I’ve expressed before (most notably in some of my posts about Community) my pet theory that within the narrative confines of any fictional television show there exists a manifestation of the show itself, and that the writers can comment directly upon the way they perceive the show and the way it is perceived by others in the real world by writing specific dialogue spoken by the show-symbol character(s) or by depicting certain events befalling or reactions bouncing off of same. I am starting to think this could very much be applied to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’m having a hard time figuring out who represents the show.
On many shows, the standard bearer is obvious. Take Scrubs, for instance, where the show is basically about J.D. and J.D. is the show. Any time another character rolls their eyes about J.D.’s tendency to get lost in his own little mid-conversation reveries, it’s an implicit acknowledgement that the show is structured around frequent cutaway dream-gags, and just as J.D.’s behavior may occasionally annoy his friends and co-workers, this kind of storytelling may very well test the patience of certain segments of the audience. And in addition to the self-awareness, the show is always fundamentally in J.D.’s corner, and not particularly sympathetic to characters who are put off by his daydreaming; the audience may get an admission of guilt, but not really any redress.
So, back to S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a bit trickier in an ensemble cast to pick out who is the metanarrative stand-in for the show, and sometimes it might very well be a group of characters rather than just one. For a more complicated concept, this is almost certainly going to have to be the case. One thing that’s known for sure, though, is that in the past couple of episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D. there has been direct conflict between two groups: Coulson’s team and the overall S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Last week, Coulson defied protocol in giving Simmons enough time to cure herself of the alien zap-virus when he should have been dumping her as dead weight; this week, Ward and Fitz got drafted into a suicide mission (without being told about the suicide part) and basically everyone else on Coulson’s team broke ranks from S.H.I.E.L.D. to rescue their own.
The whole season, spiraling as it does out of the pilot episode where Coulson recruits Skye, who is basically a terrorist in need of a redemption arc, has been about conflict between doing things by the book and thinking outside the box. This week in particular had a lot of characters saying “Trust the system”, where the system means the organization; Coulson said it himself, and he’s the one character who really straddles (and blurs) the lines between S.H.I.E.L.D. hierarchy and the gang of misfits riding around on The Bus. Of course, this piece of advice turns out to be inherently terrible; if everyone had in fact trusted the system then Ward and Fitz would be dead.
It occurs to me that there’s two different ways to interpret all of this according to my pet theory. One is to assume that S.H.I.E.L.D. the organization stands for S.H.I.E.L.D. the show. When the writers repeat “trust the system” they are asking the audience to trust in the show. It’s a new drama, it’s attempting something that’s never quite been done before in integrating with and expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it has an uphill battle to establish itself under those conditions. But the showrunners know things that we in the audience don’t; within the narrative it’s called “classified intel” and out here in the real world we call those “spoilers”. They know where things are going, and they are asking us to have some faith and go along for the ride.
OR … it’s Coulson’s team that stands in for the show. They are doing their best to always do the right thing (by the fans), but they are frequently hamstrung by regulations. Within this metaphor, S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually all of the corporate parent interests: ABC, Disney, Marvel, the long-range plans of the Cinematic Universe, &c. The spunky little show wants to be cool, maybe even follow its own agenda sometimes, but it’s really a tiny cog in a much bigger (sometimes coldly indifferent) machine. In that context, “trust the system” isn’t something the showrunners are requesting of the audience, it’s something the showrunners themselves are hearing from their own overlords, and they’re asking us to commiserate with them. They know as well as we do how bogus a platitude “trust the system” really is, and deliver it drenched in irony.
Which leaves the final question as this: will Coulson’s team ever break away from S.H.I.E.L.D. and get into their own adventures? Will the show itself ever be allowed to pursue its own storylines instead of constantly rehashing the same dull leftovers from the Marvel movies? For one of those questions to be answered “yes”, they would both have to be. And I really, really hope they are. Not only would it be a twist no one! saw! coming! (note: I’ve seen lots and lots of people online speculating about this possibility) but it really would be good for the show and give it room to grow. Here’s hoping.