While the last episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. left a bad taste in my mouth, “End of the Beginning” was actually better even though there were still some issues I find disturbing as relates to their depiction of powerful women and people with disabilities. Those issues aside, this episode got me to feel something for the characters, which hasn’t happened much during the run of this show. Here’s hoping that strides will be made to amend the lack of progressive writing for non-male characters and for those who may have a disability while retaining the the good things the show has been developing over the last few episodes.
“End of the Beginning” is where the rubber meets the road for our team. Agent Coulson is determined to track down and capture The Clairvoyant, which can only be done with Skye’s cyber skills. Nick Fury is back in town and will have to answer to Coulson for his lack of sharing top secrets, although it looks like he was keeping things under wraps because of suspicious activity in S.H.I.E.L.D. itself.
Agents split up into teams, each taking a coordinate and a possible suspect as Fitz and Simmons continue to probe the depths of the changes in Coulson and Skye’s biology after being injected with a mysterious serum. Deathlok (the man formerly known as Mike Peterson) prevents the agents from discovering the whereabouts of the Clairvoyant until the agents find the underground lair of one Thomas Nash, who speaks with the aid of a computer.
Nash taunts one of the agents and causes such a stir that he is shot, against protocol. The other agents are stunned, but this spells the end of the beginning for our S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. They are innocent and naive no longer. They have discovered a horrible truth; they can trust no one, not even each other.
This is the part of “The End of the Beginning” that disturbed me; there are two people with disabilities in this episode and both of them are treated like monsters. Deathlok’s body has been altered, but he was in a fiery accident that burned him almost beyond recognition. He is getting used to living with his disabilities and newly-altered body and is, in fact, not a villain. He may be controlled by one, but he himself is nothing more than a man caught between keeping his son safe and attempting to survive. Even moving from calling him Mike to Deathlok is somehow dehumanizing.
The other man, Thomas Nash, resides in a wheelchair. A computer aids him in speaking, but he cannot move. What does the team do? Shoot him almost at once. They treat him like an evil villain because he looks the part. They don’t even investigate. They just shoot him and later realize that he was the set-up, not the Clairvoyant. Are they even considerate of the victim? Of course not.
“The End of the Beginning” is rather callous in this regard. Both men, who are victims, are treated as “lesser than,” as if they are not whole beings. They are people who have survived extraordinary damage to their bodies, but instead of being treated like people they are treated like monsters. If this was just something the agents had to deal with I might forgive this attitude, but because of the lack of grief or even a glimmer of understanding or compassion, I am led to assume that the writers just went for the typical plotline and gave it a twist but didn’t think about the consequences.
What’s the message behind this storyline? That some people will be stereotyped because of their disabilities? That people assume and don’t take the time to understand someone different than them? That people with disabilities will always be outsiders, unable to live in the “normal” world because they don’t fit? What negative, degrading messages to be sending.
I could barely watch the rest of “The End of the Beginning” because I was so disgusted over the two people with disabilities having to be portrayed in this way. While I did get emotional at the thought of losing one of the team members because of another team member’s dishonesty, I couldn’t help but turn this thought over and over again in my mind; “How many people with disabilities are watching this and feeling hurt by these portrayals?”
I feel as if “End of the Beginning” had an opportunity that they missed by being oblivious. Deathlok is a villain, but why showcase his strength alone? How about show him struggling as his body accepts its modifications? How about we see him learning how to incorporate the new technology? Why not see him be a whole person instead of a misshapen victim-turned-villain?
Or what about Thomas Nash? Why did he have to be strapped in a wheelchair and shot at almost point-blank range? Why did these characters just assume that he was the bad guy? Are people with disabilities going to assume that this is the role society has chosen for them? “Villains are just victims whose stories haven’t been told,” said Glee‘s Chris Colfer. “End of the Beginning” could have explored these two characters in a humane and compassionate way. Instead, they just got typecast and we’re left feeling that if people don’t look and behave in a way that society has deemed “normal” then there must be something wrong with them. I’m not sure that’s a message I want floating around in my head much less people who may already feel set apart from mainstream society.