I can’t with this show right now. Seriously, I just… can’t. Lets back up. You remember my affection for the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s moral grey zone? Well, at its core that moral ambiguity is amazing, not just because it makes for compelling drama, but because it harkens back to everyone’s Philosophy 101 class. More specifically, the moral grey zone asks us to think about our own standards of right and wrong, especially as it’s viewed through the ethics of intention. I know this comes off a bit high brown, but stick with me for a little bit and I’ll show you what I mean.
So, the ethics of intention essentially argues that the results of one’s actions don’t make one inherently good or bad, only the intention behind those actions. After all, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a cliché for a reason. Here’s an example from tonight’s episode. After learning that Hydra has captured Lincoln, Jiaying refuses to send a rescue team. Her intention is a noble one (protecting her people), which for us logically places her on the side of good, but had Skye followed her orders and not gone after Lincoln, it’s very possible that not only he, but the other members of S.H.I.E.L.D. team six would have been captured, or even killed. This result would technically make the action evil, if we were to base morality strictly on results.
As if that’s not complicated enough, we have Raina. Based on her past history with Skye, her own tendencies towards antagonism, and her animosity towards everyone at Afterlife, it’s safe to assume that she didn’t have 100% selfless motives. Still her interference results in Skye being there to help her team and save Lincoln’s life. So, in results based ethics, Raina is “good.” But in a morally grey universe you have to approach characters with moral based on intention, more so than result. Raina’s intentions aren’t necessarily 100% good and that fact taints all of the results of her actions as being inherently negative. Basically you can save a life and still be a bad guy, or you can destroy, I don’t know…say… Harlem, but by doing it with only good intentions you are still a good guy.
And this brings us to the point in last night’s episode where my brain turned to mush. We’re faced with a very important question, True Believers: Who is the baddie, Ward or Simmons? Now we all have an internal gut answer based on past history and personal preferences, but lets just lay out the facts before our guts take over.
Ward has certainly been responsible for taking some actions that are pretty horrific. He spied for Hydra, tried to kill FitzSimmons, ultimately murdered his whole family, and even in this episode he abandons Kara, who has come to rely on him almost entirely. The problem is, if you consider intention he’s still ethically (and therefore heroically) in the right. He joins Hydra out of loyalty for Garrett (good). He attempted to kill FitzSimmons because he genuinely believed that putting them in an elaborate trap gave them a better chance at survival, than being shot in the head (good). He murdered his family because he believed it was the only way to heal form the damage they’d done to his psyche (still good). Finally, he abandons Kara because he believes that’s what’s best for her (good). Now the results of these actions; the betrayal, the heartbreak, the deaths, are all merely the consequences of Ward’s “good” intentions. This is pretty typical Hydra thinking, by the way. They cut up Lincoln and Deathlok, reference-drop the twins, and blow S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft out of the sky because they are working towards their version of the greater good.
The implications of this are, of course, troubling, but we’re about to jump down into the truly darkest part of this rabbit hole. If this is the logic Hydra uses, what does that make Jemma? Because when she decides to murder Ward her intentions could only be a.) for the greater good as she expresses to Fitz, or b.) to fulfill her own need for vengeance as she tells Ward. If b.) then by the very nature of her intentions, Jemma is officially a bad guy. If a.) then at least through the mirror of the ethics of intention, she’s good. But she’s the kind of good that agrees with Nazi logic, which I think we can all agree we’d like not to take part in.
Spoiler alert: the result is that instead of killing Ward, Jemma accidentally kills Bakshi. This is the culmination of her recent slide into more aggressive behavior. She’s a far cry from the Jemma we meet at the beginning of the first season. Her belief that her “good” intentions make her actions this season (from abandoning Fitz when he needed her to attempting to murder Ward) acceptable, has brought her to a place where she’s finally done something she can’t take back.
So maybe in the end, it’s not an either or. Maybe in the end you can only believe that Ward and Jemma are either both evil or both good. It’s the moral grey zone that lets us have these conversations. Even though sometimes they can make you wish you’d just taken a nap instead. So if you find yourself with a definite answer that makes you happy, let me know. I’m still dealing with the fact that JEMMA FRIGGIN MURDERED SOMEONE!
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.