Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes
(This essay is #5 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)
With all the griping at the beginning of Agents of SHIELD about the underdeveloped original characters, the series learned its lesson and introduced three agents adapted from the comic book canon for season 2. All three are presented so effectively that I adored them instantly. This in contrast to the disaster of a first season where I still didn’t care for some of the characters by the end. Two things are in play here: the first is that Hunter, Mack, and Bobbi are fully developed when initially presented to us and even have their own history and business together separate from the main narrative. The second is that all three are introduced by treating our old friends kindly, helping, or saving them.
This is less an essay and more a collection of brief character analyses, but I love the new kids so much that they definitely qualify as one of the reasons I adore Agents of SHIELD on the whole. Trying to articulate just what I love about their personalities results in some nebulous commentary, so bear with me.
If ever there was a personification of the voice of reason, it’s Mack. Mack is not afraid to call it like he sees it. Even if what he has to say is difficult and most people would tactfully lie, Mack dishes truth. He has a highly developed sense of personal integrity that he refuses to compromise for any person or cause. He would rather leave SHIELD than serve under a man who he doesn’t feel he can trust. That said, he does make compromises. Of all the characters, Mack is the most open to outside input and advice. He doesn’t simply hulk around dealing wisdom. Mack is also capable of self-examination and self-evaluation in the way that someone like monomaniac Hunter or over-zealous Coulson can’t be. He’s also more physically imposing than anyone else on the series, including Grant Ward and a few of the minor villains like Creel. And yet he has a stated distaste for violence and only resorts to it in extremely dire circumstances.
So, I’m a little crazy. I do know this. Basically, Fitz and Simmons have now replaced my actual heart and anybody protecting them is keeping the little candle flame from snuffing out. I feel like Mack and Bobbi in particular are the big, warm shields that keep these especially vulnerable jerkheads somewhat safe. Fitz had completely self-isolated, but Mack took pains to not only befriend him, but help him where he was at. Introducing a new character by having him be sweet as hell to a beloved character in pain is almost cheating.
Mack during other-SHIELD’s infiltration of SHIELD is a particularly revealing moment. The whole sequence positions Mack as the direct inverse of Grant Ward. Mack betrayed SHIELD and looked as if he was trying to hurt people that Fitz loved. But when Fitz was in danger, Mack put himself in harm’s way to save him. So many shows—in fact most shows that I watch—have a trust-no-one mentality. For example, Orphan Black is tedious because literally every character is going to betray the clones. Every single one. It’s not remotely suspenseful anymore. Mack’s trustworthiness, even during his betrayal of our main team, isn’t just an endearing character detail: it emphasizes that Agents of SHIELD isn’t a one-trick pony. Grievously betrayed by a dear friend once before, Fitz (and the audience) can have a little faith in humanity restored.
If you didn’t love Mack before, it’s impossible to ignore him after the Inhumans infiltrate the SHIELD ship. Mack single-handedly keeps Gordon from killing pretty much everyone on-board essentially because he is the only one left who can. He had already quit SHIELD because he couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to work under Coulson. Yet he’s willing to fight to the death to protect everyone from harm. It’s one thing to have characters who adhere to moral righteousness at all times, no matter the consequence and no matter the situation. It’s another to have characters like Mack who are conflicted about hard choices but always manage to do the honorable thing, even when it hurts them.
The first half of season three was wasting Mack. Where his primary relationship in season 2 was with Fitz, I think he spoke to Fitz all of twice over the first ten episodes. We never got to see him transition from mechanic to wing-man. We never got to see him make friends with Skye. Mack just appeared quite suddenly in another role entirely, with another circle, and new relationships. He never got to play his old part as straight-talker or display his deep personal integrity. Not until Coulson made Mack director of SHIELD. Mack, in that like ¾s of an episode, was my favorite director of SHIELD to date. The amount of time he got in the role was minuscule, but it almost made up for the rest of the season completely wasting him. Mack asks for input, he makes tough calls, and he holds the entire operation together with a rational but compassionate hand. Mack dearly loves all the players on the board, but he’s also capable of keeping the institutional goal in mind where Coulson never can. Mack is a strategist and a pragmatist where Fury is first and foremost a spy and Coulson is something of a powderkeg. It’s not only Mack’s perspective that makes him such an ideal leader, it’s his willingness to listen.
Actual Triple Agent Bobbi Morse
If I needed saving, it’s Bobbi I’d want to see charging in for the rescue. Even over Natasha. Even over May. She is hands-down my favorite SHIELD Specialist. Where to even begin with the glory of Bobbi Morse? First off, when we meet her, she is literally a triple agent. She’s undercover at Hydra for Coulson, who she’s working for as part of another undercover operation with Other-SHIELD. Damn girl! Quadruple instant bonus points: she’s introduced to us by saving Simmons from certain death in Hydra. I fell harder for Bobbi faster than I did for Mack, though by a very small margin.
Bobbi doesn’t even bother playing the obfuscating femininity card like Natasha and Dottie Underwood. She owns her sexuality without being defined by it, and she never uses it as a weapon. Bobbi never wilts or fawns towards men. She relies on her status as an expert in any and every field she adopts. Bobbi is a superb interrogator and spy because she is good at reading emotion and relationships. It’s not that she is beyond emotion (May), or that she manipulations emotion (Natasha)—she uses emotion as a barometer to gauge situations while still allowing herself to indulge in feelings. She is the most demonstrative FitzSimmons shipper in-universe (though Clark Gregg takes the title in our world), and is the only person who will confront emotional-dunce Simmons about her feelings. Not even Fitz will do that. Bobbi’s own relationships are volatile and based in danger, secrecy, and adrenaline. But rather than closing off, she experiences emotion more strongly because of it.
It only makes Bobbi doubly wonderful that she’s, in truth, spying on Coulson for Gonzalez’ SHIELD. It’s proven multiple times that Bobbi is an elite super-spy. The thing about Bobbi is she’s also easily affected by the people on her missions. She doesn’t close off or lie to them the way Ward would have. Bobbi loves Simmons. By the end of the second season to my mind Bobbi and Simmons are closer than Simmons and Skye. Bobbi respects Coulson. She believes he is misguided so she has the integrity to go through with the plan to bring him down anyway. Bobbi meets Hunter on a mission to steal intelligence from him. The emotion is real, but she “still got the intel.” There’s something delicious in a character who is so good at her job while remaining so accessible and complex. She and Mack are a good matched set to bring onto Agents of SHIELD, not just because they’re colluding together, but because they stick to their convictions even when they know it will hurt their relationships with their friends. It’s of note that they befriend Fitz and Simmons in particular who were most harmed by Ward’s betrayal, because Mack and Bobbi also betray them only with less sinister intentions. The rift between the four is very easily healed.
Bobbi also never needs saving. True, neither does May, but Bobbi is a much more defined and present character than May. Bobbi is flashier, but in a way that spells self-control rather than recklessness. Bobbi is not a distressed damsel, and even injured she is capable of holding her own. In the third season, with a jacked up knee and missing part of a lung, she has to rely more on strategy than brute strength. But, as she tells Hunter, she doesn’t need a knight in shining armor. Bobbi is one of the few people who is a true match for Grant Ward, and Ward knows it. He fixates on Bobbi as much as he fixates on anyone, simply because his fight with her was a challenge. She’s not just a physical match, she sees straight through the layers of bullshit he’s accumulated around himself. Her spycraft, even more than her battle prowess, is where they are truly matched. I can’t quite find the words to express Bobbi Morse. It’s as if a clever Buffy Summers were the supporting character instead of the Chosen One. She does her job, but not blindly. Bobbi is always running her orders against what she knows to be the right thing.
I have two character types that will slay me where I sit: Research-y Nerd and Flippant Bruiser Knight in Sour Armor. The ideal examples for the first are Fitz and Simmons. (Seriously. Ideal.) The best example of the second is Supernatural‘s Dean Winchester. Someone who ends up a combination of both is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on Angel: The Series (and yes, I love him accordingly.) Lance Hunter pretty much immediately set off all my jerkass warrior alarms.
Hunter is something that Agents of SHIELD desperately needed. He’s a cynical snarker, and his outsider perspective allows him to comment on the absurdity of SHIELD’s institutional structure. Hunter as a source of internal criticism is crucial for keeping the series grounded, particularly once lead character Coulson becomes the director of SHIELD. Hunter is unafraid of telling Coulson or anyone else when they’re being unreasonable, stupid, or self-pitying. Probably the best assessment of Hunter’s utility to this narrative is when Coulson recruits him as a person “willing to step over the line. To do the wrong thing for the right reason.” It would be easy for Agents of SHIELD to get caught up in institutional logistics and proselytizing moral purity. Hunter calls bullshit and takes shortcuts that are completely logical but not entirely above-board. He also makes incredibly emotional decisions, like gunning for Ward even when Andrew is in danger because—on Hunter’s scales—taking out Ward is a good that would outweigh Andrew’s death.
Characters like Hunter tend to be minor antagonists (think Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), so his charm is crucial for keeping him out of unrepentant asshole territory. He is probably best epitomized by the Jerk with a Heart of Gold and The Lancer tropes (haha, Lance Hunter, haha.) He manages to play the role of bitchy best friend for Fitz even before Fitz needs a bitchy best friend. If I could have loved him any more than I already did, his utter delight when Fitz gets Simmons back at the beginning of the third season would have skyrocketed him into my heart. I came very close to quitting Agents of SHIELD in disgust in the first half of season 3 but Hunter’s desperate, angry recklessness is what drew me back in. Hunter’s self-aggrandizing humor is particularly endearing once it’s clear his womanizing is all a front to cover up how hung-up he is on Bobbi.
My favorite thing about Hunter is that he is completely defined by his relationship with Bobbi. Usually, it’s women in media who are defined by their relationships with men. From the beginning, the only thing Hunter can talk about is his terrible ex-wife. Every opportunity to bring her up, he does. Every offhand remark is some reference back to this awful woman. When we finally meet Bobbi, the fixation only deepens, combined with sniping and banter. Bobbi remains a completely independent individual with her own agendas, friendships, and interests. It’s Hunter who revolves around her like a moon in her orbit. Even Hunter’s staying with and eventually joining SHIELD is almost to spite Bobbi in her lies/refusal to run away with him. Yes, Hunter’s unpredictability, battle pragmatism, and outsider perspective all make him a charming snarker, but it’s the complete preoccupation with Bobbi that gives him that extra dimension and makes him something other than a mannequin from the archetype box. Seriously, Hunter is like the inverse of a failed Bechdel test—rarely does he ever talk to a man about anything other than a woman.
Additionally, Hunter and Bobbi are the comedic antidote to Fitz and Simmons’ romantic troubles. Agents of SHIELD staunchly rejected soap operatics until season 3. The only thing even approaching a romance was Fitz and Simmons’ unspoken devotion to each other. At the beginning of the second season FitzSimmons were swathed in angst. Bobbi and Hunter’s dysfunctional relationship keeps everything from devolving into melodrama. Even at the end of the second season when Ward uses their affection against them they always manage to keep it contained somehow, rather than spilling over into high-drama territory.
All Together Now
Individually, Bobbie, Hunter, and Mack are each fabulous. What really makes them an enriching addition to Agents of SHIELD is that all three of them have history. Hunter and Bobbi have their tempestuous relationship. Mack and Hunter have their weird friendship. And Mack and Bobbi have their time in the trenches and shared covert operation. That all three are not only friends when introduced to us, but that their pasts are simply accepted rather than teased as enormous mysteries makes their sudden drop into the story feel organic rather than stilted. Instead of generating a completely new narrative, it feels like whatever story Bobbi, Mack, and Hunter have lived just happens to coincide with the story we’re currently watching. This is achieved primarily through brief references, cast chemistry, and copious Noodle Incidents. It’s smooth in a way the first season could only dream of being.
Bobbi, Mack, and Hunter make the world of Agents of SHIELD seem fuller. They bring their own drama without derailing anything that was already there. They ingratiate themselves with the audience instantly by befriending, rescuing, and generally protecting the series’ most vulnerable characters. They derive from the comic book canon so they doubly have source material to pull from and shut up the comic book nerds’ complaints. And, primarily, all three of them kick major ass without having to lampshade how awesome or mysterious they are at every turn. I love all three of my new kids. They are largely responsible for making Agents of SHIELD such a delight to watch.