[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the series finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “What We’re Fighting For.”]
The series finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took its time saying goodbye. No, the two-parter wasn’t longer than any other set of episodes, thanks to the requirements of broadcast television. But by the 30-minute point of the very last episode of the series, “What We’re Fighting For,” the ultimate battle, by and large, had been won — thus allowing the remaining 10-plus minutes of the episode to jump one year forward, and give us a taste of what the future would be for the show’s core seven characters.
For a show with seven years under its belt, it’s actually pretty impressive that five of that core seven were actually OG cast members from the beginning. While Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and Mack (Henry Simmons) also grew over their time on the show, May (Ming-Na Wen), Daisy (Chloe Bennet), Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Coulson (Clark Gregg) were characters that we’d gotten to see truly evolve and change from the very beginning: Daisy went from being a family-less hacker living in a van to a super-powered badass. Melinda May’s innate badassery became enhanced by her newfound super-power: empathy. Fitz and Simmons went from being terrified tech support to the literal saviors of the human race.
Coulson… well, he died a bunch, but there’s almost something existentially fascinating about his journey. If you go back and rewatch episodes from the first season, it feels like a wildly different show, but one element that was present from the beginning was Coulson going through the motions of being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent until he began (to borrow a phrase from another show) questioning the nature of his reality. Coulson’s struggle to understand exactly who he is has only grown more complicated thanks to his many deaths and rebirths in various forms; the fact that the show decides to leave his ultimate fate open to interpretation is actually a fitting tribute to how he started off a prisoner of routine — but is now more free than he’s ever been.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s legacy will always be a fascinatingly messy one. It started off with the potential to be a truly groundbreaking storytelling challenge — could a broadcast television show operate within the same narrative universe as an ongoing feature film franchise? Once the answer to that question turned out to be “maybe, but not with any great creative success,” S.H.I.E.L.D. repeatedly survived threats of cancellation while flying under the radar with increasingly wild story choices. Seriously, here are just a few of the things that happened during the last seven seasons of this show (special thanks to Collider’s Thadd Williams for a few of these):
- Dormant superpowers are unwittingly awakened in people across the globe thanks to a very popular brand of fish oil supplements, creating the Inhumans (and inspiring the ill-fated spinoff)
- Simmons got trapped on an alien planet for six months thanks to an alien obelisk
- Ghost Rider showed up!
- Literally every Agent of SHIELD gets replaced by synthetic decoys, including a fleet of Daisy decoys in a plot to quake the Earth to smithereens
- There was an awful lot of time spent in the virtual universe known as the Framework, which became a dystopic nightmare
- Everyone except Fitz gets transported to a future timeline where the Earth had exploded and much of humanity is enslaved by the Kree (don’t worry, Fitz eventually catches up)
- Coulson’s body was possessed by an alien general trying to stop another alien race from destroying humanity
- Simmons and Daisy trip balls while on a mission to an alien Casino planet
- The team spends most of Season 7 skipping forward through time, starting in the 1930s, and along the way pick up Agent Carter alumni Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), who proves to be a pretty good sport about being tapped in the future
- Deke (Jeff Ward) became a 1980s rock god by doing his best to remember the lyrics to future pop hits like “Don’t You Forget About Me.”
By comparison, the series finale was a pretty lowkey affair, focused far more on character than plot. And that was by design — an interesting detail that came out in Christina Radish’s interview with showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jeffrey Bell was when they were asked about any potential deleted scenes:
WHEDON: There’s 20 minutes that no one will ever see. Most of those were just unforgettable, humorous lines. No. There’s some stuff, but it won’t see the light of day.
BELL: Did we lose any whole scenes?
WHEDON: We lost some scenes. There was a lot of fight stuff that we lost. We really tried to preserve the end, and that end had to breathe, and have time to sit and be quiet and awkward. Everything leading up to that goes [very quickly]. There were some details, in the tying up of the time loose ends.
BELL: There were more connective pieces, at one time, that had to go for the amount of space that we had.
WHEDON: There was the origin, in Episode 712, of the whole putting together of the machine. But we think what you will remember, hopefully, is the feeling you’re left with in that last scene. That was the thing that we tried most to preserve, and that’s intact.
TANCHAROEN: That’s why 20 minutes went away.
The editing room is always a graveyard for beloved moments, but the fact that the showrunners actively chose to drop what sound like pretty significant plot-related sequences in favor of preserving every awkward beat of that last goodbye is, frankly, proof that they knew exactly what a finale should do.
Yes, the basic lynchpin of the team’s plan to stop the Chronicoms was basically just a Care Bear Stare blasting May’s newfound deep well of empathy into their synthetic souls. But when we talk about series finales, we don’t talk about how the day was saved. We talk about those final moments: Sam Malone saying “We’re closed.” Don Draper smiles. Nora tells Kevin about going to the other side. And now add to that list of final moments Phil Coulson back behind the wheel of his beloved Lola, ready to fly off into whatever the future might hold for him.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was never perfect, but it was special, and the finale managed to nail the one thing we never remember about happy endings — no ending is happy forever. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cherish the moments, while they last.