SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seventh- and final-season premiere.
EXCLUSIVE: “I want to say that because this was our last season and because there was an underlying nostalgia, we really went for it with stories,” Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producer and co-showrunner Jeffrey Bell said of the final season of the ABC superspy drama that kicked off tonight. “I mean, we took chances. There’s a lot of fun things that we would’ve never attempted earlier in the show and I’m really curious to see how fans respond to some of those bolder choices.”
“There are some bold choices, that’s for sure,” notes fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. EP and co-showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen, with a trace of no-small-amount-of secrets-to-be-revealed in her voice.
Back for its seventh and last season with tonight’s 1931-set “The New Deal” episode, the Clark Gregg-led Marvel series is intent on going out with some time travel worthy of a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation.
Deadline exclusively revealed last summer at Comic-Con that Season 7 would be the conclusion of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s saga.
The first and last of Marvel’s original small-screen efforts, S.H.I.E.L.D. picked up from last year and started Season 7 with Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson now a somewhat confused Life Model Decoy of his once again dead self. Initially overwhelmed by the data of his life, Coulson finds the team portrayed by Jeff Ward, Chloe Bennett, Henry Simmons, Natalia Cordova-Buckley and Elizabeth Henstridge faced with their greatest dilemma yet: defeat the face-searing Chronicom and let the evil incarnate of Hydra be formed in the mid-20th century so the seeds of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be planted to save the world.
— Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (@AgentsofSHIELD) May 28, 2020
Add a cameo by an FDR who is not yet President, Patton Oswalt as a bootlegging ancestor of his current Koenig character, and some prejudices from the past and present, and you have a launch for the last 13 episodes of the series – and hopefully more Ming-Na Wen than we saw tonight.
Taking a look at the ramifications of the Kevin Tancharoen-penned season opener and the season of eras and surprises to come, I chatted with showrunners Bell, Maurissa Tancharoen and Whedon, along with ex-Marvel TV boss and S.H.I.E.L.D. EP Jeph Loeb, about bringing back Marvel in this age of pandemic and bringing the show to its end – or not.
DEADLINE: Let’s start with “The New Deal” season opener, set in 1931. We have time travel, we have a very different type of Agent Coulson, we have a lot of ramifications, and we have this terrible philosophical and practical dilemma, which is that in order to save S.H.I.E.L.D., you have to save Hydra. How did we get here, more than 90 years in the past?
WHEDON: As writers we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to launch into that feels as exciting as everything we’ve already done, and there was only one thing left on the list, which is traveling back in time.
So it’s a great way for us to be able to revisit S.H.I.E.L.D. history, the history of the show we made, and a history of our characters. This launching point is back at the very origin of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is also the origin of Hydra. In fact, it is a reaction to Hydra, so we felt like that was a good way to re-explore some of the stuff we’ve been talking about for six years now.
BELL: It creates good conflict for our characters. It’s big drama, and that’s how we landed on that.
TANCHAROEN: You know, it’s in what Mack (Simmons) says in the season opener of let’s make ripples, not waves in the past. That is something that they have to hold on to and try to adhere to as they move forward through the season with time travel,
We’ve been known, at this point, that with every season we tend to reinvent what the show feels like. We really step up to a challenge each year, and with the time travel aspect that really was something for every department to sink their teeth into and that was something that was really fun for everybody to do. I think they did it all with flying colors.
WHEDON: Yeah, they were very excited, except that they didn’t have more budget (laughs).
BELL: With respect to S.H.I.E.L.D. saving Hydra, we live in a morally complex world and S.H.I.E.L.D. frequently has to do things that are a question of are you doing more harm or more good.
Also, the idea of having to save Hydra would just annoy the hell out of our characters, which we like, and create big riffs between them. We are always looking for conflict between characters and each season we tend to either start with the characters apart and bring them together or the opposite. The idea of having to do this really puts our team at odds over how to go forward like if you can shoot Hitler why not shoot Hitler, you know?
The other thing I want to say that because this was our last season and because there was an underlying nostalgia, we really went for it with stories. I mean, we took chances. There’s a lot of fun things that we would’ve never attempted earlier in the show and I’m really curious to see how fans respond to some of those bolder choices.
TANCHAROEN: There are some bold choices, that’s for sure.
DEADLINE: In that vein, where is this final season going to take us from here?
LOEB: First, look at it from just a practical point of view in that we’ve been off the air for what feels like over a year since we’ve been back with these characters. So I thought it was a very clever way that [executive producer] Jed [Whedon], and Maurissa and Jeff came up with as a way to bring people very quickly up to things which you may have missed. At the same time you don’t necessarily need to know in order to understand what’s going on, but technically what excites me about this season is also that it’s an opportunity to do what the show does best.
DEADLINE: Which is?
LOEB: Which is to reflect upon humanity the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. You know, we don’t get hardly enough credit for the fact that seven years ago we set out with this incredibly diverse cast. It is something that in the last few years has become something that networks are very attuned to, but again Jeff, and Jed, and Maurissa from the very beginning said that they wanted a show that looked like our culture, and that’s where we’ve delivered on it.
For this season, when you’re doing time jumps in the past you see the diversity, particularly in America, is not as intelligent or a forgiving as it once was, or pretends to be now. So, being able to see how each of these characters react to this world is some of the fun of the show as well. Yes, we’re going back in time but we’re also going back in our own cultural history. If S.H.I.E.L.D. can be an echo of that, and one of our viewers can walk away and go, wow, that’s what it used to be like and start that kind of conversation, that’s very exciting to me for the season.
DEADLINE: You guys wrapped things up last year, so clearly the current global health crisis won’t be part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. swan song …
TANCHAROEN: I do think, had we still been up and running during this whole crisis, we absolutely would’ve addressed it somehow, because we do address issues, whether or not we directly address them or we address them emotionally, or definitely in metaphor, so we would’ve touched on it.
At the same time, this is the Marvel brand. You know, there is the aspect of wish fulfillment, and because of that, that offers a nice sort of escape, so I do feel people will people will welcome seeing this last season of the show because of what’s going on in the world now
LOEB: I’ve always said from the very beginning that this is a show about a group of characters that whether they knew it or not were looking for a family. They formed a family out of this group. At a time now where family is top of mind, being able to see a show where people care for each other, and need that interaction, and need that feeling of love, I think we’re just the right show for just the right time.
DEADLINE: In this first episode of the last season, there’s a lot of, I’ll call them cameos. There’s a then-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which has a great impression upon Coulson. We also see Patton Oswalt back in a different role. How much are you wanting to weave this season into real history and into your own history?
WHEDON: I would say our focus was definitely our own history. Playing with history is fun. That’s part of the fun of going back in time. But part of the philosophy of this season was we had a Season 5 that we thought was the end and we really focused on our characters and their feelings, and we felt like they got sort of an emotional closure. Now, here we are doing that again.
So our focus this time was more about what do we really want to see before this is over? What can we give the fans that feels rewarding and rewards them for spending all this time with us? For spending all these years and paying attention to all the details, so reliving our own history became part of it in a fun way, and we think that that will be rewarding for the characters, and also the audience.
DEADLINE: Are we only going to see time to the ‘30s or are we going to see time travel this season through different eras as well?
LOEB: I would say that the poster art will clue you in a little bit to that.
TANCHAROEN: It’s a very heavy component of time travel already and nostalgia. So, I do think that that runs through this season, within our characters, within the feeling of the show, within the things they’re experiencing and then just for us and the experiences of shooting and creating this last season.
DEADLINE: We’ve already seen some spinoff rumors shot down before the final season started, but is S.H.I.E.L.D. truly over after these 13 episodes?
LOEB: (laughs) Is anything ever really over nowadays?
BELL: Those issues are way above our pay grade, you know, and so with the new Disney+ and with all the restructuring that Disney is doing with ABC, and Marvel, those kinds of questions really are above what we have any say in.
DEADLINE: Meaning Marvel and something you do have a big say in, are we going to bump into more of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this final season, as you have in past years?
WHEDON: We’re going to bump into something.
LOEB: (laughs) Yeah, we’ll bump into something.
BELL: Something will definitely happen.
DEADLINE: Whatever goes bump in these last episodes, series finales are hard to pull off for everyone, from big shows to under-the-radar series. Unlike many, you’ve planned for this, you had literally two extra seasons that you didn’t think you were going to have. So, are you satisfied with how S.H.I.E.L.D ends?
LOEB: Very much so. I get to be the sort of first audience and it’s just been so much fun watching what these three and the incredible writing staff have done. The amazing journey that they’ve taken us on, and to be perfectly honest some stuff that we’ve gotten away with, and that’s been a joy.
WHEDON: Part of making a show is a puzzle and part of it is a game and you’re working with people that you’ve known for a long time to try to create something good. Then, when you come to the end there is a bit of a pressure that you want to get that right. Here, I think it’s safe to say that all of us we feel like the audience will feel the thing we wanted them to feel in the end and will feel satisfied with the ending.
I also think that the emotion of having a last season and knowing it’s the end is heavy. I think that that carries into the episodes and carries into the storyline and the performances, and all of it. So, we’re happy with it and we’re actually happy to revisit it as we watch it, because we finished it a while ago (laughs).
DEADLINE: Is that perspective so different now from when you were making it?
WHEDON: Well, obviously, there’s stuff that you could always throw more time at or money at, but I would say we don’t have regrets about how it went. Yes, you can always go back, but I do feel like when they closed down the set and they tore them down, and the stages were empty we had a good sense of completion.
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