One major theme on season 4 of Agents of SHIELD has been “What is it that makes us human?” Is it our flesh and blood bodies? Our consciousness? Our memories? The choices we make? Our free will? Our genetics? Aida has passed from being an LMD, to a consciousness within the Framework, to a flesh and blood inhuman that was created with the help of the Darkhold. Through it all, she has retained the same memories and consciousness, and made many of her own choices, but has had little to no free will. Her choices have been made within the limits of her programming, primarily to fulfill the needs of others. She was able to circumvent her programming and create choices and an illusion of free will at times, but she had to find loopholes in her programming in order to do so.
Once she is out of the Framework and inhabiting her flesh and blood body, Coulson decides that Aida/Ophelia has rights as a person now that she is a “real” human. At the same time, Coulson disturbingly tells Fitz that nothing he did in the Framework matters because it wasn’t real, even though Fitz thought it was real at the time. Coulson and May will tell us later that those memories are as real to them as the memories of the lives they’ve physically lived. So why don’t Fitz’s decisions in that real-feeling place count, as far as how he feels about himself because of them? Why doesn’t Aida’s consciousness make her count as a real person, no matter what body it’s in? In the Framework, it was understood that the SHIELD captives were still real people, even though their consciousnesses were separated from their bodies. Presumably that should be true of Aida, and probably every other LMD and person in the Framework.
Aida/Ophelia remembers two lives, just like the SHIELD agents, and is now living a third. But, as she rightfully points out, she was a slave who mostly lacked free will and who was being influenced by the Darkhold in the first two. She followed her programming, and manipulated it where she could, in order to escape her enslavement. She was not a fully realized person, and could not understand the full ramifications of her actions without the full range of emotions, or an adult’s years of life experience. She is now a toddler in the body of a very powerful inhuman, discovering emotions for the first time. She’s always had strong motivations, and been dangerous. Now she has strong emotions, too, and is even more dangerous. But doesn’t the nature/nurture lesson the show taught us using Fitz and Ward apply to Aida/Ophelia as well? She was created and enslaved by a morally corrupt man, then given over to the Darkhold. No one can come out of that unscathed, but Aida didn’t even have the free will to try. She probably won’t get the chance to try as a human, either, since, according to SHIELD’s usual policy, dangerous inhumans must be put down, and so must dangerous robots.
This is one of the few areas that I truly dislike about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It wasn’t fair for Wanda Maximoff to be held hostage in the Avengers compound in Captain America: Civil War, simply to make other people more comfortable, even though she hadn’t committed any crime. Having Tony Stark argue that her prison was a comfortable prison didn’t change the fact that it was a prison. Having Vision tell her that he knows she’s good, but other people will never be able to see her that way, so he has to stop her from leaving, is downright abusive. Undermining the confidence and self-image of a teenager until she believes you when you tell her that she needs to be locked up for her own safety and the safety of others is reprehensible.
Wanda’s story is mirrored in Aida’s story, but Aida started with a robot body and magic has given her an inhuman body. Wanda started with a human body, and magic gave her powers. Wanda is trying to save lives, after having escaped the people who manipulated her into enslavement (she was being held in a glass cage when we met her), while Aida is trying to escape from the people who created then enslaved her (Radcliffe, who was working for SHIELD). No one at SHIELD (other than Fitz) is sympathetic to Aida’s enslavement. From her perspective, she owes them no sympathy in return. Both Wanda and Aida were forced by their creators to use their powers for evil purposes, and both are blamed for it. (Wanda may have chosen HYDRA, but the “choice” was made as a desperate, destitute child. That’s not informed consent.) Wanda has Steve Rogers and Clint Barton in her corner to remind people that she is a person, not a weapon. Aida has no one who fights for her rights as a sentient being.
It’s worth noting that Vision is also very, very powerful, and a sentient, synthetic being that was made to fight. At the end of Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of seeing him as equal to humans. But by Civil War, that idea has been dropped, and Vision becomes an authority figure, frequently speaking from on high and/or being recognized as having an important opinion. Yet he seriously injures Rhodey and causes severe collateral damage, and no one ever calls for him to be locked up so that civilians can be protected from him.
Vision’s creator, Tony Stark, is already known to have created a robot that nearly ended the world. But Vision never even requires close monitoring. Everyone just knows and agrees that he’s trustworthy. Thor’s hammer said so! Wanda was conveniently unavailable to ever try lifting it.
Wanda and Aida are following the orders of their superiors when people are injured, as is Vision. The only one who gets a pass is Vision. The obvious differences: He’s male, and he willingly joined forces with the oppressors. Marvel implies that colluding with oppressors is preferred, internment of innocent people is acceptable, and fighting back against one’s oppressor’s in whatever way is available is evil, especially if one is female. This is the side of Phil Coulson that bothers me, the one that was mentored by Nick Fury, whose philosophies were much closer to those of Alexander Pierce and HYDRA than he wanted to admit. It bothers me that the writers and directors of Captain America: Civil War, Marcus and McFeely and the Russo brothers, who I generally adore, also purposely promoted this attitude in Captain America: Civil War, by re-editing the movie until 50% of the audience sided with Tony instead of Steve.
I don’t know that Ophelia can or should be redeemed or saved, but her actions deserve to be seen from her perspective, the perspective of a sentient creature who was built as a disposable tool by a selfish man. She deserves to have the same rights and considerations that we would give any other escaped slave when considering how to view the crimes that they committed while enslaved and gaining their freedom. Since Fitz has rejected her, she has no stabilizing influence to help her learn to rein in her emotions. Her desperation and rage are completely understandable. They are, in fact, completely human, as were the actions she took to free herself from her bondage.
Additional Thoughts After the Season Finale:
(This part was also published as part of the Season 4 Episode 22: World’s End Recap.)
I would have preferred it if Aida had gotten to do more as a real girl than to lose control of herself over a boy choosing to love someone else. As Ivanov said, there was always so much more to her. Why did she suddenly lose all patience and ability to reason? With her looks and intelligence, she could have found another man. No need to obsess over the first one to come along, much as Fitz is totally obsession worthy. She said herself that she’d known all along that he was devoted to Jemma. Was her entire, season-long plan really based on getting Fitz to love her? REALLY?? Was he really worth throwing everything else away for, since she knew Ghost Rider was very dangerous to her? Wouldn’t it have made more sense, and have been more in character, for her to lay low and try to wait Ghost Rider out, to kidnap Fitz again, or to try to logically research Ghost Rider and figure out a way to beat him?
It’s disappointing that Aida died so quickly while Ivanov lived. It’s outrageous that Aida was viewed as the sole evil villain, when Radcliffe and Fitz created her, and Ivanov was her willing accomplice. No one was calling for any of the other three to be sent to H*ll as quickly and painfully as possible. Only the woman, who was created to be enslaved. She was justifiably angry at her situation. and had the power to act on that anger. The three men were either experimenting out of hubris and curiosity, or angry over smaller slights. But Fitz is forgiven, and Radcliffe was allowed to fade away in peace. No one even bothered to specifically go after Ivanov in this episode.
In the end, Agents of SHIELD took an amazing, complex female character and reduced her to another Whedonverse cliche of a powerful woman who was ruled by her emotions. As usual with this trope, having emotions makes the woman weaker than the men around her, who are able to juggle their emotions and responsibilities just fine. Mack ultimately solved his emotional crisis, and came out of it better off than he was before, while Aida became Frankenstein’s harridan, free but rejected by her creators, left to navigate an angry, unjust world on her own, and turning to extreme evil to cope. She did terrible things, but, since she was created to be a slave, it can be argued that she had understandable reasons for her anger, and deserved more than an abrupt, out of control, out of character ending.
Here is the real life story of an enslaved woman, kept by a Filipino-American family for much of the 20th century. The story was published this month by The Atlantic, and is the story of the family life of one of their Pulitzer prize-winning journalists. Lola, as she was known, dealt with her lifelong enslavement with bravery, grace, love and intelligence, despite the deprivation and abuse she endured. There are other stories in the reaction pieces, with other reactions to enslavement. Aida’s story would have been a much better story if her side of it had been given more attention. There are still tens of millions of enslaved people in the world, including in the US, many of them women who are kept as servants, like Aida. For Agents of SHIELD to touch on that issue, and then breeze past it, while making the enslaved person the supervillain, is criminal in and of itself. So many writers, filmmakers and TV shows have shown the justification for granting human rights to sentient artificial beings that it’s ludicrous to try to deny that someone like Aida was still just a robot. She was her own person and she deserved more.