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Grant Ward and Phil Coulson: Opposite Sides of the Same Coin

During this year’s Boston Comic Con, one of the most eagerly anticipated panels was Friday’s Q&A with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Brett Dalton.

The opportunity to question the actor, whose character Grant Ward has been responsible for many of the, “OMG”, moments in the show, brought an audience of excited fans that didn’t hold back in the least when provided with a microphone and a chance to grill Dalton on all things S.H.I.E.L.D.

Seemingly game for anything, the recently appointed Head of Hydra readily answered fan questions that ranged from the humorous, “Your character Grant Ward is from the Boston area… Can we hear your best Boston accent?,” to the slightly more reflective, “When you first learned that you were going to become part of Hydra on the show, what was your reaction?”


Brett Dalton Boston Comic Con 2015

It only took six minutes before Dalton shared with the crowd of nearly 500 the most intriguing piece of insight that I’ve yet to hear concerning Grant Ward. After being asked whether it’s difficult as an actor to know that his character is going to manipulate and, “screw over,” the other characters, Dalton was quick to point out that Ward’s duplicitous nature isn’t exactly a character trait that is possessed by Ward alone.

Once presented with the opportunity to draw attention to the fact that, in a show about spies, many of the characters have made questionable choices, Dalton didn’t hesitate to reveal one of the more interesting points that came out of his 40-minute conversation with fans: Grant Ward is very much a character foil to Phil Coulson himself.

While hard to believe that the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. could ever be deemed similar to the Head of Hydra, when faced with the facts, there actually is a significant amount of evidence that suggests that the two men are indeed very much alike.

As stated by Dalton, “In a weird way, Coulson and Ward are similar in that they will do anything to achieve their goals, so the ends justify the means for both of these guys. The only difference is that Coulson has a little eagle on his badge. That’s it.”

Though the logo of their chosen organizations isn’t the only difference between Coulson and Ward, Dalton is correct in pointing out that there are an overwhelming amount of parallels between the two characters.

The notion that, “The ends justify the means,” is clearly a motto that Ward has used as an excuse for much of his actions. Though, as Dalton emphasized more than once during his panel, said motto is one that even the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. has utilized in order to justify his own questionable actions.

The underlying theme of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always revolved around trust and, more importantly, knowing who to trust.


Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) in “The Dirty Half Dozen”

Where Clark Greg‘s Coulson was taken under the wing of Nick Fury and primed to become S.H.I.E.L.D’s eventual Director, Dalton’s Ward was whisked away from juvie during his formative years and groomed by John Garrett into the deceitful double agent that was revealed in the back half of Season 1.

Both Coulson and Ward blindly followed their respective leaders and trusted them implicitly, which ended up largely being responsible for their personal issues and arguable downfalls. Coulson was killed and resurrected against his wishes while Ward was locked away in solitary confinement and forced to take much of the responsibility for Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D.

There’s no doubt that Ward’s trustworthiness has declined with each episode since his cold-blooded murdering of Victoria Hand. Once he stepped, “Out of the shadows and into the light,” Ward almost immediately became an individual that characters and viewers alike began to perceive as a villain.

Interestingly Coulson, though viewed as the unquestioned hero of S.H.I.E.L.D., has been equally untrustworthy on more than one occasion.

In Season 2 alone, Coulson kept the fact that Simmons was infiltrating Hydra from the rest of the team, didn’t reveal his connection to the alien writing until he required assistance from those around him, and kept the Theta Protocol hidden from everyone while willingly leading his team on numerous missions under the guise of one thing while the true reasoning was something that only he was privy to.

Like Ward, Coulson kept secrets from every single agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and often made decisions for the wrong reasons, namely for his desire to protect Skye no matter the potential cost to others. The paternal relationship that the S.H.I.E.L.D. director has established with Skye (now Daisy Johnson) has caused him to oftentimes place her well-being over the good of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organization, which Dalton stresses as being something that makes Coulson’s actions just as debatable as Ward’s.

“All of [Coulson’s] stuff is to save Skye and all of that stuff, but at the end of the day there’s still dead agents on the ground and he does some kind of questionable stuff.”

Bringing to light the fact that Coulson’s actions have indirectly and directly caused the deaths of many people, the much beloved Agent Triplett included, actually aids Dalton in establishing Ward as an antihero rather than the pure villain that so many people, including the characters within the show, consider him to be.

The villain of one story is often the hero in another, which seems to be the case where Grant Ward and Phil Coulson are concerned.

Grant Ward has unquestionably done some truly despicable things throughout the course of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first two seasons; however, much of his actions in season two were in fact done as some twisted attempt to right some of his wrongs. He promised he’d never lie to Skye and would reunite her with her father and made good on that promise as soon as an opportunity arose. Similarly, following being rescued by Agent 33 after being shot by Skye, Ward made it his mission to help the former agent find closure.


Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and Kara Palamas (Maya Stojan) in “S.O.S: Part 1”

Dalton draws attention to the fact that, like Coulson’s desire to do anything to help Skye despite the possible repercussions, “In a similar way [Ward] was doing a lot of stuff to move Agent 33’s life forward and in the name of saving her. The only difference is that I have an evil octopus on my badge.”

Again, there are more differences than just their badges, but Dalton’s point regarding Agent 33 is valid. To Kara, Ward is a man who has served as a protector and friend. He made it his mission to aid her in finding the closure that he believed she rightfully deserved and willingly did terrible things under the assumption that it would lead to a better future.

The ends justify the means indeed.

To the individuals still loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Director Coulson, Grant Ward is a man who has betrayed, deceived, and tortured others to the point where he is a clear antagonist. He burned his family alive in his childhood home, is almost entirely responsible for Fitz’s brain damage, completely responsible for the physical torture of Agent Morse, and equally responsible for much of the chaos brought forth by the Inhumans in the back half of the season. (After all, his bringing Skye to her father made him largely responsible for her eventual venture into the Kree city where she was exposed by the Terrigen Mist and transformed into Quake)

dirty half dozen

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “The Dirty Half Dozen”

On the opposite side of the coin, we have an interesting perception of Coulson through Ward’s eyes. According to Dalton, “S.H.I.E.L.D., as far as [Ward] sees it, has been responsible for screwing up his relationship with Skye, the only thing that really had that kind of meaning in his life, other than his relationship with Garrett, and then this other thing that he had with Agent 33.”

This further highlights the fact that, where Ward may be a villain to Coulson, Coulson is seemingly an equally looming villain to Ward. They have done both good and bad things and have helped some while hurting others. Both men have straddled the line between right and wrong and have ultimately followed their guts when faced with the tough decisions.

Obviously, their guts just happened to point them in different directions.

The grey matter that Ward has been surrounded by since the start of Season 2 might actually support Dalton’s vehement insistence that Grant is an antihero. Much of his terrible deeds were done due to his loyalty to the wrong people and his skewed perception of the world. He has shown time and time again that he’s willing to play whichever side will be most beneficial to him and, as it happens, the current best option for Ward is to quit following a leader and become one himself, something that is eerily similar to what Phil Coulson experienced in Season 2 as he made the transition from Agent to Director.

It seems that, like S.H.I.E.L.D, the Hydra organization will undergo a fairly substantial shift of priorities now that a new leader is taking charge. Dalton was quick to assure fans that this new Hydra will likely be drastically different than the one that has been terrorizing Captain America and the rest of the world since the 1940’s.

As someone who has placed a significant emphasis on the need for closure, Ward as a leader means that the goals of Hydra will likely stray from the standard aim for world domination. “I don’t think Ward is somebody who wakes up thinking, ‘I’m a bad guy, how can I destroy the world?’ I think he has a different way of doing things than Coulson does and I think that it has become personal for Ward.”

The, “personal,” motivation for Ward is yet another thing that serves as a parallel between him and Coulson. The idea of approaching a situation personally, rather than objectively, is something that has caused Coulson a decent amount of trouble as of late. So much so that a group of agents felt that it was necessary to create a, “Real S.H.I.E.L.D,” whose sole goal was to remove Coulson, who they deemed to be untrustworthy, from his position of power.

The entire first half of Season 2 was focused on the mysterious writing that had plagued Coulson since the final tag of Season 1, with much of the missions focusing on acquiring clues regarding the alien symbols. His connection to the Kree symbols caused him to risk both his agents as well the overarching objectives of S.H.I.E.L.D. As mentioned, the back half of Season 2 had Coulson’s priorities shift from himself to Skye, yet another instance in which his emotions and attachment to certain things took precedent over more potentially logical decisions.

The decisions made by Phil Coulson and Grant Ward over the course of the first two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have effectively painted them as hero and villain respectively.

While Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D’s track record have tipped the scale in their favor in regards to being the good guys, it is important to note that much of the Director’s actions have had just as many negative consequences and ramifications as those made by Grant Ward.

Brett Dalton’s promise regarding his character and Hydra’s role in the upcoming season of the show makes it pretty clear how Grant Ward plans on dealing with the villain of his story.

“It’s not about world domination. It’s just about anti-Coulson, essentially, the anti- S.H.I.E.L.D.”


Is Grant Ward an antihero or a true villain? And if he’s one over another, what does that make the beloved Phil Coulson? Sound off in the comments below or on Twitter!

Season 3 of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns to the US television schedule this fall on September 29th.

Couldn’t make it to Brett Dalton’s panel at this year’s Boston Comic Con? Listen to him discuss Grant Ward and his love of Death’s Head II below!


Brett Dalton at Boston Comic Con 2015

Boston Comic Con photos and audio taken by Silje Falck-Pedersen


About the author

Silje Falck-Pedersen


  • I really enjoyed this article, and most of the points brought up were interesting, but “equally responsible for much of the chaos brought forth by the Inhumans in the back half of the season.”? I don’t think so. The Inhuman war was caused by SHIELD and the Inhumans. Ward taking Skye to her father is not to blame for the war anymore than Raina transforming is to blame.

    • Yeah, THIS. Saying that Ward played a big part in the Inhumans vs SHIELD drama is VERY MUCH a stretch. Especially since that’s been brewing for at least a few decades. Skye and Raina’s transformations just brought THEM personally into the skirmish, and had Skye caught between both sides.

  • The Moment season 2 began I saw Coulson as the bad guy I still see him as one when he makes bad calls or says something that I’m not fond of. Ward did some mistakes true I can’t deny that fact but he tried to proof himself worthy of trust so many times and worth saving. he couldn’t kill simmons when he had a chance,he led skye to her dad[he kept his promise]and did what he could to give Kara[Agent 33] Closure and so many things he did means a lot to me.it says there’s still good left in him and nothing wil change my thoughts about that

    • IDK how the article is going to pin the Inhuman fiasco in him — like that’s 8 degrees of separation.

      While infiltrating HYDRA, he directly disobeyed Whitehall’s command to shoot them down, saving them.

  • Good article.

    I’m not planning to watch S3 because last season was pretty disappointing, but maybe on netflix. A big issue is that characters shift personalities as needed to suit the plot, and shock value trumps sense. But, going based off who Coulson and Ward were like 75% of the time, I actually think there’s a lot of parallels between them.

    Both seem to be followers thrust into the roles of leader.

    Both are dedicated and selfless. Ward dedicated his life people — Garrett, Skye, Kara w/o asking anything in return. Coulson dedicated himself to SHIELD & its ideals, literally giving his life.

    Both are extremely protective of loved ones and vengeful to those who hurt them. Coulson’s vengeful streak is seen after Quinn shot Skye, how he treats Ward (no Geneva convention compliant conditions for you!). Even his focus on destroying HYDRA over protecting people (not that it doesn’t have that side effect). Ward’s vengeful streak is self-explanatory.

    Also, as Brett pointed out, they are both totally ends justify the means people. One parallel I’d love acknowledged: Coulson & Co killed the Guest House Guards to get the GH-325 to cure Skye, it bothered me. But then Ward and Garrett revealed all their evil deeds were for the same reason. I figured some acknowledgment, maybe a slippery slope warning — how far are you allowed to go for medical aid? But after a season and a half, I guess we’re just supposed to accept that if a guard shoots at you because you’re illegally trespassing, shooting them back is self-defense.

    That said, between the two, I’d probably side with Ward. He does some pretty bad things, but he does them to take care of the people he loves. At the end of S1, I thought he was a bad guy because he seemed to understand his actions were wrong and do them anyway, but S2 convinced me he’s genuinely trying his best to do the right thing and is too mentally broken by his experiences to do that in a normal, appropriate way. It’s hard to say it’s wrong for him to pursue vengeance when all the heroes pursue vengeance too. Plus, I like that Ward takes care of the people SHIELD throws away.

  • I think Ward is an Antihero and I also think that Coulson is a cross between an Antihero and a hero. The very definition of an Antihero is ‘a protagonist with no heroic qualities.’ Ward, while not being pure evil, lacks the standard heroic qualities such as selflessness and idealism, so he perfectly fits the bill of an Antihero, although blaming him for the war between the Inhumans and S.H.E.I.L.D. is a bit of a stretch. Coulson now, while possessing such qualities, made several moves that were more Anti-heroic in nature than heroic, such as selling Ward to his brother like he were no more than an animal, locking Skye in Block D so he could pursue the writing, and so on. no one in this show is pure good or pure evil, with the exception of characters like Garrett.