Beneath its “spy-fi” exterior, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a TV show that explores how people reconcile their differences. The series has significant overtones with topics like citizenship rights, abuse of power, and even trauma. S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s primary objective is protection, which often strays into a moral gray zone. The agency’s members mull over how far they must go, in order to protect those they care about.
The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. often find themselves making hard decisions. Sometimes, that decision is to kill someone, particularly when no alternate solutions seem possible. As a disclaimer, the show’s protagonists generally spare their enemies, so I’m not saying that they’re trigger-happy. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering the myriad of factors that have caused S.H.I.E.L.D.’s leading agents to commit murder.
May Killed Katya Belyakov
This was one of the defining and most heartbreaking moments of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Melinda May gained the nickname “The Cavalry” after a mission in Bahrain. Prior to that, May was married to Dr. Andrew Garner, and they were thinking about starting a family. All of that changed after May’s operation in Bahrain went south.
The episode “Melinda” revealed the reason for May’s reclusive nature. In Bahrain, May encountered an Inhuman named Eva Belyakov. Eva had exposed her daughter, Katya, to Terrigenesis too early. Katya went insane, and she took control of an entire team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. After May killed Eva in combat, Katya cornered May. May failed to convince Katya to stop, so the only option May saw was to shoot the young girl.
The act of killing Katya shattered May’s spirit. Through May’s trauma, the series explored PTSD in a meaningful manner, instead of as a mere pop culture trope. Even simple details, like feeling Andrew’s hand over hers, reminded May of Katya’s outstretched hand and reinforced her trauma. May lost all hope of starting a family, and she became emotionally withdrawn from Andrew, eventually divorcing him.
In the Buddhist faith, compassion is intertwined with suffering. Some believe that the experience of suffering can help someone become more compassionate to others. Because of the tragedy that May underwent in Bahrain, she was able to empathize with other survivors of trauma. One such person was Agent Bobbi Morse, whom May convinced to return to field duty in “Among Us Hide…”
Daisy (Maybe) Killed Donnie Gill
Daisy Johnson, formerly known as Skye, had a long path to becoming a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. As Daisy’s supervising officer, May trained her in everything from self-defense to firearms. Daisy’s first potential kill was Donnie Gill, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. cadet who gained the power of cryokinesis. During “Making Friends and Influencing People,” HYDRA brainwashed Gill, but Daisy shot him in the chest before he could cause a potential disaster.
Daisy never found out whether her sniper shot was fatal. Gill’s body fell into the ocean and froze itself, and local police didn’t find it. Due to HYDRA’s brainwashing of Gill, it’s difficult to say whether Daisy could have used a less lethal option to defeat Gill. As S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Director once said, “Sometimes there’s no choice but the hard choice.”
Simmons Killed Sunil Bakshi
Jemma Simmons was one of many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to develop a vendetta against HYDRA operative Grant Ward. One of Ward’s countless crimes was dropping Simmons and Leo Fitz into the ocean in a sealed medical pod. Both of them survived the ordeal, but Fitz suffered from brain damage due to oxygen depletion. That, coupled with Ward’s other atrocities, convinced Simmons that he needed to be stopped.
Simmons promised Ward that if she ever saw him again, she’d kill him. She nearly fulfilled her promise in “The Dirty Half Dozen,” when she sneaked up on Ward and tried to murder him with a splinter bomb. However, Sunil Bakshi, who had became a double agent within HYDRA, put himself in the line of fire.
Instead of retaliating against his would-be killer, Ward said, “You really have changed, Simmons. I’m disappointed in you.” Ward thereafter escaped, and Simmons never appeared to tell her friends what really happened to Bakshi. Was Simmons ashamed of what she did? It seems she at least learned that there’s an emotional cost for every action, particularly murder and attempted murder.
Lincoln Killed John Donnelly
This murder was not intentional, which makes it just as tragic as others on this list. Before Lincoln Campbell joined S.H.I.E.L.D., he was an Inhuman on the run. The Advanced Threat Containment Unit essentially criminalized Inhumans for their powers, even though Inhumans were born, not made by choice. Lincoln became a target when the ATCU issued a public warrant for his arrest in “A Wanted (Inhu)man.”
Lincoln sought refuge with John Donnelly, an old friend who once saved him from committing suicide. Yet, after seeing Lincoln’s mugshot on the news, Donnelly called the ATCU. When Lincoln tried to leave, Donnelly picked up a baseball bat. Lincoln shot a bolt of electricity to disarm Donnelly, but the power surge gave Donnelly a heart attack. Despite Lincoln’s desperate attempts to revive his friend, Donnelly died.
In that moment, Lincoln became exactly what the ATCU feared: someone whose powers endangered himself and others. Lincoln’s unintentional murder of Donnelly convinced him that he had hit rock bottom, and he finally reached out to Daisy and S.H.I.E.L.D. for help. Nevertheless, I was surprised that the series never directly followed up on Lincoln’s evident guilt from killing Donnelly.
Even though Donnelly didn’t figure into the show’s following episodes, Lincoln’s violent history remained a recurring theme. His actions caused collateral damage, as was the case with his last girlfriend before Daisy. There’s a thin line between use and misuse of power, and that haunted Lincoln throughout his career with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Hunter Killed Spud
Lance Hunter was the other agent to cross a line in “A Wanted (Inhu)man.” Hunter’s ex-wife, Bobbi Morse, nearly died after Ward helped Kara Palamas torture her. When Ward returned to HYDRA’s fold, Director Phil Coulson gave Hunter authorization to kill Ward by any means necessary. With May as his undercover partner, Hunter went to dangerous lengths to infiltrate HYDRA. To gain membership, he went head-to-head with Spud, a murderous thief and old colleague of his.
During their ensuing brawl, Hunter used brass knuckles from May to gain the upper hand over Spud. However, Hunter didn’t realize until too late that he had killed Spud, and May was visibly shocked. Like John Donnelly’s death, Hunter’s murder of Spud didn’t get explored directly in later episodes. Still, it convinced May that Hunter was desperate, and that his lust for revenge had compromised his judgment.
When Hunter finally had Ward in his sights, he missed his shot, instead inflicting a nonlethal shoulder wound. Hunter’s attack also jeopardized the life of Andrew Garner, whom Ward threatened to kill. In the end, Bobbi persuaded Hunter to abandon his crusade against Ward. “I don’t want to lose you,” Bobbi said. “Or lose ourselves. Become so obsessed with revenge that we turn into monsters just like him.” The overlap between justice and revenge has never figured so prominently.
Bobbi Killed Several Bad Guys
Hunter and his ex, Bobbi Morse, make quite the couple. Bobbi has usually served as the “muscle” of Coulson’s arsenal, alongside others such as May, Daisy, and (reluctantly) Mack. Being in the field means making tough decisions, and Bobbi knew that better than most. On her first mission after her rehab and recovery from Ward’s torture, Bobbi helped May track down Werner von Strucker. After an intense fight, Bobbi killed Ward’s top enforcer, Kebo, by fatally electrocuting him.
Besides Kebo, another of Bobbi’s victims was General Androvich, an Inhuman who was part of a coup against Russia’s Prime Minister. Androvich had the ability to project Darkforce manifestations, which made him unstoppable. After Fitz and Simmons failed to find a way to contain Androvich, Bobbi gunned him down. Her actions helped S.H.I.E.L.D. save the Russian Prime Minister from the plot to assassinate him.
Despite the difficult choices that she made throughout her career, Bobbi was willing to take responsibility for her actions. That was partly why she and Hunter resigned from S.H.I.E.L.D., in order to protect their friends after the Androvich fiasco. It’s a shame that ABC decided not to produce Most Wanted, which would have starred Bobbi and Hunter. Still, perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will bring them back before long.
Fitz Killed Giyera
For a scientist who was once reluctant to partake in field operations, Agent Leo Fitz has certainly come a long way. Fitz shot a HYDRA agent back in “Turn, Turn, Turn,” but he only did so to save May. Yet, after grappling with aphasia and cerebral hypoxia, and then nearly losing Simmons forever when a portal shipped her halfway across the galaxy, Fitz has gone to great lengths to protect his friends.
Giyera, an Inhuman enforcer for HYDRA, recently caused chaos for S.H.I.E.L.D. His crimes include torturing Simmons for information, as well as murdering Luther Banks of the ATCU with his own pistol. In “Ascension,” Giyera cornered Fitz with a submachine gun. In a turn of events that might be found in a comic book, Fitz shot Giyera with a cloaked pistol. After that, Fitz and Daisy — who witnessed the incident — exchanged a look. Daisy’s expression basically said, Since when are you a badass?
Coulson Killed Grant Ward
This was, undoubtedly, the darkest murder on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As a member of Phil Coulson‘s original team, Grant Ward was a fundamental part of the show. But after two-and-a-half seasons’ worth of atrocities, Ward’s time finally came.
Throughout his life, Ward brought out the worst in his fellow characters. While Ward was in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody, Fitz temporarily cut off his prison cell’s oxygen supply to show Ward what asphyxiation felt like. Daisy, who used to be Ward’s crush, shot him four times in the stomach. Her parting words: “Never turn your back on the enemy. You taught me that.” And, as previously mentioned, both Simmons and Hunter caused collateral deaths during their separate quests to murder Ward.
Coulson wasn’t the first person who tried to kill Ward, but he was the only one who succeeded. His vendetta got personal after Ward murdered Rosalind Price, the head of the ATCU and Coulson’s girlfriend. Coulson retaliated in “Maveth,” using his prosthetic hand to cave in Ward’s chest. After that, however, the Inhuman parasite Hive inhabited Ward’s body. Coulson confided to Fitz, “I knew [Ward’s death] would come back to haunt me. I just didn’t think it would actually come back to haunt me.”
Like May, Coulson tried to cope with the murder he had committed. He admitted that killing Ward was an act of revenge and that he had crossed a line to achieve it. One of Coulson’s quotes from an entirely different situation comes to mind. He once told Daisy, “We’ll never get ahead of the consequences that I, that you, that S.H.I.E.L.D. have set in motion.” It’s evident that Coulson learned Newton’s third law of motion the hard way: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Through its depictions of murder, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken the opportunity to examine how different people cope with the consequences of their actions. Many of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s victims did not prove receptive toward rehabilitation, so perhaps some of them were beyond saving. At the same time, the act of taking a life can induce trauma. Characters like May and Coulson are testaments to that.
I don’t mean to suggest that the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. get away with murder. (ABC already has another series devoted to that topic, in any case.) Nevertheless, season four will see S.H.I.E.L.D. re-legitimized. The agency’s renewed visibility and public presence will surely impact how the show’s characters operate. Especially since the Sokovia Accords are, as General Glenn Talbot said, the “law of the land now.”
Ultimately, this is not an argument against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show has zoned in on a morally gray area, and that’s a compelling part of modern storytelling. As long as the series continues to answer the questions that it asks, I’ll be content.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns to ABC on Tuesday, September 20, at the show’s new time slot of 10:00 P.M. ET.