The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Everyone Hates Grant Ward: Strung Up By Your Own Bootstraps

"You didn't tell me he was this crazy."
"He's really stepped it up a notch..."

There's a fascinating contrast in episode 21 of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD between big bad John Garrett and big... good Agent Coulson that effectively conveys the basic messages of SHIELD and Hydra. These messages are worth considering in light of the wider conversation I highlighted on Monday about how utterly loathsome Agent Grant Ward is. After all, Grant Ward wasn't "born evil" as the show has put it over the last few episodes, he was made that way by Garrett. Understanding the ideology that Garrett instilled in his subordinate, and what that suggests about SHIELD and Hydra, is essential to understanding--although not necessarily forgiving!--Ward's actions and character motivations and how they relate to the show's wider themes.

There will be some mild spoilers here for the show's finale, which debuted last night, but I'm trying to keep them largely to a minimum, and none of the really major moments will be spoiled, just some of the kicker lines (of which, because this is a Whedon project, there are many). Still, if you haven't seen the finale yet, you may want to hold off reading this article till you get a chance to get caught up.

Episode 21 of Agents of SHIELD has probably the most interesting structure of any episode so far, moments in the present juxtaposed with Grant Ward's initiation into Hydra at the heel of John Garrett juxtaposed with the conflict between Hydra and Coulson's ragtag ex-SHIELD team in the present day. Through these juxtapositions, we get a strong sense of what Garrett believes and how his beliefs drive his sociopathic behavior (or possibly how his sociopathic behavior drives his ideology--more on that in a moment).

For Garrett, the world is that of right wing pundits everywhere: a world where you get only what you can take, where the individual stands alone without any ultimate help or support, and where any objection to mistreatment means that you are failing to "take responsibility" for your life. He explains this to Ward after breaking him out of prison (where Ward has landed after trying to burn his abusive family alive in their home, which... honestly from what we've heard seems like a net gain for humanity, but I digress). This explanation concludes with Garrett leaving Ward in the woods to fend for himself, a dog as his only companion.

Of course, the objective fact of the matter is that Grant Ward has been brutally victimized by his family and needs psychiatric care, not placement within the Prison Industrial Complex to rot. The idea that someone like this can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is ludicrous. And yet, it's actually weirdly consistently present in action hero narratives--the hero is all alone and is both solely responsible for his own survival, and, as a corollary, the sole person capable of making reasonable decisions. There's that monomythic authority again, right?

Interestingly, Garrett's methodology of throwing Ward to the wild and telling him to fend for himself is not only Conservative and Libertarian ideology applied in its purest form, it's also a great way of training loyal cultists. It's a simple strategy used in initiation rites everywhere: get someone to invest enough pain and trauma into their entrance exams and they'll be a loyal lackey of the institution. It's a simple application of cognitive dissonance: the result MUST be worthwhile because otherwise go through suffering and humiliation to achieve the result? To resolve that dissonance, the entrance bought by initiation is elevated in the mind of the initiate.

Take away what your initiates love most, crush their dreams, sink their ships, kill off all their favorite characters, and have your protagonist jump into a giant energy portal to die, do whatever you want and they'll just keep coming back for more, WON'T THEY WHEDON???

[deep breaths]

Sorry, where was I?

Ward is not born evil, as Fitz continuously asserts. He was assuredly made evil. Fitz's error is the belief that it takes a bomb in your eye to turn you evil, when all it took for Ward was a lifetime of brutality and a master of cult recruitment tactics screwing with his psyche.

What's intriguing about these revelations is their juxtaposition with Coulson and Skye, and more broadly with the SHIELD team as a whole. Skye berates herself at one point for showing weakness by allowing Ward to live, and Coulson replies that compassion isn't weakness but strength. This is solid writing, because Coulson isn't directly replying to Garrett's ideology here. He's not overtly saying something that stands in stark opposition to the dog-eat-dog (or dog-shoot-dog-with-long-range-rifle) world that Garrett and Hydra believe in. And yet this episode is rife with juxtapositions between the past and present, and the scenes do seem to parallel each other, forming a cohesive ideological debate.

Compassion is a quality Garrett repeatedly proves himself to utterly lack (to the point where I have to question his story about being abandoned by SHIELD. Is that his reason or merely a pretext for him to unleash a fundamentally sociopathic personality upon the world? How much of his behavior in the finale is due strictly to the alien drug, and how much is just Garrett finally embracing his megalomania fully?). This scene suggests that compassion is fundamentally absent from this rightist worldview, and in coupling such an ideology with asides about "accepting personal responsibility," the show critiques the entire rightist worldview as lacking humanity.

This gets at the core of Ward's ethical bankruptcy. Ward is ultimately driven not by any sense of moral judgement but by a self-serving belief in the fundamental unworthiness and untrustworthiness of others. Grant Ward, Garrett, Hydra, and the anti-heroes that they reflect, fundamentally believe that people are self-serving, and their actions are driven by a need to be on the top of the inevitable dogpile.

The fact that Coulson's team is the only team left standing right now positions them as the standard bearers for SHIELD's true ideology, an ideology that was abandoned by Nick Fury to his ultimate downfall. (...Which is a sentence I wrote on Monday before the season finale, and I'd just like to take a moment here to smugly note how well this meshes with Fury's ultimate decision with regards to Coulson and his team.)

After all, isn't Fury's belief in the need for pre-emptive strikes and massive military deterrence the same thing, ultimately, as Ward and Garrett's ideology of the dog-eat-dog world where you can only depend on yourself?

...I mean, yes, it is, to the point where even asking that question rhetorically seems almost laughable.

It literally is, in the context of the actual events of Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD, because every action that Fury took in accordance with that ideology of paranoia allowed Hydra to thrive within his organization. Every secret, every deterrent, every mass surveillance program, every cloak hiding every dagger, aided and abetted Hydra.

We see this dramatically in Winter Soldier, where Cap's strategy, when all hope seems lost, is to reveal Hydra to SHIELD and to the world and hope that people will ultimately join together and do the right thing. Rather than preserving the secrets of SHIELD as Fury wishes to, Cap makes the call to make everything public... and to destroy Fury's superweapon as something too powerful to be in the hands of one organization in one nation.

And just as Captain America serves as the moral compass in Winter Soldier and the espouser of the the MCU ideology in contrast to the various agents of Hydra and the agents of SHIELD who have lost themselves to cynicism, so too does Coulson serve as the similar moral compass for Agents of SHIELD. As the mentor of students, Coulson and Garrett act as foils for each other, Coulson training his people to trust in one another, Garrett periodically having his people murder each other for strategic advantage. If the conflict between Ward and Skye represents the conflict between the traditional Antihero and the the more inclusive attitudes of the MCU, Coulson and Garrett represent the underlying political ideology of the series as a whole, one that fundamentally believes that you aren't alone, that people are worth saving, and that building an honest and open bond with people is way better than implanting them with explosive cybernetic eyes which I think of all the lessons is probably the one with the most applicability to my daily life.

The hilarious stinger to all this, of course, is Garrett's speech in the finale where he turns Fury's statement about a person being able to do incredible things when they become something greater against his former boss.

Except that Fury exasperatedly points out to him that the correct quote was about becoming "a part" of something bigger.

It's a brilliant turnaround, and a brilliant moment that cements, once and for all, Coulson's true worthiness as successor to the ideology of SHIELD. Because Coulson got it. He paid attention to the quote and tried to understand what it really meant, ultimately taking its message into itself and making it a core of his being.

Garrett responded by reworking the quote in his head to justify his megalomaniacal individualism. He heard what he wanted to hear. Is it any wonder that when given enhanced perceptions he would conclude that the universe is telling him that he's the most important thing in it? It's a move straight out of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: when made aware of the vastness of the universe, Garrett is so egotistical that he concludes that he's the most important being in all of reality.

And meanwhile, while Garrett is going so far off the deep end that he's within waving distance of Fitzsimmons (wow these jokes are all in really poor taste tonight aren't they?) Ward, the rugged individualist, is left totally helpless, hopeless, and useless.

That's the greatest irony of all here: Skye, who has been trained by Coulson to believe in others, is capable of acting on her own because she believes in something greater. Grant Ward, who has only himself and Garrett, and who has no ties to anyone else, wanders like a lost puppy through the whole finale, constantly asking everyone around him what's next. Without Garrett, he has no direction, because he isn't really even a member of Hydra, not really, he's just a man who exists for himself. Skye, who has people she loves and wants to protect, and has convictions (remember that Skye and Ward are the ones who ideologically butt heads the most throughout the early part of the series!) plays Grant Ward like a fiddle for three episodes straight.

When let off his leash, Ward, who can conceive of no greater purpose beyond himself, cannot see himself as part of something bigger, can only revert to his basest urges, and this is ultimately what proves his downfall. He is, as Skye says, weak.

And it is, in part, the training at the heel of John Garrett that made him so.

There's a bit more to say about Ward and his multitude of failings, but let's close things out for now and resume later in the week, after folks have more of a chance to catch up on the finale and fully digest it. Next time, we'll talk about MANPAIN and the egotism thereof.

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  1. Came across your journal via tumblr, and I absolutely love it. Especially your recent reviews and analysis of AOS, keep up the great work.

  2. Honestly, I wouldn't even say that Ward exists for himself. He exists for Garrett, who continually reverts to abuse tactics whenever Ward shows any sign of not being 100% loyal.

  3. Ward exist ina pure physical level, because in a emotional one he is prettry much the lackey of garret, ward dosent understadn that he cared about garret more that garret care about him,

    Also, they way how garret speak evoled a anti hero mentality: garret has let to rot by shield and then he decide that they are horrible so he turn to ward, made him something better and then let him a undercore operation in the big organization that his shield, but ward fell in love with the rebelious skye....that sound like a perfect hero story for ward, except that is garret plant and ward is just a pawn, no matter what he belive

  4. After all, isn't Fury's belief in the need for pre-emptive strikes and massive military deterrence the same thing, ultimately, as Ward and Garrett's ideology of the dog-eat-dog world where you can only depend on yourself?

    If that was truly Fury's modus operandi, do you think he would have opposed the World Security Council's decision to nuke Manhattan? I don't think so. I think Fury straddles a fine line that many people - on both sides of the line - would feel very uncomfortable with. He is simply too ambiguous for many to feel comfortable with. Fury is very capable of the "pre-emptive strike" mentality, so to speak. But he is also capable of great compassion. Which is why guys like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers still like Fury, despite their wariness of him.

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