The ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back for Season 4, with Hydra obliterated and S.H.I.E.L.D. out of the shadows and legitimized again. There is now a new Director (Jason O’Mara) in place and Coulson (Clark Gregg) is back in the role of agent, teamed up with Mack (Henry Simmons), so that the two can track down and capture Daisy (Chloe Bennet), who has gone rogue in an attempt to protect those she cares about. Meanwhile, Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna) will cross paths with Agent Coulson and the team, as a junkyard mechanic who can also turn into the terrifying Ghost Rider.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen were understandably cagey about things to come, as everything Marvel is always ultra top secret, but they still shared some cool tidbits. They talked about the story they’re telling with Season 4, Coulson returning to life as an agent, the new Director, what sets this version of Ghost Rider apart, the FitzSimmons relationship, Daisy’s journey, whether Bobbi and Hunter might ever return, and how proud they are to get to tell four seasons of story. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: How has your relationship with Marvel changed, as the seasons have gone on? Have they gotten more involved, as they’ve seen what you’re doing with the show, or have they gotten more hands-off because they’re secure in what you’re doing?
MAURISSA TANCHAROEN: One could argue that they’re just too busy to care about us anymore, but no, we’ve always been very fortunate with the kind of relationship we have with Marvel. I do think because we are in our fourth season, there’s a level of trust that has been established. But of course, with that said, Marvel is very protective over their properties and the stories they tell, so they are still very much involved. Thankfully, their involvement has always been a pleasant thing.
JED WHEDON: Any show has its growing pains, but we got through ours pretty quickly. We’ve got a pretty good thing going with Marvel.
What can you say about the story that you’re telling, at the start of Season 4?
WHEDON: As always, very little, but more this year, now that we’ve actually said the phrase “Ghost Rider.” We’re definitely picking up right where we left off, after the six-month jump, at the end of last year. Everybody is performing a new role. Daisy has obviously been very affected by all of the events of last year, and she’s taking all of that upon herself. And Coulson is back to being Agent Coulson. We’ll see that things have changed in the time between, and the audience will be playing catch-up for awhile, as far as what all of those changes are.
What are the greatest advantages of having a six-month time jump? Does it allow you to explore things that you feel you wouldn’t have been able to, without that time jump?
WHEDON: For us, it’s always a fun game. We want it to feel different every year, and it’s a nice way to keep the audience guessing for a little while. They know these people now, so it’s fun to put the people that you know well by now in new situations, and you don’t necessarily understand how they got there or how they’re going to react to it. We enjoy that, from a story point, but it also lets you put down baggage that you wouldn’t necessarily want to see. I don’t think we needed to see Daisy emote any more. We just wanted to change the game and let the audience grab on and hang on for the ride.
You have been able to really shake things up, every season, with the story you’re telling, as well as with the cast and the teams. Is that every scary, not knowing how viewers will react, or is it always exciting, as writers, to be able to do that?
TANCHAROEN: We hope it’s exciting. For us, as viewers, we like stories in which we have to play catch up and where things feel refreshing.
WHEDON: We have a very smart audience, or at least our audience seems to watch with pretty rapt attention and pays attention to the details. Obviously, sometimes you have to restate things in an episode, so that people can follow along, but they’re pretty keen on picking up all the little nuances and details. This kind of storytelling, we’re allowed to do it because they’re on top of it. We don’t have to spend a lot of time saying, “Here are our people. Here is the role they all play. You remember Daisy from this.” We just throw them into the middle of a story and we know they’re all with us. That method of storytelling is allowed because of our clever viewers.
Who is Coulson when he’s no longer calling the shots? Does having to answer to somebody really change things for him?
WHEDON: It’s sort of where he started. When we first met Agent Coulson, he was a company man. He was the man in a suit who came and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m from Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” It’s a little bit of a return to his roots. He used to be the everyman. I think he struggled with making those top dog decisions. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but light is the head that just took the crown off.
TANCHAROEN: Over the past three seasons, we’ve moved him further away from the man who was at the center of the show in the pilot. With everything that he’s done and gone through, and with all of the loss that he’s suffered, he’s gone to a very dark place. It’s something that he maybe needs to step away from and reassess and gain some new clarity. Stepping down from the position of Director relieves some of the pressure. We’ll soon see that the reluctant hero must again step forward. For now, he is okay with being just an agent.
It sounds as though you’re keeping things with the new Director pretty mysterious. Would you say that he’s someone who intimidates, or would you say that he’s someone who is intimidating?
WHEDON: We can’t say anything. You’ll know soon enough why he is in that role and what makes him the right man for this job.
Did you ever consider having the new Director be an already existing team member, or did you want to bring in someone new?
TANCHAROEN: I think we always wanted to bring in someone new.
WHEDON: Mack has been temporary Director before.
TANCHAROEN: And one would think that May would be the perfect candidate for it. But those are people that we know, and something as big as Coulson stepping down, if it was someone that he knew to take his place, there wouldn’t be as much tension to mine from that. So, bringing in someone completely new was always the choice from the get-go.
Where are the biggest dangers and threats coming from, when you start this season?
TANCHAROEN: Well, we have a guy with a flaming skull. That doesn’t make you think of warm, fuzzy feelings when you see that guy.
WHEDON: He’s an outside player, so he comes with a backstory and a cast of characters that will play a significant role in the season.
When did you guys decide to explore Ghost Rider this season? Was it something you’d been talking about for awhile?
WHEDON: It was a right place, right time kind of thing. They had mentioned Ghost Rider and there was some back and forth on whether or not it was a reality that we could get a character as recognizable as that. It’s an IP they care about and that we were eager to explore, but it also coincides with the release of Doctor Strange and stepping into that part of the MCU. For us, it worked out. We’re obviously not going to say no to Ghost Rider. It would have happened, wherever it could have, but it coincides nicely with that film and it launches us into other stories in different parts of the Marvel universe that we’re eager to explore.
How does this take on the character differ most from what we’ve seen of him on the big screen?
WHEDON: Well, he’s a totally different guy.
TANCHAROEN: He’s born and raised in East L.A.
WHEDON: You’ll learn about him as you watch, but the thing that appealed to us, at first blush, was that it wouldn’t remind you of the films. It feels like something new and different, and it’s our own.
TANCHAROEN: We had the opportunity to expand his story on the show.
WHEDON: It gave us a little more freedom. His background and his family dynamic was something that appealed to us.
TANCHAROEN: Jed and I are both born and raised here in L.A. and it’s a huge part of the culture we grew up with, so we wanted to represent that.
What made Gabriel Luna your Ghost Rider?
TANCHAROEN: We’re very pleased with ourselves that we made such a great choice.
WHEDON: He’s good, but we were really good at picking him. No. It’s a lot to step into that role, and he’s stepped right into it with ease.
Have you thought about or had any discussions about having any other Ghost Riders show up, or do you want to just stay focused on one?
WHEDON: We don’t know what you’re talking about.
After the journey that they’ve been on, what’s in store for Fitz and Simmons this season?
TANCHAROEN: There have been many, many obstacles in the way of them actually recognizing their love for one another. Now that they’re finally in a relationship, there are possibly new complications.
WHEDON: We all know that it’s one thing to try to get the girl of your dreams. It’s another thing to have the girl of your dreams, and then live with her and work with her. Their dynamic will be like many new couples’ dynamic, with a couple Marvel twists thrown into it.
Last season ended with Daisy splitting from the team. What can you say about her journey, both personally and as Quake?
WHEDON: She’s trying to make good on what Lincoln believed. At the end, he said he believed she was meant for more and that she was meant to do good, and she’s trying to make good on his sacrifice, so that it’s not worthless. At the same time, she’s separated from the team because she doesn’t want to have anything to lose. That makes her more dangerous, both to the people around her and to herself. We got a glimpse of that, at the end of last year, and that’s what we’ll explore when we come back.
Because their spin-off ultimately didn’t work out, is there a chance that we’ll see Bobbi and Hunter again? Have you talked about figuring out a way to bring them back in somehow?
TANCHAROEN: We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Once an agent, always an agent.
WHEDON: We’ve talked about it. There’s obviously a ton of factors, but we’re not blind to them.
That must be a tough one to try to figure out because their goodbye was so beautiful and you don’t want to cheapen that.
TANCHAROEN: You don’t want to buy it back. I know.
WHEDON: So, if we do it, it will not be right away and we’ll try to do it right.
You have some cool new women coming onto the show this season, with Parminder Nagra and Mallory Jansen. What can you say about their characters and how they fit into the story you’re telling?
WHEDON: Parminder is playing the voice of the Humans First movement. She represents the side of society that’s afraid of change. And Mallory is playing an android.
A colleague who knows much more about the comics than I do wanted me to ask if there’s any chance you might explore the Midnights Sons, either this season or at some point in the future?
WHEDON: You never can tell.
TANCHAROEN: Tell him or her that’s a very cool idea.
How challenging is it to introduce new characters, all the time, and pay each of them their due, while also giving all of your already established and much-loved characters their time?
TANCHAROEN: It’s not easy.
WHEDON: We have a lot of episodes in a year, so we need a lot of story. What always ends up happening is that we have a new episode and we need to drum up a new antagonist or a new person, and then they’re either gone or we really like them and they stick around. It is a lot of water to carry sometimes, but we do need a lot of story and a lot of stories to tell. Right now, we’re breaking our 75th episode, and that’s just a ton of hours of TV. The more people, the more drama and the more different avenues there are to go down.
TANCHAROEN: For the past two seasons, we’ve been able to break our season down into two little mini-seasons because of the airdate schedule. This upcoming season, our airdate schedule is a little different, so we’re breaking it into three pods. Story wise, the development of that has made our lives easier, to break it down in that way.
It’s a pretty tremendous accomplishment to get to four seasons of a TV series. Now that you’re four seasons in with this show, have you had conversations about what or when the endgame might be, or are you trying to just focus on the season ahead of you?
TANCHAROEN: You always just forge ahead. Until someone tells us to stop, we will continue to move forward. We realize how fortunate we are to even be able to do four seasons.
WHEDON: There are always ideas in the back of your mind for how you’d wrap it up when they say, “That’s it guys,” but we’re not there just yet.
How has the show’s arc changed, over the years, compared to what you thought, going in? Have you hit all the major points you thought you would, or have you gotten to do more than you ever could have imagined?
WHEDON: You definitely don’t set out imagining 75 episodes. There are stories that you discover along the way, and there are some that you are eager to tell. I think that we’ve found a lot, and we’ve gotten to explore all the nooks and crannies that we were hoping to. This year, we’re definitely getting to something that we’ve been wanting to tell for a long time. We’re super blessed and fortunate.
TANCHAROEN: I never imagined a day where Jed would say that we’re super blessed.
WHEDON: We’re #blessed to have been able to tell this many stories.
TANCHAROEN: When we were shooting the pilot, we never would have imagined that we’d be here doing our 75th episodes, that’s for sure. We were just trying to get to the end of Season 1. And I do think a huge reason why we do tend to do a little reboot each season is that it does give us liberties to go on these paths. Now that you’ve known these characters for this long, we shift the show a little bit and take them through new journeys, just to keep things fresh for us.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesday nights on ABC.