An Essay: Agents of SHIELD & the fourth wall


Agents of SHIELD and us.

On may 4th 2012 the worlds of a lot of people altered forever. Phil Coulson's, for example. He died. But also that of a lot of fans, me included, because suddenly a lot of people decided, that nope, Coulson was not in fact dead. We're fandom.

We have experience with that kind of thing. Getting together, meeting each other, for a common goal. Getting stuff done. We made it a thing. And called it #Coulsonlives. It's all Tumblrs fault, really, and Twitter's. It was fun.

Then Kevin Feige showed up with a #coulsonlives shirt at New York Comic Con. And we had made it. We were so happy, so relieved and so proud. We had willed him back to life! We had moved heaven and earth and used every means possible to bring him back. Through sheer refusal we had brought him back.

And then came the show. We like the show. It needed to grow on some of us first, but hey, #coulsonlives. And Tahiti is a magical place. A magical pla. . . "What exactly IS Tahiti?" we began to ask ourselves. We wanted answers! We damn well wanted to know. And again, our wish was granted.

In a beautiful buildup the show took us to Tahiti, and showed us, how Coulson lived. And that was, I will forever admit it, one of the most brilliantly executed reaches across the fourth wall, I have ever seen and I've seen all seasons of Supernatural.

How the show made Fury the stand-in for the fans, who, through sheer refusal to accept the facts, brought a man back to life, was brilliant. A great nod to the fans, but it was the way, it was executed, how it connected the basic starting point of the show (#coulsonlives and thus, us) with the extreme trauma, betrayal, pain and loss, that beloved character had to go through, that did something in fandom and to fandom, that is exceedingly hard to achieve: a direct connection from the fans to the show and what is happening to the characters.

I have been participating in live action roleplay for more than ten years now and have played a number of none player character roles, as well as my own characters and acted as game master on a number of occasions. And along the way I have had myself studying some of the psychology of roleplay and especially immersion in the game. One of the most important factors of a good immersion experience in any character, any game or situation, is emotional investment. Feeling with your character, or rather, having your character feel for you, making others feel with their characters, as their characters. But you can't force this, you can only lead them along the journey, you want to take them, lightly interfering here and there to get them, where you want to have them. But they always have to walk themselves.

A creepy dungeon is supposed to be creepy. And believe me, a hand touching your shoulder in the dark will freak you out. But to get them there, and subtly, is hard work, a lot of guessing and a real good feel for the right amount of sensory input. They wont go into the dungeon without a good reason. And they wont be scared, without it being scary. Without the right surrounding, the right light, sound and atmosphere. And you absolutely can have the best atmosphere in the world, if people don't want to bring that investment, if they don't want to enter that world, there is nothing you can do.

This is actually what made the fan response to Tahiti so absolutely brilliant. We have started on this path, by refusing to believe Coulson is dead and we have been led on, by having been told, he wasn't dead. We followed willingly, guided by our own curiosity, to Tahiti, only to be crushed by the truth of it. . . . . . and the subtle understanding, that we, the fans, by our refusal, our prideful, ignorant refusal to accept his death, have put him through this.

Fury was the stand in for the fans. He was the one who put Phil through this horror, this unspeakable pain, this absolutely inconsiderate thing. But the fact is. . . it was us. We willed him to live, no matter what. We refused to accept reality, moved heaven and earth. . . and he does live! Isn't that nice. Only. . . what happened to him, that broken, destroyed creature, that thing. . . that was us. And I have never ever, believe me, felt guilty for putting a fictional character through something like this. I have put alot of fictional people through a lot of pain during the years. Not surprisingly, I'm not the only one.

Tahiti is a magical Place. It was. For usm because, let's be honest, for a moment there. . . shit got real. real! It was not just us, feeling with a character, it was us being responsible for what was happening on that screen. That pain. That horror. That was us. Feeling like we had direct, real influence on a show! And that was magical. Painfully so. Very painful. And. . it still hurts. Sorry, Phil! Next time, you may stay dead, OK? Sorry!

The Magical Place - Copyright ABC inc (42)


  1. says

    I think that those of us who have watched someone fight for life only to give up in the face of agony may have had a slightly different takeaway from that deeply unpleasant (and agonizingly third-person) flashback.

    That said, for me, Coulson being alive and still badass is a happy ending, even if (as is the norm in shows that end with “grrr, arrgh”) he takes his turn being the Big Bad one day as a result. I couldn’t be happier with the character’s development thus far, nor with Clark Gregg’s immaculate execution of the role.

  2. Agent Taiti says

    I think it’s a difficult situation anytime people have to step in and make decisions about life and death. Families do it everyday trying to carry out and respect DNR wishes, living wills,…Usually these patients have these in place bc they can no longer make their wishes know. It’s a tough place to be.

    Agent Phil Coulson knew he died. Yet when he pleaded “Please let me die”, some drone was doing brain salad surgery. Clark Gregg’s performance hit a nerve in me. It was very difficult for me to watch and listen to. It was gut wrenching and had me in tears. Where was his family? He gave up his life for SHIELD, and this is what Fury did for his loyalty, commitment and dedication?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love AC and glad he is alive. I’m glad that he has a very special dynamic with Skye. I’m looking forward to his next encounter with Director Fury.

  3. Bytowner says

    Yes. This is part of the repayment of Phil’s loyalty, commitment and dedication. Because Fury believed that Phil deserved – deserves – better than – to use Phil’s own phrasing – being shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini as his final exit. It would have been a good death, yes, kicking his own murderer’s backside as he did on his way out the door. A death worthy of a hero.

    If there was another way of getting the resurrection done, a better way, a cleaner way? Fury would have used it in a second. Whatever else we know of Fury, we know that for a certainty.

    He didn’t just die for the organization. He died to save the world as we know it and as we hope to see it become. As he hoped to see it become.

    Now, because of what Phil endured, is there a chance for others? Could these techniques be remade into something less agonizing to watch or endure, and just as effective? We don’t know, any more than we know where the methods came from.

    And we’ll move back to reality. Yes, it was – in part – us that made this happen. We have suspicions – some of us – that the fix was already in from some point in the scripting process for the First Assemblage onward. It doesn’t matter.

    This is sometimes the price of getting what we want: regret and remorse, mixed with the satisfaction.

    We’ll have to live with that. Just like Phil. And Fury. And Whedon’s team…

  4. Becky says

    What an interesting essay. I never thought about it that way before, that we, the fans, actually put Coulson through hell because we wanted him back.

    I’m glad Phil Coulson is back, but I’m sorry for what SHIELD did to him. I don’t approve of their methods at all, and I wish there HAD been a better, cleaner way, as Bytowner said.

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