Still, there's just a bit more worth saying about Ward in relation to ideas about sympathetic villains and how we as an audience react to the pain that particular characters suffer.
If you haven't been following along at home, last week I wrote two articles describing the many shortcomings of Agent Grant Ward, a man that Marvel's Agents of SHIELD seemed to be positioning as the brooding antihero of the team, only to dramatically subvert both expectations and our understanding of Ward's character archetype when he turned out to be an actual Nazi.
The first talked about how Ward as the Lone White Male Antihero would, in many stories, get a free pass to determine his own morality. The narrative and theme would warp around him to make his actions and judgements correct, often at the cost of the actions and judgements of female characters. In Agents of SHIELD that logic is turned on its head, and the whole dynamic is revealed to be chauvinistic, patronizing, and ultimately subtly fascistic.
The second article talks about Agent Coulson and Agent Garrett and their respective ideologies. Garrett raises Ward on a steady diet of rightist rhetoric: Ward has no one to depend on but himself, people only get what they can take, and if your life is a nightmare maelstrom of abuse and violence you are solely responsible for it, even if you're a child. This is contrasted dramatically with Coulson's belief in the symbolism of SHIELD: that humanity is worth saving and protecting. Ultimately, Ward doesn't so much lift himself by his own bootstraps as hoist himself by his own petard, wandering around for much of the latter episodes without a sense of purpose, identity, or control, whereas Skye, Coulson's protege, runs circles around him, made confident by both the knowledge that she is not alone, and in the belief in a right and wrong external to her own immediate animal needs--something Ward critically lacks.
In this way, both the antihero archetype and the world in which he operates are shown to be hollow falsehoods, pathetic power fantasies that ultimately amount to nothing.
But there's one more aspect to Ward's character that's worth examining: his angst. Yes, poor Grant Ward has a lot of Feelings and those Feelings justify, in his own mind, any and all actions. The first two parts of the series touched on this a bit but it's worth examining in more detail, so let's talk about poor Grant Ward and his many struggles. (Trigger warnings for discussion of abuse, and some discussion of sexual assault.)
Now, it's important to recognize within all of this that Ward is not suffering purely by his own hand. We don't want to embrace Garrett's ideology here and behave as though Ward was somehow responsible for the trauma that he received at the hands of his parents, his brother, and finally Garrett himself. He's not! And to some extent, we can't understand his character without recognizing that he has been psychologically assaulted from a young age and treated in a highly abusive way by his mentor.
But the problem with introducing such things into a narrative is that such trauma can provide narrative carte blanche for the protagonist--hero, antihero, or villain protagonist--to do whatever they wish and make decisions without repercussion. I've watched this happen, albeit from a distance for several of these examples, in multiple fandoms, from the Hannibal fandom elevating the charming villain protagonist to disturbing heights, to people excusing the asshole behavior of Sherlock (helped along by a script that treats his more sociopathic actions as ultimately humorous, regardless of their cost to the other characters), to the Breaking Bad fandom defending Walter White and vilifying his wife, to Homestucks treating Gamzee Makara and Vriska Serket as fundamentally blameless due to, respectively, mental illness (and... well, possible actual supernatural mind control by a godlike cosmic entity, which does complicate interpretation a lot, obviously) and childhood trauma that is not, perhaps, ultimately all that different from that which Ward experienced, despite its far more ludicrously extreme proportions.
It's hard to pin the blame on an audience in that situation, I think, because the whole point of the tragic backstory is to humanize the anti-hero or villain protagonist. Sometimes a text goes too far and transforms that backstory into a justification for lengthy brooding sessions, self-absorbed actions and decisions that are treated as totally reasonable, or even horrific crimes. There's other compounding factors in something like this (placing the victims of the protagonist's actions in a negative light definitely helps make this worse, for example) but it's often just a matter of pushing a little too hard. So while I think it's important to recognize when people are reading a text in a problematic or even downright horrifying way, and it's important to call those interpretations out as bad, it's also important to be able to take a step back and recognize that the reader might just be seeing what the text is strongly implying to begin with.
It's important sometimes to see where the text itself is culpable.
Agents of SHIELD could have gone that route, and I think some fans (although I haven't personally interacted with them because I tend to be kind of isolated from fandoms-at-large these days) have latched onto the idea that Ward is ultimately good at heart and will come out a noble soul. The show is really walking a tightrope with the character.
But the show does something quite clever with the episode in which we get the fullest picture of Ward's backstory and descent into evil. First of all, it places the episode AFTER we already see Evil!Ward in action and get a sense of how egocentric and morally bankrupt he really is, so we have that context moving forward. That's HUGE and I want to talk more about that context in a moment. But even more than that context, what the episode does is constantly remind us in the present that Ward's trauma in the past cannot excuse the monstrous actions of his present.
This comes to a head in what I found to be an absolutely gutwrenching climax. Ward in the past has been abandoned by Garrett in the woods (which, if you'll remember from last week, is basically Garrett's hardcore initiation tactic--his way of making Ward feel that what he's getting out of the deal must be comparable to the suffering he's experienced). His only companion has been a loveable dog. Garrett returns, tells him he's a member of SHIELD, and tells him to come along with him.
Oh, and shoot the dog before we go.
Yeah, Garrett is a monster, if you hadn't picked up on that yet.
So there's this amazing juxtaposition going on where Ward in the present has Fitz and Simmons, the fan-favorite scientist characters, (one of whom, Fitz, has been stridently arguing with his teammates that Ward must be good deep down inside, that he can't have betrayed them for no reason) trapped in a container on the big plane that he and Garrett have stolen.
And there's this scene of him shooting in the air, which causes the dog to run out into the woods, looking for the dead animal it assumes is there. Dogs are stupid, whatever. And it seems for a moment that Ward is going to let Fitzsimmons live.
And then we get another shot in the past of Ward shooting the dog from a distance, because he just couldn't bear to shoot him from up close.
Ward, dramatically agreeing with Fitz that he does care about him, dumps the cargo crate out of the plane.
What a fucking toolbag.
This moment is amazing, and Brett Dalton's portrayal is absolutely perfect. See, there's definite agency here. Ward is making a choice to kill the dog and to dump Fitzsimmons out of the plane. He's recognizing that he cares, and taking steps to ensure that he can commit evil acts despite that emotion, because "it's a weakness."
Agents of SHIELD thus constantly reinforces the idea that Ward is culpable for his own actions. He's not being forced by Garrett to do it. There are other options, and that psyche-out, where it seems like he's going to spare the dog/Fitzsimmons makes it clear that he had alternatives. It's a great strategy because not only is it gripping for the audience, it reinforces that agency Ward has in the situation. That's a twist done right.
But what's fascinating about Ward in this situation, in both situations really, is that he seems to truly believe that he is the hero of this story.
Shooting the dog...
Betraying the team to Hydra...
Attempting to murder Fitz and Simmons...
Threatening his ostensible love interest with rape...
Through all of this, Ward truly believes he's the hero. Dalton does a great job of portraying that--the little shit actually has this look of tragic nobility on his face when he pushes the release to drop the cargo crate. It's stomach-turning in the extreme, and it's perfect.
What makes this readable is the position of this episode after his big rant to Skye in the previous episode, as I alluded to earlier. Skye confronts Ward, pointing out the fundamental incoherence of his assertion that despite literally everything else being a lie, his love for her is genuine, and here's his response:
"Do you do you think this has been easy for me? Do you have any idea how hard it was? The sacrifices, the decisions I had to make? But I made them.
Because that's what I do. I'm a survivor."Ward is the hero of his own story. There's no self-reflection here whatsoever. He's just synthesized all his experiences into this persona of the tragic, endlessly suffering protagonist who sacrifices for his cause (which, remember, is ultimately... nothing at all, not even Hydra's political aims) and is horribly misunderstood by the other characters.
Ward has embraced the power of MANPAIN hook, line, and sinker. MANPAIN is, of course, the tendency of male protagonists to have PAIN that absolutely exceeds that of anyone else in the narrative, and their transformation of the trauma of others into their own trauma-by-proxy. It's what I loathe so much about Arrow, if you recall: the pain of others in that show is constantly transformed into another reason for Oliver Queen to angst all over the place.
I want to be clear here that I don't have a problem with emotional male characters! I hate that sexist bullshit just as much as I hate this trope, if not more. But there's nothing gender-politics-conscious about a male hero that experiences the assault or death of a female character as a trauma directed specifically at him. And the best media dealing with male emotions and trauma does respect that!
Look at Neon Genesis Evangelion. Shinji Ikari is, without a doubt, an abused and traumatized psychological wreck, and the show doesn't lambast him for having emotions.
No, the show lambasts him for reacting to one of his female companions being killed and replaced by a clone, and the other being brutally psychologically and physically assaulted, leading to a suicide attempt that leaves her in a coma, by demanding that they help him and angsting over not having anyone to complain to.
Oh, and masturbating over Asuka's comatose body. That was pretty fucked up too.
That's what Ward is doing here. He's doing things that he knows will cause himself and others pain, but he's then synthesizing the pain of others into evidence of his own heroic sacrifice, his own troubled and tragic nature, his own misunderstood brilliance. And that's what so many bad shows with male protagonists like this do, unironically.
Once again, then, Ward here serves as a living embodiment of story decisions. He is without a doubt weaving a narrative in his own head, and it's a narrative easily found in so much media, a narrative of a tragically misunderstood male antihero, pitted against a cruel and heartless world. It is this narrative that leads to one of the most stomach-churning moments of the show, when Ward confronts Skye again and pretty explicitly threatens to rape her. But look at the particular way in which that threat is conveyed:
You're right, Skye. You woke up a weakness inside me. And for the first time in a while, I wanted something for myself. Maybe I'll just take what I want... wake up something inside of you.Gross.
I honestly think this moment is much more than a throwaway "villain shows how bad he is" line, because of the particular language he uses. First of all, he treats this as Skye's fault--that this is an assault on him. Here's his own tragic misunderstood hero-myth coming into play. And then he finishes it off with the extra gross suggestion that he'll "wake up something inside of [her]." This reveals the core egocentrism of the male antihero: he truly believes that, despite his conviction that he is a tragically misunderstood figure, ultimately he will triumph over his opponent/lover psychologically, because it is his birthright. He deserves what he wants because he's paid the price for it. Just as the heroes in action films are rewarded with sex for completing their heroic quests, so too will Ward get what's coming to him.
I mean, this is so systematic, so consistent, that a part of me almost feels like the writers here set out quite deliberately to viciously skewer the entire tradition of male action antiheroes. It's just... right there on the surface. It's barely even subtext at this point it's just fucking text. Ward is living out the male power fantasy.
And it's oh so fucking satisfying when Melinda May literally silences him by breaking his god damn voicebox. I mean, wow, can you get any more overt than that symbolism right there?
I mean... damn.
And that's about all I've got to say on Grant Ward and Agents of SHIELD. There's almost certainly more to dig into here but I'm sick of looking at Ward's stupid action hero face, so I'll leave that to other authors. And, of course, there's probably plenty of counterpoints and moments when the show fell dramatically flat when it comes to theme! It's always worth considering the stumbling points for a series like this.
But for a series that had a pretty bad first half and hasn't received the critical acclaim that some other superhero shows have mysteriously been afforded, this is some pretty impressive and deft writing. So, I raise my glass to you, Agents of SHIELD.
Congratulations on ditching the most boring character on your show in the most hilariously metatextual way possible without going full Morrison on us. And here's hoping you folks enjoyed the articles, and that they weren't too... wardy. I wardn't want to test your patience with a wardticle that wasn't... rewarding. Hahaha. Grant Ward. Hey ward are you doing with that cargo switch ha ha? Uh might not want to press that, since we're hundreds of feet above the ocean. I don't want to get... wardter on my wardrobe ahahaha get it WARDrobe no but seriously don't press the buttOOOOH SHIIIIIIIiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii
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