Estimated Reading Time: 17 minutes
(This essay is #4 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)
Most of you have probably made it here because you know me for my very public Agents of SHIELD meltdowns which are
95% 97% 99.9% over Fitz and Simmons. So I know how strange it sounds when I say: this one is about Grant Ward and it is by far the most personal of this series.
Ward’s character development is a complicated, ambitious undertaking that ultimately Agents of SHIELD just doesn’t care about dealing with. Let me take you on my armchair psychology tour of messed up childhoods and identity crises.
Warning: if you bring the word “woobify” at me I will knock you in the teeth. Character analysis does not automatically mean woobification. Additionally see this please and stop demonizing abuse victims, thanks.
My long-suffering friend Marc is one of the only people who will talk Marvel with me because I get a little too into it (←understatement). When we first meet Christian Ward and he claims that everything Grant Ward has ever told us has been a lie, my friend Marc was on board with Christian immediately. I, on the other hand, instantly thought Christian was a creep. He threw about fifty red flags for me. In fact, I consider Coulson handing Ward over to his brother to be one of Coulson’s most deplorable acts. This coming from the FitzSimmons girl, yeah? I can’t actually think of anything in the series that creeps me out more. It took me a full year to understand where the disconnect about Ward between me and Marc came from. Ultimately, it’s that Marc’s family is nice and mine is absolutely not. I find it’s generally hard for people with nice families to imagine the type of horror that can go on behind such perfect facades or the type of damage they can do to you.
How you feel on Ward tends to come down to whether you think he’s a backstabbing, pure evil snake or whether you get where he’s coming from. I’ll give you a tour of this side of the tracks.
First let me talk about the way that Ward is originally presented to us. I used to hate Ward. Ward was one of the worst things I’d ever seen. When the series first started he was so unblemished and righteous that I called him “Cardboard Ward.” There was absolutely nothing to him and the show’s insistence on presenting him as flawless, lovable, and good was annoying. He was a complete non-entity.
The revelation that Carboard Ward was all an undercover persona launched him from humdrum to easily the most interesting character on the show in the space of less than an episode. It’s clear that even while he is beholden to Garrett, he has genuine affection for Coulson’s entire team. Cue conflict and dire consequences for the first time in the series.
What’s even more fascinating in retrospect is that the “Pilot” presents Ward as the audience surrogate and main character even moreso than Coulson. Ward is the one pulled off his spy mission. Ward is the one debriefed by Hill and Coulson. It’s through Ward’s eyes that we first see the Bus and meet FitzSimmons. Ward captures Skye and drops leading questions about May’s background. It’s as if Ward’s blankness and perfection is what we should project onto. Perhaps that’s why his betrayal made such a huge swath of fandom reject him outright. He didn’t just betray his fellow agents, he betrayed us.
It’s fun to go back and see how many times Ward harps on trust and betrayal while he’s still playing at perfect. It’s a nice layer of complexity to the series’ bad episodes once you know the wrinkle. Ward’s perfection is phenomenal when you view it as a facade. But that’s a seriously bad way to start a series, I mean, good lord. If you don’t know he’s faking then it’s purely bad writing. Ouch.
“We All Have Our Traumas, Ward”
For you to understand the sort of obfuscations, lies, gaslighting, and doubt that Ward’s family manufactured in him, I’m just going to excerpt an entire scene from “The Things We Bury.”
To those uninitiated, this looks like an innocent man trying to reason with his unreachable psychopathic brother. What’s really going on is Christian is twisting the knife deep into Ward’s psyche. Christian Ward sends a chill up and down my spine every time. On the surface, things always look normal. Everything appears rosy.
You ever seen Mommie, Dearest? You know how it’s supposed to be an unintentional comedy? That’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. It still freaks me out. It wasn’t funny at all, it was Too Real. Faye Dunaway chews the scenery to death but the pervasive terror surrounding every word or action in that film was my life. You are not allowed your own interests, personality, or opinions. You must either adhere to the strict role your parents prescribe for you or you are garbage and deserve everything they dish out as punishment. Mommie Dearest is a nutty example and possibly why no one takes this stuff seriously, but that people are so quick to exonerate Joan Crawford is part of the insidiousness of this type of abuse: no one can see it from outside. When you protest you are constantly told that you’re just too sensitive and take everything too seriously. You really start to believe that the way you are treated is normal, that all parents ridicule and harass their children, that a good expression of parental love is to actively set a kid up to fail, and that you are a worthless fuck-up. You must be if your mom and dad say you are.
You ever seen Tangled? I hated that movie for six years because I was offended that they had framed such a “healthy” mother/daughter relationship as evil. My mother loved me! Why was her behavior portrayed as villainous!? Personal example: my mother had me so terrified of the world and everyone in it that after graduate school she effectively held me captive in my childhood bedroom for a year and a half before I found work. Why? Because she could control my every move. “You don’t want to leave me, do you?” You feel both beholden and trapped. In my case, I was enmeshed to the point of helplessness, desperate for escape, and yet terrified that I couldn’t survive without my parents’ superior wisdom. In my brother’s case he was belittled and berated so thoroughly that he ran away at 18 and never looked back. Isolated stories just sound like the storyteller is overreacting. You sound like a bratty teenager annoyed with their parents’ concern. I haven’t been a teenager for a while now. This type of abuse is cumulative, subtle, pervasive, and invisible from the outside. I assure you: I’m not overreacting. My parents are fucking insane. Our family may look perfect but it’s really just layer upon layer of toxicity and rot. “Every family has its secrets.”
Which brings me to Ward and his “traumas.” We don’t actively see Ward’s abuse at the hands of anyone except his brother Christian. Christian projects all of his own negative traits onto Ward. He lies. He manipulates. He gaslights. He makes Ward doubt his own sanity and makes Ward believe himself to be an evil person. Ward’s reality is a maelstrom of uncertainty and shame. You might say “well, he didn’t have to listen to all that. He let them do it to him.” You don’t quite understand: these are the only messages going into Grant Ward’s head from birth. When you are constantly told that there is something wrong with you, you begin to believe it. It’s not a matter of will-power or choice or whatever else you want to claim would keep Ward from doing the things he does. He was hard-wired to hate himself and was offered a sliver of self-esteem by living up to Garrett’s impossible standards. If anyone is truly “evil” in this story, it’s Christian Ward and John Garrett.
Most people who suffer this type of abuse are primed to keep repeating it in all of their relationships. It’s so normalized that anything else seems strange. The “father figure” that Ward latches onto is John Garrett, yet another narcissistic psycho who uses criticism in place of praise and shames every trace of emotion out of him, all under the guise of instilling “strength.” To Ward, a step up from his actual father is a guy who dangles the suggestion of approval, starves him, and points a gun at his head. Supposedly for the sake of fostering self-reliance. He even mocks Ward for “constantly playing the victim” despite never giving him coping skills to live a healthy life. Ward’s complete lack of identity is what makes him Garrett’s ideal warrior. Ward can be the ultimate super spy because he has no core identity himself and therefore can be anyone. Garrett doesn’t want Ward to heal from his abuse because that damage is what Garrett needs to use. Ward becomes “everyone’s type.”
All of this was happening on Agents of SHIELD before I realized that I adored it so much because it paralleled my own life. I was still in denial. I think that Ward confronting Christian and killing his family was supposed to mark him as irredeemably evil. For me, I felt triumph. I felt vindicated through his moment of catharsis. When he burned that scourge out of his life, I felt as if I had burned it out of mine too. Which perhaps should have been a hint that my own folks weren’t the nicest of people, but let me emphasize how discombobulating their brand of abuse is. When you are raised to believe that degradation and humiliation are simply manifestations of their love for you you get warped. When the people closest to you do or say things to you and then systematically deny those things ever happened you doubt reality. If every mistreatment is framed to you as an expression of love, you believe that they must love you because they say it constantly. You believe that love is ultimately just a transaction or manipulation. Then you feel grateful that anyone could “love” you when you’re such a bad person. It takes a longass time to learn that what most people mean when they say “love” and what these people mean when they say “love” are two entirely different things.
Ward was scapegoated his entire life. Ward was the bad seed, the problem child, the incurable evil when he was so young that there was no way he could even developmentally know the difference between right and wrong. Ward’s passions are few but intense. He guards them staunchly. “He loves too much” because the alternative is to not exist. Yet he doesn’t understand healthy love. He doesn’t understand boundaries or even friendship. He is easily manipulated by the idea of respect and promises of grandeur. Garrett pours patriarchal poison into Ward’s already festering wounds by suggesting that love itself is a weakness that will only be used to exploit and manipulate you. Ward believes this, even as he loves Skye, loves Thomas, loves Fitz and Simmons. He drops FitzSimmons out of a plane because caring for them “is a weakness.” Once the series decides that Ward is pure, irredeemable evil he does nothing but torture SHIELD agents by attacking the people that they love. He uses Bobbi and Hunter against each other. He threatens Andrew to get at May. He murders Rosalind explicitly to hurt Coulson. He tortures Simmons to break Fitz. Rarely does he directly do physical damage to his target. Ward’s understanding of love is that love is toxic and love is the most vicious weapon you can use against someone.
None of this is to say that Ward should be excused for his behavior. We make our own choices. But understanding how Ward got to be the way he is makes him a much more sympathetic figure. I’m not sure I can accurately convey the trauma of having no identity. Every attempt at individuation, self-expression, and self-actualization is viciously, sometimes violently rebuked. Ward has passions. Ward has desires. Ward has talents. But Ward does not have identity, and apparently that’s hard to write. Ward trying to figure out who he is could fill the entire series. Instead, he’s relegated to the sidelines as an occasional villain whose own messed up headspace pushes him to emotionally torture the people he once loved.
Ward was told he was a villain his entire life. He has always perceived himself as evil, deficient, and wrong. When we meet him, we see the perfect hero facade. Once Skye, Simmons, Fitz, Coulson, and the lot are aware of his betrayal and no longer trust, love, or hero-worship him, he completely falls apart. The only way that he can have any effect on the world around him is to terrify and destroy. Watching Ward tear through everything—even through my babes—is unbelievably cathartic.
There is one thing I take issue with, which is an “I hate Jeffrey Bell”1 thing. I do not for one second believe that Skye would shoot Ward. Simmons would pop a cap in his ass. By the time Coulson kills him, Ward had done enough to Coulson’s people that I bought his cold vengeance. But Skye shooting to kill does not fly with me. Ward had been nothing but truthful and genuine with her at that point. He was playing the part of helpful hero because when Skye had viewed him (and loved him) in that part, he had felt it could be true. He might not be evil. He wasn’t an active danger to anyone. Skye shooting him is out of character with her usual compassion and makes no sense even in context. It’s Skye’s wholesale rejection of Ward as a human being that marks the point where the show threw up its hands, said “fuck it,” and stopped caring about Ward’s character complexity.
Ward’s affection for Skye comes from seeing himself through Skye’s eyes as “the hero [he] so desperately want[s] to become.” Once it’s clear Skye will never forgive him, he’s set up to embrace his own belief in his evilness. He stops taking responsibility for his actions and starts blaming everyone else. He grooms Kara to feed into his delusions and support his worldview. He blames Coulson specifically for Kara’s death even though Ward himself killed her. And, frankly, I’m disgusted that Kara and Ward’s relationship was of a romantic nature when it would have been more effective had it been a platonic partnership. Kara and Ward navigating their identities together, even towards a place of evil, is much more interesting than Kara and Ward developing random, forced “feelings” for each other. It was creepy and insincere as it was.2
Every horrible thing Ward does is projected outward onto others so that he never has to answer for it. Just like Christian used to do to him. Ward’s rejection by the other original team members completely destroys the illusion that he could be the man he was pretending to be. In that way, Ward’s quick slide down the black-and-white morality scale makes narrative sense. But goddamn is it lazy!
Technically, I find this entire thing reductionist and infuriating. It’s like the writers got tired of dealing with Ward being a complex character so they said “okay, kid, we’re gonna flatten you now. Cheers!” I like the idea of Ward desperately seeking closure when closure is the one thing he is psychologically incapable of experiencing. I like that grandiosity and destiny are the only things that seem to fulfill this need for purpose. But there was so much potential in Ward trying to navigate who the hell he is that having Ward suddenly decide to be straight evil is lame. It’s not just dropping the ball, it’s lobbing the ball as far away from you as possible because you’re sick of looking at it. Rather than a story about the nature of heroism, monstrosity, evil, good—every possible moral dichotomy—what we’re left with is just a flat morality tale.
Ward goes from completely flat hero, to incredibly complex identity crisis, to completely flat villain in the span of about fifteen episodes. Those last five in season one and first ten in season two remain the sweet spot of this series for every single plot or character.
So yes. Ward is a villain. I myself have always had a thing for villains, probably because I was convinced from an early age that I was a hopeless, evil, malformed person. Any well-formed villain has a plausible spiral into villainy. They are as multifaceted as the heroes, otherwise it’s no fun at all. Ward is a villain. Ward does terrible things to lovely people. Ward projects his own misdeeds onto others and stops taking responsibility for his actions once he sees there’s no hope of redemption. Ward becomes the abuser to keep from being the victim. Ward has attempted to murder, harm, and torture my actual favorite characters of all-time on multiple occasions. And I love the ever-living shit out of Grant Ward.
My favorite thing to remind people is that Ward has “two parents, a sister, two brothers” (source: 1×19 “The Only Light in the Darkness” at ~9:45, you can check.) We’ve met Christian. We’ve met Thomas. I like to imagine that Ward’s sister is playing rather badly at a normal life somewhere. That she would absolutely refuse to help take down Ward out of gratitude that he flambéd Christian and their parents. That she’d go dark side herself if pushed even a little bit. I kind of like to pretend she’s me, basically. And Ward is her avenger.
If you would like to know more about growing up raised by assholes have fun reading. If you identify with Ward way too hard, you might be at home here. If you still think none of this explains Ward’s behavior as something other than pure evil I’m happy for you in a life so positive you can’t even imagine another reality.
1 I have a long-standing vendetta against screenwriter Jeffrey Bell that extends all the way back to his days on The X-Files. I do plan on articulating this distaste more thoroughly sometime in the near future.
2 Which is probably the point. As my girl rightly says, “whatever that is, it’s not love.”
* I remain far too bitter about various experiences I had on Tumblr. Excuse my tone where necessary.