Once they’ve been on the air long enough, most television shows start to become a little more reflective, a little more aware of their own histories, a little more apt to try to look back and tie everything together. With the release of Captain America: Civil War around the corner, and the increased viewership Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is likely to attract because of it, the folks behind the show are more inclined to try to make a statement, pull out all the stops, and demonstrate that their work stands equal with its cinematic brethren. So “Failed Experiments” presents the audience with a referendum on its protagonist, a referendum on S.H.I.E.L.D., and in some ways, a referendum on the series itself.
The episode asks whether S.H.I.E.L.D. is legitimately a force for good or not. Does it help people or just use them? Hive certainly seems to believe it’s the latter. He is, like many characters in Whedon shows (or Whedon-lite shows), given great power, but also given no say in the matter, and forced to suffer a great deal of abuse in the process. The flashback to his Inhuman origin story at the hands of the Kree is horrifying, not just because of the hooks tearing into his flesh while stone-faced blue angels look on without concern, but because he is a human being having his autonomy violated, a primitive man who cannot even begin to understand what’s happening to him, let alone consent to it. It’s understandable that in the present, Hive is naturally suspicious of anyone or anything that turns people into soldiers or living weapons, whether by technology, terrigenesis, or training.
That sentiment gets through to Daisy, despite her initial resistance to it. When she tries to explain to Mack that she started as a hacker, that he began as a mechanic, and yet now, somehow, they’re both soldiers, and there’s something wrong with that, there’s a ring of truth to it. She may be parroting the words of the big bad, but looking back at where Daisy and Mack and so many others on the show started, there is something strange, even suspicious, about how each of them ended up here.
In fairness, there’s a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief that’s required for a show like AoS, and it helps to answer this question for the audience, if not for the characters in-universe. The demands of a weekly T.V. drama mean that Coulson’s team has to constantly go on adventures; they have to get into scrapes and scraps; and they have to fight the bad guys. It also means that the titular agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cannot spend their lives behind a computer screens, or underneath a car, or filling beakers in a lab somewhere. They have to be out in the field, fighting and getting into trouble and coming this close to losing their lives in the fray. Otherwise, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a pretty boring series, or at least a very different one. A superhero show–or even a superhero-adjacent show–needs to meet a certain quota of action, and so even the lab techs, gearheads, and technophiles have to face the danger from time-to-time.
But “Failed Experiments” takes a moment to deconstruct that idea, just a little bit. It’s hard to know how much of what Daisy is saying is really coming from her, and how much of it is just Hive’s brainwashing, but she’s not wrong to point out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has made people like her and Mack into something else, into soldiers and warriors and spies and killers, and there’s a real question about whether that change is right, let alone for the better.
Mack responds that times changed, and they all had to change with it, and there’s truth in that statement as well. In a world where gods war with one another in the streets of New York City and aliens fall from the sky on a semi-annual basis, sitting on the sidelines isn’t necessarily the safest or wisest option.
And yet, it also seems like an excuse, like a rationalization for why Mack and Daisy and too many people close to them have had to put their lives on the line, have been put into situations where they had to hurt, maim, and kill other people, without necessarily having the time or the environment or the genuine freedom to truly decide if all of that is what they really wanted. It’s something Hive knows all too well.
In the same vein, there’s a recurring theme in “Failed Experiments” of people having to decide whether to follow their hearts or follow the mission. And it’s coupled with internal struggles over who gets to make that call.
Coulson gives Lincoln a direct order not to test out Simmons’s antitoxin on himself, regardless of whether it could be the key to defeating Hive. But Lincoln disobeys him and does it anyway, in the hope that it could help him save Daisy. And when Simmons responds to Fitz’s encouraging him by saying that Daisy would never want Lincoln to take that kind of risk just to save her, Fitz tells her that it’s a good thing Daisy doesn’t get to decide. The subtext is clear. Fitz went off-mission to save the woman he loved. It was a foolish, poorly-thought-out risk for him to take, but Simmons wouldn’t be standing there if he hadn’t taken it.
By the same token, after S.H.I.E.L.D.’s facial recognition scanners pick up Daisy on the monitors, Coulson and Mack argue over whether it’s a sign that she knows they’re looking for her and she’s trying to lure them into a trap, or whether some part of her is asking to be rescued. Coulson is still reeling from the last time he let his emotions get the better of him, when he himself departed from the mission and from protocol because of his personal feelings. His anger at Rosalind’s death led to him going after Ward and inadvertently led to him bringing Hive back with him. He’s been a colder man since then, harsher in his pragmatism, more skeptical in his assessments, and more cognizant of the risks.
And May is all about the mission–always has been–and she too tries to keep her emotions out of the equation, even when it’s clear that they’re bubbling under the surface. She’s the kind of person who can and will shoot down the man she loves without reservation when she believes he’s turned into a murderous monster, even if it pains her to do it.
But Mack isn’t as seasoned as Coulson or May. He isn’t as hardened, and he’s not capable of compartmentalizing his feelings like that. He can’t block out the part of him that cares about “Tremors,” that feels like he failed his partner, and thinks that whatever’s left of the Daisy he knew is still there somewhere, beneath Hive’s persuasion, waiting for a helping hand.
So instead, he lays down his arms and tries to talk Daisy down. He tries to show that he’s not just a weapon, or a soldier. He’s a friend, one who cares too much about Daisy to let this happen to her, no matter how happy she swears it’s made her. He can’t let go. He won’t fight her. He won’t force her. He just wants to save her.
Daisy, however, is tired of being saved. She begins to recount her history. She points out that when S.H.I.E.L.D. took her in from Rising Tide, Coulson treated her like a daughter, but also like someone who needed to be reined in and rescued, his own personal reclamation project. She always had to have someone looking out for her, someone protecting her from herself. Now, at the very least, she feels like she’s in control.
It’s a difficult story to accept coming from someone who’s under the spell of the villain and part of a collectivist hive mind, but she makes an unexpectedly convincing argument that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a hive mind of its own. It’s an organization that takes in “misfit toys,” that tells them they’re special and a part of something bigger, and then turns them around and sends them off to war for the organization’s own ends.
And yet, Hive took Daisy’s words to heart as well. When the Kree reapers who turned him into a living weapon return to Earth, seeking to rectify their “mistakes,” one of them calls him a “failed experiment.” He repeats Daisy’s words to them — that sometimes the most beautiful things in the world happen by accident. The implication is that even if the Kree intended to use Hive as a tool for death and destruction, as a means to bring blight and horror unto this world and many others, he chose his own path and became something greater than whatever he was intended for. Again, it’s hard to hear coming from someone who’s been more than a little vindictive over the course of the last few episode, but there’s something sympathetic, even a bit life-affirming about that perspective.
I have little doubt that Daisy will be cured of her Hive-infection by the end of the season, but maybe this accident will stick with her. Perhaps she’ll continue to look at the person she’s become, and think of herself a little differently than she did before she became connected to Hive. Maybe she’ll come to regret certain parts of her past that she took for granted, that she’d accepted, without reflection, as being for the greater good and just part of the mission.
And maybe S.H.I.E.L.D., as it once existed, only served to make more wars for its soldiers to fight. Maybe even Coulson’s version of the organization has stirred up as much trouble as it’s settled down. But maybe there’s also good that can and has come from it, including someone like Daisy, who is no longer lost, who knows who she is and has a better idea of where she fits into the world.
The title of the episode, “Failed Experiments,” can refer to several different things in the shadow of Daisy’s maxim. It can refer to Hive, who was designed to be a weapon, and subsequently abused and tortured until he turned into this all-encompassing demigod. But Hive rebelled and now wants to bring the whole world into the fold. Despite the seemingly evil nature of his plot, he means well by it. He intends it as an attempt to effect harmony and even peace.
It can also be Daisy, who was meant to realize her potential under Coulson and has suffered a lifetime’s worth of hardships since she joined his team. But she’s also come out on the other end of those hardships a stronger, more confident and capable person.
It can be S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole, an organization founded to protect the innocent and defend the world, which nevertheless found itself consumed from within by a cancer that tainted every good thing it had tried to do. Then, from those ashes, it was reformed by our heroes and meant to become something different, something better.
And it can be Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, a series that was initially created as a monster-of-the-week affair, intended to tie into the cinematic juggernaut that spawned it, earning little acclaim or success in the process. Yet it emerged from the rubble of that initial idea as a show that has its highs and lows, but which evolved to stand on its own, with enough thematic chutzpah to bring these questions to the fore, even if they emerge in the spaces between fistfights among genetically-engineered villains and extraterrestrial enforcers. These are all accidents, unforeseen elements that weren’t part of the plan or the mission, that nevertheless became something worthwhile.
Odds and Ends
- The episode did manage to work in an oblique but still pretty obvious reference to Civil War, even if there weren’t the same sort of overt tie-ins to the year’s big Marvel film like there have been in prior seasons.
- I’ve generally liked the way Brett Dalton’s played Hive, but here he got a little too Bond villain-y, and dare I say, vaguely Frank Underwood-esque in his demeanor.
- Fitz and Simmons are still adorable, even when they’re just busting on Simmons’s ex-boyfriend.
- Lincoln’s “I’m tired of arguing” line followed by him jamming the needle into his arm was the cheesiest, most predictable moment in the episode. I’m not a fan of the character in general, but the writing’s not doing him any favors.
- James continues to be a bright spot with his scruffy if eye-roll-worthy charms. Pairing him with May for a few scenes was a great choice, and her instant pool cue beat down as soon as she got the information she needed was the icing on the cake.
- I appreciate the unique nature of Hive’s goals here, though I have to admit it reminds me a great deal of Jasmine from Angel.