View Full Version : The "benevolent" mindwipe in Angel and Agents of SHIELD

18-06-16, 02:00 AM
*spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D*

Angel's complete mindwipe of Connor (and partial mindwipe of his friends' memories) at the end of season 4 of Angel has been discussed a lot on this forum. Even though the show itself presented this as Angel's sacrifice to give his son a second chance of life, many of us see this act as very ambiguous, problematic, if not disturbing. I can't remember the exact threads and posts, but IRRC Vampmogs pointed out how much Dollhouse made him see this plot in a different light, and made a great point thatAngel's mindwipe of Connor basically amounted to killing Connor in order to create a new and improved Connor 2.0. - and that it was basically the fulfilment, in a way, of the prophecy that Father Will Kill the Son. Even though season 5 did its best to portray the mindwipe in the most positive light possible, and have Connor be well adjusted and OK even after getting the memories baack, and have him say that his dad did the right thing.

Then came Dollhouse - which was based on the premise that a person is largely defined by their memories, and that by wiping them and turning them into a "blank slate", one is essentially deleting a person; by giving them a different set of memories, one is effectively turning them into a different person, and by destroying the sum of all memories and experiences of a person, one is "killing" that person.
Now, although many of the same people worked on Angel and Dollhouse, these are still two different fictional universes, and I guess what's true in one does not have to be true in another. And the Dollhouse concept of personhood is a bit too extreme, and not something many would agree on.
Still... there's something odd about the same plot point/concept being treated so differently on two shows that share so many writers and producers, in addition to Joss as creator.

But that's not all - because the same concept once again is a really big plot point on Agents of SHIELD, another show created by Joss (though he hasn't had anything to do with it past season 1 and didn't even do any writing past the pilot, he was responsible for developing and casting the original characters, and shaping the main storyline of season 1), with some of the writers who worked on Angel (Jeffrey Bell), and run by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen - the same people who were showrunners for Dollhouse. The latter is why, in particular, I find the show's attitude to mindwipes odd. But that's not the only reason why I'm baffled - while I love the show (it's very underrated and unfairly maligned, for the most part), some of its ethics are a bit of a mess. The concept of the benevolent mindwipe is treated in a particularly inconsistent manner.

In season 1, Coulson, who initially believed he was brought back to life after a relatively short clinical death after Loki killed him in The Avengers, was more and more frequently tormented by pieces of recurring memories (one of the earliest signs that there was something off and creepy about his idyllic memory of a holiday in Tahiti, was a scene that was a Dollhouse homage: "Did I fall asleep?" "For a little while"). Eventually, he learned he had been dead for days, and that Nick Fury had him resurrected with Kree (alien) blood, that the operation was incredibly painful and long (Coulson kept asking them to let him die), and done against his will, and that, against his will, Coulson's memories of what happened after he died were wiped and changed. This was treated as a really disturbing violation, and presented almost in horror terms. But since Fury is supposed to be a good guy, it's not presented as necessarily bad. Let's say... it's morally ambiguous. (Mind you, this is just a partial memory wipe, more like Fred/Wesley/Gunn than like Connor.)

Later, Coulson learns that he himself had been the head of the Project T.A.H.I.T.I. at Fury's orders - a project whose goal was to ensure resurrection/healing of a fallen Avenger - before resigning. Coulson resigned because it turned out that the Kree blood had dangerous, violent and disturbing sideffects on the patients (SHIELD agents), supposedly due to the Kree "genetic memories" asserting themselves in patients. Solution? Mindwipe! Just erase their memories, give them another set of memories, and release them with no knowledge of their past. One of the patients refused - but they mindwiped him anyway.

That's pretty ****ed up, no? Granted, the patients were acting in really violent and crazy ways, but still... While Coulson had earlier been disturbed by the way he was resurrected and mindwiped 'for his own good', now he seems to think it's a really good idea - or that's what theshow wants us to believe now, because one of the patients turned out to have a nice life with a job and family. So, if one of the people subjected to that experiment turns out fine, that means that there's nothing wrong with the procedure, I guess?

At least this seems what Coulson took away from it, because the end of season 2 sees him give the same mindwipe/memory replacement procedure to Skye/Daisy's psychotic-but-sympathetic-murderer father Cal, as the only way to offer him a "second chance". And this is presented in a completely positive manner, the same as Angel/Connor.

Also, a couple of episodes earlier, during a brief truce with Ward, Coulson offers Ward the memory wipe option - which Ward refused. And this has, as far as I've seen, been treated totally earnestly by the fandom as an example of Coulson giving Ward a "second chance" or "opportunity for redemption" that was rejected.

Which puzzles me. Wiping one's memories thoroughly has nothing to do with redemption or giving someone a chance. It's as close to a death sentence that you get without actually being death - it essentially says "you're so far gone and damaged beyond repair that all we can do with you, short of killing you, is destroy who you are, wipe you clean as a blank slate and remake you into someone completely different." Regardless of whether one thinks that Ward was indeed too far gone and damaged beyond repair (to be fair, he probably was), refusing to be mindwiped is the one thing I really don't blame him for. And whether Cal was damaged beyond repair, I can't see his mindwipe as something wonderful and idyllic that the show wanted me to think it was.

But OK... even though the same people worked on Dollhouse, the two shows don't have to treat this concept the same way, right? However, AoS itself then goes and unintentionally casts the benevolent mindwipe in a much more disturbing light with this line, regarding an unrelated plot, in the penultimate episode of season 3:

*spoiler for the last few episodes of season 3*

Daisy (arguing that Hive is the closest thing to the devil there is): When Hive takes over a body, he steals that person's memories. That's as close to stealing a soul as you can get.

...Well, then. What does she think of what they did to her dad and his soul?

18-06-16, 07:14 PM
I had a long response typed up back accidentally deleted it. Really just sounds like protag privilege.

18-06-16, 07:41 PM
TimeTravellingBunny Great topic for discussion! I really love your quite extensive cross-reading of the various ways the Whedonverse deals with mindwipes in the three shows of Angel, Dollhouse and AoS. Let's also not forget Willow and her attempts to take Tara's memories of their fight that lead to disastrous results in Tabula Rasa and the opposite (that is just as bad and a violation of a character) when Warren tries to embed the false memories of having killed Katrina into Buffy in Dead Things. Of course his cerebral dampener gizmo is another way to modify someone's behavior and rape them, but that's besides the argument here.

Then there's Firefly where part of the whole story arc is focused on a character (River Tam) who had been experimented on to unlock near-preternatural psychic and fighting capabilities only to bury those memories under a mess of psychoses so they cannot be accessed. I would argue that this also explores the nature of a form of interference that's close to a mindwipe and only when River is able to integrate her memories in the movie is she both able to function as herself again as well as stop being a victim. Instead she uses her knowledge to save others from both the Reavers as well as from the mind control drug plot of the central government.

I also agree with you that quite often the idea of a mindwipe is treated ambiguously and can be twisted into the view of doing the wiped person a favor, such as Angel tries for Connor or Dollhouse perhaps did for Mellie, who wanted to forget the death of her child and who eventually commits suicide as she regains some of her memories. Becoming a doll seemed to spare her pain and relieved her from a great grief in her real life. Some of the mindwipes you describe from AoS seem to fall into that category, too. Perhaps we have excusable mindwipes that are done by "good" characters for the supposed "good" of the victim? (Which I agree with you is kind of messed up...)

Most often, though, I think mindwiping is portrayed as violating the person who is subjected to it. Nolan Kinnard's treatment of Sierra in Dollhouse comes to mind as he drives her mad when she rejects his advances and then has her committed and mindwiped so he can order her to be programmed as his lover and use her. However, for me the most horrific portrayal is towards the end of Season 2 when we see Ambrose and Harding using "dumbshows", mindwiped people, to upgrade their own bodies. They delete the new host's memories and transfer their own personal profiles into them in a bid to remain young and healthy and live forever. That's probably the ultimate end of the spectrum on the negative end where a mindwipe is used to kill someone in a bid to extend one's own life. It's a mindwipe done by a "bad" character with complete disregard for the victim for their own selfish ends.

I think the topic of the mindwipe is so central to so many of Whedon's stories because it digs into a discussion that's been going on for the entire 20th century and still hasn't been completely resolved today. It's the controversy between people who advocate nature as the key determinant in human behavior and those that come down on the side of nurture. It ultimately tries to resolve what makes us human and what makes us individuals within our own character and choices.

For a long time thinkers and philosophers in the West believed that what governed human behavior was an innate sense of good and evil. Christianity postulated the existence of a soul capable of free will and moral choices and in every human being a natural awareness of God. Morality of course was given an immutable and objective status with everyone knowing what they should aspire to do. Anyone who didn't was willfully stifling the voice of their conscience and could rightfully be condemned as giving in to the devil.

This all changed with John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding dated 1690. Here Locke postulated that newborns are shaped by the sensations they are exposed to as they grow up. Their mind represents a blank slate (tabula rasa!). As they experience the world around them children are fist picking up simple ideas such as "red" or "sweet" or "round" upon which they will then build secondary or complex ideas all the way up to language, mathematics, philosophy and ethics as they grow older. With this reasoning Locke refutes the concept of people coming pre-programmed with any kind of set of innate ideas or identity. He quite rightly observed that there is no truth that's held in common and believed in by everybody, which should be the case if we had divine "factory settings". Instead identity is something people have to form for themselves over time as their experiences accrue. We could say that we develop into individuals based on what we have been exposed to.

Overall people didn't like Locke's reasoning for quite some time: his moral relativism made everyone really squirmy and uneasy, but in the early 20th century his ideas just took off. Behaviorism during the 30s argued that a human being was entirely shaped by his experiences and the influence of his surroundings. In his book Behaviorism John B. Watson famously claimed: "Give me a dozen healthy infants,... and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."

Well into the 60s this school of thought maintained that human beings were essentially like computers that could be programmed for anything. If we had instincts at all they didn't amount to much more than perhaps making us cringe away from pain or jump at loud noises. Who we were as individuals, our beliefs, our behaviors, our morality (or lack thereof) were all shaped by our upbringing, our society and the family, class, race and gender expectations we were born into. This belief could be very positive and empowering, because if we could get education and schools right, if we could back away from gender stereotyping and prevent the mistreatment of children we could eradicate crime and destructive behavior, unlock everyone's unlimited potential and "fix" society.

However, as many of the social experiments in the 60s and 70s that built on this assumption seemed to fail the pendulum eventually swung back in the other direction, most notably with Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature of 2002. Pinker focused on research that had been done alongside the more popular behaviorist studies and that focused on genetics, such as the study of twins that grew up in different environments and that seemed to make a case for a stronger influence of inheritance on personal traits. Pinker postulated: "Many properties of the brain are genetically organized, and don't depend on information coming in from the senses."

These days most scientists subscribe to a mixed model where we are looking at elements of an individual that are determined by genetic factors - probably around 30 to 40% of mental faculties such as intelligence, creative thinking, and perhaps even as much as 50% of what we define as personality. Most of these insights are based on studies of twins raised apart or adopted children and the extent to which they pick up personality traits from their foster families and to what extent they resemble the traits of their twins or biological parents. Of course it gets even more complex where environmental factors may influence the expression of certain genes or in reverse genetic predisposition may influence the kind of environment a person finds themselves in.

The discussion has perhaps been most heated publicly when we contemplate the arguments applied to homosexual or transgender orientation. Those who come down on the "nurture" side of the spectrum would deny gay couples adoption rights, because it could "make" their adopted children gay or they blame parents for putting transgender ideas into their children's heads because of a misguided attempt to not reinforce gender stereotypes. Those in favor of the "nature" argument point to the fact that homosexual behavior is exhibited by a percentage of any animal population and that gender and sexual orientation is set at birth and will express itself naturally regardless of environmental factors. Then there are studies that look at hormone levels in mothers during pregnancy and position of homosexual children in the birth order and find correlations that just tend to muddy the waters.

So wouldn't it be a nifty way to settle all these arguments once and for all by mindwiping someone - press the reset button on "nurture" if you will and then see what happens? (Not that I am advocating such a ghoulish experiment for real, even if it were possible!)

In any case I think a lot of Whedon's stories about mindwipes explore just these kinds of thought experiments though I don't think they offer a definitive answer one way or another.

In BtVS Tabula Rasa Buffy and Dawn seem to puzzle out that they are sisters even before the mindwipe wears off which would point to an argument for personality grounded in genetics. On the other hand Willow and Tara identify as study buddies and Willow deduces she might be dating Xander. This would mean that the "reset" has temporarily wiped out her self-identification as gay as perhaps a piece of "nurture" that got lost? Similarly Spike and Giles fixate on each other as father and son, which definitely has no basis in genetics but is based on a shared accent and emotions they seem to feel toward one another. There is pretty much zero chemistry between Xander and Anya and instead her and Giles pair up. On the other hand Spike and Buffy discover a certain simpatico towards one another and Spike is at first completely unaware of his vampiric nature and then self-identifies as a kind of Angel-clone fighter for good...

All of this gets even more complicated because Buffy and Dawn are not truly related but their sisterhood is an artificial construct. Similarly Willow's sexual orientation has been undergoing changes from her interest in Xander and her dating of Oz to her current relationship with Tara. So is being gay a core trait of her personality or is it an acquired trait that can be transformed at will? Giles and Spike did play at father and son during the Slayer-induced dream sequence at the end of Season 4, but Giles will have no problem going forward trying to engineer Spike's demise when he feels it will be better for Buffy. So does the mindwipe reveal underlying truths about the characters or not? Are people reset to their true "factory settings" and what are they anyway? Is Spike as his unsouled Season 6 self at his core already the champion he will eventually become? To me the outcome is inconclusive.

When Connor is mindwiped on Angel he morphs from a seriously messed up kid - which is hardly surprising given the "nurture" he received at the hands of Holtz in a hell dimension - to a pretty well-adjusted young man in the care of his new adoptive family. So is this a thought experiment that shows him as a normal person warped by circumstances very far from normal? He does retain certain genetic traits even after his reset, such as his strength and fighting ability. He also confesses to Angel: "I guess I always had a thing for older women." To which Angel mutters: "They were supposed to fix that." Again, the sum result of the mindwipe seems inconclusive pointing to "nature" as well as "nurture" in the making of an individual. Also, why does Connor get to keep is sexual predilection post-wipe, but Willow does not? :confused3:

A full analysis of Dollhouse would probably fill several chapters, since the whole mindwipe concept is so central to the entire make-up of the universe of that show, but as I am skimming the surface I think we have the same muddied outcome: Echo is shown in an amazingly broad spectrum of personalities during her various doll assignments, even to the point where what would seem to be her genetic make-up is altered and she becomes near-sighted, asthmatic and even blind for some of her missions. On the other hand she manages feats of near super-human strength for example during her escape from Richard in The Target. Still, eventually her pre-doll persona that was trying to make a difference in the world as an activist against the Rossum Corporation surfaces, just like Alpha reverts to his criminal persona when he goes rogue. Sierra, who was a talented painter is often shown painting with watercolors in her wiped blank-slate status, though her creations are a pale shadow of what her original creative genius was capable of. Overall the show seems to come down on an answer that the human mind is infinitely malleable and programmable, but that there is something at the very core of a person that cannot be altered and that will reassert itself. In this perhaps we move beyond the current argument of "nurture" vs. "nature" towards the more archaic concept of a soul.

I really like your exposition regarding Coulson's mindwipe in Agents of SHIELD, but have not watched the show consistently to offer any analysis of my own. However, I can see that the concept overall is being treated as very ambiguous simply because the answers it provides when it is used as part of a story-line vary so widely.

Still, I don't think it detracts from the concept or its use by Whedon. It's a great way to tell stories about identity and who we are as human beings and I think it reflects the fact that modern science has no easy answers to offer, but that we should continue to ask these kinds of questions, both from a perspective of ethics and morality as well as from a standpoint of self and identity.