The third season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been dramatically ramping up in recent weeks. There’s Hive and his Inhuman minions, the (final) fall of HYDRA, and the growing threat that the S.H.I.E.L.D. team is soon going to lose one of its own. Fans who have stuck around since the beginning of the show will probably agree that as of season three, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has almost become an entirely different series. Before the last three episodes of the season arrive with their utter craziness, I’d like to look back to a recent episode whose impact you might have missed.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gradually started to acknowledge the reality of discrimination that is present in any universe. Jessica Jones asked important questions about the treatment of women. Agent Carter incorporated the inevitable racism that Dr. Jason Wilkes faced in post-WWII 1940s Los Angeles. “Watchdogs,” the fourteenth episode of this season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is — so far — perhaps one of the MCU’s most direct explorations of discrimination.
“Watchdogs” focuses on the titular activist-turned-terrorist organization that targets Inhumans. Agent Daisy Johnson has been watching them since they began filling Internet chat rooms with anti-Inhuman hate speech. After the Watchdogs use nitramene to implode a storage facility used by the Advanced Threat Containment Unit, Daisy goes after them with the help of Agents Fitz and Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie.
Daisy, who is Inhuman, has a bone to pick with the Watchdogs for their discrimination against her people. When she and Fitz track down one of the Watchdogs, Daisy doesn’t hesitate to use intimidation tactics against him to learn the location of their base. Yet, the real-life parallels of the Watchdogs didn’t click for me until a few days after I first watched the episode. That was when I realized that the Watchdogs are, essentially, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of a lynch mob.
I want to be careful about what I mean when I say “lynching,” because the racial implications of the term in the United States — specifically, of white Americans extrajudicially subjecting African Americans to torture and death — doesn’t fully fit the Watchdogs. Both white men and men of color fill the ranks of the Watchdogs, so what ties them together is not race but their prejudice for Inhumans, as well as their willingness to resort to domestic terrorism and scare tactics. Mack’s brother, Ruben, sympathizes with the Watchdogs’ belief that the government controls everything.
One way to define the Watchdogs’ primary motivation is that they are united in their hate. When Director Phil Coulson deduces that his former colleague, ex-Agent Felix Blake, radicalized the Watchdogs after being wounded in the line of duty, Fitz admits, “I understand feeling lost. You want to hate something. Hate gives you direction.” Blake says that the Watchdogs don’t want to hurt innocents, but that also didn’t prevent their attack on the ATCU facility from claiming the lives of the building’s staff.
The Watchdogs enforce their self-defined lynch law by targeting a minority group — the Inhumans, whom they call “freaks” — for execution. They take it upon themselves to decide who lives and who dies, outside of the American justice system. After Daisy and Fitz capture Watchdog Oscar, he says, “It was all talk for so long. ‘Get a powered person and kill it.'” There’s undeniable xenophobia beneath the Watchdogs’ rhetoric, since they don’t even view Inhumans as people. Add in the fact that HYDRA is funding and manipulating the Watchdogs, and S.H.I.E.L.D. has a severe threat on its hands.
I’m not trying to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is being progressive simply by depicting such an extreme form of discrimination. The fact that the MCU acknowledges that racism exists in any universe is not, by itself, progressive. It also can’t be denied that like the rest of Hollywood, Marvel Studios has come under fire for race-related issues. Marvel has been accused of whitewashing within its casting of actors, exemplified most recently by the Doctor Strange film’s controversial casting of white actress Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One, originally an Asian character.
At the same time, the portrayal of the Watchdogs is a jumping off point for beginning difficult but vital conversations about fighting racism. Racism still exists in our world today. It might be an uncomfortable truth, but denying that racism exists only lets it fester. Overcoming racism requires time, effort, and intentionality. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Watchdogs and their anti-Inhuman crusade, especially since this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Emancipation,” will have them cross paths with Hive and his Inhumans.
I’m exposing my inner literary buff right now, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s depiction of the Watchdogs reminds me of a quote from acclaimed Afrofuturism writer Samuel Delany. In an interview for the Paris Review, Delany states, “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be — a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they — and all of us — have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”
Perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will show us more of how its alternate Earth works differently — not just through superpowers and enhanced individuals, but also by acknowledging the existence of racism and encouraging its viewers to talk about these extremely important topics.