There are spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s third episode in this post.
At the heart of Marvel's comic books, and superhero comic books in general, has always been a question of what makes us human. There isn't a clear answer to that. Sometimes humanity is ugly (see: the way humans are portrayed in X-Men); other times it's what makes heroes brave (see: Captain America); sometimes it's the thing that can set us back but also what makes us great (see: Iron Man). The first three episodes of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have coalesced around this idea — questioning what makes us human — with the introduction of Inhumans (pun intended), humans with latent alien DNA that gives them powers when triggered.
The Inhumans have an obvious X-Men-esque story. They're feared for the powers they possess, but those powers aren't anything they asked for. Even though these Inhumans can do fantastic things like create earthquakes, wield electricity, or melt metal, they are still human. They die. They love. They feel alone. They're essentially humans who can't go back to their human lives.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is using the Inhumans to explore the fragility of human life, and that's given the show a depth and an emotional core. But show doesn't stop and end there. It's what it does in its quieter, less superhuman moments that might be its most effective and reflective work.
While its Inhuman characters are connected in experiencing trauma, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s human characters are all, in one way or another, showing how hard it is to recover. The show's third episode, "A Wanted (Inhu)Man," was a testament to this.
Hunter (Nick Blood) has been the show's pocket of sarcasm and wit. Even when it comes to tender moments with Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki) this season, he's deflected emotion with glibness. And that's what made his storyline in this episode so powerful. It was one of the rare times we see him truly break down.
Hunter enlists May (Ming-Na Wen) to help infiltrate Hydra, which is in its rebuilding phases. They find an old friend who's in the know, and Hunter butters him up, which really just means they get sloppy drunk together. It's a pretty fantastic scene, which includes subtitles that help you decipher sloppy British drunk speak. We find out that to get into Hydra, it's a fight to the death, which Hunter enthusiastically volunteers for.
"I can take a punch," he tells May.
The twist is that he has to fight his friend. It's a shock to Hunter, who has to quickly process that this man isn't really his friend; that he'll have to kill someone he thought was his friend; that he wasn't really prepared for this fight. By the end of the fight, you see that he's killed a little part of himself, a little glimmer of humanity, for this job.
He can take a punch, but the pain he's feeling is much more than anything physical.
Simmons isn't the same
We don't know what happened to Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) when the Monolith teleported her to a different planet, other than it was a scarring experience. She isn't the same person anymore, and is living her life constantly looking over her shoulder.
What Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does really well here (it reminds me of what Gail Simone did so well during her Batgirl run) is treat Simmons's recovery slowly. When something tragically life-altering happens, it haunts you every day and affects who you are. We never think of or see superheroes having PTSD — one minute they're saving the world from an alien invasion, the next they're fighting an ultra-advanced A.I. and his alien clones. We don't spend much time in the in-between.
But with Simmons, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D does.
The inhumanity of Inhumans
The main crux of this episode is the pursuit of Lincoln Campbell (Luke Mitchell), an Inhuman with the ability to wield electricity. His story spins into a heavy-handed lesson about the irrational fear humans are capable of, as Campbell is labeled an "alien threat." This label makes the people closest to him, including his AA sponsor, fear him. And it all ends with Campbell accidentally killing his sponsor.
There's no subtlety here. But Campbell's storyline allows us into the mind of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). You see, Coulson and rival Rosalind Price (Constance Zimmer) know they're both hunting Campbell, and when Campbell gets away and Price threatens Daisy/Skye (Chloe Bennett), Coulson does everything in his power to keep her safe — he lends S.H.I.E.L.D.'s and his services to Price.
It's a moment where Coulson, who has ostensibly been doing this agent business far longer than his team, shows he still has feelings. That's not surprising because he's a lovable teddy bear of a character, but when you take into account the painful lengths his team is going through (in this episode alone), it makes you wonder how much Coulson has seen, how much he's been through, and how much of himself has been lost or turned off.
Coulson's actions could be a business decision to protect his most powerful asset rather than as affection for Skye/Daisy. It makes more sense when you think about the lengths these people will go to for their jobs, and how unfeeling they have to be.
In this world of superheroes and the spectacular, anything can happen. Men can fly, women can make the earth shake, and rocks can transport you to a different world. But the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are damaged, broken things. And putting yourself back together, they show us, is much more difficult than any of those superhuman feats.