I am many things. Two of those things are comic book fan and mental health advocate, and I take both of them very seriously. So I was surprised, and pleasantly so, when I found a storyline on last night’s Agents of SHIELD mid-season premiere that not only introduced the very exciting Inhumans mythology to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it did so through a storyline reminiscent of my own experiences with mental health.
The concepts of mental health, trauma, and difference are not strange to the world of AoS. In fact, they’ve been dealing with a version of this story all season, as Agent Leo Fitz has been recovering from near-death, and learning to function on the team now that his brain has been damaged. While watching Fitz find his place once again has been interesting, it’s even more interesting to watch the reactions that other members of the team have to him. Those people who knew him before, when he was the Fitz of season one, take pity on him. They see him as broken, as something less than he was. Mac on the other hand, a new member of the team, points out that he has only ever known this Fitz, and because of that, he sees no reason to treat him any differently than he would any other person. Slowly, the other members of the team are starting to become comfortable with the new Fitz, and things are starting to normalize, though he still feels different.
As of last night, we have a whole new group of people to contend with, the Inhumans, of which Skye (a core member of the team) is one. As a result of the events of the mid-season finale, Skye’s DNA has been hugely altered. She has become something other than human, has abilities she cannot control, and she is terrified of them. But what was most intriguing about the way the story was framed was that as Skye comes to realize her difference, she also realizes how the rest of her team (essentially her whole world) sees people like her. I think it says a lot about the way we view people who are the same as they have always been on the outside, but who have gone through an intense change internally, and it does so in a number of ways.
Loss of Control
There is a certain amount of confusion that comes along with developing a mental illness, especially in your 20s. You know at your core that there is something wrong, something off, something not quite what it used to be. You ignore it, and it builds. Eventually, you start to figure it out, but you deny it until it builds to such a point that you can no longer ignore it. It explodes.
Over the course of this episode, Skye is slowly coming to terms with what she has become. You can tell right off the bat that she knows something about her is different, but she can’t put her finger on it. She thinks it’s just grief over losing a friend, guilt over the part she played in his death, and whatever effects being in quarantine are causing. It isn’t until about halfway through the episode that she starts to realize what’s wrong. She gets stressed out by confrontations going on around her, and her abilities (in this case the power to cause earthquakes) begin to manifest. Despite the fact that now she knows for certain something is wrong, she continues to deny it until she is confronted by the stark reality of what has happened, and she literally causes things to blow up.
It was much the same for me when I was first falling down the rabbit hole that is bi-polar depression. Something was wrong. Something was making me act unlike myself, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what. I chalked it up to college, to new experiences, to a difficulty to adapt, and figured it would pass. It didn’t, and it took nearly flunking out and a complete nervous breakdown to come to terms with my new reality.
Difference as Contagion
One of the biggest obstacles that we, as a society, have in terms of dealing with mental health, is our tendency to attach a stigma to it. Being mentally ill is bad, we believe, even subconsciously. We treat the mentally ill as lepers, as time bombs, as people who are less than people. We think, even deep down, that somehow they’ll get their crazy on us.
In AoS, this manifests largely in a single character: Agent Jemma Simmons.
Simmons is a scientist and a doctor. She sees things plainly and in black and white. When she discovers in this episode that Raina, the other Inhuman who changed as Skye did (though with much more physical change than anything), has become something physically hideous and dangerous, she looks to her DNA to explain, and an explanation she finds. Raina’s DNA has changed drastically. Something has not only changed it, but added to it, and as it is different – Inhuman – it is bad. She rambles to Skye about how she never should have become to fascinated by these people, by aliens, by people with abilities. Instead, she should have eradicated them. This, after all, could be a plague, and if it gets out it would be her fault.
While this is obviously a point at which my allegory falters slightly, it still applies. Yes, Simmons is dealing with an actual physiological change, but the way she discusses eradicating these people and this “contagion” are what prompt Skye’s decision not to talk to anyone about what is happening to her. She trusts these people with her life, but if someone as kind and thoughtful as Simmons can have that kind of intense reaction, how can she expect others to understand?
It’s the same for those of us dealing with mental illnesses. When we believe that other people will think us dangerous, or unhinged, or will avoid us for fearing of contamination, we don’t want to seek help. That’s the danger of the stigma, and it is what leads to so many people going it alone, and to an astonishing number succumbing, as Raina nearly does, to suicide.
Hiding in Plain Sight
By the end of the episode, Skye finds a confidant in Fitz. As the only other person on the team to understand what she is going through, having gone through a change himself, he helps her to fake her DNA results, and hide her abilities from everyone else. He’s there to lean on, and commits himself to helping her to understand what is happening to her, so that the entire experience becomes less terrifying. What is obvious by this point though, is that Skye will not be forthcoming with her newfound abilities. She doesn’t want to risk being treated differently by her peers or superiors, and unlike Raina (and Fitz), her difference is easy enough to mask, so long as she keeps herself under control.
This is something those of us dealing with mental illness experience every day. We are masters of disguise, experts at fitting in, at playing along, at “seeming so normal,” because we are terrified of what will happen if we don’t. We live in fear of being seen as different or dangerous. We think if others know our deep dark secret that they will shun us, or worse, lock us up, and we would not survive that kind of reaction. Neither, it seems, would Skye.
While I realize that this may not be the message the AoS writers were intending to put out there, and I only have my personal experience to draw from, you cannot deny the parallels. Sure, AoS, and shows or books or comics like it, approach all of these things through the lens of biological change as much as mental, but that simply serves to shine a brighter light on our treatment of difference.
There are a lot of episodes left to go in this half season, and a lot of avenues to explore, but I think we know where the show will fall on the topic of difference. It can be summed up rather well in the final exchange between Skye and Fitz.
Skye: There is something very wrong with me.
Fitz: No. You’re just different. And that’s okay.
Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.