It’s rare that a television show goes out of its way to deal so explicitly and in such a classically orthodox way with Christian themes but that is exactly what Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which airs on ABC, did in its season series finale and runner-up episodes earlier this month.
Two in particular came to the fore: the reality of evil and the nature of the atonement.
But first a little backstory for those of you who may not have seen the show: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is Marvel’s television companion to its now seemingly endless parade of blockbuster films, such as the Avenger series. The show in its most recent season has focused on the inhumans, a term which, despite what it sounds like, is morally neutral. Inhumans are really supermen and superwomen with special powers, like the ability to move at lightning speed or produce f spontaneously. Some inhumans join forces with the good, others serve evil.
Now, to the last three episodes of this season. And yes if you haven’t seen them and you plan to, spoilers follow. If you want to view them online you can see them here.
First, the doctrine of evil.
As mentioned above, the story this season has been made no attempt to conceal many of its overt theological themes. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the archvillain character Hive, so dangerous that he was excommunicated by other inhumans to a forlorn planet, only to be brought back by a shadowy underworld organization known as Hydra. Hive’s powers are formidable: with his hands outstretched he can suck the cells off a body, reducing it to a grisly clump of blood and bones.
He’s actually called the devil several times near the end of the season. You can chalk that up to Hollywood hyperbole but the show captures his evil a way remarkably consistent with classic Christian spirituality.
First, Hive is the only one of the inhumans who is no longer really human. Instead, he lives as a parasite, inhabiting and animating the bodies of dead humans, usually ones he’s killed. We only glimpse Hive outside a body once: as an ugly snake-like spine of flesh slithering across the sands from one host to a new one. One of the more intriguing reveals of the season is when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s protagonists discover that Hive is an organism made up entirely of parasitic cells. This is a classic understanding of evil: as a sort of nothingness that exists only by ‘being’ a parasite on the good.
One of the most remarkable displays of Hive’s evil comes in the penultimate episode of this season. It arises in a confrontation between Hive a gang of anti-inhuman skinheads.
How does evil deal with hate?
Well, it uses it. The skinhead characters have been unwittingly baited into a trap. They simply want to beat up some inhumans. Hive has far more sinister plans for them. He quickly overpowers them and takes them back to his research lab, where he has them shoved into a sort of gas chamber and pumps in a gas meant to turn them into inhumans. But what emerges is nothing like the inhumans we’ve seen thus far. The former skinheads have become less than what they were: their faces have melted somewhat and it’s clear most brain function is gone.
The doctor-under-duress who created the formula is horrified at what he’s helped to spawn. He worries Hive will be furious at him. But Hive is delighted by what he sees.
Does this not well illustrate how evil, as a sort of nothingness, make things less than what they are? Does it not also point to the truth of Pope St. John Paul II’s dictum that the opposite of love—the highest good—is not hating someone but using them?
But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D also gives us an illustration of something else: the atonement on the cross. (Again: this is a big-time spoiler alert for people who want to see it.)
In the series finale, S.H.I.E.L.D. races to prevent Hive from taking his insidious gas and releasing it into the atmosphere through a warhead. Unable to defeat Hive head-on they finally find a way at the end: slipping the warhead onto one of their souped-up fighter jets and taking it into space, where the warhead can detonate harmlessly into a vacuum.
Someone has to volunteer to load the warhead onto plane, a mission that, thanks to an advance vision of the future, they know will likely end in the agent’s death.
One of the agents, Daisy, who also happens to be one of the inhumans, decides to do it. She has been overcome with guilt over the many crimes—including the attempted murder of her former partner—while infected by Hive. This mission seems her only way out. In one of the final scenes, she is bent over another inhuman agent with whom she has fallen in love, Lincoln, who has been seriously wounded. He urges her not to go. But he is also, at least in the moment, powerless to stop her.
She makes it into the jet, only to be ambushed by Lincoln. He throws her out of the jet and pilots it away. A distraught Daisy, regroups with the other agents in their main ship, whispering, “He’s paying for my mistake.”
Phil Coulson, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., who is himself carrying guilt over a murder he has committed, corrects her. “No, he’s paying for all our mistakes,” Coulson says.
As the ship slips into space, one of the final scenes shows a cross necklace Lincoln had taken with him floating into the air.