Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes
Tonight is the finale of this disaster of a season on Agents of SHIELD (and yes I’ll do a postmortem) but what I want to talk about right now is character integrity and the way both Agents of SHIELD and Person of Interest handled disappearances/returns of major characters. Agents of SHIELD‘s “4,722 Hours” was like the epitome of what not to do while Person of Interest‘s “6,741” was ideal.
The premises here are largely the same. A stolid lady is taken from her friends and allies and is presumed to be in grave peril. In both cases, said lady is tentatively engaged in an unconventional romance which enhances but in no way defines her character. Both Simmons and Shaw express to their respective lovers that they reciprocate their feelings just as they are separated. Person of Interest allows Shaw to retain her agency, inhabit her space, and reaffirm her character. Agents of SHIELD, by contrast, robs Simmons of her agency, papers over her character, and forces her to emotionally contort exclusively for the sake of manufactured romantic conflict. 1 More than that, AoS takes a fully-realized character who rejects traditional gender roles and defines her exclusively by her womanhood and normative expectation where PoI eschews normativity altogether.
First, it’s useful to address why each character was missing. Simmons was swallowed by a mysterious monolith as the S2 finale shocker ostensibly to provide drama over the season hiatus. Shaw went out in a blaze of glory mid-S4 saving all of her friends in a shootout because actress Sarah Shahi needed a break for her pregnancy. Usually when characters are written out to accommodate an actress’s pregnancy, shows opt for reductive stories about bodily autonomy, gender, agency, etc. Ironically, it’s Agents of SHIELD that drops the ball on that one. Both Shaw’s exit and return in that regard are perfectly in character and not influenced by the actress’s life circumstances at all.
Second, the treatment of gender in both series is notable in that they largely ignore gender as a reductive or defining factor in anyone’s character or storyline. One of the major problems with Agents of SHIELD‘s third season is that, in providing the most “shocking” twists possible, the first half of the season ended up making forcibly normative and disappointingly predictable choices. I’d spent a year and a half evangelizing about how smart, nuanced, and trope-busting the series was. It took a lot of introspection to realize that was no longer true, and that possibly everything they’d been doing throughout the second season was a complete accident. I’ll get into that more once I have the whole season in my brain.
The difference between Agents of SHIELD and Person of Interest here is that PoI deliberately and intentionally has set out to undermine gendered expectations from the beginning. Even when it was largely a case-of-the-week cop show the cases went out of their way to subvert gender norms and to emphasize that femininity does not equal victimization. Women were everything from perpetrators of felonies to victims of extortion and the fact that they were women was never a defining factor in their story. On top of the cases-of-the-week, Carter, Root, Shaw, and even Zoe Morgan are all well-rounded characters who happen to be women, rather than female characters. That is to say: they are never defined or limited by the fact that they are female. Even motherhood—the ultimate trope used to sanctify and define a woman—is used as an element of Carter’s character rather than her defining singular drive. When the characters use femininity to their advantage, it’s always in a self-aware way that acknowledges the absurdity of the social system that can be gamed in such a way.
Now, the underlying situations on Person of Interest and Agents of SHIELD are different. Simmons disappeared for dramatic potential, while Shaw went missing out of logistical necessity. But the way they’ve treated both of them is also startling in that it’s the inverse of what one might expect. Whereas each situation required an examination of traumatic events, AoS approaches the issue from a larger plot-centric perspective (i.e. “what would make the most drama?”) while PoI gives close attention to it’s character’s experience. Even the names of both episodes suggest the cataloging and quantification of trauma into discrete, survivable units. Unfortunately one follows through on that promise way better than the other.
When Shaw disappeared, I just hoped she’d be back eventually. But I was both excited and terrified when Simmons disappeared. Excited because I trusted Agents of SHIELD and just knew they’d give me an amazing story about trauma, resilience, and intelligence. Simmons and Ward are the two characters on the show with the most variable characterization, with opinions and behaviors that change with the wind depending on how much internal conflict the series needs in any given moment. Literally every character save Simmons and Ward had gotten to not just experience a major trauma but to process it, move through it, and significantly develop because of it. By the end of the second season, Simmons had arguably experienced at least three highly traumatic events and never been allowed to process any of them. This would be her moment, I thought! Finally, she’d get to express all that strength and integrity. On the flip side, I was terrified because anytime a female character is abducted (and it was an abduction) the default “trauma” that she experiences usually involves being impregnated, whether by “love,” mystical means, or rape is basically immaterial. A woman stolen is a woman with a filled womb. Given her relationship with Fitz, my terror scenario was that they’d send her away to “fall in love” and have a family with some other man because forcible obligations generate drama. “They’ll never do that,” I mumbled to myself. “This is Agents of SHIELD, they know better.” HA. HAHAHAHA. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
The underlying issue here is being psychologically and emotionally true to your characters. As someone who continues to experience the ongoing effects of long-term major trauma, I adore when stories explore the interiority of characters in a nuanced way. My current theory is that everyone is a little screwed up, but seeing a character you identify with work through their trauma can help you to cope with your own. It’s healing-by-proxy. Fiction is an empathetic surrogate for your own issues. That’s why all the characters need to be emotionally resonant, why they have to exhibit a defined integrity, and why they need to behave consistently with their values even as they grow. Fiction teaches us and reassures us that most human experience is universal. We’re not alone, no matter what craziness we’ve endured. We live vicariously through the characters and in so doing we learn about ourselves. This is the difference between a story that works and one that doesn’t. Even to a pedantic policer of world-building like me, sometimes the emotional notes of a story make up for any holes in the logistics. 2
So, my issue here is that Simmons’ disappearance was used exclusively to manufacture melodrama without concern for her character or experience, while Shaw’s is used to actively demonstrate her tenacity, integrity, and emotional life. Simmons is placed in a literal romance novel scenario, stranded alone on a planet with a kind, sexy man in a narrative that cannot imagine any other choice than that she fall in love with him. This is made all the more mystifying given that the series repeatedly demonstrated her emotional hangups and inability to read social cues. There is literally no character in anything less suited to being cast in a romance novel setup. Even as a demonstration that nothing could come between Fitz and Simmons’ love (which, gag me) it’s lacking given that they’d already demonstrated that with Trip (who the series forgot basically the second he died.) Any future dramatic potential was doubly destroyed when Will was killed at the winter hiatus. They introduced a character for literally twenty minutes whose entire purpose was to be a romantic monkey wrench for the series’ most compelling relationship. Okay.
To Agents of SHIELD‘s credit, they hit the abort button on that plotline pretty damn fast when they figured out it completely destroyed what made Fitz and Simmons so enjoyable, unique, and the best part of the show. To their detriment, they didn’t understand how the hell their relationship worked in the first place which is mind-boggling considering how they had nailed every note for two years. And I’m picky about Fitz and Simmons. (For my ongoing adulations about them, click here.)
What I wanted from “4,722 Hours” was not a story where Simmons is acted upon by an environmental factor (i.e. one where she goes off and has a vacation with a sexy man) but one where she could demonstrate her own individual resilience. Where she could survive through her own mental and emotional strength. Where she experienced adversity and came out the other side a little chewed up but intact. I had theories during the first four episodes where she had found some sort of antidote to the terrigen on the planet and that’s why she needed to return. Perhaps, even, that she was so overwhelmed by trauma and internalizing self-defeat that she couldn’t deal with being around people and accepting their love. I tried not to entertain the obvious vomitous claptrap that she had an extraterrestrial lover who kept her alive. Simmons’ resilience, her hope, her safe place needed to be her own. She still hasn’t had a story of her own in that way. It needed to be in her friends, and her self, and her trust in her own abilities (and in Fitz.) The last thing it needed to be was in a traditional heteronormative romance. 3 Hell, even having the same story but without the romantic element would have been decent. The obligation would have still been there, but it would have felt more integral to her character and less hollowly selfish. Romance is rarely called for.
Enter Sameen Shaw. Already, we’ve thrown the “heteronormative” part out the window since her romance is with female amoral hacker Root. Root had hit on Shaw basically since the moment they met, but Shaw had always deflected her advances until she planted a kiss on Root’s lips before going out in a blaze of glory in season 4 to save the whole team. Shaw is a moral psychopath with muted feelings and no moral compass but who allows protagonists Harold and co. to be her moral compass because she recognizes they’re altruism. I tend to like characters who are either repressed or just have trouble with emotion generally so I always adored Shaw. It’s not that she can’t feel or that emotions are bad, but that they register at a different level for her. The implication after her disappearance is that the evil AI Samaritan is holding her captive, torturing her, swaying her to its side as a soldier etc. “6,741,” rather than reducing Shaw to an object who is acted upon and used for melodrama against her protagonist friends, forcibly insists upon Shaw’s agency.
What really puts the punctuation mark on the episode is that the entire thing takes place in Shaw’s head. She’s actively resisted 6,741 attempts to torture information out of her brain. She has sought refuge in Root 6,741 times. Root is her safe place from the psychological onslaught. Shaw directly says that. Her emotional life is consistent, respected, and championed as the central aspect of the episode rather than hand-waved away. Shaw is a stoic cynical character, and going directly into her mind to demonstrate her true feelings is ideal. It prevents her from breaking character but expresses her love in a declarative way. Shaw is tenacious, unbreakable, and a fighter. She experiences and re-experiences traumas, doubts her own perceptions, and fights to get free and get home. She is brainwashed, gaslighted about being brainwashed, and literally tortured and yet she keeps her integrity and keeps fighting. That core element of her identity is safe. That she loves Root and holds onto that love is what keeps her whole. She is psychologically resilient. Shaw cannot be broken, and in allowing her that triumph of selfhood, the episode is deeply satisfying. If Shaw can love, if Shaw can endure, if Shaw can stay intact even in the face of such an overwhelming assault then I can do it too. Any of us can.
So here’s the ultimate point: after”4,722 Hours” I was ill. Truly ill. I was trembling, couldn’t sleep, had fevers and chills, and ended up committed to a mental institution for six days for suicidal ideation. Admittedly, there were other things going on in my life, but Simmons was my go-to girl. She was powerful, composed, and resilient in ways that I couldn’t be. The best version of me. Agents of SHIELD ripped that stable identity away from me when I had nothing else in my life to hang on to. They cared nothing for Simmons herself, only the level of melodrama they could press from the situation. After “6,741” I slept for a solid ten hours (and I’ve been sleeping about four lately), have been grinning all day, and feel at peace. That’s how you reaffirm a character. That’s how you maintain a defiant and contained identity. That’s how you do right by your characters. Shaw, in even being allowed her space to defy, to resist, to exist, truly becomes the kind of savior that Simmons should have been.
1 Presumably, the powers that be were unaware that the demonstrable refusal to engage in traditional romance tropes was one of Fitz and Simmons’ primary charms. To their credit, they realized it pretty quickly. To her credit, series writer Lauren LeFranc seems to have always viciously opposed the flattening of Simmons’ character.
2Fitz and Simmons are a perfect example: they’ve alternately been together for ten years or twelve years, did one or two years at the Academy, and Simmons either left immediately after Fitz’s S1 injury or many months later. No one can decide. But they work so well in the series that it’s easy enough to just think of the inconsistencies as hyperbole etc.
3My current re-working would be that, if they wanted Death, and they wanted romance, it should have been a true mindscrew. For awhile my leading theory was that Will had been Death all along, casting Simmons as a savior and redeemer of ultimate evil exclusively because she was female and thus could assuage the beast which would have been more disgusting than what they gave us. Even May would be a more appropriate person to redeem someone with love than Simmons. The mindscrew element could have been that Simmons found the old NASA camp and all their research and information, and that Death would visit her in the form of sexy Will and manipulate her because of her loneliness. She’d logically know he was unreal, kinda evil, and manipulating her, but would give into it in desperation and feel guilty. “Love” becomes cast as a force of domination and usage. When she came back that could have set up intense trust and self-confidence issues (which she already had) and would have given her, Fitz, et al an emotionally resonant character conflict to resolve instead of simply setting up a classic impotent jealousy scenario. Fitz would have had to figure out how to help her without pushing too hard, and Simmons would have had to learn to trust again and forgive herself. There’s also a science component to my idea that I won’t get into. Yes. I’m still that pissed about it all, even after what they’ve given me in the second half of the season.