The Day Phil Coulson Fell: Pitilessness on Maveth

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(Warning: This post contains spoilers from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season three.)

Frodo: . . . What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Dumbledore: Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

In any given semester I get to talk a lot about pity. At FSU I teach Religion and Twentieth Century Fantasy Literature. Starting with The Lord of the Rings and moving through Harry Potter, I ask my students to track what mercy does for the people extending and receiving it. In brief, it pays dividends. Think about Gollum. From Bilbo to Frodo and Sam to Faramir, Gollum is spared. In the end this mercy destroys the Ring. Faced with the reality of parting with it, Frodo falls. I argue Sam certainly wasn’t capable of tossing him into the fires of Mount Doom. Gollum had to be there. Similarly, fans can debate the extent to which Harry’s willingness to turn Peter Pettigrew over to the Dementors constitutes genuine mercy, but the fact that he did ultimately allows for their escape from Malfoy Manor.

Though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe operate outside the fantasy genre, I see the same principle at work. From the moment Phil Coulson picks up Rising Tide hacktivist Skye (a.k.a. Daisy Johnson) in the pilot and brings her on as a consultant, all the groundwork is laid for her eventual promotion to full team member. Obviously Phil takes personal interest in his special unit, but Melinda May is right that something about Skye causes him to lose a sense of detachment.

For Phil, however, this isn’t a problem. He acknowledges her compassion may be an asset. He sees in her the qualities his mentor, Nick Fury, saw in him. To have the capacity for compassion in a profession where “trust no one” is inherited wisdom is rare. Even though Skye herself believes John Garrett is “evil”, Leo Fitz gives voice to one of the MCU’s central truths: “Well, I don’t believe that people are born evil. Something must have happened” (“Ragtag”). Through both word and action, Phil works to bring Skye around to seeing the world in this way. Even after Skye’s transformation, he remains her mentor. Daisy, the Inhuman, still looks up to Phil, the human. She rejects her mother’s relativistic morality. She sees something good and productive about Phil’s ethical standards.

This is what makes Phil’s failure on Maveth (the Hebrew word for “death”) so powerful. I recently gave a paper at a symposium arguing that the MCU is a theodicy (an attempt to work out the problem of evil). I argued that human action invariably causes destruction at the same time it is intended to increase global security. Think about Fury’s tampering with alien technology or Tony Stark’s creation of Ultron. Both led to the decimation of entire cities and the near destruction of the human race. Each step toward parity with Asgard has hurt a lot of innocent people. This, I concluded, was the central moral thread running throughout the MCU: that untimely death is evil. So evil in fact that Fury authorized the use of alien technology to bring Phil back.

So when we saw Phil act as the agent of untimely death on Maveth we knew terrible things must be coming. Motivated by revenge, Phil killing Grant Ward allowed the Inhuman “It” to come to our world. We know “It” killed an advanced civilization on Maveth. We saw the decaying influence it had on Will Daniels’ body. We’re seeing the corruption of Ward’s. Blinded by grief and rage, Phil set the stage for a war with death (evil) itself.

Had he just found it in himself to extend mercy to the unarmed Ward, “It” would likely have remained on Maveth. His inability to see Ward as an object of pity may well undo the MCU in a way Bilbo’s mercy saved Middle-earth. It has already changed him. As May noted in this week’s episode (“Bouncing Back”): “Some things you don’t get past. They scar you—change you permanently.” When he responds, “I don’t know what happened there” she consoles him, “I do. You joined the cavalry.” This is not necessarily a good thing.

(The above image is pulled from progmonot.com.)

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Frank Underwood’s Moral and Political Limits

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(Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fourth season of House of Cards.)

I don’t remember who got me into House of Cards. It might not have been a single person at all. Perhaps I just gave into all the buzz surrounding the show’s second season my final semester of Divinity School. Between application due dates for doctoral study and graduation from my Master’s program, I discovered Frank Underwood’s Washington. Like most viewers, I knew from his response to the unseen hit-and-run of a neighbor’s dog that Frank was far from ordinary. Lewis University Professor Michael Cunningham calls him “Machiavellian.” The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch finds parallels to William Shakespeare’s Richard III. Reddit user JamesRenner argues Frank is really the devil. In a well-written piece, columnist Cathleen Falsani argues, “He’s a monster, but he’s still a human, if only just.”

This caveat is important. After Thomas Harris introduced Hannibal Lecter to the American consciousness, the notion that villains are somehow other than human has stuck. Wrongdoers like Once Upon a Time’s Rumpelstiltskin are excused from common morality by circumstances. Others (like Doctor Who’s River Song in “Let’s Kill Hitler”) are granted exemptions by virtue of their conditioning. And on it goes. The “anti-hero” lane of television drama has grown into a highway. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, we relish the machinations of evil characters. I want to argue this is because we are always struggling to process suffering and injustice. What Frank gives us, then, is a better evaluative measure than Tony Soprano or Walter White because he bears the burden of his actions.

Frank doesn’t make excuses for the harms he inflicts. Rather, he justifies them by claiming adherence to “ruthless pragmatism.” Unlike his fellow anti-heroes, Frank wakes up every day committed to back-stabbing, horse-trading, and legacy-building. He doesn’t parse it. He doesn’t need to justify it. He knows no nostalgia. For him, college is just another four years, (unopened) birthday cards are tossed out, and his predecessor’s (customary) letter makes for better kindling than reading material. In spite of this fact, he managed to get married. Leading up to the third season finale, his formidable wife, Claire, understood herself as Frank’s equal. He disabuses her of this notion through emotional abuse. I actually cheered when she packed her bags and left.

Had the series ended on that note, I’d have said Frank was unable to grapple with the damage of his actions, but then came season four. Faced with a life without Claire, the importance of social bonds became real for Frank. As Majority Whip, he appreciated this. The files he kept on his colleagues reveal a finely attuned sense that love leaves us vulnerable. Though he often claims Claire doesn’t know what it’s like to work for anything—that he’s a “a white-trash cracker from a white-trash town that no one would even bother to piss on”—she’s been by his side the entire time. Faced with losing her, something in Frank clicks and it has changed how I view the series.

It’s easy to view Frank as a ruthless pragmatist, worshipping at the altar of (him)self. But season four confronts us with a rich portrait of a vulnerable human being. Up to season four, Frank had been subject to embarrassment or scandal. Until now, the fight has been for Frank’s political life. But the latest chapters in a longer drama finally bring Frank’s demons to bear.

Close friends can attest to the fact that I often decried Beau Willimon for letting characters and plot lines drop off. There was something beautiful—and sinister—about old faces making a comeback. Their reckoning may yet be Frank’s undoing.

Take, specifically, Frank’s vision of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes in a dark Oval Office. The literal seat of power for the leader in the free world, the Oval demands no further symbolic explanation. He spent a lifetime getting there, but in his near-death vision he tries to escape (only to be met by a broken door handle). In life he noted, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.” Near death, meeting these casualties eye to eye repulses him. Zoe’s sexual overture alludes to an earlier conversation in which he mused, “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” Tangled up with both sex and power, Frank’s armor cracks.

He can no longer afford to be so reductive, so reactive. He needs Claire. And he hates it… so much so that he daydreams about a bloody confrontation. He has no choice but to accept it, however. For awhile he needed Peter and Zoe. I want to take more seriously the idea that Frank viewed Peter as his friend and himself as a father figure to Zoe. Both, sacrificed easily on the altar of political expediency, haunt him. Corruption, manipulation, and overbearingness are part of Frank’s self-written job description. But murder? This seems to wear at him in a way no other misdeed does.

Think about how he confided in Secretary of State Cathy Durant. He knows how bundled up their fates and futures are. He confesses to murder only to retract at the last second, playing it off as a means of bringing her back into line. We’ve never seen Frank explicitly tell Claire about Peter and Zoe. Some people (like Lucas Goodwin and Tom Hammerschmidt) know, but they don’t have a first-person account). This has to be examined in light of Frank’s musing that they (he and Claire) should have kept some people closer.

This is not the same kind of ruthless pragmatism from the show’s first three seasons. It reveals a moral awakening. Edward Meechum is not the first person to die for Frank’s ambitions. Close to his own death, Peter and Zoe loom large.

Frank is a monster, but as Falsani noted long before season four, he’s a human monster. It makes sense that there are limits to Frank’s stomach for wrongdoing. Whether Peter and Zoe grow like weeds in Frank’s mind remains to be seen, but I’m willing to bet they will be front and center in his eventual fall from grace.

(The above image is pulled from Netflix.)

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On Dr. Henry McCord’s Expansive Curriculum Vitae

Don’t get me wrong, as a doctoral student in religious ethics I’m thrilled a main character in a network drama is a professor of religion. Madam Secretary (Sundays 8/7c on CBS) is one of the few shows I watch week to week. Ordinarily I wait until the end of a show’s run to watch it all the way through. But something about the political drama that is Secretary of State Elizabeth (“Bess”) McCord’s life draws me in. (Am I looking to fill a void left by Game of Thrones? Probably.) Married to the “third hottest D.C. spouse”, Henry, she manages to walk a fine line between her former life as a member of the CIA’s “inner sanctum” and her current role as a public servant.

Her husband, on the other hand, doesn’t even know there is a line. Not only is he a former fighter pilot, he also worked side jobs as an NSA agent. In a recent episode (“Right of the Boom”) President Dalton (Bess’s former boss at the Company) asked Henry to head a special counterterrorism task force. In the most recent episode (“Hijriyyah”), we learn his unit Murphy Station is “the tip of the spear” in the fight against ISIS stand-in Hizb al-Shahid. Now I’m fine with Henry having one foot in the Ivory Tower and one foot in the halls of power (I’ve read Amy Gutmann, Leon Kass, Larry Summers, etc.). What I’m less okay with is the fact that Dr. McCord is an expert at apparently everything when it comes to religious studies.

At the outset of the series we know Henry works alongside his wife as a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia (by my best guess Bess works in the Department of History or Political Science). When she joins him in a library lecturing passionately about Aquinas, I had an immediate sense he teaches in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture subfield. After Dalton asks Elizabeth to serve as his Secretary of State following the death of Vincent Marsh (the would-be Iranian regime changer and inter-party primary challenger), Henry accepts a job teaching “theology” at Georgetown. My inner Divinity School graduate screamed. I loved it.

In episode three (“The Operative”) Henry accepts an invitation to lunch with Russian Foreign Minister, Anton Gorev. Under the pretense of discussing an article in which Henry wrote (according to Gorev’s paraphrase), “religious traditions breed cultural divisions, but they can also dissolve national borders.” He cites the modern Middle-East as an example. We don’t know if that’s Henry’s contention or whether Gorev is simply applying the concept. Regardless, the lunch is the show’s way of introducing us to the fact that Henry is teaching an ethics course. There’s a robust field of theological ethics, so that didn’t really bother me.

By episode six (“The Call”), we learn Henry went to seminary. One of his former mentors is a crooked priest with connections to tribal warlords who could stave off a genocide. In episode eight (“Need to Know”), Henry is reactivated by the NSA to plant a bug in the home of a dastardly colleague with connections to “the Butcher of the Euphrates.” They banter about a copy of one of Henry’s books by Søren Kierkegaard. Maybe he had to read it for his comprehensive exams. So far this is all squaring nicely with what we already know about his work.

But by “Chains of Command” (s. 1, ep. 13) he’s trotting out Gandhi and Muhammad quotes. Maybe this one’s a little thin on evidence, but as a doctoral student I rarely remember quotes from people I’m not actively studying. We know White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson has a photographic memory, so maybe there’s room for another guy like him in the Beltway. Five episodes later, and Henry’s flown into Bolivia to talk down the leader of a Jonestown-style cult. There are at least five other dedicated scholars of new religious movements I would have at the top of my emergency call list, but President Dalton opted to send a self-described “medievalist.” And by the first season finale (“There But for the Grace of God”) he’s quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Jackson introduces him to his new team in the White House, he claims Henry is an expert in Islam and jihad.

This, combined with his impressive knowledge of Eastern Orthodox saints and shrines displayed on a trip to Russia in “The Necessary Art” (s. 1., ep. 20), proves to me that all future doctoral students of religion should just quit. Dr. Henry McCord can do it all. They’ve yet to say where he did his Ph.D., but whoever he studied under is clearly minting the kind of job candidates who go on to marry cabinet-level diplomats. (I ask jokingly,) What hope is there for the rest of us?

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“Dead is dead”: The Return of Kit Harrington Does Not Mean the Return of Jon Snow

Responding to questions about Jon Snow’s fate at the end of “Mother’s Mercy” (s. 5, ep. 10), showrunner Dan Weiss claimed “Dead is dead.” Several sightings of actor Kit Harrington at shooting locations prompted HBO to release a season six poster featuring the recently removed Lord Commander. This has temporarily shifted fan focus from asking, “Is he dead?” to “How did he survive?”

But this is not the right question. The right question is: Will Kit Harrington still be playing Jon Snow?

For some fans this will be a distinction without a difference. While it may seem pedantic, it gets at a larger conversation about what it means to be “us.” It strikes me that being physically unchanged is a rather low bar (if you’re interested in further exploring this topic, consider a rundown of Derek Parfit’s teletransporter paradox found here).

In Game of Thrones and the books they’re based on (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin), “being there” is not quite the same as “being them.” Two examples are in order. First, we have the rather simple case of “Robert Strong.” In both the show and the books, Qyburn is permitted to perform experiments on Gregor Clegane’s body both before and after he succumbs to wounds sustained during his duel with Prince Oberyn of Dorne. (In both the show and the books, it is noted that “Strong” never removes his helmet and has taken a holy vow of silence.) Second, we have the more complicated case of Beric Dondarrion. When resurrected by the Red Priest, Thoros of Myr, he notes, “Every time I come back, I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.” This is a pale and incomplete imitation of Dondarrion’s former self. What embodies him is aware of this imbalance and its limitations. (In the books he sacrifices what little is left of him to reanimate another beloved character. At this point it seems unlikely she’s to make an appearance on-screen, but there is a lively debate among fans as to the degree of control she has over her vengeful actions.)

Thus, if the prevailing theory is correct (that Melisandre will use magic to bring Jon “back”), we’re going to have the same kind of change Beyond the Wall that we see in the Brotherhood Without Banners. This may or may not be a bad thing. On one hand it means the end of a beloved character. On the other hand, it means the introduction of a figure familiar to Martin’s novels: Azor Ahai. If we think about Daenerys Targaryen as the “Fire” half of the series title, Jon is a good candidate for “Ice.” But Azor Ahai is a messianic figure in the books. Melisandre believes Stannis Baratheon to be him, but while she is the most gifted reader of signs, she’s not always correct. That she desserts Stannis before the Battle of Winterfell in the show is suspect.

So while Kit Harrington may not play the Jon we know, he’ll be the figure Westeros needs. (Unless Melisandre has been duped into serving the enemies of her god, in which case, whoops.) To bring this post full circle, it raises questions about what it means to remain “us.” Using the show’s own logic, Jon will have lost some part of himself. More likely than not showrunners will instruct Harrington to play as “Jon Plus.” In so doing, we’ll have some meaty questions to keep us warm on all those wintery nights to come.

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“Am I a good man?”: Lessons from the Twelfth Doctor’s Moral Dilemma

At the beginning of “Into the Dalek” (s. 8, ep. 2) Peter Capaldi’s Doctor returns to ask Clara Oswald a question.

Twelfth Doctor: I need something from you. I need the truth… Clara, be my pal. Tell me: am I a good man?

Clara: I don’t know.

It’s an apt question for a show called Doctor Who. I only just finished my first viewing (from Christopher Eccleston to the present) several hours ago. I paid close attention to what changes and what stays the same after the Doctor regenerates. I’ll have to go back and confirm, but I want to argue that his commitment to certain principles (not using weapons, not killing) remains intact.

In the Doctor Who universe, this code initially seems to be a source of goodness. (How these principles are lived and often compromised is a different post entirely.) In “A Good Man Goes to War” (s. 6, ep. 7), Madame Kovarian taunts Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor by claiming “Good men have too many rules.” His response (“Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”) squarely puts the Eleventh Doctor in the “Good” column. He’s so good he makes “demons run.”

We see in “Hell Bent” (s. 9, ep. 12) the Twelfth Doctor claiming “a duty of care,” thus signaling his commitment to the moral code adhered to by his past regenerations. So it is striking for two reasons—one of in-universe significance and the other of note for everyone watching—that he even has to grapple with that question.

First, it highlights the fact that while there is a single individual (“the Doctor”), his virtue is contingent on the attitudes and dispositions of his current face. So it is meaningful that he asks Clara, who first came on the scene during a prior regeneration. She has a relatively unique perspective from which to judge this existential question. Her uncertainty compounds his own.

Second, this is how we tend to evaluate character in our world. Rather than assign goodness based on the presence of a moral code, we tend to assess a person’s goodness based on the action(s) performed. The Twelfth Doctor’s introspection constitutes a maturation point for Doctor Who in terms of moral reasoning.

We can construct the Doctor’s code based on the things he says. We can then judge his actions based on a strict adherence to that code. The Eleventh Doctor, like the Tenth Doctor before him, was not wholly consistent in his application of his abstract principles. Yet it did not cause the kind of angst for him that it causes for Capaldi’s Doctor.

While I’ll still defend Matt Smith as my favorite Doctor, I think there’s something beautifully unsettling about the Twelfth Doctor that was just lacking in the Eleventh. If we accept as another truth about all his faces the fact that the Doctor “runs”, we finally have a Doctor standing his ground and doing the work of learning about himself rather than adapting to his current personality.

There is value, I think, in watching this unfold. The Twelfth Doctor’s declaration from “Death in Heaven” (s. 8, ep. 12) that

I am not a good man! And I’m not a bad man. I am not a hero. I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. You know what I am? I… am… an idiot. With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning. I don’t need an army, I never have. Because I’ve got them. Always them. Because love, it’s not an emotion. Love is a promise.

highlights something essential to our moral development: that it can’t happen alone. We are not always robust, self-sufficient individuals. The Doctor, with the ability to experience all of time and space at his fingertips, should not be left alone. This is a theme hit hard by Donna Noble, Amy Pond, and Clara. The Doctor, the closest thing to a god we see in the show, needs active reminders that his code is a practice as much as it is a composition of principles.

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