I was a latecomer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; it was nearing the supposed end of its five season run when I tapped into the pilot. It took me a while to get into it; I had a not insignificant amount of Marvel trope-fatigue and the show had what felt like an annoyingly dogged focus on Whedon-Rorschach-Blot-Asskicking-Brunette Chloe Bennet, whose character Daisy struck me as one of the most trivial. I stuck it out because, Marvel tropes aside, the show’s setup was among my favorite Whedon tropes, expanding on the hilarious “The Zeppo” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by ostensibly setting up one of the MCU’s least important characters (the unprepossessing Agent Phil Coulson, played by wry background type Clark Gregg) as the center of the show.
And it won me over. By Season Two I was convinced it was the overall best of the Marvel TV offerings, rivalled only by the very highest high points of Jessica Jones’s first season and Luke Cage’s second one. Production values were high. Tie-ins and nods to the larger MCU were more pointed and specific and well-placed. And the show had the Whedon Secret Sauce: A certain supernerd je ne sais quoi, a defiant devotion to cheesy puns and cast chemistry that started strong and became ridiculously endearing. By Season Three, I still found Daisy Johnson tiresome, but I was never going to see Clark Gregg as a background type again. Truthfully, I think he officially made the single-digit list of “TV Guys I Would Totally Make Out With In Real Life.” At the end of Season Five, I knew Yo-Yo (Natalie Cordova-Buckley) was right to argue against keeping him alive at any cost, but I was glad it was the end of the series because I couldn’t stand to actually watch the guy die. He and Melinda May (the fabulous Ming-na Wen) headed off to literal Tahiti for the world’s most heartbreaking honeymoon, Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) was dead, except not, because an iteration of him was in cryo-stasis in space somewhere headed to the future, Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) was seemingly going to set out to intercept him, Daisy turned the reins over to capable, grounded, non-supernatural Mack (Henry Simmons) and the diminished crew faded out on a The Graduate-style note of anticlimactic ambiguity. All good.
After that reasonable, dignified conclusion, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was put through a T.A.H.I.T.I. program of its own with a renewal for a sixth (and a seventh) season. I was skeptical—it’s relatively rare for a show like this to go out on a high note, and they had pulled it off—but I was ultimately all-in because, like everyone else, I really missed Coulson. Clark Gregg, with his understated, sweet-natured, confident performance, had managed to turn that minor, human character into someone without whom the world seemed like less of a good place.
So did this half-coda work in the end? For me, yes and no. Given the constraints (you ended your show with your hero dying, you were exhorted to bring it back despite knowing there was no show without that guy, and basically you have flashbacks, dreams, time-travel, and soap-opera style evil twin played by same actor at your disposal so … hey, use all of them!) I think they managed to stay on track. That said, they had no choice but to mess with their greatest asset (cast chemistry) by separating people into isolated cells for much of the season, the script was shockingly weak at a line to line level, and the villain, Karolina Wydra’s Izel, was a snoozy old bag of clichés. And yet, finally, when I was starting to get really impatient with the season and was scratching my head at all the positive reviews it was getting, there was a moment. It came late in the game, but it delivered. It was a small thing with a huge and hugely satisfying ripple. Sarge, Coulson’s Evil-Cooper style doppelganger from another place, was yelling at Daisy to kill him, and he called her by the old name Coulson had had so much trouble letting go of when she became “Daisy.” He called her Skye.
Admit it: You teared up too.
The line, launched out of a pretty mundane conflict, focused the story like a fancy zoom lens: It wasn’t their wishful imagination; Coulson was in there somewhere, and there was a growing conflict between whatever was inhabiting him, and him. It explained the mysteriously identical DNA, it seriously changed the stakes for everyone but especially May and Daisy, and it started a ticking clock on the question of whether actual-Coulson was going to put in an appearance. The answer was “not really,” which was wise, and the two-part finale unfolded in a sometimes cheeky, sometimes tropey mosaic of space-creatures, zombies, near-death experiences, unbelievable saves, Inca temples, shootouts, swordfights and quips. At the end, Sarge was dead and Coulson’s confusing body was dust, Yo-Yo was recovering from almost turning into a parasitized zombie, May was dead of a sword through the solar plexus (Simmons was nonchalant about resurrecting her, too), but the Chronicoms had attacked the lighthouse and their only path to survival involved time traveling to 1930s New York. And creating a Life Model Decoy Coulson, on whose unassuming “Hey, guys!” the season ended. After a season with pretty high highs and pretty low lows, the last three episodes had punch and tension and humor and depth. Talk about resurrections.
Honestly I’m pretty impressed with the way Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Six got creative, harnessing the assets it had left itself at the end of Season Five as well as working with the constraints, some of which were pretty serious even for the physics-bending MCU. When the Monoliths first appeared, they seemed like a scary McGuffin; some dangerous HYDRA thing that was sequestered in the cargo hold whose properties were unknown. I doubt the showrunners had an inkling of how they’d factor into the denouement several seasons down the road. Season Five’s Chronicoms were leveraged to become the existential Big Bad of the upcoming Season Seven, also probably an on-the-ground decision born of “what can we cook with the ingredients we have on hand” creative thinking, but also because they can hack into people’s brains as well as their computers. And the team needs an old-school S.H.I.E.L.D. historian who can find answers for the future by studying the past, making it handy that they can leverage LMD technology to bring back the guy who was obsessed with vintage stuff and who coincidentally was the heartbeat of the show. It all makes so much sense that my biggest unanswerable question was “What happened to Elizabeth Henstridge’s bangs?”
When you create a fictional universe in which there are no fixed rules, plot becomes rather irrelevant. Once space, time and interdimensional travel are a given, death doesn’t matter and neither does anything else; you can go back and do it a different way. What matters is the characters, how they interact and develop, how they combine onscreen. Great cast chemistry is numinous, it really cannot be anticipated; it just happens. Good writing helps, but it cannot create chemistry where there is none. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast has it. They’re freaking adorable. Now that they’ve set up a relatively valid way to get Phil Coulson back, utilizing the tech they’ve had to master in past seasons and establishing potential conflicts around whether he should be back, there’s every reason to expect the final season to keep cashing in on what the show built in the first place: A clever, character-driven series that maintains an above-board relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Globular Cluster and turns on the strength of the cast and, in particular, the almost eerie charisma of Clark Gregg.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.