Sunday, September 28, 2014

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition

Well, here we are again.  As has become traditional, the US networks scheduled a boatload of new shows for the week of Rosh HaShana (happy 5775 to those of you celebrating!), which is very convenient as it gave me some time to wade through the deluge.  As usual, there are some shows I just don't have much to say about--I don't need several hundred words to say that Scorpion is awful and dumb, and as compelling and propulsive as the pilot of How to Get Away With Murder was, there isn't much to say about that show yet, and probably won't be until it starts developing its characters and themes as well as its plot--and a few that have already got me thinking.  Here are my thoughts on the fall's first batch of new shows.
  • Forever - ABC's new procedural wants so desperately to be this year's Elementary that it's almost funny.  Like the surprisingly successful Holmes adaptation, it centers around an Englishman in New York, who has remarkable deductive abilities and a somewhat quirky and macabre worldview, and who teams up with the police, and a female partner, to solve crime.  The two shows even have virtually identical title cards and musical cues.  What sets Forever apart from its obvious inspiration (though not from a million vampire shows that preceded it) is that its hero, Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is immortal, for reasons that he himself doesn't understand.  Whenever he dies, Henry reappears, naked, in the nearest body of water--a detail that is presumably linked to his original death, which occurred while trying to protect a sick slave from being murdered on the passage from Africa (I'm reserving judgment on this backstory, since the show is already quite flashback-heavy and, I suspect, will deliver more details about what brought Henry to the ship and what he thought he would find there; but obviously this is a premise that has the potential to be horribly racist in about twelve different ways).

    The show's first two episodes have already started hinting at a mythology--most intriguingly, Henry has begun receiving phone calls from another immortal, who claims to be thousands of years old to Henry's mere 200.  But so far Forever doesn't seem terribly interested in exploring the meaning and effects of immortality in any but the most superficial of ways.  It's interesting, for example, to hear Henry explain what the worst ways to die are, or to discover that his sole confidante, played by Judd Hirsch, is actually his adopted son, but so far there's been no exploration of Henry's attitude towards death, the state rather than the means of getting to it, and his eagerness to investigate and solve murders starts to seem a little odd when you consider that this is a man who has seen generations come and go and might be expected to be a little cavalier about people being prematurely shuffled off this mortal coil.  In the series's second episode, the police gun down a young man who is holding Henry at knifepoint, and there's no discussion of whether he should feel guilt or pity, given that he was never in any real danger.  Even more frustrating, given that Forever wants to be Elementary so badly, is its failure to introduce a Joan Watson character, someone who can puncture Henry's arrogance and get at his humanity.  Instead, all the cops on the show--including the female lead and obvious future love interest (Alana De La Garza)--are awed by Henry and constantly left in the dust by his intelligence and strange way of looking at the world.  What keeps Forever going despite these flaws (and despite featuring some awful dialogue and even more awful voiceovers) is Gruffudd himself, who brings so much energy and charm to the role of Henry.  Even if you don't quite buy that he's lived through two of the most turbulent centuries of human history, you want to keep watching him to see what will happen next.  If Forever can up its game to match his performance, it might become something worth watching.

  • Gotham - I had such low expectations from this pilot that I almost didn't watch it at all.  I'm sick and tired of the prequel craze (and especially a prequel for a comics universe in which I have only a glancing familiarity, so that a lot of the names dropped by a show like Gotham go over my head), but even more than that, I'm less and less interested in Batman, the character and the concept.  A show dedicated to demonstrating how crime-ridden and corrupt Gotham is, so as to make the audience long for the day when a caped crusader can clean up its streets, didn't strike me as a good use of my time.  But though the Gotham pilot has its moments of reveling in the depravity of Gotham's dirty streets (and in the brutality that the police exercise in response to it), it ended up suggesting a more interesting, more compelling story.  A lot of this is down to the cast--casting Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue as rookie detective Jim Gordon and his shady mentor Harvey Bullock is already overpowering the show's roster quite a bit, especially compared to other superhero series, but add Sean Pertwee and Jada Pinkett Smith in recurring roles and you've got a show that looks like it's aiming as much for the prestige market (or for the seriousness of films like Nolan's Batman trilogy) as comic book fans.  McKenzie is particularly good in the tricky role of the straight-shooting, slightly naive cop who is being urged to compromise his principles, managing to imbue a familiar character type with enough gravitas to make us believe him when he vows to clean up Gotham's streets.  But what makes the Gotham pilot truly compelling is how it weaves a web of connections between its secondary and minor characters that makes its titular city feel alive and interesting (particularly intriguing was the revelation of a romantic connection between Renee Montoya and the future Barbara Gordon, or teenage pickpocket Selina Kyle witnessing the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne).  It's these connections--and the strong acting the gives them life--that makes Gotham intriguing, for the chance to explore the city that gives the series its title, even if we know that the premise of the Batman universe means that Jim Gordon's promise to clean it up can never be fulfilled.

    All that said, I can't help but wonder if the prequel approach doesn't serve to expose the flaws in the Batman universe in a way that Gotham can't, by its very nature, address.  Prequels, by definition, are driven by inevitability--we know that future heroes and villains will one day take up those mantles, even if we might want them not to (it was arguably one of Smallville's core flaws that it had no idea how to resolve the problem of having created its most compelling character in the young Lex Luthor).  But telling a story about a crime-ridden city means discussing inevitability of a very different sort.  In the pilot, Gordon encounters a child named Ivy Pepper, whose father is an abusive small-time crook who is framed and murdered by the police, more or less in front of his daughter.  It feels fairly obvious that a child who starts from those sorry circumstances will not end up living a productive, law-abiding life, but in this particular case we know that this is a certainty, and that this child will grow up to become the villain Poison Ivy.  It's hard to know how to react to this knowledge.  If Gotham were a straight-up crime drama we would treat Ivy's story as a tragedy, an example of the vicious cycle of abuse, neglect, and criminality.  But because of the show's comics roots, what we're actually meant to feel is a frisson of excitement.  Instead of rooting for Ivy to get past her awful background, we're meant to feel glad that we've seen the first stepping stone on her path towards villainhood.  As the popular meme has it, Batman is a billionaire who goes out at night and beats up poor criminals, without any thought given to the social and economic causes that underpin crime.  If Gotham wants to be a Batman prequel, it has to ignore those same causes, to treat future criminals as a necessary component of its story rather than a tragedy waiting to happen.  With its strong cast, I can easily imagine Gotham working as a crime drama, but I suspect that it will be warped out of shape by its inevitable future.

  • Madam Secretary - American TV takes a second stab at the Hilary Clinton story (following the abortive series Political Animals, today probably best known as the second TV series, after Kings, in which Sebastian Stan plays a vulnerable, damaged gay man).  Though I can't help but wish that television did not still find the idea of a woman in a position of power so exotic (see also Commander in Chief from a few years back), it's nice that these stories are being told at all, and the pilot for Madam Secretary wisely downplays the gender angle--its title character, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is remarkable less for her gender than for her abilities and intelligence.  Unfortunately, the slant that the pilot decides to put on Beth's rise to the position of Secretary of State (following the mysterious death of the previous office-holder which is presumably going to be an important throughline in the coming season) is that she is unpolitical, not part of the Beltway mafia, and is thus able to Get Things Done--not least because she lacks aspirations for a higher office.  It's extremely frustrating to see, again and again, stories that claim to be about politics but which have such a reflexive and ultimately childish disdain for it (one of the things that makes The Good Wife a great TV series is that it allows its characters to be ambitious and politically savvy without claiming that this makes them monsters).  The main story of the pilot involves Beth using back channels to rescue two American college kids who entered Syria trying to join the anti-Assad rebels (it's interesting how real-world politics catches up with shows that claim to depict it: where as recently as a month ago such an attempt would have been seen as misguided but admirable, now ISIS-mania has the world's governments trying to criminalize it; of course, some things never change--the two boys are clean-cut, suburban white kids, not, heaven forbid, Arab-Americans).  But by "back channels," I mean getting in touch with contacts from Beth's previous life as a spy, and personally negotiating for the boys' release, which is incredibly small fry for someone with the power of the whole State Department behind her.  I'm interested enough in Madam Secretary to keep watching--and the show does have a strong cast and sharp dialogue that make the prospect of keeping up with it less than onerous--but I wish I believed that it was actually interested in a real conversation about politics (not to mention women in politics) rather than the simplistic, black-and-white stories it tells in its pilot.

  • Red Band Society - There's probably an interesting story to be told about the friendships and dramas that develop in a children's hospital ward.  Unfortunately, Red Band Society is less interested in being that show as it is in being a boarding school soap that just happens to take place in a hospital--an absurdly luxurious hospital where patients live full-time even though there's no reason for them to do so (maladies that, according to Red Band Society, require you to live in a hospital include: osteosarcoma, cystic fibrosis, and waiting for a heart transplant), and where parents never visit except for the one guy who has lost his visitation rights because he caused the accident that put his kid in a coma, and who therefore masquerades as a volunteer.  Having recently experienced the hospitalization of a family member--at a very nice private hospital, I should note--I recognize nothing about how Red Band Society conceives of hospital life.  Real hospital are cramped and uncomfortable.  Every available bit of space is crammed with equipment and supplies for which there's never enough room, and the staff are always running back and forth, doing a million things before they can get to you and your needs.  In comparison, the hospital in Red Band Society feels like, well, Hogwarts, with a firm but kind-hearted head nurse (Octavia Spencer) who seems to have nothing better to do with her time than police, discipline, and gently encourage her patients, as if she were their teacher and not a medical professional.  The young actors who play the sick leads are all strong, and the pilot gets an appropriate amount of drama out of, say, a 14-year-old boy taking a last run before his cancerous leg is cut off.  But the pilot seems less interested in the obvious stakes of a hospital drama set on a children's ward than it is in teenage melodrama that, no matter what the success of The Fault in Our Stars would seem to suggest, isn't made any more interesting just because the kids it's happening to might be dying. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Problem of Mike Peterson: Thoughts on Agents of SHIELD and Race

[Note: This post is the result of thoughts that I've been having since the end of Agents of SHIELD's first season in the spring, and which I haven't seen addressed elsewhere.  I held off on writing and publishing it because I wasn't certain that I had the proper grounding to do justice to the issues it discusses, and because I wasn't sure that it was my place to discuss them at all.  Nevertheless, as the second season draws closer it seems important to me that this subject is broached.  If readers with more grounding in anti-racism want to point out errors or bad arguments, I'd be happy for their input.  Similarly, if there are discussions of this subject that I've missed, I'd be grateful for links.]

We first meet Mike Peterson in the Agents of SHIELD pilot.  As I wrote in my essay about the show, the pilot positions both Skye and Ward as its point of view characters, establishing parallel but opposite trajectories for them--Ward, the obedient company man who needs to be taught to bend the rules; Skye, the anti-authoritarian spy in the belly of the beast who secretly craves stability and order--that are overturned in the post-Winter Soldier episodes.  But from watching the pilot's first act, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Mike is an equally important character to these two.  Skye's voiceover introduces the series, and Ward's mission in Paris establishes him as an identification figure who then carries us to SHIELD headquarters and Coulson.  But bridging those two scenes is our introduction to Mike, the first of the pilot's main characters to be shown on screen.  When he saves a woman from an explosion by jumping unaided from a tall building, it's only natural for us to assume that he's our hero.

Mike's true role in the story, however, is quickly established during Ward and Coulson's first meeting.  "That's a superhero, Agent Ward," Coulson announces.  But SHIELD isn't a show about superheroes.  It's a show about people who deal with superheroes (among other things).  And so with one fell stroke, Mike Peterson is repositioned.  From a potential protagonist, he becomes a subject, someone for our actual heroes to deal with.  Someone for SHIELD to manage, hide, and control.

The modern MCU comes to life in the closing moments of the first Iron Man film, when Tony Stark rejects the cover story offered to him by SHIELD and Coulson (who, sounding almost bored, drawls that "this is not my first rodeo") and instead redefines the terms by which superpowered individuals operate by announcing to the world that "I am Iron Man."  Winter Soldier completes that upheaval by razing SHIELD to the ground, but in the episodes of Agents of SHIELD that lead up to that story it's clear that no one--least of all Coulson--has gotten the memo.  He still views himself as someone who has the right and the authority to control (and occasionally deploy) people like Iron Man, Captain America and, of course, Mike.  That's not necessarily an unreasonable stance--high-handed as Coulson's demeanor to Tony is, his experience is a valuable asset, and surely no one in their right mind would have assumed that Tony Stark should be left unsupervised with superpowers.  But it establishes that Phil Coulson's definition of "superhero" is a fairly narrow one, and perhaps includes less freedom of choice than most of us would associate with the word.

Further complicating matters is the fact that despite Coulson's chosen terminology, Mike is not a superhero.  He's a supersoldier (or rather, a stepping stone on the way to creating one). It's the tension between those two terms that drives the overwhelming majority of the MCU, especially in Phase II.  A hero--as Coulson and SHIELD are reluctant to admit--is self-directed and unique.  A soldier is, in his essentials, interchangeable with all other soldiers, and more importantly, his job is to follow orders.  The stories told in the MCU are almost always about attempts to create supersoldiers that end up producing superheroes (or villains) instead, and the powers that try to force those superheroes back into a more limited role.  Captain America was created as part of a supersoldier program, and dismissed once it became clear that the program's goal--an army of people with his strength and abilities--couldn't be achieved.  The Winter Soldier is Hydra's attempt at the same result, minus Cap's pesky free will, and Black Widow was similarly created to be a fearsome soldier who couldn't question her orders.  The Hulk came into existence following an attempt to recreate Cap's serum, and when the military tries to weaponize that result what they achieve is literally an abomination.[1]

The Iron Man films, meanwhile, ponder the gap between superhero and supersoldier by positing a superpower that is wearable and transferrable.  Tony is a weapons manufacturer who develops a distrust of the people using his weapons, but his solution to this problem is to build something that can turn anyone into a living weapon.  He seems surprised that the immediate response--by both the government and villains--is to try to appropriate, steal, or replicate this technology.  But though Tony insists that the Iron Man armor is a part of him, its actual handling in the three Iron Man films often puts the lie to that claim.  Tony can operate the armor without being in it (which effectively makes it a drone, and thus no different from Ivan Vanko's imitation suits in Iron Man 2); the armor can be overridden despite containing a pilot; Iron Man 3 suggests that the suit has a mind of its own, and at the end of the film Tony triumphs by summoning an army of suits, each with its own name and personality.  In the end, the only way Tony can remain a superhero--rather than the general of a robot army--is to destroy the suits that gave him his power to begin with. 

In that same film, the MCU introduces yet another supersoldier serum, Extremis (which is yet again tested on vulnerable, in this case disabled, soldiers), and in Agents of SHIELD it is combined with the Iron Man-like Deathlok technology to create supersoldiers whose free will is done away with through the simple expedient of putting bombs in their heads and threatening their loved ones.  By the season's end, John Garrett and Ian Quinn are offering to sell the US government an army of slaves, and no one in uniform seems to find this objectionable.[2]

One of the earliest subjects of the Cybertek/Centipede program that eventually produces Garrett's slave soldiers, Mike Peterson undeniably starts off on the supersoldier side of the divide.  What's more, his vulnerable position--he's an out-of-work factory worker and single parent struggling to make ends meet--makes his exploitation all the more obvious.  But something funny happens when Mike begins experiencing the effects of the Centipede serum--he insists on seeing himself as a superhero.  What other people might, quite reasonably, view as a traumatic, abusive experience, he reconfigures as an origin story (and not without justification, since almost all superhero origin stories are rooted in a traumatic and/or abusive event).  While everyone around him insists that Mike is simply the subject of an experiment--and an experiment that has failed to boot, of which Mike is simply a leftover--he persists in believing that the powers he's been given confer upon him the responsibility to act as a hero, and that the world will bend itself to accommodate this belief.

If this is sounding very familiar, it's because I've just described the plot of the first Captain America movie.  There is, however, one crucial difference between how the MCU treats Steve Rogers and Mike Peterson.  Steve Rogers is a failed supersoldier who insists that he is a superhero, and the narrative ultimately rewards him for this insistence.  The people around him recognize his innate heroism and flock to him, and he eventually amasses the moral authority to call out and topple the institutions that tried to deploy and control him.  Mike Peterson, on the other hand, is a failed supersoldier who insists that he is a superhero, and the narrative punishes him for it.  Throughout the SHIELD pilot, his conviction that he can be a hero is pathologized and treated as a symptom of his exploitation.  By the end of the episode, the Centipede serum has so compromised Mike's judgment and grasp of reality that his attempts to be heroic have taken an inexorable slide towards villainy (not to mention that unlike Cap's serum, his is inherently flawed and threatens to turn him into an unwitting explosive).  His heartbreaking speech to Coulson  at the pilot's end seems to suggest that he wants to be a hero not because of some powerful inner drive, but because to do so would alleviate his feelings of inadequacy as an ordinary man.

Steve Rogers is white.  Mike Peterson is black.

To be clear, there's room in the MCU for stories about people who are granted superpowers and don't know how to deal with them, and, in theory at least, a show like Agents of SHIELD is the perfect venue in which to explore such stories.  The First Avenger goes to great lengths to establish that what makes Steve a hero is not the supersoldier serum but the innate traits that he possessed even as a 90-pound weakling, and not possessing those traits--having, in fact, the same flaws as every other person in the world--is hardly a character defect.  But the choice to cast a black actor as Mike, and array against him a team made up completely of white and Asian[3] actors, has implications that the SHIELD pilot doesn't know how to deal with. There is in the pilot an undercurrent of awareness that Mike's feelings of inadequacy aren't unique to him, but are the product of a social and economic system that is implacably arrayed against men of his race and class--as stressed, for example, by his final placement against the mural "City of Dreams/River of History" in Los Angeles's Union Station. But the show is too caught up in its ideas of heroism and villainy to fully acknowledge that Mike's problem is systemic, not individual. That lack of context leads to Mike embodying the stereotype of an Angry Black Man, whose rage, though perhaps justified, is undirected and a danger to everyone around him (Mike is literally a bomb) and must be dealt with.

The episode's climax, in which Mike is shot in the head mid-sentence, after which the inspirational music swells and Coulson's team congratulate each other on a job well done, is hard to watch even when you know that the shot was from a stun gun.  It completes Mike's dehumanization, his transformation from a superhero, to a problem that needs to be dealt with, to a thing, who doesn't even merit the dignity of getting to complete a thought before being gunned down by a white man.[4]

The second time we meet Mike is in the tenth episode of the first season, "The Bridge," in which Coulson brings him in as a consultant to help take down Centipede.  In the interim, two things have become clear.  First, that the show desperately needs to get back to its central mythology, because as lukewarm as the pilot was, the standalone episodes that followed have been even worse.  And second, that the show has a serious problem with black people, whom it invariably depicts as evil, crazy, or the victims of evil and crazy people.  Mike Peterson's future as Garrett's slave has already been presaged through the character of Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), the only black SHIELD agent of any importance that we've seen in ten episodes, who has been coerced into committing murder and mayhem and ends the episode in prison.  Ruth Negga's Raina has been established as the season's first recurring villain, and the closest the show has come to a positive, self-directed black character is Ron Glass's Dr. Streiten, who had a few brief lines in the pilot.

So to begin with, Mike's return as a SHIELD agent feels like a welcome step in the right direction.  The revelation that his powers have been stabilized and that he's been recruited into SHIELD seems like a counterbalance to the profound problems of his handling in the pilot, a way of giving him the heroism he craved while allowing for his thoroughly human flaws.  But from the beginning, "The Bridge" seems to be working hard to make us feel that there is something wrong and unnatural about Mike's position, and that his newfound heroism can't last.  "Did I beat Captain America's score?" he brightly asks his training instructor when we first see him, reminding us of the parallel between the two characters; but the response is a derisive snort and a shake of the head.  No matter how badly he wants to, Mike still can't measure up.

When Mike arrives on the Bus, Coulson is quick to announce that this assignment is his second chance, and that "there won't be a third."  This is one of the scenes that cemented to me just how much I dislike Coulson in his Agents of SHIELD incarnation.[5]  It's perfectly natural for Mike to want to assure Coulson and the team that the behavior they saw in the pilot won't recur--in much the same way that someone who suffers from mental illness might want to reassure someone who has seen them at their worst that they can manage their condition.  But Coulson has no right to judge Mike, or to behave as if the events of the pilot were somehow his fault instead of something that was done to him.  The idea that Mike has squandered his first chance already has no basis in reality.

And yet "The Bridge" not only validates Coulson's attitude, it has Mike accept it almost cheerfully.  In fact, Mike's behavior is the most uncomfortable and disturbing thing about this episode.  His attitude towards Coulson and his team is discomfitingly subservient.  He's constantly flattering and talking up the white members of the team, happily telling Coulson, FitzSimmons, and Ward how they saved him back in the pilot (his relationship with Skye is more equitable and friendly, and he has no meaningful interactions with May).  He doesn't even seem to mind that he's expected to sleep on a mattress in a prison cell.  To be sure, the fact that Mike is so unnervingly happy and eager to please is meant to be uncomfortable, a deliberate choice on the part of the writers and the actor, but the purpose of those choices is to bring us back to the same conclusion reached by the pilot: that Mike's heroism is false, and unsustainable.

And indeed, as soon as Centipede grabs his son, Mike "fails" to be a hero by choosing to trade Coulson for him.  This a fairly classic dilemma that comic books like to place before their heroes--save the person you love, or do the right thing--and as always it is an unfair and inhuman choice that can only be resolved through writerly fiat.  It's notable, for example, that Captain America has never been faced with such a choice, and other superheroes usually manage to cheat their way out of it.[6]  The fact that Mike--one of only a few black superheroes in the MCU--is placed in such a position with no way of worming his way out of it except doing as his son's captors demand, says more about SHIELD's writers, and the role they want Mike to play, than it does about Mike himself.  When Mike, having rescued his son, immediately turns around and does the heroic thing by trying to rescue Coulson, his reward is to be blown up.  That ending--and the coda to the next episode, "The Magical Place," in which Mike is revealed not to have died but to have been forced into the first step towards becoming Deathlok--cements our realization that rather than counteracting the message of the pilot, the show is trying to reaffirm it: whenever Mike Peterson tries to be a hero, he is punished for it.

For very nearly all of his appearances until the end of the season, Mike Peterson recedes, and J. August Richards plays the character of Deathlok.  It's important to note that name change.  Deathlok is the name of the cybernetics project that eventually replaces a good half of Mike's body, and as we learn late in the season, Mike isn't even the first Deathlok.  And yet in "The End of the Beginning," it's Coulson's team who have begun referring to Mike by this name.  The people who know Mike better than any other SHIELD agents, who know that he is being coerced and how, and who know--assuming that Skye told them so after recovering from her shooting in "T.R.A.C.K.S," and why wouldn't she--that even within the confines of that coercion Mike is trying to fight back and to minimize the evil he does, are the very people who take away his name and give him the name of the machine that's turned him into a monster.  And because these people are our heroes and identification figures, they teach the audience how to see Mike--teach us, in other words, that Deathlok is what he is.

While the audience might feel more sympathetic towards Mike than the characters apparently do--and while the show does allow us to see, in his private moments, that Mike is suffering, as when he's forced to replace his own arm with a robotic substitute--whenever Mike interacts with SHIELD characters after "The Magical Place" he gets what can only be described as a villain edit.  Dramatic, scary music swells whenever he comes on screen, the characters react in horror when they see him ("How did you get past Deathlok?" Skye asks Coulson when he rescues her in "Nothing Personal."  "Deathlok is here?" is his fearful response), and Richards himself plays the character as if he were the Terminator.  We can assume that Mike is shutting down his emotions because he doesn't want to deal with what he's become and been made to do, but the fact remains that when he shows up on screen, the show wants us to be anxious and afraid.

What's interesting--and not a little disturbing--about the stretch of episodes in which Mike is Deathlok is how liberating that role is for him.  Gone is the loser weeping over his inability to be a hero, or the wannabe company man desperately eager for the (white) heroes' approval.  It's not just that becoming Deathlok gives Mike power (which he anyway already had before Raina and Garrett captured him).  It's that it seems to free him to talk back, to say no.  Being Deathlok puts Mike in the Hydra hierarchy, where for once, and even taking into account that he is effectively a slave, he isn't on the bottom rung.  This means that he can frustrate people like Quinn or Ward when they treat him like a tool or a robot, refusing to shoot Skye on Quinn's behalf because those aren't his orders, or belittling Ward's dismay over his tactic of stopping Ward's heart in order to coerce Skye into decrypting data that Garrett wants.  It means that he can demand answers, and a serious consideration, from Raina, rejecting her claim of solidarity with him by reminding her that she is responsible for the nightmare that his life has become.[7]

Perhaps most importantly, being Deathlok allows Mike to become the only character in the first season to throw it in the face of a member of Coulson's team that they have been enabling evil, and that they have no right to claim the moral authority of heroes.  When Skye tries to persuade Mike not to do Garrett's bidding in "Nothing Personal," he, for the first time since he met her or Coulson, rejects her right to judge him or suggest courses of action for him, reminding her that the position he's in is largely of her making: that he left his son in her care, and she blithely handed him over to Hydra.  In a season that expects us not to notice or care about the profound professional failure that Hydra represents for most of the SHIELD characters[8], Mike is the only person who gets to point out that maybe the people who failed so completely the first time around shouldn't be trusted with cleaning up the mess and starting over.

It's hard to know how to take this change in Mike's personality, the fact that he becomes indisputably cooler the moment he takes on the Deathlok moniker and role.  On the one hand, speaking uncomfortable truths to heroes and villains alike gives Mike a unique authority.  But on the other hand, our knowledge that he is himself a slave, and a murderer, undermines those truths.  Either way, every instance in which Mike acts as Deathlok and proceeds with more purpose and confidence than he ever did as a would-be hero reiterates the message of these mid-season episodes: Mike Peterson is most himself when he is being a villain.

Mike's final appearance (so far) is in the season finale, "The Beginning of the End."  His arc in this episode is clearly meant to be triumphant.  He gets to turn the tables on Garrett, who has begun to think of him as a tool rather than a person, an extension of his own will who has no views different than his own (in fairness, this is how Garrett thinks of everyone, and what, given the opportunity to mold an operative from a young age, he made Ward into).  As soon as Skye frees his son, Mike attacks an outraged, uncomprehending Garrett, stomping his face into the ground with his robotic leg.  And yet the show can't resist turning this into Coulson's moment, not Mike's.  "Mr. Peterson is free to do whatever he wants," he piously intones, as if to further underline a difference between himself and Garrett that should have been obvious, and which is anyway nothing to crow about--not enslaving people is surely the bare minimum of human decency, not something worthy of celebration.  And so instead of being a moment of triumph for Mike, his liberation becomes the story of how he was given his freedom by Coulson's team[9] (and, in fairness, Nick Fury, though the two men don't interact), neatly paralleling the season premiere (though at least he doesn't get shot this time).

Even worse is Mike's final scene, in which he refuses to reunite with his son.  Again, the fact that Mike feels guilt for his actions and wants to make amends is only natural, but just as in "The Bridge," he accepts the authority of Skye and the rest of Coulson's team to judge him.  He tells Skye that she can look through the camera that has replaced his eye to see that he will only be trying to do good, implicitly accepting that she has the right to spy on him just as Garrett did (it remains unspoken that Skye and Coulson will also have the power to detonate the bomb in Mike's head at any time).  Passing judgement on Skye, and rejecting the moral authority of SHIELD by pointing out the very obvious truth that it has been corrupt for nearly as long as it has existed, is something that Mike only gets to do when he's a villain (which obviously undermines those arguments).  To be a good guy, Mike Peterson has to accept the right of Coulson and his team to judge him.

In the Marvel comics, Deathlok (a title given to several characters, none of whom are named Mike Peterson) is alternately a victim, a villain, and a hero.  When given the freedom to choose, he usually fights alongside the Avengers.  The end of Mike Peterson's arc in the first season of Agents of SHIELD leaves open the possibility that he, too, will transition into a heroic role.  This does not absolve SHIELD of the problematic terms with which it's told Mike's story, nor of the way that it continues to treat him as subservient to Coulson and his team.  But at the end of the first season last spring, I felt at least some hope that, going forward, Mike's story would be a heroic one.

One of the reasons that this post became urgent to write, however, was a transcript I read a few weeks ago of Comic-Con interviews with Brett Dalton and J. August Richards.  Dalton talked about his hopes for a redemptive arc for Ward (he also expressed the belief that Ward did not kill his dog, which I'm hoping the show will prove him wrong about).  Richards talked about Mike's progression as a villain.  Now, I'm on record as calling Ward the only interesting character in Agents of SHIELD's main cast, and I can think of several ways in which a redemption arc for him could be interesting and successful (which is not to say that I trust the show to do so, but the thing is possible).  But even so, I find it mind-boggling that anyone could look at these two characters side by side, and call Mike the villain.  That someone involved with the show could do so is chilling.

As much as Skye is intended as Ward's parallel, Mike is too (once again, the pilot introduces all three characters in quick succession).  Part of the reason that the show is so eager to cast Mike in the Deathlok role in the post-"Bridge" episodes is that doing so makes it more ironic when Ward--who spends these episodes reacting in outrage to Mike's crimes--is revealed as the season's true villain.  And of course Ward and Mike are both Garrett's lackeys, the one acting under duress and eager to turn on his master at the first opportunity, and the other loyal to a self-abnegating degree, and past the point of reason.  But after the revelation of Ward's villainy, we'd expect the show to reposition Mike as a heroic or at least sympathetic figure.  Instead, he continues to be treated as a villain up until the moment that Coulson and Skye free him.  As the Comic-Con interviews suggest, that perception is not about to change.

Ward and Mike are both victims or abuse, whose ability to freely choose between right and wrong is compromised (albeit in very different ways; Ward is obviously deeply psychologically damaged, but no one forces him to do any of the evil things he does over the course of the first season, and he passes up many opportunities to make better choices that Mike doesn't get).  And yet we seem to be headed towards an absurd situation in which Ward is given a second chance with which to atone and turn his life around, while Mike is held responsible for his own victimization, treated like a villain for a combination of limited options, bad luck, and the crimes of others.

Grant Ward is white.  Mike Peterson is black.

[1] The first of the Marvel One Shots, "The Consultant," extends that story when it reveals that the military still believes in The Abomination's potential, insisting that he join the Avengers Initiative.

[2] Guardians of the Galaxy touches on the supersoldier theme obliquely through the characters of Rocket, Gamora, and Nebula, all of whom were remade against their will, in the latter two cases explicitly into a fearsome killers.  The Thor films don't address it at all, but when that series incurs into the world of Agents of SHIELD it's in ways that reflect on it: we learn that the Asgardians gave their soldiers weapons that could turn mild-mannered Peter MacNicol into a bloodthirsty killer; the sorceress Lorelai's power is to compel men to fight and die for her, and she mocks the supposedly free-willed Sif for obeying orders she doesn't agree with because they come from Odin--who is actually Loki in disguise.

[3] For all its problems with black characters, it's worth noting that SHIELD is unique in fielding not one but two Asian women in its main cast, and that some fans have read the show as commenting specifically on the Asian-American experience.  It seems reasonable to ascribe this to writer and producer Maurissa "Nobody's Asian in the Movies" Tancharoen, which is a valuable reminder of how much diversity and nuanced representation on-screen depend on the presence of diverse writers and producers behind the scenes.

[4] I haven't read the comic, but from the plot description it occurs to me that Mike's arc in the pilot has echoes of the limited series comic Truth: Red, White & Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, in which it's revealed that Cap's serum was originally tested, Tuskegee-like, on black servicemen, who were denied the chance to become superheroes far more definitively than Steve Rogers. The comic, however, ends with Steve acknowledging Isiah Bradley's right to the title of Captain America, and Marvel continuity routinely refers to Bradley as the first to hold it.

[5] Not helping matters is the fact that "The Bridge" is also the episode in which Coulson explains to Ward that "every woman is a mystery."  Grrr.

[6] See, for example, Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, when he sends the remote-controlled armor to save the imperiled President while jetting off himself to rescue Pepper.

[7] It's interesting to note the differences in how Mike relates to people in his Deathlok guise.  With white men like Garrett, Quinn, and Ward, he is a blank-faced automaton, following orders but refusing to engage them emotionally or to be sucked into their personal drama.  He only engages with people (women) of color, like Skye and Raina, even if it's only to accuse them and call them out for their hypocrisy.

[8] See, for example, the opening scene of "Nothing Personal," in which Cobie Smulders's Maria Hill airily complains about being made to testify before Congress about SHIELD's activities and Hydra's infiltration of it.  It's a scene that's meant to make Hill look cool, as she compares Congress to children who can't cope with the realities of the situation.  But try mentally replacing Smulders with a  middle aged male bank executive circa 2009, and then tell me if her contempt for elected officials and inability to accept that she might be called to account for her mistakes are still charming and admirable.

[9] By this point, the team has been joined by B.J. Britt's Antoine Triplett, who feels like a deliberate (and desperately needed) response to the widely publicized criticisms of the show's depiction of black characters. While it's obviously significant that Ward (with his "Hitler youth" looks) is replaced by a black man, Trip also stands in stark contrast to Mike--he is SHIELD royalty, a legacy of Captain America's original integrated team, and seems to possess the effortless heroism that Mike lacks. I'm not quite certain where the show is going with that contrast, or with the character of Trip in general.

Monday, September 15, 2014

All Change

It seems like only yesterday that I was announcing on this blog my new position as Strange Horizons reviews editor.  That day, however, was nearly four years ago, and in that time I've worked with incredible people and helped bring fantastic, thought-provoking, necessary criticism into the conversation about genre.  It's been a privilege, and an enormously rewarding experience (not least in the form of two Hugo nominations), and I'm extremely grateful for it.  Four years, however, is a long time, and as editor in chief Niall Harrison announced today in an editorial, I will be stepping down from the position of reviews editor at the end of the year.

So first, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the reviewers I've worked with in the last four years, the department's contact managers, Donna Denn, Dan Hartland, and Tim Moore, the Strange Horizons proofreaders, and last but not least the readers and commenters who reminded us every week how vibrant and passionate (if, sometimes, a little too vibrant and passionate) the community of genre fans and readers are.  (We are working on getting comments back on reviews and the blog, and I'm hopeful that before I step down this will have been achieved.)

Second, I want to welcome and wish the best of luck to the new reviews team: senior editor Maureen Kincaid Speller, and editors Aishwarya Subramanian and Dan Hartland.  Those of you who read the magazine will recognize all three from their reviews for the department (as well as their own blogs), and will join me in feeling certain that I'm leaving it in more than capable hands.  I'll be working with all three to hand over the department until the end of the year, and I'm very excited to see what they bring us.

Third, we are still working to staff up the department.  Along with Niall's editorial, we've published a call for a media reviews editor, to handle reviews of film, TV, games, and other media.  This is a subject that's been handled ad-hoc for most of the department's lifetime, and it feels like more than time to have someone focusing on it full-time.  In addition, at the Strange Horizons blog Niall has published a call for new reviewers.  If you're interested in writing for the Strange Horizons reviews department, drop us a line--more details about what we're looking for and how to contact us are at the link.  We are, in particular, looking to increase the diversity of our reviewing body, and will be glad to hear from women, PoCs, LGBTQ people, and other under-represented groups.

Fourth and finally, what's next for me?  There are a few projects I'm working on that I hope to be able to tell you more about in the coming months, and of course I always want to get more writing done on this blog, and will hopefully have more time to do that now.  But reviews editor or not, I am still--as I have been for almost as long as I've been writing online--a Strange Horizons reviewer, and you'll be seeing my work, and that of so many other smart and talented people, in that magazine for, I hope, some time to come.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Three things you will probably have heard by now about Lucy, Luc Besson's latest film and his first foray back into proper, no-holds-barred science fiction since The Fifth Element.  One, that the film's success demonstrates the viability of a female-led action/SF movie, and cements Scarlett Johansson's position as the reigning queen of filmed SF (or at the very least co-reigning queen, along with Zoe Saldana).  Two, that its handling of race, and particularly of its Asian characters, whom it depicts almost uniformly as violent drug dealers who menace and threaten to rape its innocent white heroine, is irredeemable.  And three, that it unwisely nails its colors to the mast of the "humans only use 10% of their brains" meme, despite the fact that no one buys into it any more and that most SF fans would find it an extremely annoying strain on their suspension of disbelief.  These things are all true and worth talking about, but what I find interesting about Lucy--which is not, I hasten to point out, a good film in any sense of the word, but which depending on your personal tolerance for that sort of thing might be called entertainingly weird--is how its effective and extremely misleading marketing campaign leads you to expect something very different than the film actually delivers.  Most people, I imagine, will go into Lucy expecting a superhero film, when in fact it is quite the opposite--an anti-superhero movie.

An American student in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is coerced by her shifty boyfriend into delivering a locked case to his employer, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi, who manages to convey an amusing, low-key sense of menace despite speaking solely in untranslated Korean).  Things quickly go south, and Lucy finds herself dragooned into couriering a packet of a new designer drug, PCH4, which has been sewn into her stomach.  Instead of being ferried to the airport, however, Lucy finds herself in the hands of another group of thugs (it's never made clear what happened here, though we can assume that one of Jang's cronies double-crossed him) who attack her when she resists their pawing advances, rupturing the drug packet.  The resulting overdose inadvertently proves the theories of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) that if humans could learn to use more of their brains, we would gain control over our bodies, over the bodies of other people, and finally over matter itself.  The rest of the film is broken up by title screens announcing that Lucy is has now reached 20% brain capacity, 50%, etc., as her abilities develop according to Norman's timeline and she draws closer to the elusive 100%. (Though much has been made of the annoyance of a movie so dedicated to this canard, the unscientific moment that I found truly frustrating was a scene in which Norman is questioned about his predictions of what each usage level would enable, admits that they are only a theory, and then compares them to the theory of evolution, ignoring the fact that Newton Darwin was theorizing based on observed data, whereas his theory is mere guesswork.)

In the scenes immediately following the overdose, the film seems to be following the familiar template of a superhero story, in which an experience that should be horrifically traumatic or even fatal instead imbues our hero or heroine with special powers and allows them to take control of their world.  Lucy wastes little time in dispatching her captors and freeing herself, and quickly makes plans to remove the leaking drug packet from her body and figure out what has happened to her.  But what almost immediately becomes clear is that if Lucy is a superhero, it is along the lines of Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan.  Unlocking the unused parts of her brain has made Lucy so much bigger than ordinary people that she has become essentially inhuman, and perhaps monstrous.  Much has been made of a scene in which Lucy cavalierly but non-fatally shoots an innocent Taiwanese taxi driver because he doesn't speak English and can't take her where she wants to go, but there's been surprisingly little discussion of a scene immediately following, in which Lucy forces her way into a hospital operating room and kills the patient on the table (because she's glanced at his tests and concluded that he was going to die anyway) so that the doctors can operate on her.  (If you really want to, you can use scenes like this to try to justify the film's racism by claiming that it is Lucy who is indifferent to these deaths, not the movie.  This, however, is clearly not Besson's intention, and anyway does not explain why the film's villains are exclusively Asian, or why even post-overdose Lucy is able to relate to white, American women like her mother, or the roommate whom she diagnoses with kidney failure and gives medical advice to.)

Watching the film, I was surprised to recall reviews of it in which the pre-overdose Lucy is referred to as an unintelligent party girl.  In fact, Lucy is a painfully ordinary but hardly reckless or stupid person.  She seems to be someone who is enjoying the party life while abroad but who also recognizes its limits.  In the opening scene, she's seen explaining to her boyfriend that she has to go home and study, and never even considers delivering the case for him until he forces her to do it by handcuffing it to her wrist.  Her reactions to falling into the clutches of dangerous criminals are disarmingly human and believable, with just a enough of a hint of courage to make us root for her to triumph.  When she's being driven to what she thinks is the airport, we get to hear Lucy's internal monologue, as she tries to reassure herself that she is still alive and might yet survive this ordeal.  That person--the very human, flawed young girl who made some bad judgment calls but ultimately was just in the wrong place at the wrong time--disappears after the overdose, and the film seems to be arguing that far from being transformed into a heroine, she has effectively died.  Johansson's flat, emotionless affect after the overdose seems designed to convey that Lucy is a completely different person who is quickly losing touch with who she used to be.  In the film's most affecting scene, she calls her mother from the hospital as the drug packet is removed, and while there are hints in their conversation of the girl Lucy used to be, they are filtered through her growing strangeness--she explains that she can remember her whole life, including suckling from her mother as a baby--and it's clear that she is calling to say goodbye, while she still has enough human left in her to be able to relate to her parents.

The rest of the film seems, deliberately or not (and I confess that I lean towards the "not" reading) to be trying to disassemble some of the tropes of the superhero origin story.  Every moment that we might expect to be triumphant and badass is instead realigned to highlight Lucy's growing strangeness and inhumanity.  When she returns to Jang's hotel room from a position of strength, it's not to wreak righteous vengeance, but because she wants information about where the other couriers carrying PCH4 have been sent.  She seems largely indifferent to the suffering she causes Jang, musing that she now realizes that the things that made her who she was were in fact "obstacles" to achieving her true potential.  A car chase scene in Paris might have been expected to be fun and pulse-pounding, but instead it continues the film's theme of depicting Lucy as indifferent to collateral damage, and when the policeman accompanying her (Amr Waked, whose character is positioned as Lucy's tether to humanity but is so underserved by the script that he ends up feeling like an afterthought) warns that she's going to get both of them killed, Lucy merely intones that "we never really die."  Perhaps the most egregious example of how indifferent Lucy--and perhaps also the film--is to the conventions of the action movie is a scene in which she squares off against dozens of Jang's henchmen, and instead of fighting them simply causes them to float to the ceiling, walking past them as if they weren't even there.

The problem with all this--and the reason that Lucy ends up as more an interesting failure than a watchable film--is that it isn't a story.  Besson has an interesting premise, and an actress who can carry it (it's interesting to note how much of Johansson's bid for major Hollywood stardom in the last year has depended on playing in- or post-human women, and how successful that tactic has been), but he doesn't have a plot.  Though the film makes much of Lucy's progression towards using 100% of her brain, the fact remains that from the moment she hits 20%, she's effectively unstoppable, so that none of the film's action movie tropes have real resonance.  And though, as I've said, it's interesting that the film undermines so many tropes of superhero movies, its ideas of what to replace them with are limited and not very compelling.  Lucy manages to skate past the common Hollywood pitfall of depicting the super-intelligent as unemotional and lacking in sympathy--her disconnect from humanity comes not from accelerated intelligence but from her massively broadened perspective, and she's clearly still affected by the realization that the drugs in her system will inevitably kill her, and by the question of how to leave something behind that will allow humanity to learn from her experiences.  But in trying to depict what it means to be posthuman, Besson falls back on clichés--from the cutaways to nature documentaries that parallel Lucy's situation in the early parts of the film, to scenes late in the story in which she travels in time, meeting dinosaurs and early hominids.  Even worse is the cod-philosophy that Lucy spouts as she tries to explain her new worldview.  While obviously Besson couldn't have been expected to truly articulate what it's like to be posthuman, the fact that he tries, in lieu of delivering an actual story, is a major flaw in the film--as is the fact that he keeps Jang, and his plot to kill Lucy, around long past the point where he ceases to be an actual threat.  Lucy is short enough (89 minutes) that its forays into weirdness as it attempts to articulate how big Lucy has become don't have time to outstay their welcome, but the film's ending still comes as a bit of a relief.

Much like Johansson's earlier Her, Lucy is interesting less for its story and characters and more for the world it suggests but has no interest in exploring--a world in which posthumanism has been unlocked, in which anyone can take a drug that gives them superhuman powers while robbing them of their humanity, and in which people who have unlocked their full potential effectively become gods who can now interfere with ordinary human life in whatever way they like.  It's a shame that Besson can come close to recognizing the true implications of his story only to fall back on action movie clichés and meaningless philosophical ramblings (and an even greater shame that he was unable to tell his story without resorting to easily avoidable racism).  Still, while I can't exactly recommend Lucy--your enjoyment of it will largely depend on your tolerance for pointless weirdness, and on how much you feel that Scarlett Johansson playing a woman with superpowers compensates for that weirdness--I am glad that it was made.  If only as a reminder of how ideas about SF and posthumanism, no matter how simplified and unscientific, are percolating into popular culture, and as a promise that perhaps, some day, someone will make an SF film worth of those ideas, and of Johansson's talents.