Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Chaos Theory” – How We Respond When People Change

People change — some because they want to, some because they have to, and some because of factors beyond their control. It’s a fact of life. But people also have relationships with friends, family, and those closest to them. And as a person changes, so too must those relationships. But navigating how those relationships should evolve in the face of those changes can be extremely difficult, and the more drastic the change the harder it is to figure out. That’s the struggle for Melinda May in “Chaos Theory”.

But it’s also what makes her story, and her relationship with Dr. Andrew Garner compelling here. In Season 2′s “Melinda”, the show implied that May herself was so changed by her experiences in Bahrain that it led to the dissolution of her marriage. She was shaken by the events she witnessed, and these experiences made her a different person, putting a strain on her relationship with Dr. Garner.

Then, as this episode’s flashbacks to Hawaii show, May was finally able to move beyond her past and once again find common ground with the man she loves. The last scene in the episode puts too fine a point on it, but when Andrew takes her picture as she gazes off into the horizon, the implication is that May has finally made some kind of peace with who she is and who she wants to be. Then, right after May finds her equilibrium with the man she loves, he’s forced through his own change, by forces neither of them has any control of. And in “Chaos Theory” those nascent changes drive a new wedge between them. It’s tragic, and it’s not hard to understand why May feels like happiness is something meant to elude her.

I’ve often thought that Ming-Na Wen is the best actor on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (with Iain De Caestecker giving her a run for her money), and she proved why she’s such an asset to the series in the complexity and nuance in how she conveyed her character’s reaction to learning the truth about Andrew. The way she could shift seamlessly from a sense of betrayal to one of resolve, from anger to affection, from mistrust to distress, from shock to concern, from determination to abject pain, was remarkable. This episode asked a lot of her, and she answered the bell on every occasion.

But Blair Underwood held up his end of the bargain as well in his performance as Dr. Garner. The reveal that, like fellow Marvel-mate The Hulk, Andrew cannot control when he becomes Lash, that the transformation is something instinctual, is an interesting direction, and Underwood did a good job selling Garner’s internal conflict. The possibility that, as Lincoln suggests, the change could eventually become permanent, gives the difficulties Garner and May experience an air of urgency and greater tragedy.

Surprisingly for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the writing delivers strong material for the character, with Underwood particularly selling the way in which the Inhuman transition the terrigen crystal from the ledger prompted is seeping into Garner’s thinking and who he is at his core. The writing and performance excel in showing how beneath this monster, Andrew is still fighting it; there’s still some of the old Dr. Garner in there, the same one that wants to protect May and loves her. It’s as complex and nuanced a take on the Inhuman mythos as we’ve seen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’s a welcome change from the series’ occasionally blunt handling of the topic.

That level of complexity extended to the bigger issues concerning Inhumans that the episode explored, specifically, what the world’s response to so many individuals developing these abilities ought to be. “Chaos Theory” teased out this issue in the interactions between Daisy and Rosalind Price, with an assist from Coulson, and for once, seemed to present a legitimately and intriguingly balanced take on the subject.

To the point, while the Inhuman colony shown in Season 2 had the patina of moral complexity in looking at how the feared and oppressed can grow to cloister themselves and justifiably mistrust outsiders, the storyline quickly devolved into depicting the residents of “The Afterlife” as an extremist cult. That type of development could still be on the horizon for the ATCU, especially in light of episode’s tag, but even if it’s destined to be undercut, it’s nice to see an outsider presenting a legitimate opposition to Daisy’s views on her Inhuman brethren.

Price has a point when she tells Daisy that even if most of the Inhumans are like her–good people who just need time to adjust to the transformation–just a few confused, terrified, or downright malicious individuals with these kinds of powers could do incredible amounts of damage and cause significant loss of life. Daisy has a point when she responds that treating every Inhuman like a disease is, if you’ll pardon the expression, dehumanizing, and that there’s something troubling about taking away someone’s freedom before they’ve committed a single crime. And Coulson has a point when he compares the ATCU’s stasis to a medically induced coma, and seems to be trying to understand an opposing view rather than railing blindly against it.

Again, it’s a level of complexity the show has only grazed in the past, and one that I hope doesn’t devolve into a black and white, good guys versus bad guys routine in light of Price’s connection to Hydra. That type of nuance gives the moral choices at the heart of the Inhuman storyline weight and depth.

But on a much broader scale, that complexity comes down to the same issue May is dealing with — what do you do when someone fundamentally changes? How does a relationship change in turn? Though the episode only drops in briefly on Bobbi and Hunter, it carries that theme in their short scene together. Bobbi still carries the scars, both literal and figurative, from her run-in with Ward and her return to the field. Hunter, happy-go-lucky mercenary that seems different as well, less laid back and more singularly focused on exacting his revenge on Ward for hurting the woman he loves.

Hunter’s already shown a predilection toward avenging the people he cares about in the past. And whether it’s motivated by a fear of what Ward’s capable of, or a genuine concern for what the two of them might turn into if they follow Hunter’s vendetta to fruition, Bobbi puts the brakes on his single-minded pursuit of Ward. She expresses a fear that it will change them, or that it already has, and she does not want to risk losing the peace they’ve found just to get revenge, even after her trauma.

But putting the pieces back together after a trying experience, and coming to terms with what’s different and what’s the same afterwards, is not necessarily a bad thing. Fitz’s tears when he hears Simmons’s recordings, of her thinking of him even when she was stranded on an alien world, are moving. He hears Simmons recounting who Fitz was when she first met him, touching on the way the two of them have changed, but also grown together in the years since. It’s a touching look at how the relationship between two people can become more complex without their connection suffering.

A team of super powered secret agents using an ancient stone to rescue each other from an alien planet is about as pie-in-the-sky as it gets. And yet, even with that outsized premise, the show has managed to wring so much pathos, so much pure emotion, from the continued growth of Fitz and Simmons in the shadow of these events, that even with the stellar conflict between May and Andrew taking the spotlight in the episode, their relationship continues to stand out as one of the strongest element of this young season. The two of them watching the sunrise, with Simmons reaffirming every sentiment she expressed in those recordings, is as sweet and sincere a moment as this show has been able to muster, and it feels more than earned under the circumstances.

But Fitz and Simmons are not the only pair on the show who move from a subdued, if palpable flirtation, to something more concrete in “Chaos Theory”. While the interplay between Coulson and Price has often vacillated between seeming a little too labored in its espionage-tinged meetcutes and Batman-and-Catwoman-style sexual tension, and being legitimately endearing in light of the chemistry between Clark Gregg and Constance Zimmer, it worked in this episode.

Admittedly, Price’s comments about remembering past pain but looking forward were a bit on the nose, and Daisy playing the annoyed kid who resents dad’s new girlfriend is a tired dynamic. But Phil and Rosalind opening up to each other a little bit–Phil about his infirmity, Rosalind about her dead husband–despite their status as professional secret keepers, helped establish a believable connection between the two of them, that built the sometimes uneven development of their relationship in prior episode into something solid and believable as they took things to the next level.

And yet, as the tag suggests, Price may not be all that she seems. At this point in the season, all we can do is wonder how Coulson will respond when he learns that there’s more to Price’s story than she lets on. We can only speculate whether there is a grain of truth to Price’s apparent, if calculated, affections for Coulson. But one thing is clear, Price is not the woman Coulson thought he knew, and whatever happens, their relationship will have to change because of that.

It’s this episode’s unifying theme — the people we care for, whether our connection to them has lasted for years, or mere weeks, can change, and reveal themselves, gradually or suddenly, to be different from who we thought they were. Finding our way through those changes, coming to terms with them, and finding a way forward, can be a harrowing business. But it’s also a necessary and compelling one.

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One Response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Chaos Theory” – How We Respond When People Change

  1. Andrew Bloom says:

    Yeah, so, just in case it wasn’t clear from the article, this review was about the topic of “change”. Not sure if you got that.

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