If you’re not watching the new season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, you should fix that. For a show that had a less than stellar first season, it has, so far, had an excellent, interesting, and intense second season. In a post-Winter Soldier world, the newly-appointed Director Coulson and his team have more enemies, fewer resources, and the kind of complicated problems that lead to greater stories, and much deeper character development.
While I’ve counted myself as a fan from pretty much the get-go, I have to admit that I was nervous about how the show would handle one particular story arc this season, and I fretted about it quite a bit during the summer hiatus:
How would the show deal with Grant Ward and the fallout from his betrayal?
Interviews with the cast and writers featured the word “redemption” waaaaaaay too often for my comfort level, and I was worried the narrative would gloss over the murder, rape threats, and Nazi affiliations in order to more easily bring Ward back into the fold, and avoid upsetting the status quo. When all of the season two merchandise and promotional posters still included Ward standing next to May and Skye, my worries did not decrease. Especially when Trip was conspicuously absent.
But we’re eight episodes in, and the show has refused, at every turn, to let Ward off the hook. I am consistently surprised and impressed by how the narrative reminds us, repeatedly, that what he has done is terrible. That choices have consequences, and when you make bad ones, you have to live with the fallout.
Where I find myself angry and disappointed instead, is with the show’s fandom.
Tumblr is full of fun GIFsets, artwork, and playlists, and I love seeing ones from shows I enjoy. But here’s the thing. Ward’s not Team anymore. He gave that up when he murdered Victoria Hand in cold blood. But still, even months after he chose the other side, SHIELD fandom still wants to include him in their arty graphics.
I saw so many melancholy Skye/Ward Tumblr GIFsets that I had to give up and blacklist the dude’s goddamn name. But still, I can’t avoid it. And every time something like that crosses my dash, I have another rage induced blackout. Not just because he’s not on the team anymore; I get so angry because half the time they skip over the newer additions to the cast (Trip, Mack, Bobbi) in order to include Ward in team graphics, even though he’s a traitor AND NOT ON THE TEAM. The only new team member who I see get regularly included is Hunter, and if you can’t figure out why, I’ll give you a minute to catch up.
Turns out, there’s an entire movement backing Ward. They’ve got a Tumblr, a hashtag, and merchandise. They make cookies. They wear bracelets. They want you to know: they #StandWithWard.
I’ve read through pages and pages of their Tumblr posts, I’ve trolled through some of their hashtagged tweets. Mostly I see people calling Ward a victim, lashing out at Ward’s critics for “victim blaming,” laying all the responsibility for Ward’s crimes at Garrett’s feet. I see people comparing Ward to Akela Amador, Mike Peterson, and Bucky Barnes.
(And here is where I inevitably must remove my hands from my laptop in order to not throw it out the window any time I see someone say “Bucky Barnes is a villain” because no and also fuck you.)
I see you, guys. I see you standing with Ward. But what I can’t, for the life of me, understand is why. Is it because he’s an attractive white dude and, thanks to decades of media conditioning, you’re unable to find any real fault with any problematic action he might take, because scruffy hot white dudes are always the hero?
This was my initial reaction, but I took a step back and gave the problem some real thought. For days, I tried to think of a similar fictional character who had earned my respect and sympathy after doing terrible things. I love redemption stories! I love a good villain! Layered, complex villains and anti-heroes are some of my favorite characters.
Zuko’s journey, from desperately searching for honor and his father’s approval to being a full-fledged member of Team Avatar, is one of my favorite parts of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Spike’s transformation from William the Bloody to somebody Buffy could trust was amazing. Characters like Narcissa Malfoy from Harry Potter, Klaus and the other Mikaelsons on The Originals, and Crowley on Supernatural, are all categorized as different shades of “villain” though they can (and do!) occasionally help save the day.
But those characters, and all the other ones I thought of, all started off as clear villains. Was there ever a character who was introduced as Team, but then turned traitor? Anyone who killed innocent people, all of their own free will, but was later redeemed? Someone who could look back on their actions with regret and take steps to try and make up for the terrible things they did? Finally, it hit me.
Folks, it’s time to talk about Faith Lehane.
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith came to Sunnydale after her former Watcher was murdered in front of her. She expected to find a kindred spirit in Buffy, but through events that weren’t always within Buffy’s control (previously dead boyfriends returning from Hell, evil Watchers trying to steal gloves and stir shit, incompetent Watchers fucking shit up completely), Faith felt like she didn’t belong in the group. Because she always felt like it was Buffy’s group: Buffy’s school, Buffy’s Watcher, Buffy’s friends, Buffy’s family. Buffy’s town.
After Faith accidentally killed a man and the Watcher’s Council attempted to drag her back to England from punishment, she switched sides and started working for the Mayor. On his order, she killed people, and would have helped him murder the entire graduating class (and probably most of the town, if not more) if his Ascension plan had succeeded.
She had a really messed-up home life, she had seen more violence than any 17-year-old should, and she felt completely alone. She felt like she didn’t have any other choice. (Starting to see the parallels now?)
But when she walked into the Mayor’s office and offered to work for him, she did that of her own free will.
Later on, after exploding high schools and year-long comas, she made another choice. She walked into a police station and confessed to the homicide she had committed. She was eventually sentenced to a prison term, and because her super strength would make most prison security measures a joke, every day she stayed there was a choice as well.
In the days before she made the choice to confess, we get to see her struggle with the weight of the things she’s done. The most important thing, for me, is that she acknowledges the things she did were wrong, and holds herself accountable for them. Because of that, we see her pain, her desperation, how badly she wants to run away from the consequences of her actions.
But, in the end, she doesn’t. She makes the hard choice and stays to face those consequences.
That’s part of the reason why I love her so much. I love the idea that a person can climb back out of that kind of darkness. That you can make the decision to be better than you were, and if you’re strong enough, you might just succeed.
It’s here that the parallels between Faith and Ward end, because above all else, Faith shows remorse.
Angel: I think you have to ask yourself: are you?
Faith: And what if I can’t say it? There are some things you can’t just take back, no matter how sorry you are, right?
Angel: Yeah, there are. I’ve got some experience in that area.
So far, Ward has not. He doesn’t own any of his past actions, and has yet to show anything like real regret.
Fitz: You tried to kill us.
Ward: No. I wanted to save you. Garrett ordered me to kill you and Simmons. He expected me to put a bullet in your head. But I couldn’t. I gave you a fighting chance to find a way out, like you always do. Like you did.
In that conversation, Ward manages to evade any kind of responsibility for dumping Fitz and Simmons into THE OCEAN. If he really wanted to help, if he was really trying to give them a “fighting chance” he could have given them scuba equipment, or a working radio. He had time, and knew that plane, and Garrett was busy. He could have done something that might actually save them, rather than forcing them to magically find a last-minute solution. Which they did, in spite of Ward, not because of him. And their solution wouldn’t have saved them anyway if Nick Fury hadn’t shown up like an avenging angel in a black leather jacket. Correlation is not causation, folks.
The first time Ward sees Skye after getting put in a cell, he shows her scars on his wrists and confesses to having tried to kill himself.
Ward: I went through a rough stretch. First pair of pants they gave me had a button on the back. They took that away. But you fold a piece of paper just right, it gets sharp. When they took that away, I started running at the walls.
Skye: You should have run faster.
Skye, bless her little hacker heart, is having none of it. The fact that Ward tried to kill himself doesn’t garner him any sympathy from me either, not in this context. He has given no evidence that he is feeling depression-levels of remorse or regret for his actions. This is not a man being crushed under the weight of his grief. He seems merely aware that he has no good options at this point, and that he may well spend the rest of his life in a SHIELD cell. Rather than face the outcome of his choices, he tries to run away in the only way left to him.
That’s not tragic. It’s just cowardice.
Because, again, at no point does Ward show any kind of regret or remorse for the things he did. If he had, I might sympathize with his predicament; it is hard to redeem yourself from inside a jail cell. But instead, he blames Garrett, he blames HYDRA, he blames his family.
Christian Ward: You twist every act and blame it on somebody else. Mom and Dad were terrible, but they didn’t put the match in your hand when you burned down that damn house. And I didn’t squeeze the trigger when you killed all those people.
Grant Ward: It is my fault. I let you all hollow me out. Control me.
See, again, how he neatly dances right up to the edge of taking responsibility, and then hands it off to someone else? The buck stops… over there.
He agrees to cooperate with the team, and gives them usable intel. But only in exchange for getting one-on-one time with Skye. But even then, he shows no sign of remorse. Not even to the woman he professes to love. All he seems to be doing is pushing forward with Raina’s idea that if he can introduce Skye to her birth father, they’ll all big one big happy monster family.
But here’s some hard truth for you, buddy. Monsters are what you make of them. Even if Skye has Kree/Inhuman DNA, that doesn’t make her a monster. It just makes her not strictly Earth Human. Aligning yourself with Nazis and murdering your allies in cold blood? That’s what makes you a monster.
I’m not 100% opposed to a Ward redemption story. I’m not in favor of it, because Ward’s decision to double down on villainy this season has made for some great narrative turns. But if the show plans to do it (and I feel like they will, eventually), they need to do it right:
- First, Ward needs to say, out loud, to at least one person on the team, that he knows what he did was wrong, and that he’s sorry for it.
- Second, he has to give himself over to whatever that group of people decides is appropriate punishment. Generally, I vote jail. Murderers go to jail.
- Third, he then has the long, arduous process of doing whatever he can to make up for what he’s done. Picture Sisyphus rolling that big ol’ rock up a hill, and that’s what I think should be laid out for Ward in the next few seasons.
I know he has a tragic backstory. It seems like his parents were abusive, and his brother was as well. I can sympathize with that. He was already in an emotionally fragile state when Garrett recruited him, and the time he spent with Garrett was hardly free of emotional manipulation or violence. When he was a young man, he didn’t have any choices available to him. The young Grant Ward was a victim.
But then he grew up. He spent time with other people, a lot of time with a lot of other people. He was exposed to morals and beliefs other than Garrett’s. He spent the better part of a year on a plane with Coulson’s team, maybe not free of Garrett’s influence, but at least out of his reach. And as he grew up, and became an adult, he had more choices available to him than he did as a child. He could have run. He could have fought. He could have disappeared.
I’m not trying to erase what happened to Ward. He was obviously traumatized, and victimized. But being a victim doesn’t give you the right to victimize others. It doesn’t mean you get away with murder. We can understand a character’s pain without excusing their behavior.
If Ward is really a good man, wouldn’t he have had doubts about what Garrett wanted him to do? Wouldn’t he have seen the ramifications of what was in the works, and wondered if it was the right thing to do? Especially after Skye got shot and nearly died. For months, he had ample opportunities to voice his doubts and fears to Coulson, in an environment where he would have been safe. They live on a plane! They could have kept Ward hidden from Garrett.
Even if Ward was so swayed by Garrett’s manipulation that he never once had a single doubt that Garrett’s actions were correct, do you think he was never afraid of him? Dudes like Garrett don’t usually traffic in love-based loyalty as much as fear-based obedience. I bet his time spent on the Bus, away from Garrett and his expectations for what he needed Ward to be, was a relief. Wouldn’t it be tempting, for someone who has admitted to not giving a shit about HYDRA’s master plan, to spill the beans in order to secure yourself the freedom to not be afraid anymore?
The argument I see online seems to be that Ward didn’t have a choice in anything we saw him do in the first season, because he was under Garrett’s control. But I just don’t buy it. Ward may have been loyal, he may have been afraid, he may have been emotionally compromised at an early age, but when it comes to the events we see in Agents of SHIELD, he had a choice.
Even if we hand-wave away everything that happened in season one, what did Ward do after he escaped in season two? Did he backpack to Tibet to meditate and seek enlightenment? Did he volunteer at a soup kitchen? Did he go to Kenya to dig wells and build schools?
No. He strapped a bomb to his chest, threatened to murder civilians en masse, used a mother and her child as a human shield, murdered his brother and their parents, and allied himself with HYDRA again.
Christian Ward: You lie to yourself. You want to know why? It’s simple. You can’t reconcile all the ugly, horrible things you do with the hero you so desperately want to become.
While I don’t trust the elder Ward any more than his brother, this line hit the nail right on the head for me. Ward, like most villains, still sees himself as the hero of the piece. And he has a specific idea in his head of how a hero should behave. The things he’s done, the choices he’s made, don’t exactly fall under the heading of “Heroic,” so those actions can’t be his. It must be someone else’s fault. That way he doesn’t have to challenge his internal image of Grant Ward, Tragic Hero.
Because what kind of hero would do those things?
The people we see in this show who have actually had their choices taken away from them, either by having explosives put behind their eyeballs (Akela Amador), or their child’s life threatened (Mike Peterson), have expressed remorse over what they’ve done Akela welcomes the prospect of a quiet prison sentence, and Mike can’t face his son knowing the terrible things he did to keep Ace safe.
Every single member of the Avengers has a backstory full of tragedy and violence. But somewhere along the way, each of them made a decision about the kind of person they wanted to be. To mangle a Dumbledore quote, the difference between being a hero and being a villain is the moment when you make a choice between what is easy, and what is right.
Finally, I’d like to remind you of the moment when Ward revealed to the audience that he had been working for Garrett all along. Garrett had been arrested, and was restrained under armed guard. Victoria Hand was taking him to the Fridge with a SHIELD security detail, where they planned to lock Garrett away.
Even if Ward was too afraid of Garrett to talk to Coulson, even if he was so turned around after years of emotional manipulation and violence to ask for help, even if he couldn’t bring himself to admit to another human being that he might have been wrong to put his faith in Garrett, the man was in chains and on his way out of Ward’s life forever. All Ward had to do was nothing.
Instead, he stood up and shot Victoria Hand five times.
So, please: Tell me again how Ward is a victim. Because I still don’t understand.