When Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered in 2013, the Triskelion was still standing, S.H.I.E.L.D. was still a respected global intelligence operation, and Nick Fury was still its deeply mysterious director. Inhumans hadn’t yet been introduced to the MCU; nor had the quantum realm; nor had time travel. HYDRA was dead. So, too, was Agent Phil Coulson—so far, at least, as anyone outside a select circle deep within S.H.I.E.L.D. was concerned.
Over the years, these facts changed. HYDRA was uncovered. The Triskelion fell. Nick Fury faked his own death, and passed directorship of whatever bits of S.H.I.E.L.D. were left standing over to a shakily resurrected Coulson. On the big screen, Scott Lang traveled to the quantum realm. On the small screen, Daisy discovered her Inhuman side, FitzSimmons solved time travel, and just about every member of Coulson’s team managed to die and get resurrected at least once. Oh, and they stopped the Apocalypse. Repeatedly. Just, they did it without destroying any major metropolitan areas and/or tiny European countries.
Interestingly, though, until the very end of this week’s blockbuster finale, one of those initial conditions remained—or at least, once again turned out to be true: At the end of Season 5, Agent Phil Coulson died. For real, this time. And while the team did get a version of him back this season, in the form of a Chronicom-inflected LMD (thank you, out-of-time FitzSimmons), the bulk of the Zephyr’s race to stop Sibyl (Tamara Taylor) from destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. and overthrowing humanity takes place in a past that eventually splits off into an alternate timeline that will have no impact on the team’s actual present.
This means that it’s not until after they make their way home and beat the Chronicoms—and, in the process, Nathaniel Malick (Thomas E. Sullivan) and his hard-on for chaos—that anyone in their own world will know that Coulson is anything but dead and gone. It also means that when that final scene hits, and we see Coulson sitting in S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ with the official-looking briefcase Mack (Henry Simmons) sent over with a couple of high-tech goodies inside, we understand that not only is Coulson no longer dead, but he’s well, energized, and mentally geared up to help a thrice-reborn S.H.I.E.L.D. protect the world from a universe full of superheroes, supervillains, and whatever ancient, time-traveling gods/robots might fall in between. Cue Lola. Cue the shades. Cue one last, quietly bemused “Cool.”
Cue, one can only hope, a whole new phase in Coulson’s personal Marvel-ous universe.
If this sounds more like a beginning than an ending, you’re not wrong—that’s exactly what it is. (This is Marvel-land; in Marvel-land, nothing ever really ends.) What’s more, it’s not even the only new beginning this particular ending gives us: Mack picks up where he left off as Director of the new (x 3) S.H.I.E.L.D. (now with bonus helicarrier action); Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and May (Ming-Na Wen) take up leadership positions beneath him to help shepherd the agency to its strongest position possible; Daisy (Chloe Bennett), Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) and Kora (Dianne Doan) take off for space on what sure seems like S.W.O.R.D. business; Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) retire to take on a new adventure as parents to a happy toddler. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. manages to leave every member of the team on the most fulfilled, forward-looking note possible. Heck, even Deke (Jeff Ward) gets a fresh start, staying behind in the alternate timeline to become the 1980s rock god/tech genius/alt-director of S.H.I.E.L.D. he was always destined to be. (Okay, fine, and to make sure Fitz’s quantum bubble device doesn’t short before the rest of the team can make their way home. But, like, mostly the rock god/S.H.I.E.L.D. director thing.)
Honestly, had the stretch of episodes right before the finale not included the sudden deaths of Mack’s parents, Enoch (Joel Stoffer) and Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), I’d almost be tempted to categorize this final romp of a season as some kind of superspy fairy tale. As it is, I’m still not sure I shouldn’t. Not only did our favorite scrappy S.H.I.E.L.D. agents manage, despite every possible odd (an emboldened HYDRA! genocidal space robots! a young John Garrett! Fitz being mysteriously absent until the last possible moment!), to come away from their battles against Sybil and Nathaniel with two decisive victories—they somehow did it with a >100% survival rate. Like, this is a season that started out with Coulson and May both well and truly dead, Agent Carter canceled and gathering dust, and tertiary characters like Agents Koenig (Patton Oswalt), Hand (Saffron Burrows), and Davis (Maximilian Osinski) so decisively murdered in their respective previous seasons that it never even seemed like a possibility they might not be gone forever.
And yet, by the time the finale is wrapping up, an LMD Coulson is shooting through the sky in a souped-up Lola, a newly empathetic May is mentoring cadets at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shiny new Coulson Academy, Agent Carter’s Daniel Sousa is sailing with Daisy and her sister through a nebula some seventy years (plus one whole timeline) out from the decade he should have died in, and a resurrected LMD version of Agent Davis is playing wheelman for Piper (Briana Venskus) and Yo-Yo as they chase down 0-8-4s all over the world. In Timeline D, meanwhile—that is, the timeline where The Deke Squad rules the Billboard Hot 100—the Koenig brothers’ rum-running forebear (also played by Oswalt) has become a kind of founding figure in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s earliest secret history, and a young Victoria Hand (Rachele Schank) has been given the chance to take out John Garrett (played with loving delight by Bill Paxton’s son, James) long before his future self could even think of having her future self murdered. I mean, talk about karma!
And talk about luck. It’s the rare genre show that makes it through the finale without someone having to permanently sacrifice themselves for the greater good, nevermind a genre show with a Whedon behind it. But not this show! Nevermind any parallels to a Joss Whedon joint—getting to see the team beat the Chronicoms by weaponizing May’s superpowered empathy felt like some real non-violent Avatar: the Last Airbender shit. (That is to say: Great.) Getting to see the “Kora saves Daisy plan” come together like clockwork, meanwhile, after Daisy quakes the Chronicom ships apart with her and Nathaniel still on board? It’s like Ocean’s 11—just, you know, in the vacuum of space. (That is to say: Harrowing, and slightly confusing, but also great.)
Getting to see the whole Zephyr team gather (via hologram) in Enoch’s basement speakeasy a year out from their big Chronicom battle, though, awkwardly catching up on each other’s lives, warming up as they joke about which one of them died the most times in their time together (Coulson; it’s Coulson), then enthusiastically agreeing to make these kinds of virtual reunions a more regular tradition (hello from 2020!) before each returning to their genuinely cool new situations without a single one having to sacrifice anything… that just felt like a gift. Let 2019 have Endgame; let November have Black Widow. This summer, in the midst of warring pandemics and the absence of any other blockbuster Marvel event, I am ecstatic to have nothing else Marvel to think about except this big, hopeful Happily Ever After from the little S.H.I.E.L.D. show that could.
That said, if Marvel wanted to announce the Daisy Johnson and the Agents of S.W.O.R.D. streaming spin-off of my dreams, that’s news I could use, like, yesterday. C’mon, Disney! It’s what the people (by which I mean, me, but probably also so many potential Disney+ subscribers) want. You already have Coulson’s new ride; might as well use it to get him to outer space to catch up with an old friend.
Past seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are available to stream on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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