This essay contains multiple spoilers for the midseason finale of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you have yet to watch episode 10 of season two, please proceed with caution.
Well, it appears that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I have come to a parting of the ways. After weeks of relentlessly taunting the audience with the death of a black supporting character (first with the potentially mortal wounding of Antoine Triplett in episode 8, and then with the uncertain fate of Alfonso Mackenzie in episode 9), the showrunners of AoS went whole hog with the death of the fan-favorite character Trip in its episode 10 midseason finale—sacrificing him to the cause of creating an even more tragic origin story for the already quite thoroughly tragic Skye.
I was not surprised. In fact, I’ve been waiting for Agent Trip to die almost from the moment he was introduced (1). When he first debuted, I expected him to be the stereotypical bad black guy who dies (2). When he was ultimately revealed to be on the side of righteousness, I expected him to be the stereotypical good black guy who dies. I predicted (on the basis of rumors that actor B.J. Britt might have been spotted on the set of Age of Ultron (3)) that Trip would be killed in that film. So in that respect I was actually overly optimistic about the length of time the producers of the show intended to keep his character alive. Perhaps I should have suspected that his death would come sooner rather than later when Lance Hunter was introduced and the show’s dramatic tension began to focus almost solely on him, but somehow I didn’t.
The death of Agent Triplett is part of a disturbing trend in primetime television that has been ongoing for quite some time and shows no signs of abating (4). Just two weeks prior to the death of Trip on AoS, the showrunners of Sleepy Hollow killed off a black supporting character of its own, the universally adored Captain Frank Irving—much to fans’ dismay. When these characters are killed the excuses are almost always the same: the producers wanted the show to have weight, wanted the characters’ actions to have consequences, and wanted the struggles to have stakes (5). Anyone familiar with the patterns of dramatic motion picture storytelling—whether for the small screen or the big screen—and with the justifications put forward by content creators when they make these types of decisions, will not be shocked by any of this. But for a show touted for its diversity, the death of a major and beloved black character feels like a particular betrayal.
The indifferent treatment of black characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is particularly ironic given that it is one of the most diverse shows currently airing on primetime (6), but if I've learned anything from my time watching this show it is that a basically diverse cast is not enough—you have to deploy that diverse cast in a thoughtful manner, and, let's be real here: AoS has never done that. As I have noted in previous recaps of the series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a major problem with its treatment of its minority characters, and especially its black characters. It has had this problem since the beginning of Season 1 when they introduced Mike Petersen—a black character whose story arc saw him disfigured, abducted, subjected to extreme body modification against his will, and forced to perform horrific acts on behalf of a clandestine military organization in order to preserve the life of his son (who was also abducted), and who has since disappeared from the narrative entirely while the showrunners pursue other storylines. For those of us who went into the show expecting to see the unfolding of a superhero narrative for Mike Petersen, this handling of his character was extremely disturbing.
Other prominent black characters, like Akela Amador and Alfonso “Mack” Mackenzie, have been handled indifferently as well. Akela, like Mike Petersen, was a victim of abduction, subjected to body modification, and forced to work as a criminal, and she too has since disappeared from the narrative—having served her purpose as a tool to explore Phil Coulson’s evolving personality in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. Mack was possessed by an alien intelligence, robbed of his bodily autonomy, and left for dead by his teammates. He escaped death via as deus-ex-machina, presumably because he is set to become a key element in the struggle for trust between two white characters on the show—Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse (7).
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has received a lot of praise for its prominent inclusion of minority characters, particularly Asian characters Melinda May and Skye—and the fact that the show puts an emphasis on these two women of color is indeed a wonderful thing to see (8). But given that practically no other minorities are privileged in this way, their inclusion only serves to reinforce the notion that you cannot simply fill your roster with a bunch of token characters and call it a day. You have to use them in ways that do not demean them. Having a couple of “strong (Asian) female characters” is not enough—not when you wantonly torture and kill your black characters (not to mention a significant number of your other female characters and your queer characters); not when everything is still about a bunch of cis-straight white dudes. Phil Coulson went to the ends of the earth to save Skye when she was mortally wounded in season one, but when Mack fell to his presumed death a mere two episodes ago, Coulson seemed immediately ready to sacrifice him to a higher ideal. The difference in those two attitudes is striking, and while such a contrast may seem trivial: it is not. This callous treatment of black characters on television is a direct reflection of (and subtle justification for) the callous treatment of black people every day.
Now I’m not saying that you should be as mad about this as you are about the actual killing of black men and women in the US. What I’m saying, though, is that representation matters, and this is the flip side of Whoopi Goldberg seeing Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek and being able to image herself in the future for the first time (9). This is young black men and women seeing themselves depicted as cannon fodder—as disposable to their society. And they aren’t the only ones who see that, either. The young men and women who will grow up to be the police who brutalize those black men and women, who will grow up to be the prosecutors and judges who don't see the need to provide those victims with justice, who will grow up to be the you and me who ignore the suffering of our brethren in favor of the comfortable story we like to tell ourselves about how far beyond racism we’ve come in the last fifty years? They see it, too.
Representation matters. And I’m not going to support creators who don't understand that.
1) If you go to my tumblr and do a search of posts tagged “don’t-you-fucking-dare,” you will find that every single one pertains to Agent Antoine Triplett, my love for him, and my fear that Marvel was ultimately going to kill him off to further the character development of someone else in their Cinematic Universe.
2) This expectation was not unfounded. According to a recent interview with BJ Britt, Trip was intended to die with Bill Paxton’s villainous John Garrett at the end of season one. See Terri Schwartz, “‘Agents of SHIELD’:B.J. Britt’s Agent Triplett Was Supposed to Die in Season 1, zap2it (December 10, 2014).
3) Kelly West, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Actor Spotted onAvengers 2 Set,” Cinema Blend (June14, 2014).
4) Monika Bartyzel, “TV Needs to Stop Treating BlackCharacters as Expendable,” The Week (December12, 2014).
5) Maurissa Tancharoen gave this as the reason for Trip’s death; Mark Goffman gave it as the reason for Frank Irving’s. See Eric Goldman,“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Creators on the Midseason Finale, Inhumans, andSkye’s Identity,” IGN (December 9,2014); and Maureen Ryan, “‘Sleepy Hollow’ Fall Finale Secrets Revealed: Head Honcho onthe Big Shocker and What’s Next,” HuffPost Entertainment (December 1, 2014).
6) Prior to the death of Agent Trip, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the fourth most diverse show on television, with POC characters comprising 39% of the main cast, and 40% of the recurring cast. For more information on AoS and how it stacks up to other shows, see this post on diversity in television.
7) The show’s handling of Raina, another black character, has also been decidedly mixed. Though she has sometimes been shown to be a highly intelligent and complex villain, she has also been subject to gross bodily harm and deprived of her bodily autonomy by both the heroes and the villains of the show. Our last glimpse of her indicated that, in contrast to Skye—who transformed into an Inhuman who still looks basically human—she will become a physically monstrous figure in the forthcoming half of the season.
8) I could get into the stereotypical handling of May as a distant, macho, and almost masculine character type who is so often mistaken for a “strong female character,” but that’s a whole other essay entirely.9) Dave Nemetz, “Whoopi Goldberg Explains Why She Wanted to Be on ‘StarTrek,’ Yahoo TV (June 24, 2014).
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