Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always excelled at weaving a complex narrative filled with plots and sub-plots — and so far, Season 4 has proven to be no exception! From supernatural threats to the growing danger of LMDs, S.H.I.E.L.D. has no shortage of enemies. Returning after its mid-season break, though, a plot that's been simmering in the background has moved to center-stage — a deadly force known as the Watchdogs. Who are they, what are their origins, and where is this plot likely to go?
The Origin of the Watchdogs
Although the Watchdogs were name-dropped from the mid-season break of Season 3, it wasn't until the episode appropriately called "The Watchdogs" that we learned more about them. It seems the Watchdogs began as a social media movement, and they were initially a reaction to the Battle of New York in The Avengers. They distrusted the Avengers, believing they were a Government conspiracy, and feared further alien involvement in the world's affairs.
You can understand how the Watchdogs flourished. Groups of hackers like Rising Tide were periodically unearthing secrets S.H.I.E.L.D. was striving to keep hidden, while some incidents — such as Mike Peterson's superhuman abilities in "Pilot" — trended on social media. It was perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, who doubted that S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Government had their best interests at heart. Their worst fears were realized when Helicarriers fell from the sky in Washington DC.
Black Widow flooded the Internet with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s secrets in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in Captain America: Civil War we learned that many of these files were still encrypted. Again, this is perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, with decrypted files slowly emerging on the Internet.
Enter Felix Blake
Felix Blake (played by Titus Welliver) was a loyal and dedicated S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. He viewed S.H.I.E.L.D. as the ultimate defence against alien threats, and opposed any attempt to reverse-engineer alien technology or use enhanced beings. Time and again you can see hints of his extremism; when bank robbers used a Chitauri weapon in the Item 47 one-shot, he wanted Sitwell to kill them. Later, in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "FZZT", he ordered Coulson to dump anyone who was infected by an alien virus in the ocean. Given Jemma Simmons was the last person infected, it was no surprise Coulson refused to obey this order!
Blake was actually one of the few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to suspect a conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D., and he worked with Coulson to try to find the 'Clairvoyant' (in reality S.H.I.E.L.D. agent John Garrett). This mission unfortunately led him to encounter Deathlok, who had been forced to work for Hydra. By the time he awoke, S.H.I.E.L.D. had collapsed in flames, and Blake felt that he'd been an unwitting tool of Hydra all along.
In the episode "The Watchdogs", we learned that Blake went into hiding. He was still dedicated to protecting the world from alien threats, but became far more extreme. He felt that aliens and enhanced beings were too powerful a threat, and should never be used as assets. In Blake's opinion, Sokovia proved his point; and then, he began to hear rumors of the Inhumans. At this point, Blake began to work alongside the Watchdogs; he used his S.H.I.E.L.D. skills to identify some of their most extreme members, and soon began building up a heavily-armed militia. In probably one of his most difficult decisions, he agreed to briefly strike a deal with Hydra in order to secure funding, and will have used that money to increase his power base.
The Origins of the Watchdogs
The Watchdogs have never existed before in Marvel, but they bear many similarities to an anti-mutant group known as the Friends of Humanity. The Friends of Humanity were a grassroots movement who feared and hated mutants, and organized themselves as a heavily-armed militia. They'd ultimately evolve into the religious rightwing extremist group known as the Purifiers. Their greatest leader was Graydon Creed, the non-mutant son of Sabretooth and Mystique, who actually launched a campaign to become US President. This campaign ended in his assassination — at the hands of his mother.
That said, the idea's had a technological upgrade; the group's origins seem lifted from the social media movement known as the Alt-Right. You have a similar cocktail; conspiracy theories (such as the Birther movement), fear of the 'alien', and anger at the Government's failure to protect its people. The key difference is that, here, a militant extremist has successfully taken control of the social media movement, and turned it to evil purposes. It's an interesting twist, one rooted in the political and social issues of the present day.
Season 4 Develops the Watchdog Threat
To return to "The Watchdogs", we saw then just what lengths Chloe Bennet's Quake was willing to go to in order to protect the Inhumans. She's prepared to cross lines that S.H.I.E.L.D. really shouldn't cross, and — in a tortured, emotional place after Lincoln's death — she chose to go rogue. Not convinced that S.H.I.E.L.D. was working effectively against this threat, she began a solo campaign to defeat the Watchdogs, using her hacking skills to uncover the Watchdogs' secrets. She'd discovered that the Watchdogs had developed complex systems, and had amassed a great deal of wealth behind them. Her campaign was more effective than S.H.I.E.L.D.'s, but for a time she also became a subject of public fear, unwittingly helping the Watchdogs present enhanced beings as threats.
Little by little, though, Season 4 has stripped away the secrets of the Watchdogs. In Senator Nadeer, we've seen just how extreme the paranoia and fear that drives them can be. She sees the Inhuman "epidemic" as the next phase of an alien invasion, one begun in the Chitauri invasion. She literally views Inhumans as an "alien plague", and — as we saw in "Broken Promises" — will go so far as to kill her own brother to combat this supposed blight. The rationalization is terrifyingly simple: in her view, when you enter a Terrigen cocoon you die, and are reborn as a new, dangerous, creature. Of course, the poignant irony behind all this is that, if her brother carries the Inhuman gene, it's pretty certain that she does too. Senator Nadeer's fear of the Inhumans is terribly personal; she herself is vulnerable to her "alien plague".
It makes sense to give S.H.I.E.L.D. a dark organization like this to deal with; led by an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, the Watchdogs will push S.H.I.E.L.D.'s skills and abilities to the max. Mystical threats — powerful entities beyond scientific explanation — will just increase the public fear, allowing the Watchdog movement to gain traction in the public mind.
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The Watchdogs may have only been a background presence in "The Ghost", but we now know that they're becoming a major problem for the heroes of the #MCU. It seems enhanced beings are going to be a lot less popular than they usually are in the comics — and, as the X-Men have demonstrated time and again, that's a twist with real potential.