Last week I said that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to stay away from international locales, based on their reliance on stereotypes and less than stellar performance when it comes to cultural sensitivity. This was mostly in response to their treatment of Peru in “0-8-4” and I had my doubts that Belarus fared any better in “Eye-Spy” (which was otherwise a pretty great episode). In the comment, reader Syros pointed out that I was right to have my suspicions and Belarus got the stereotyping shaft. Why do I bring this up? S.H.I.E.L.D. Ep. 5, “The Girl in the Flower Dress”, begins with a few notes from a guzheng (the ubiquitous Chinese zither), before cutting to a shot of a junk sailing past the Hong Kong skyline.
Fortunately, once we get past that initial stereotypical ridiculousness, we’re presented with a modern, not too terrible Hong Kong resident Chan Ho Yin (played by New York-based Japanese/Taiwanese actor Louis Ozawa), this week’s McGuffin. We also meet the lovely Ruth Negga (Misfits) doing a credible American accent as the titular Girl in the Flower Dress, Raina. As always, I’m going to try to keep things fairly spoiler free.
I’m glad that S.H.I.E.L.D. is bringing the superhumans, what with last week’s Akela “Eye-Spy” Amador, and now this week with Chan Ho Yin who, as a pyrokinetic, is bestowed with the silly codename “Scorch”. It turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has had a program monitoring people with powers for quite some time – presumably before even the first Iron Man film, probably as far back as the 1940’s – and Chan has been on their radar for a while now. What’s more, rather than bringing all known people with powers into the fold, they allow them to go about their business. I find that odd, don’t you?
A Rising Tide (Skye’s old Anonymous-like outfit) hacker with ties to Skye gets into S.H.I.E.L.D’s files, selling them to an unknown villain who then absconds with Chan. It would be nice if, given that there is another person with powers in the neighborhood, this wasn’t another instance of half the episode being taken up by Skye having to prove herself. Yes, she’s been playing them all season, but she never should have been on the team in the first place.
Ultimately, “The Girl in the Flower Dres”‘ is the first big lore episode of the season. The Big Bad is further developed, calling back to the pilot, and a lot of time is spent with Skye’s character arc. Generally, this is the point where Joss Whedon-run shows begin to get good. Unfortunately, it bugs me that this episode (hell, this entire season) has been about bringing on guest stars of color and throwing them under the narrative bus.
Every person of color who has showed up on the show has turned adversary. Every last one. Even Akela Amador, who was redeemed at the end of episode 4 by Agent Coulson (which in itself is problematic), was initially a nasty threat. The Pilot’s Mike Peterson and now Chan Ho Yin were innocents who just wanted a better life and paid the price for it. Comandante Camilla Reyes was rotten to the core. Akela Amador may have been a victim, but she was also a stone cold killer. While I commend Mutant Enemy and Marvel for giving actors of color many guest starring opportunities, must every one of them be evil?
This was actually a pretty damned good episode, with great effects and acting, and without leaning too much on terrible cultural stereotypes. Overall, I enjoyed it, and I definitely want to see where they go with the Big Bad. I’m even grudgingly intrigued by Skye’s reveal at the end of the episode. On the other hand, I can add some weirdness surrounding casting POC to the show’s already apparent lack of cultural insight.
After watching this episode, I’m starting to wonder whether I should lay these issues at the show’s feet, or if it’s indicative of a greater problem within Hollywood and TV production, specifically. If I were to watch other shows with this kind of critical eye, how would they fare in terms of racial and cultural sensitivity? Would it be clear that they do their homework? Based on the way crime procedurals like CSI and Bones tend to treat cultures and subcultures, probably not. Should I be thankful that S.H.I.E.L.D. casts actors of color at all, and gives them plenty of good material to work with, even while casting them as villains? I really don’t know, but it’s certainly starting to bug me. I hope that next week’s villain is a White dude and the whole episode takes place in suburban Chicago.