Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the final two episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. You can read our review of them here.
It’s been a long, strange trip for Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Going from being the biggest, most-hyped new series on ABC back in 2013, to a scrappy little underdog fighting to stay on the air, to getting an unexpected additional two seasons (with season seven being green-lit before season six had even aired), the show has gone through more ups and downs than most shows that last this long. And with Wednesday night’s two-part series finale, S.H.I.E.L.D. went all-out, staging massive outer-space explosions, super-powered showdowns, and enough time-travel complications to make Avengers: Endgame look downright straightforward. The A.V. Club talked with showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, along with executive producer Jeffrey Bell, about how they put together that complicated time-travel reveal, wanting the audience to get the same feelings they had about saying goodbye to these characters after seven years, and never, ever again wanting to do a scene set in an anonymous gray hallway.
The A.V. Club: I wanted to talk about something I really admired about the finale, which is how unabashedly nerdy it is.
Jed Whedon: I don’t know what you mean. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s so little handholding. If somebody doesn’t remember what happened at the end of season six, too bad, because you’re not explaining it. You jump around in time like a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s all very puzzle-pieces-sliding-into-place, sci-fi shenanigans—did you already have this big, elaborate reveal planned as you were filming season six’s ending?
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JW: We knew what this season was going to be at that point. We knew that we were going to be jumping through time. And so we planted little stuff that would be easily avoidable if we didn’t end up tying up those loose ends. You know, people in hazmat suits with no faces are easy to excuse as anything else. But we sort of had an idea of what we were gonna do—with no real sense of how we were going to tie that all together. But, you know, confident that we could probably figure it out. So we sort of threw some balls up in the air and hoped that we’d be able to juggle them later. We knew we would have to explain the Fitzsimmons of it and that part of it was its own little bubble. But, yeah, we went in with, I would say, some distant hopes on the horizon. But it did become a brain pretzel-twister by the end.
Maurissa Tancharoen: At the end of this, everyone’s brains were melted across the board. Our writers, cast, crew.
JW: It was the first time my first A.D. came up to me and said, “I love you, I love your episodes. I hate this.” [All laugh.]
AVC: Given how spectacular-looking these last two episodes are, what was the behind-the-scenes strategy for that? Did you have to do a lot of back and forth with ABC in terms of budget?
MT: We really appreciate you saying that, because as the season progresses, the budget always starts to...
JW: Part of the game is, how to measure it out. We had the amount of chips that we could use, and we had to save some for the end.
MT: We’re glad that you weren’t noticing the return to the dark corridors [in previous episodes].
JW: Oh, he’s noticed. [Laughs.]
Jeffrey Bell: He’s noticed. The way it works is, you know, there’s a pattern budget, we get the same amount for every episode. And so one of the things that we’ve gone to ABC about—and they’ve been good about—is we say, this week we want to have tuna sandwiches for lunch, so that next week we can have, like, a five-course meal. And the problem is, we started in the 1930s and spent all our money. We just got backlot period costumes, which energized everybody and got everyone really excited. But we have the same amount for every episode. So it’s up to us and our our wonderful line producer, Garry Brown, to really be able to do that. You know, we’re a network show with not a lot of money. And so we’re sad when the corridors are more than we want—you know, we’re as aware of them as you have been from time to time. [All laugh.] And it’s not what we want, it’s just all we can afford to do. We do try and save, so that we can go out with some scope and style.
JW: That’s one of the things that led to space. Space is a good way to—look at, like, Battlestar [Galactica]. You know, it felt big. And they’re in that same ship, so that little bit became our model once we went to space, because we knew we had the sets we’d had and how to manage them. So the Zephyr jumping through time seemed like it was going to make financial sense... until everyone needs a hat.
JB: We shoot in Los Angeles, which we’re thrilled to do, but to go off the lot, it’s just a lot. It’s cheaper to go to another planet than to go to Van Nuys.
AVC: When it ended, did you say to yourselves, “All right, I’m not writing another scene set in a hallway for at least a year”?
JW: We’re actually working on a new show called Hallways. [All laugh.] I believe that Mack comments on that in the final—
AVC: I wondered if that was the writers voicing a little personal exhilaration.
JB: Otherwise, the corridors we have in the last two are pretty, pretty sexy corridors.
JW: Yeah, we have some nice corridors in them.
JB: Shiny black corridors. We were very excited about those.
MT: As much as we grew tired of the corridors, we were very sad when they were torn down. Because we had spent so much time in them.
AVC: They were corridors, but they were your corridors.
MT: Exactly. They were ours.
AVC: Fitz’s absence drove the plot this season. When did you first know about Iain’s absence? As you began shaping the season, did you know you’d get him back at a certain point, or did you intentionally decide to keep him out until the end as a sort of safety precaution?
JW: I think we were confident we’d get him back, because if we didn’t, we’d be so mad at him. But we did build it with that in mind, and also with the concept that when we got him back, that no time would have passed for the character, which was... over the years, we always talked about, in the writers room, how they’re a “forever love.” We feel about them the way that the audience does. And we knew we were going to keep them together. So the only thing you can do is put obstacles in their way. And we had already done that a lot. So this was another time where we were feeling that same problem. And so we tried to build it in a different way, and keep him alive in a different way and make the absence more of a plot point than just a barrier in their relationship. As you see at the end, the payoff is that they already had their happy ending. And so, to quote the president, it is what it is.
MT: We tortured them for the entire run of the series. So it made sense to us that when we do see them, in the end, they have the happy ending that everybody was hoping they would have.
JB: To be clear, we shot every moment of Iain that we were given.
MT: [Laughs.] Yes.
AVC: Given how playful much of this season was, it often felt like a victory lap and a chance for you guys to cut loose and have some fun with these characters we’ve spent so much time with.
MT: A jumped-the-shark victory lap, is that it? Is that what you said? [Laughs.]
JB: We talked about it—that it’s okay to jump the shark.. But as you go over the shark, you high-five the shark.
MT: And it’s not just one shark. It’s that we lined up a bunch of sharks, and high-fived them.
AVC: What was the particular mission statement you went into the season with, or what guiding theme did you have as you were starting to put it together?
JW: We knew we were going to be reliving some S.H.I.E.L.D. history, which we thought was fun. And it was a way to reward our own mythology and the people who followed it all these years. But, yes, the spirit of it was, “Let’s just have fun.” We’ve talked a little bit about how we thought season five was our finale. And we thought of it as, like, you finished the game and then you download a couple bonus levels, you know? So we did feel a bit of freedom. We took some chances on stuff, some big swings.
MT: Risks, I would say. Yes, we took some risks, but in the end, I feel like we did everything that was meant to be done.
JW: There was a lot more in the writers room of pitches that, on previous seasons, you would have gone, “That’s funny. So what do we really do?” Instead, we went, “Okay.”
JB: There was a lot of joy in the pitching. There was a lot of joy in the storytelling. And we wanted a certain nostalgia and joy. It was like, “Let’s look back, and twist and turn.” But we’ve had seasons that had a little bit more angst to them, and though the stakes were high here, the general tenor was more joyous than it had been in past seasons.
MT: And also with the time travel, it was a way for us to tap into the nostalgia that we were feeling in making this last season together. It’s the nostalgia that was just inherent in everything that we did throughout the process of our last season. With each meeting, we would say, “This is the last props meeting. This is the last time we have to do this production meeting. This is the last time we’re gonna be on the stage.” And then as we were wrapping up our stages like that, it wasn’t even in metaphor. The stages were actually being torn down around us to make room for something else.
AVC: What was a weird story idea that you had in the back of your head that you wanted to try but never could, whether it was because of circumstances or because you were like, “That’s never going to happen”?
JW: There was talk about Sousa having to do a detour undercover as a cop to fight in the streets in Avengers because Enver [Gjokaj, who plays Daniel Sousa-Ed.] was in that film [as a police officer], but there was enough timeline problems. [Laughs.]
JB: We had a lot of ideas where we were—and I’ll say this, I don’t care—we were given the green light originally to use certain characters from Marvel, and started to break story based on those characters—[Coughs.] MODOK—and then they retracted it. So there were a bunch of things that were going to get a little batshit crazy that were above our pay grade, in terms of the toys we were allowed to play with.
JW: And some of our coolest characters, I’ll say, were adjusted off of those ideas.
MT: I think some of our best storylines and character development was born out of us having to pivot and scramble. And that’s the fun of our jobs—and the nature of working with an entity like Marvel, where there are a slew of characters to pull from, and there are a bunch of established moving parts. And then when you place your hopes and dreams in something and then it’s not possible...
JW: We tried never to put all of our eggs in one basket.
MT: Right. And you scramble. But that’s how our mythology was even formed in the first place.
JW: Bell always described making TV as, you’re building a plane as it’s falling out of the sky.
MT: Or you’re plugging holes in a sinking ship.
JB: Yeah, or you’re laying track on a train that’s—
JW: All dire situations.
AVC: Leading to inevitable death.
JW: Yeah, none of them are any fun. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the things that really changed right around the time of seasons three and four was how the show cast off the weight of being so beholden to the MCU in really direct ways. With a few years of hindsight now, what were the biggest frustrations creatively in those early years, and what were the most freeing aspects of these later ones?
JW: When we started, there’s a million eyes on it, a million cooks in the kitchen, and we had a secret that we couldn’t tell in Hydra. [The first season eventually had S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrated and taken over by Hydra, as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier —Ed.] And I feel like once that reveal happened, we sort of started living in our own mythology. And from that point on, the show took on a different feeling for us. I think that it became something that we were building as opposed to something we were trying to fit in.
And I remember Bell drawing the Venn diagram of where we were supposed to hit, like, ABC’s expectations and Marvel’s expectations. And we had this little wedge that was what we were supposed to be doing. But I feel like once we come to season two and it just built from there—
MT: You’re forgetting the general audience expectations, all the Marvel fans.
JB: One of our challenges was, we were a Marvel TV show and we weren’t allowed to have any of the Marvel characters.
MT: The only established character from the MCU was Coulson, who’d been in a few of the movies.
JB: We were starting a Marvel series with five new characters who hadn’t existed in the comic books. So people were like, “Boo, we don’t like these people.” And what Marvel would give us is, “You can’t even have Loki’s staff. You can have, like, this left-handed thing.” You know? So there was an expectation from the audience that we’re gonna see a superhero show with a lot of Marvel brand names. And we weren’t allowed to do that. And we had the big secret, which was we cannot say the “H” word. We could not say “Hydra.” We could not spoil that for Winter Soldier or it would ruin it for everyone.
MT: Or even allude to the notion of spies or a mole or anything like that.
JB: So we were a tech series the first season. We were like, here’s this cool tech, here’s this cool thing. But if you go back and you’d look at what—Deathlok was coming along, and all these characters and all these bad guys at the end, all tied into Hydra, we just couldn’t say the Hydra name.
MT: Yeah. And despite it being more case-of-the-week when we first premiered all of those—
JW: We were hiding them.
MT: Yeah, we were hiding that ball. But we also were planting all the pieces, so then, once it opened up, we were able to dive into the Hydra thing.
JW: But I think that the real difference was the time spent with the characters and people started to feel like they had a connection to them. Sort of being able to tell those stories and lean into it and be confident in that. And that happened at the end of season one, into season two.
But like you’re saying, by season four, we felt like we had our feet on the ground. And we definitely—four was the one where we tried the stuff that we thought was the hardest to pull off, and most rewarding, in a way. But it really stems from the fact that after the first season, when it was like, “Who are these people?” Now, they’re like, “How could you do that to them?!”
JB: Once you got Comic-Con people showing up saying, “I’ll be your Fitz if you’ll be my Simmons,” and seeing so many young Asian American women go up to Chloe and Ming at these things and just talk about what it meant... Once those characters took life, it really changed the show for us in a really beautiful way..
AVC: How did you determine what kind of ending you had in mind for each character? Did you know pretty far ahead of time you wanted that bittersweet scene of all of them talking in the room as holograms, having gone off to live their own lives?
JW: I think the main goal was the feeling. The first thing we were trying to land on in the [writers] room was, what’s the feeling we want to leave with? We’d already done the end of season five. So what we were trying to capture was, again, the feeling we were having in production, which was, it’s that part of life where it’s a different goodbye. It’s not about loss. It’s about moving on and growing up and that thing that happens where you are very close to people and then you move away, or your job ends after seven years and you go your separate ways. And trying to capture that feeling, that was the goal. And then everything else fell in according to that, was trying to serve that idea. “What’s the end of their arc? What’s bittersweet to know about May? That she’s actually teaching now and that they’re not together?”
MT: And I do think the one-year jump serves to amplify that bittersweet quality, because we, as the audience, are aware that they’ve been in their new lives, separate from each other, for a year. They’re established, they’re starting to settle into it. But seeing them in that room, and then learning that it’s a virtual room where they actually can’t reach out and touch one another, or give each other a hug... I think in that feeling of longing for one another and that feeling of the loss of what once was—it really lands the bond that they will have forever, even if they won’t be in each other’s lives.
JB: I think having Enoch say, “This will be your last mission together,” giving the characters that knowledge, gave them the sense that the cast, crew, and writers had.
JW: And the audience.
JB: And the audience, which is, “What do you mean, this is the last mission? Why is that, and what does that mean going forward?” And then you see them at the end, you first think, “No, they came together!” But when it becomes the holograms, you see that, “Oh, they’re actually not together.” So there was a vibe we were definitely going for.
AVC: Presumably, the only other big question you guys had was, “How can we get more Enoch in there?”
JB: Yeah, that was Joel’s [Joel Stoffer, who plays Enoch —Ed.] doing. He just showed up and kept surprising us with wonderful things. So we just kept writing for him.
MT: I mean, he was one of our most pleasant surprises ever.
JW: He was cast at the end of a season because he sounded good saying [Adopts stentorian voice] “Phillip J. Coulson...”
MT: Yeah, as a voice, basically just a silhouette. He’s very talented.