Home Op-ed Living on Borrowed Time: An ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Retrospective

Living on Borrowed Time: An ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Retrospective

by Guy M. Dolbey

There Was an Idea

In 2012, it was reported that Marvel Television and ABC were fielding ideas for a TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following the astronomical success of The Avengers just months before. Later that year, this took the shape of a pilot simply titled S.H.I.E.L.D. which was retitled Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the following April and formally picked up for a full season the next month. Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Jeffrey Bell were to serve as producers with Avengers director Joss Whedon directing the first episode and contributing generally to the first season.

Though the show’s remarkably simple road to the silver screen, guided by a plethora of film and TV veterans, suggested ABC had a hit on their hands, the reality was far less triumphant. S.H.I.E.L.D was never a total flop, but it became very clear very quickly that the show’s audience would be far smaller than the movies that inspired it. Despite this initial bumpiness, S.H.I.E.L.D survived 6 seasons uncanceled before the news broke that its seventh would be its last and while it was never the blockbuster ABC might have hoped for, it had by the end accrued a genuinely dedicated fanbase that if anything allowed the showrunners more freedom in where they took these characters than if they were still scrabbling for wider appeal.

As someone who admittedly wasn’t around from the very start but has been watching live for more than half of the show’s run, what I see in S.H.I.E.L.D is not a low budget imitation floundering for relevance, but a show about making the best of what you’ve got, from a team of people forced to do exactly that.

A Group of Remarkable People

The cast of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ courtesy of ABC

Though Joss Whedon has deflected comparisons to shows like the X-Files, the inspirations and more often motivations of S.H.I.E.L.D’s first season are hardly invisible. Its ragtag team of agents with their own regularly conflicting desires calls back to police procedurals more directly than any of the movies the show takes from. The monster of the week format that the show’s early episodes stick to has as much in common with Doctor Who as the earlier Whedon shows that followed in its footsteps. But what was even more obvious watching S.H.I.E.L.D’s first season is the more cynical sense of just why they did these things. 

When we’re introduced to agents Fitz and Simmons in the first episode (as the singular Fitzsimmons), the two quirky British scientists that reference Doctor Who and have a preplanned ship name, one is reminded more than anything that Doctor Who was unprecedentedly popular amongst American audiences at the time. When we meet Agent Ward as a no nonsense bad boy who doesn’t play well with others, it’s hard to ignore that this show came out in a moment where people were becoming more and more interested in anti-heroes and likable assholes. The decision to make this show about Coulson of all characters though, unquestionably one that paid off, feels like an attempt to build on the success not of the Marvel name in its entirety but the very specific fandom around The Avengers. All that said, part of what makes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D so engaging was how its writers made do with the hands they were dealt over the last 7 years.

When S.H.I.E.L.D was announced, there was initially a kind of understanding that as much as the show reacted to the movies, that would be reciprocated. Though the writers were often privy to the way the MCU films would go, as a show about S.H.I.E.L.D set before The Winter Soldier would have to be, this relationship remained intensely one sided for as long as the two existed in the same space. While it would always have been nice for something more explicit on the part of the movies, what this did work towards is creating a sense of the show’s cast as genuine underdogs, going uncredited but remaining indispensable. As it stands, Nick Fury’s nod to an unnamed old friend in the climax of Age of Ultron is the last time the events of S.H.I.E.L.D have been acknowledged by the movies, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D hadn’t really needed that validation for a long time. If the strength of the MCU is that it lets these epic stories play out in the real world, then the strength of S.H.I.E.L.D was that it saw the value in the people who don’t get their billion dollar hero’s journey.

This independence from the movies, though not without its drawbacks, was maybe one of the greatest blessings the show could have received. A version of S.H.I.E.L.D that is still about cleaning up the Avengers’ messes would have worn out its welcome long before the version we saw got to the Inhumans, Ghost Rider, or one of the most exciting time travel storylines I’ve seen in a long time. For a show whose biggest flaw at this point was feeling kind of manufactured, it was maybe the best possible thing that could have happened. This was also felt in the steps the show was able to take in terms of reacting to things happening in the real world and with representation; having Asian leads and openly gay supporting characters years before the movies ever did and having stories that make those things unignorable.

Gabriel Luna as Ghost Rider in season 4 of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ courtesy of ABC

And while there is plenty to appreciate in those first couple seasons, especially knowing just how the rug was going to be pulled out from under them, what they did with this newfound freedom is what really cemented the show as something great for so many people. Fitz and Simmons, the aforementioned anglophile bait that the show almost seemed burdened with in its first season are a perfect example of this. In the finale of that first season we see the two plunged into the ocean, leaving Fitz with permanent brain damage and just 22 episodes later, we close out season two with Simmons being consumed by an alien sculpture. This pattern of tragedy striking the least likely characters reflects the writers’ growing sense of security in the audience’s commitment to the show and at the same time made a lot of people care intensely about a relationship that they likely never would have if it hadn’t been so ruthlessly tested. Returning to those early episodes as the finale drew closer was illuminating in just how successfully the show turned what could have been its weaknesses around. 

To Become Something More

A lot has been said about what S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t, how it dealt with network trappings and studio politics and came out the other side as something worthwhile. While that was a hugely important piece of the puzzle, I am just as fascinated by what S.H.I.E.L.D actually was. Once it had proven its worth and convinced people to stick around, what were they really coming back for?

A constant theme of the show was this idea that it is not only a necessity but a responsibility to move forward with whatever you have because the alternative is unthinkable. This is maybe made most literal in the character of Coulson who is brought back from the dead at the beginning of the show and for the rest of its lifespan is living on borrowed time, though this idea runs through most of the show’s plotlines in some capacity. Daisy Johnson, the de-facto protagonist of the show is introduced early on as being born from monsters and though that puts the people around her on edge, it almost serves as a challenge for her to see her parents as more than that. While this could easily be a slightly sophomoric message on its own, what S.H.I.E.L.D does so well is put that idea under seemingly insurmountable stress. 

There are so many moments where it would be easier to give up and leave the world to its own devices and the team are far too human to have never given that any consideration, which makes it all the more satisfying when they decide to work towards something bigger. In the 4th season, when the team meets an alternate universe version of Grant Ward, former hydra traitor embedded in the team, it is not objective knowledge of his own righteousness that distincts him from his evil counterpart but the fact that someone who really cared had given him a chance in the beginning.

S.H.I.E.L.D made its world so much bigger not by telling us that something exciting was happening a million miles away, but by taking this historically black and white world and making the parts we knew so much more complicated. Offering not only the triumph and catharsis we’ve come to expect from comic book stories but the unpredictability and inescapable humanity we recognize in our own lives. The benefit of being a show so defined by having to make do with the hand you were dealt is that it knows innately that nothing is ever as simple as we would have liked it to be and that’s probably for the best.

On a more base level, what made S.H.I.E.L.D so engaging after all this time was that its characters for better or for worse always felt like real people, especially in comparison to the movies ostensibly set in the same world. The benefit of such a large and constantly changing cast is that not only is equilibrium near impossible but that weaving such a complex web of personal conflicts means you’re not really sure you want it. We completely understand in season one why Fitz can’t let go of his hope that Ward is a good person and simultaneously feel enormous catharsis when Coulson finally puts him down in season three. When Daisy turns down the role of S.H.I.E.L.D director, it is frustrating not only because we had bought into Coulson’s faith in her potential but because it reminds us of a level of her character that it would have been more convenient to ignore. 

This constant ambiguity and refusal to lay down one specific way to read this story genuinely feels like an invitation into its world, and an opportunity to become a part of the story in a way that so many shows and movies never come close to achieving. This patient approach to character development is how characters like Mack and Deke, who are introduced almost as antagonists, can become absolute fan favorites because the story provides them with as much internality as any character we’ve already come to know.

However, that sense of personal investment into the story does not come without caveats; there is an acute awareness amongst the writers not only of how people hope the story goes but what that really says about what they’ve learned from it. In the final moments of the show’s sixth season, a full 13 episodes after we had said our goodbye to Coulson, Daisy is presented with a big red button that will bring him back to life, albeit in the form of a robotic clone, totally aware of his own artifice. Without hesitation, she presses the button and brings Coulson back from the dead, well aware that he would not have asked her to. Though this decision is inextricable from the general agreement amongst the crew that there is not really a show without some version of the character, it also sets the stage for a really genuinely challenging storyline about just what we are owed by the stories we invest ourselves in.

Clark Gregg as Coulson in season 6 of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ courtesy of ABC

“Sometimes the hero has to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it”

The final season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a time travel story that follows a stripped down version of the S.H.I.E.L.D team chasing an alien threat through time as they attempt to disrupt the history of S.H.I.E.L.D and leave earth vulnerable to extraterrestrial colonization. This season was announced to the show’s writers midway through production on its sixth, serving as the show’s final miraculous revival after years of uncertainty over when it would come to an end. The outcome of this is that S.H.I.E.L.D season 7 feels less like a last hurrah and more like closing up shop, with a story built around exactly what it means to fight with your place in history itself. 

The most immediate example of this is how it handles Coulson, who on a meta level is brought back into the fold as much by the audience’s idea that the story requires him to be worth telling as he was by Daisy’s desire to see her father figure one last time. As the season continues, we see the avatar of Coulson struggling with his own mortality and seeming inability to die and are reminded of every time he’s escaped certain death, all the way back to the first episode. It starts to feel like we’re the ones keeping him alive even against his wishes. The season parallels this with a film noir styled episode focused on Agent Carter lead Daniel Sousa, who was believed to have been killed in action but was actually pulled out of time by the S.H.I.E.L.D team. The constant reinforcement of just how traumatic it is to be robbed of finality begins to feel like an appeal to something real, some sense that if the show went on as long as the last fan wanted, it wouldn’t really be itself anymore and that if it’s already made its mark, maybe that’s enough.

Similarly, the main villains of the final season’s back half are newcomers Nathaniel Malick and Kora, two characters who had not survived in the show’s original timeline but are given a second chance because of the villains’ meddling. The fact that these two are made aware of and driven by that fact feels like a rebuttal to the blanket value of letting go and a suggestion to dig deep before assuming something dead lest the things you leave behind come back to haunt you. These two almost contradictory themes came to a head as the show reached an end to suggest not simply that which is over has no value, nor that there is value inherent in finality, but that life is simply too messy to make those judgements at all. This begins to feel like the show finding peace with itself and an appeal to audiences to understand that the show’s value is not dependent on whether or not it comes to an end but that it got to exist in the first place. 

Elizabeth Henstridge & Iain De Caestecker as FitzSimmons in season 5 of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ courtesy of ABC

When the credits rolled on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s final episode, I found myself struck not by heartbreak or disappointment but a comforting sense of calm. I can’t pretend my eyes were dry and while the show will be missed, I can think of no better way to end a show about what it means to keep going in the face of insurmountable obstacles than to assure us that our heroes will keep doing exactly that. When the team all go their separate ways, it is unquestionably sad but it is also exciting to know that they will continue to make their world bigger and brighter because they’ve faced the alternative. Watching Daisy offer her sister the same chance to be better that Coulson gave her, Fitzsimmons raising their daughter in a world that their love made safe, and Mack, May and Yo-yo continuing the dream of what S.H.I.E.L.D could be, feels like a powerful statement of the value of looking at what you’ve got and understanding how it can make the world better for other people.

Maybe counter to the show’s earlier message of hope against all odds, S.H.I.E.L.D season 7’s thesis is a far more nuanced idea that sometimes a thing has already come to an end and maybe that isn’t the end of the world as long as you’ve learned something from it.

The show’s final image is Coulson flying off into the sky, a direct callback to the very first episode but instead of feeling like we’re back at square one, it’s almost grounding to be reminded that no matter how much things change, you will only ever be yourself.

If this is truly the end for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then I hope it will be remembered not as a strange wrinkle in an otherwise minutely planned universe but a show that believed people could always be better than the cards they were dealt.

Check out our series finale interviews with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stars Clark Gregg and Elizabeth Henstridge.

Read more from guest writer Guy M. Dolbey here!

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4 comments

The16thShard August 20, 2020 - 3:34 am

Great article.

Season 7 sounds amazing! Would I be able to watch Season 7 considering the last season I watched was Season 4?

Reply
Tito Balleste August 20, 2020 - 7:14 am

Excellent. You nailed it, Guy!

Reply
Melanie August 20, 2020 - 11:07 am

Great article!! This is exactly how I felt when the final episode aired. I’ll miss this show dearly but I’m at peace with the ending. Bravo to the amazing writers,cast,directors,and ABC on an amazing show and for giving us closure that most shows don’t.

Reply
James Dunbar August 20, 2020 - 6:27 pm

Please bring back agents of shield the best show ever please

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