instilled in them.  At best, SHIELD can take credit for recognizing their commitment to helping others--though in that case it must also take the blame for failing to recognize that Ward, and hundreds or even thousands like him, were merely mouthing that commitment without really possessing it.  In the season's almost inappropriately jokey finale, Coulson and Fury trade jibes about how Garrett has failed to grasp Fury's adage that "a man can accomplish anything when he realizes he's a part of something bigger; a team of people who share that conviction can change the world."  But, just as in Coulson's dying words to Loki in The Avengers, SHIELD fails to acknowledge that conviction isn't a good thing in its own right--a lot depends on what your convictions are (oddly enough, this is something that Whedon grasped perfectly well in Angel's fifth season premiere). 

The season finale pits the self-absorbed--and by that point, actually insane--Garrett, who believes that he can be "something bigger" on this own, against Coulson, Fury, and the team, who correctly recognize that they are merely a part of that something bigger.  But this is to draw a false contrast.  The problem with Hydra isn't that its operatives lack conviction and aren't willing to work together towards a greater goal (though it is the case that true believer Hydra operatives are completely missing from the show--as James Nicoll points out, it's strange that the show uses Hydra as its big bad and yet none of its villains are Nazis).  And neither does our heroes' ability to work together towards a common goal do anything to mitigate SHIELD's colossal failure to instill the right convictions, and the right idea of something bigger to belong to, in so many of its agents.

But then, perhaps this isn't so surprising, when you consider how unwilling the show is to acknowledge the darker aspects of the legitimate, "good" parts of SHIELD.  Even before Hydra is revealed, SHIELD--who as we already knew routinely conducts extra-legal surveillance and military operations, and conceals information from the public--turns out to have been involved in some pretty shady stuff, very little of which receives condemnation from the show's good characters.  This includes secret prisons where people, including civilians, are held without trial or recourse to the law; human experimentation, often without the knowledge or consent of the subjects; the hoarding, study, and development of alien technologies and weapons; and a fairly cavalier attitude towards the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners.  In the season's early episodes, Skye gives voice to the view that SHIELD is an inherently illegitimate organization and that its methods are unacceptable.  But it's soon revealed that her actual motives for infiltrating Coulson's team are personal--she believes SHIELD has information about her parents--and after one or two episodes of criticizing Coulson's methods, she buys into the SHIELD culture completely, a loyalty that is further cemented when she discovers that SHIELD agents died to protect her as a child.  By the time Black Widow releases all of SHIELD's secrets online in Winter Soldier, it's left to Skye to sigh that "[Coulson was] right all along.  Having all this out there in the world makes it too dangerous, and now there's no one left to protect it."

(Meanwhile, the show seems genuinely not to have noticed that nearly every terrible thing that Ward does was done by a "good," loyal-to-SHIELD character first.  Ward kills multiple SHIELD agents during Hydra's assault.  But several episodes earlier Coulson, desperate to find a cure for a mortally injured Skye, leads a team to an off-book SHIELD facility and attacks it, killing its defenders in the process.  One of the named characters that Ward kills is Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows), a high-ranking, tough-minded senior officer (who is also the person who sent Ward and Fitz on a suicide mission without their knowledge).  But the last thing Hand does in life is to suggest to Ward that he kill a bound prisoner--Garrett, who has been exposed as the Clairvoyant--because she feels that a lifetime's imprisonment without trial is too good for him.  It's hard, therefore, to see her death as anything but poetic justice.)

The question of following orders, of the duty of the soldier to both obey and question, and of the obligation of powerful people to both use their power for the greater good and make themselves answerable to some higher authority, recur in different guises throughout the MCU.  Tony Stark doesn't trust anyone to use the products of his intellect--not the buyers of the weapons he makes, nor the government eager to lay claim to the Iron Man suit.  But the authority he arrogates to himself is compromised by his narcissism and poor judgment.  The Hulk's power is defined by a complete lack of control--his own as well as anyone who tries to contain him in his enraged form.  He is incapable of following orders, and can only exercise control over how he's used by preventing himself from becoming powerful and keeping himself out of the hands of those who would use him as a weapon (including, of course, SHIELD).  Most crucially, Captain America is riven by the dilemma of how and whether to be a good soldier.  His instinct as a patriot--and a man who believes that no single person, no matter how powerful, is above the law and the chain of command--is to put himself at his government's disposal.  But he is also too moral, and too heroic, to blindly obey, and when his investigations of his superiors yield results that fall short of his ideals (as they do in both The Avengers and Winter Soldier) he uses his superior power to take control of the situation ("I guess you're giving the orders now, Captain").  The Winter Soldier acts as a sort of dark mirror to Cap, possessed of his strength, intelligence, and tactical acumen, but incapable of questioning his missions, much less comprehending their larger purposes and consequences (this parallel is the only justification for the Winter Soldier's presence in the film that bears his name, which otherwise gives the character short shrift).

SHIELD does something similar when it posits Hydra's supersoldiers, who are controlled through threats to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.  This, both the show and the film seem to be saying, is Hydra's idea of the perfect soldier, someone incapable of questioning their orders.  Garrett's downfall comes, appropriately enough, because he forgets why his soldiers obey him.  When Skye frees Mike Peterson's son, who was being held hostage, Mike wastes no time in killing Garrett, who spends his last moments in shock and outrage that his tool has turned on him.  But just as the existence of the Winter Soldier, and of Hydra's evil plan, frees the second Captain America movie from having to deal with the more thorny question of whether Cap has the right to use his powers without sanction or oversight, and whether SHIELD has the right to deploy him, the existence of Hydra's supersoldiers frees SHIELD from having to address the kind of soldiers that the organization has made of its own, supposedly free operatives.  In their last encounter of the season, Coulson berates Ward, not a little self-righteously, for "[devoting his] entire life to a deranged narcissist who never gave a damn about anyone," and though it seems obvious that the character will recur, perhaps on some path towards redemption (the producers have, indeed, all but promised this), it seems unlikely that that redemption will include any acknowledgment of how much Ward is a product of SHIELD, not Hydra, and how much he embodies its notions of what a good soldier is.

The season ends with Coulson promoted to Fury's former position as head of SHIELD, charged with rebuilding the organization.  The implication is that in the hands of a man like Coulson, who embodies the ideal of selfless protection of others, SHIELD can be what it was meant to be--that he has the conviction and moral vision to guide the organization.  But this is merely to recapitulate Skye's plot arc--taking someone who questions SHIELD's very existence and core assumptions (or, in Coulson's case, who has learned to question them after being victimized by them) and making them part of the inner circle.  It seems likely that the end result will be the same--that like Skye, Coulson's response to being granted the kind of power he had previously questioned will be to embrace it unthinkingly.  It's still possible for SHIELD to address some of the truly complex--and perhaps unanswerable--questions raised by its premise.  But with the show's first season seemingly so blind to the faults of what it has designated the "good" side--and with so little complexity in its good characters--I find it hard to hope that this will happen.