Over the weekend, I wanted to write the book on AGENTS OF SHIELD. Didn't get far, but it was interesting to note: AGENTS OF SHIELD, since Season 4, has been dividing its storylines into what the producers called "pods" where each season was actually 2 - 3 short and separate seasons within 22 episodes. But every season of AGENTS OF SHIELD seems to have had its own pods:
Pod 1: Season 1, Episodes 1 - 12 - "Fan Fiction"
The first 12 episodes of AGENTS OF SHIELD are an extremely simplistic children's show. SHIELD agents are all uniformly good, all others are bad. AGENTS OF SHIELD is presented as an extension of the AVENGERS film, but it seems more like a Disney children's cartoon that accidentally got filmed in live action.
Skye, Fitz and Simmons are constantly played for easy jokes and face lightweight threats. They feel more like characters in a children's half-hour sitcom than the cast of a Marvel Cinematic Universe production. The overlit look gives the impression of an student production. Namedropping "Romanov," "Banner" and "Stark" when those characters don't appear onscreen seems desperate.
Worse, the cameos from Nick Fury and Maria Hill have no impact on the plot and feel like deleted scenes ripped off a blu-ray and plugged into a fan film. The use of the term "Gifted" to avoid calling superpowered people "mutants" is an awkward way to address lacking the X-MEN rights. The tie-in to THOR: THE DARK WORLD is carefully designed to avoid any impact on the film series. The show feels like a STAR TREK novel: disposable, making no waves in the universe it supposedly inhabits and designed to be ignored by the actual MCU productions.
There are any number of reasons for this. The production was forbidden to offer any buildup to WINTER SOLDIER revealing that HYDRA had infiltrated SHIELD to the point where AGENTS OF SHIELD had to use "Centipede" to refer to its central evil organization. The show was barred from making any hints that SHIELD might be anything other than an organization of white knights lest the surprise be ruined.
There was the initial sense that a TV extension of AVENGERS needed to skew to a younger audience. The production difference and distance between TV and film made it hard for TV to write stories that films could respond to as films were made over years while TV was made in weeks.
But the result: AGENTS OF SHIELD didn't seem to be a genuine extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe laid out in the AVENGERS movies and had a painful air of illegitimacy.
Pod 2 - Season 1, Episodes 13 - 22 - "Agents of Nothing"
Which is why it's so interesting that the "Agents of Nothing" era determinedly turns into the spin by taking that accidental illegitimacy and making it text within the show.
Despite the tie in to WINTER SOLIDER being from Episode 18 onward, the real shift in tone actually begins with episode 13, "TRACKS." Although there's a goofy sequence of Simmons shrieking at Coulson in public (with a Stan Lee cameo), the show is more brutal as May encourages a villain to stab her in the shoulder so she can cut the ropes binding her and the episode ends with Skye shot twice in the stomach. There's something shocking about seeing bloodshed in a show that seemed more like GIRL MEETS WORLD or LIV AND MADDIE than it did AVENGERS.
We're truly in different territory as "End of the Beginning" and "Turn Turn Turn" tie into the WINTER SOLDIER feature film in which HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD since its beginnings to the point where Captain America is forced to dismantle the organization entirely.
Coulson, Fitz, Simmons, Skye, May and Ward never felt like they represented SHIELD; now they truly aren't SHIELD at all. They have been reduced to a malfunctioning plane, scant weapons, Ward is a traitor and Coulson has driven May off the team. Maria Hill shows up to make a full appearance only to establish that the team's textual illegitimacy means they no longer have resources, backups, bases or support outside themselves.
There's a sincerity and a genuine sense of threat here; we've seen how Skye, Fitz and Simmons can only win in a Disney world of easy answers, weak villains and immediate solutions. An episode ending with Ward and Garrett flying the SHIELD jet and the rest of the team sitting nervously around a pool is terrifying.
The "Agents of Nothing" have Coulson attempting to contain a monster of the week and stop Garrett and Ward from finishing their supersoldier program and they face defeat on all sides. Stopping one superpowered villain used to be easy with all of SHIELD; now they're reduced to using spotlights. Fitz and Simmons are sunken to the bottom of the ocean. Garrett is unstoppable: he has Deathlok. He has Ward. He has the SHIELD data. He has a superhuman body.
Most tellingly, Garrett has what the Agents of Nothing have always lacked: he has legitimacy; he can present HYDRA to the US Government as a genuine, above board arms manufacturer through the guise of Cybertek. The Agents of Nothing are outmatched and doomed.
But then Fitz and Simmons find a way to escape the ocean. Skye realizes Garrett is threatening Deathlok's son to secure his compliance and wins Deathlok's aid by saving the boy. And Nick Fury returns.
Samuel L. Jackson had revealed early on that he'd be appearing in the season finale, but even then, AGENTS OF SHIELD manages to make him feel like a surprise. When Fury appears to pull Gemma and Fitz into a helicopter, the downbeat terror of the last four episodes suddenly turns around. Jackson has an instant charisma and he inspires confidence and trust with his effortless appeal.
Jackson's screentime, despite being significant, is clearly designed to excuse the Nick Fury character from any further involvement in the show. He calls Coulson the reason SHIELD works, promotes Coulson to director, gives him the last of SHIELD's resources and leaves the TV show and SHIELD's legacy entirely in Coulson's hands.
It's a shift that finally moves AGENTS OF SHIELD away from being an awkward sequel to AVENGERS that lacks any actual Avengers. Jackson's role serves to hand the torch to Coulson and company and free them to define their own show.
Pod 3 - Season 2, Episodes 1 - 10 - "SHIELD Underground"
In terms of tone, this pod is similar to the Agents of Nothing run. The gang are still underground fugitives, but Fury's resources have allowed them to recruit some new teammates. This smaller scale suits the showrunners' preference for a cast of awkward misfits rather than purely militaristic professionals.
SHIELD's limited resources are played effectively: their military might is an empty show, they win through cleverness and perseverance and while they're fighting HYDRA, the world at large considers any SHIELD agent to be indistinguishable from HYDRA.
For this pod and the next four, SHIELD is not considered a legitimate peacekeeping force or law enforcement agency; they are viewed as criminals -- a great way of deepening the sense that AGENTS OF SHIELD never felt like a genuine extension of the feature films and turning it to the show's advantage. It's a take far more suited to Marvel, a publishing house that's always been more about the underdogs and the rebels than it has about the establishment.
The main focus is on fighting HYDRA, but a larger myth-arc is present as the show presents HYDRA as merely one faction in a long-running conflict involving alien interference in humanity from the dawn of its existence.
Where Season 1 awkwardly attempted impact-free sequels to feature films, Season 2 begins delving into a secret history to the MCU that AGENTS OF SHIELD can explore on its own terms and this pod ends with Skye being revealed to be a comic book character named Daisy Johnson and also to be Gifted.
Pod 4 - Season 2, Episodes 11 - 22 - "Inhumans"
As a whole, the Marvel Cinematic Universe struggled with illegitimacy but to a lesser degree than SHIELD. Despite claiming to be the cinematic representation of Marvel Comics, the MCU didn't have Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the X-Men or any other characters whose film and TV rights were carelessly sold to FOX and Sony.
The absence of the X-Men left a hole in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a concept, mutants served as a catch-all explanation for how people could have superpowers without needing screentime for origin stories.
SHIELD tried calling mutants "Gifted," but without access to the X-MEN explanation that mutants are the next stage of human evolution, the Gifted concept was a fractured facsimile of the original idea. Jealous of FOX's success with X-MEN, Marvel executive Ike Perlmutter proposed that the INHUMANS concept, featuring a superpowered civilization living on the moon, could compete with the X-MEN cinematically.
It was ridiculous. But AGENTS OF SHIELD, ordered to present the Inhumans concept in their show, rolled with it beautifully: Pod 4 focused on how the Kree alien race had experimented on humans thousands of years ago, resulting a percentage of the human race having the potential to have their Inhuman abilities awakened. Rather than being an awkward photocopy of X-MEN's mutants, Inhumans were now the core mythology for AGENTS OF SHIELD and a legitimate concept for the TV series.
The question of legitimacy was further explored the show revealed that there was a separate faction of SHIELD survivors, apart from Coulson, who considered themselves the real SHIELD and Coulson's team to be impostors using a name and legacy to which they had no genuine claim with Coulson supposedly manipulating everyone to gain a secret weapon.
This ended in a very nice tie-in to AGE OF ULTRON where Coulson's secret weapon turned out to be the airship used to evacuate civilians in the film and the two SHIELD factions united. With a united (but rogue) SHIELD, the Inhumans and HYDRA, the show now felt like a meaningful exploration of its own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than the timid tie-in it had been before.
Pod 5 - Season 3, Epsiodes 1 - 10 - "Age of Ward"
This pod introduced the Secret Warriors and presented Ward as the primary villain of the series, but for the most part continued with the SHIELD Underground concept even as Inhumans took a larger role.
Interestingly, it's at this point that the fracture between Marvel Films and Marvel TV took place; AGE OF ULTRON's aftermath had led to a break between the two divisions and the CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR screenwriters confessed in interviews that they'd not watched AGENTS OF SHIELD and were unaware of the Inhumans concept.
AGENTS OF SHIELD most determinedly did not need CIVIL WAR to give it direction; it had its own concepts to explore and had plenty to do with Ward becoming the main threat. However, the threat of AGENTS OF SHIELD not being a true part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was again a potential issue. CIVIL WAR was the most significant depiction of the MCU since AGE OF ULTRON and CIVIL WAR didn't have a single line of dialogue acknowledging the rising superhuman population with the Inhumans.
Could AGENTS OF SHIELD truly be considered part of the MCU when the main forces of the MCU weren't addressing it?
Pod 6 - Season 3, Episodes 11 - 22 - "Hive"
Despite a brief reference to SHIELD seeking to register its Inhumans cast under CIVIL WAR's superhuman registration act, the "Hive" era, like the "Age of Ward" episodes, didn't tie into the feature films at all. Within the show, SHIELD made one brief bid for reintegration with the US Government only to be dismissed, almost as though the show itself couldn't imagine itself rejoining the AVENGERS and the original presentation of SHIELD as a government organization. SHIELD was more an NGO on the fringes. At one point, the MCH President of the United States appeared to advise Coulson continue SHIELD unofficially. "We'll keep doing what we do," Coulson remarked, "and you'll keep pretending we don't exist." He might as well have been addressing the Marvel film division.
With no direct integration with the new CAPTAIN AMERICA film, this pod had Ward being written out of the show but the actor remaining, Ward's body possessed by the ancient being of power that HYDRA had worshipped and sought to revive.
AGENTS OF SHIELD in the "Fan Fiction" era had felt like an abandoned stepchild of the MCU. Season 2 attempted to make it a neighbour to the AVENGERS films in the MCU neighbourhood. By Season 3, AGENTS OF SHIELD seemed to have genuinely outgrown the AVENGERS films: the Hive storyline had no need for CIVIL WAR at all. What's more, AGENTS OF SHIELD seemed to be on the verge of expanding. Season 2's new cast members, Bobbi and Hunter, had become so popular that Marvel was seeking to launch MARVEL'S MOST WANTED, a spin-off show with them as leads.
It was an excellent pod, marred only by outside issues. AGENT CARTER was tragically cancelled on a cliffhanger and ABC declined to launch MARVEL'S MOST WANTED meaning Bobbi and Hunter had been written out of the show for no good reason.
Pod 7 - Season 4, Episodes 1 - 8 - "Ghost Rider"
It's at this point that analysis seems unnecessary as showrunner Jed Whedon explained his approach to integrating AGENTS OF SHIELD into the MCU. While not addressing rumours that the AOS writers were now relying on trailers and press releases to know what Marvel Film was doing, Whedon described his approach of "thematic" links. The DR. STRANGE film had introduced magic, so AOS could now delve into similar material by exploring the Ghost Rider mythology and the Darkhold book.
Despite the lack of direct continuity references and tie-ins, the "Ghost Rider" pod was a highly successful run of episodes that saw the procedural, systematic approach of the SHIELD cast confronting the ambiguities of mysticism. AGENTS OF SHIELD had been working in its own section of the MCU, but now it felt like it was part of the same world presented in the DR. STRANGE feature film.
Tellingly, this was also the pod in which SHIELD was reintegrated into the US Government, having earned the legitimacy it hadn't back in the first pod, although this wasn't to last for long.
It was in this season that the idea of separate 'pods' within seasons was discussed in showrunner interviews, although Jed Whedon remarked in interviews that Ghost Rider's special effects were so costly that the show could only sustain the character for a brief run.
Pod 8 - Season 4, Episodes 9 - 15 - "LMD"
With the LMD arc, AGENTS OF SHIELD was in many ways invited to contemplate the value of its own concept. In a world of superhumans and the potential for Life Model Decoy androids to replace SHIELD agents in every task, what was the point of having Agents of SHIELD?
As the cast of SHIELD were replaced with LMDs and neither the characters nor the audience knew who to trust, the writers made a fascinating choice to grant the LMD replacements for Coulson and May different degrees of self-awareness. The android May was shocked to discover she was a simulacrum of the real person with all of the real May's emotions and memories while the android Coulson had been aware of his true nature the entire time.
In a strange moment of insight, the android Coulson declared that there was no distinction between the real Coulson, who was currently living in a virtual reality, and the LMD Coulson who was inhabiting the real world.
"My programming is different than yours," the LMD Coulson tells the LMD May. "You had to discover that your body had been replaced -- whereas I still have my mind but know exactly what I am, and more importantly, I understand a basic truth that you don't realize yet. That our bodies don't matter." The LMD Coulson later remarked of his prosthetic hand, "My phantom limb used to ache in cold weather. But now I don't feel that pain. I haven't felt this good in years."
The LMD Coulson was arguing that the question of whether he was less real than the biological Coulson was irrelevant as both were existing as simulations, one as a digital intelligence in a physical reality while the other as a physical body whose consciousness now resided in a digital reality.
To the LMD Coulson, the experience of existence regardless of its nature, whether programmed or biological-- or whether in a Marvel feature film or a Marvel television series -- made no difference because the experiences themselves had left impact, memory and meaning. And the LMD May would come to turn on the LMD Coulson while expressing precisely the same opinion.
"I know I'm not real," says the LMD May who has at this writing never been mentioned or shown in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. "I'm all phantom limbs," she says, accepting that she is not a real person while metatextually highlighting that Melinda May is no more real than Tony Stark or Steve Rogers regardless of the medium they inhabit. "That doesn't make the pain less real," says May, going on to add, "That pain, that regret that's what made you a person a person I love." Her sentiment is meant for the real Coulson as the simulated May does not consider May's feelings a simulation and she sacrifices herself to help Coulson's team enter the VR simulation to rescue him.
Pod 9 - Season 4, Episodes 16 - 22 - "Agents of HYDRA"
The majority of this pod are sent inside a virtual reality simulation which presents a timeline where HYDRA had defeated SHIELD and Coulson and his team live the lives they would have had if HYDRA and triumphed. As we delve into this alternate timeline and we see characters gradually regain their memories, we're invited to consider: does the Framework reality or any events inside it actually matter? What meaning, value or purpose can these situations or people have if they are merely simulations?
It's a question AGENTS OF SHIELD might not benefit from raising because it leads to asking: what value do Seasons 3 - 4 have if they are completely ignored by the feature films? If CIVIL WAR didn't mention the rogue SHIELD operation, if ANT MAN made no reference to the Inhumans, if DR. STRANGE didn't have Coulson show up for a consult, then how can AGENTS OF SHIELD actually matter at all?
It's a question AGENTS OF SHIELD doesn't shy away from at all. At one point, we spend some time getting to know Grant Ward in this alternate timeline where he was recruited by SHIELD instead of HYDRA. With his loyalty to heroes, he never became a villain. It's a beautiful insight into a once irredeemable antagonist and despite this Ward being a simulation, this perspective into his character is not easily forgotten. The Framework situation closes out with Mac pleading to stay in the Framework because a simulation of his deceased daughter exists in the VR. Mac protests that even if his daughter is a simulacrum, she matters to him: she laughs at his jokes, she cries when he does, he feels her warmth and he believes that she's alive.
To be concluded with Pods 10 - 11.
Edited to add commentary to the LMD arc.