Agents of Shield: An Exploration of Evil (Part 2)

In my previous post, I discussed the discomfort many people have in considering evil and how common it truly is. We want to think that evil is huge and powerful instead of realizing it is actually petty and understandable. Under the right circumstances, evil is something we all are capable of being.

It is this theme that is being explored via Agent Grant Ward in the new show, Agents of Shield (AoS). Ward was a “good guy” who was recently revealed to be a sleeper agent for Hydra, an evil organization. And although Ward’s villainous acts are not being glossed over, the show is giving us the reasons behind his evil. As it does for many, it started for Ward with an abusive familial environment in which he had no power.

People want to dismiss the bad family environment – one of the most formidable of influences – as something that can be overcome. Yes, some people can do this but for many, they go with what they know. If all you know growing up is violence, particularly violence you are forced to commit at someone else’s behest (like Ward was), then it makes sense that you admire physical strength and try to align yourself with the most powerful person you can find. That is why many kids in dysfunctional family situations often align themselves (like Ward did) with others who can guarantee their protection. People also search for a sense of belonging. So, if you can find a group of people who not only protect you but also give you a sense of care and purpose, then they will be where your loyalty lies. That’s why gangs are so prevalent and hard to combat.

Military groups are similar. They also get people to join through the promise of protection and family and frequently play around with good and evil. They quickly set up an Us versus Them mentality (i.e., Shield vs. Hydra, Allies vs. Axis of Evil) because when we start viewing “Us” as good and superior, it becomes easier to do bad things to “Them.” Social psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated that people must view the “other” as immoral and inferior in order for them to commit evil against them (which is why so many slaughters are performed in the name of purity).

Many groups often break down recruits in order to rebuild them in their own image and this is regularly done via evil deeds. Gang initiations often require criminal acts, like stealing, beating, raping or murdering. One of the first thing rebel armies do to child soldiers and kidnapped girls is make them kill someone, often someone they love (like their parents). This is a multi-purpose strategy. The group ensures the new member’s loyalty because where will they go now that they have done such evil things? They also can get them to do worse deeds because, after all, when you’ve committed such bad acts already, what’s a little more? It also serves as a way to bond with other recruits because now you’ve all done bad things together. Who else can relate? Even if the group’s training doesn’t insist upon evil acts in order to join, if group members engage in such behavior anyway – as can happen during war – the same dynamic occurs.

Ward’s story has a mixture of these strategies. He aligned himself with a powerful father figure whom he believed cared about and protected him. He was asked to kill a beloved canine companion (whether he did is still open for discussion) and, once he was revealed to be a traitor to his team, Ward believed he could not turn back; his only choice was to continue his evil ways. Yet the show appears to be asking whether this is the way it should be.

All of this is kind of dark for a television show based on comic books but what I think they’re trying to point out that we all have the potential for evil within us. Evil isn’t grand and powerful; it’s rooted in selfishness and fear. It is why otherwise good soldiers commit wartime atrocities or upstanding people just snap and act in ways that no one ever would have imagined they could. Evil is often just a way for people to survive, especially people like Ward who were raised around evil. After all, if you never know goodness, how are you supposed to be good?

Our tendency to be so rigid in our beliefs about good and evil is dangerous. If we go around thinking that we can recognize evil whenever we see it, we are likely to be fooled. If we think that evil people don’t have goodness in them, then we will never believe that otherwise decent folks can be abusive, corrupt or dangerous and that puts us at risk. It makes us doubt that the person we see behaving horribly can possibly be doing what we think they are. It makes us less likely to intervene because we know that person and they are not evil. It makes us manufacture justifications and rationalizations so that we can still believe in the goodness of that person and not worry about the evil.

If, however, we can acknowledge that evil does coexist with goodness, then the situation can change. Instead of seeing people only the way we want them to be, we can view them as they really are and not be surprised. Instead of vilifying people for their darkest impulses, we can focus on treatment. Instead of seeking to punish, we can look to prevention.

We don’t have to paint some people as All Bad and therefore incapable of redemption or undeserving of forgiveness. We can choose to understand the reasons for their behavior and offer people a way back from the destruction that evil brings. We do have real world examples of this. There are gang members who are contributing members of the community, military personnel who use their war-time experiences for the promotion of peace and former child soldiers who have left their dark pasts behind in order to live the rest of their lives in the sun.

This is where I hope they go with Agent Grant Ward. Instead of just killing him off or having him find redemption through giving his life for his former team next season, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they let him earn it over time. I would love to watch his transformation from evil to good through making better choices and really working to atone for his mistakes. Given the pervasive nature of evil, it would be great to have a model for how to overcome it. So, come on Agent Ward! Come back from the Dark Side and show us how it’s done.

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