Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reaches the end of the first story arc of Season Five with the team struggling to return to present-day Earth from a future where the planet has been destroyed, and to save the remnants of the human race before they leave. But even if they can get home, they will be returning to a world where they are hunted fugitives…
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. appear to be trapped in a time travel loop. It’s fitting this this initial arc ended on February 2, because time loops have been associated with the day ever since the classic movie “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, appeared in 1993 (and you can read an excellent Tor article on time loops here).
Time Travel in Marvel Comics
Before this season, the TV version of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had not delved deeply into time travel, and other than a brief moment when it was used by Doctor Strange to defeat Dormammu, the concept has not played a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, either. But you can’t swing a dead cat in the Marvel comic books without hitting a storyline that involves time travel or alternate universes.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought time travel into the mix early in the Silver Age. In Fantastic Four #5, Doctor Doom sends members of the Fantastic Four back in time to the age of pirates. In Avengers #8, far future dictator Kang the Conqueror first appeared in the present. Kang’s convoluted history (see it here) is a textbook example of how twisted things become when you introduce time travel into a narrative. Among the most successful uses of time travel in a Marvel comic was the “Days of Future Past” story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne (appearing in Uncanny X-Men #141-142), when the consciousness of mutant Kitty Pryde is sent back from a dystopian future where mutants are in concentration camps. Her mission is to stop the murder of a politician and prevent the chain of events leading to that future.
Marvel portrays their cosmos as a multiverse, where many alternate timelines exist simultaneously. Going back in time and changing history creates a new timeline. If you can return to your own timeline, you will find no impact from your past actions. If you are trapped in the new timeline, however, you will find that the present has changed when you return. Characters travel both back and forth in time, but also sideways between alternate histories. There are so many of these alternate worlds that Marvel’s writers have assigned them numbers—the baseline Earth of the comic books is Earth-616, while the MCU universe is designated as Earth-199999. In the 2015 “Secret Wars” series, all these realities were collapsed into one gigantic Battleworld, and some fans speculated that the multiverse concept might be changed in the process. But at the end of the series, the Marvel cosmos returned to the status quo ante bellum, and the original multiverse came back in all its glorious messiness.
While the Marvel rules of time travel seem to vary depending on the needs of the plot (similar to the erratic appearance of “fixed points” in history in the Doctor Who series), there are actually some parameters you can find online in the Marvel Database, a handy source for the kind of information comic fans love.
It appears the upcoming Avengers movies may involve a time travel or alternate world storyline. Certainly, the Infinity Stones (having the power to alter mind, reality, power, space, time and soul), which have served as MacGuffins in the Marvel movies for years, will give both heroes and villains the ability to transform time and space. Perhaps the current story on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is simply a warmup for what we will see in those movies.
The Season to Date
The end of Season Four left our agents at a low point. S.H.I.E.L.D. had returned to the public eye after the Hydra debacle only to be decimated by renegade Life Model Decoy (LMD) robots and an evil Russian oligarch. Their leader, Jeff Mace, had been killed, their base was in shambles, and an LMD posing as Daisy Johnson had just attempted to assassinate General Talbot, the U.S. military liaison to S.H.I.E.L.D. Moreover, the Agents themselves were shaken by their experiences in the Framework, a computer-based alternate reality in which Hydra ruled the U.S.
Coulson and the team decided to have one last meal together before the arrest they knew was coming when a mysterious figure, Enoch, had them kidnapped, and sent to the future (except for Fitz). Enoch was later revealed to be a Chronicom from the Cygnus system who had been watching humans for 30,000 years, and had become aware of the prophecies of an Inhuman precognitive named Robin. Robin had predicted the destruction of the Earth and said that only the S.H.I.E.L.D. team could prevent the disaster. Enoch, empowered to intervene to prevent extinction-level events, took action.
The team found themselves in a future where a few humans survived in the Lighthouse, a facility buried within a fragment of the destroyed Earth. The humans were under the rule of Kree governor Kasius, whose enforcers included the vicious killer Sinara. Kasius was using terrigenesis to create Inhumans, who then were forced to fight in gladiatorial contests, and sold as slaves. One of these Inhumans was Flint, a young man with the power to combine and move rocks. Daisy Johnson found herself reviled by the survivors, blamed for destroying the Earth, and referred to as the “Destroyer of Worlds.” The Agents struggled to survive in this dystopia, and one, Simmons, was forced into service by Kasius.
In the present, the one remaining member of the team, Fitz, was captured by the mysterious General Hale. With the aid of former Agent Hunter, he escaped, tracked down Enoch, and entered suspended animation in order to rejoin his teammates in the future.
The eventual arrival of Fitz and Enoch was the catalyst that allowed the Agents to upend the gladiatorial games and lead a human revolution against the Kree, which freed Simmons and resulted in the death of Sinara. They then discovered a remnant of humans existing on the surface of the Earth fragment, with the precognitive Robin among them. Robin’s recollections revealed that when the Agents traveled back to the past, they were unable to prevent the Earth’s destruction—and that indeed, Daisy may have caused it.
The First Arc Finale: “Past Life”
The episode begins with the arrival of the Zephyr, met by Kasius and his minions. They see the corpse of Sinara, impaled on a steel bar. At this point, the episode splits into three braided plotlines, a common format for the show. The first portrays the fall of Kasius. He speaks to Sinara as if she is still alive, and murders a Kree doctor who cannot bring her back to life. He sends his Inhumans to fight against the rebelling humans, and infects a human follower with a berserker formula, giving him super-strength and super-rage. The recently-armed humans foil that attack, with the Kree dead, the Inhumans showing no interest in fighting, and the berserker killed by Daisy. During the action, Coulson is wounded, but shrugs it off. Kasius sends out more Kree, who are also defeated, some brutally decapitated by Fitz. Finally, the desperate Kasius, ranting about his father, takes the berserker formula and attacks Mack. Their fight has none of the finesse that you might see from May or Daisy; it is a brutal slugfest. Simmons arrives, and distracts Kasius by implanting one of his control chips in his ear. Mack pivots the head of the shotgun axe into bayonet mode, and stabs it through Kasius’ body. It should be noted that Dominic Rains did an excellent job portraying Kasius in a role that could have easily descended into camp.
The second plotline follows Yo-Yo, as she goes on a solo mission to rescue an Inhuman. Tess reported hearing someone else being brought back to life, and crying out in pain. Yo-Yo goes to the Kree medical labs, only to be confronted with the sight of herself, chained to a hospital bed. It is the version of Yo-Yo that went back in time, but was then captured by the Kree, tortured, experimented upon, and killed and revived many times. This, it turns out, is the seer that Kasius had spoken of previously. Elder Yo-Yo tells her younger self that everyone is caught in a time loop, and the reason they fail is that Coulson is dying, and the team, in trying to save him, doom the Earth to destruction. Hearing the Kree coming, and seeing that her future self is armless, and cannot be freed in time, Yo-Yo leaves to rejoin her companions. Kasius takes future Yo-Yo to the gladiatorial arena. He encounters Mack, slays future Yo-Yo, takes his berserker formula and dies. Imagine Mack’s surprise when a whole and hearty Yo-Yo runs to greet him after he saw her murdered. This plotline gives Natalia Cordova-Buckley, newly promoted to full cast member status, a chance to shine, along with Henry Simmons. The portrayal of their relationship has gained real warmth over time.
The final plotline involves rebuilding the time portal so the team can return to the present, a two-stage process. The time machine in the Zephyr must be primed with a monolith fragment and powered up, and the monolith must be reassembled. Enoch hides in the Zephyr to reactivate the time machine, but is under siege from the Kree. Deke realizes none of the Agents can help, as they need to return to their own time, and volunteers to protect Enoch. He arrives just in time to prevent a Kree warrior from delivering the final blow to a damaged Enoch. Enoch realizes the Zephyr cannot power the time machine, and hooks up his own power plant. Triggering the machine will create an explosion destroying not only Enoch but Deke, who must throw the switch. In the meantime, Flint goes out in a spacesuit and uses his geokinetic powers to bring together monolith fragments. He flings them into Kasius’ HQ windows, and the vacuum sucks out the last remaining Kree before the safety shutters close. Coulson, May, Mack, and Daisy arrive—Daisy having been stunned by Coulson when she refused to accompany them to the past. Mack and Simmons leave to help Yo-Yo. Flint reassembles the monolith. Having found Yo-Yo, Mack and Simmons run toward the HQ. Enoch and Deke hold out as long as they can, but finally have to trigger the device, and are destroyed. The monolith melts around the team, just as it did when they were propelled into the future.
The stinger joins Tess and Flint in a trawler spaceship, looking down on Earth’s remains. Flint is sure the agents were successful in returning home. Tess holds up a little globe, and says they have a template to guide their efforts to heal the Earth.
We aren’t able to see who made it back to the present until the preview of the next episode, which finally makes it clear that Mack, Yo-Yo, and Simmons all made it to the HQ in time. The Agents are being relentlessly hunted in the present, and we get a glimpse of a masked woman leading a masked tactical team.
What Comes Next for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The speculation that, like Season Four, Season Five would be broken into three arcs, turned out to be wrong. The first arc lasted 10 episodes, and there is enough story material involved in heading off the destruction of the Earth to fill the remaining 12 episodes. It looks likely, when the show returns on March 2, that the remaining episodes will follow a single narrative arc. The hundredth episode will be part of that arc, a notable accomplishment for the show.
While they kept us guessing, we now see that Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Henry Simmons, and Natalia Cordova-Buckley will all return for the second half of the season. Appearances by any of the new “future timeline” characters are unlikely, except possibly a younger version of Enoch. That would be welcome, as I grew quite fond of Joel Stoffer and the humor he brought to the role.
ABC has been plugging Disney Channel star Dove Cameron’s appearance in the next arc. She will play the role of Ruby, daughter of the mysterious General Hale, who was pursuing the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after their disappearance. Hale was last seen in the episode where Fitz and Hunter infiltrated a military base, gunning down two subordinates who displeased her. Ruby, besides having a cold-blooded murderer for a mom, is reportedly obsessed with Daisy Johnson. The preview hints that she might be the masked woman in charge of the tactical team.
This episode was well-crafted, and carefully built upon themes and incidents from earlier in the season. The pace was relentless, and the writers kept viewers guessing right to the end. The appearance of the older Yo-Yo was quite a surprise, but didn’t feel like a gimmick. The story, as expected, leaves the team trapped in a time loop. Stories involving time loops can become claustrophobic and oppressive, a trap the writers will hopefully avoid. In the end, we know the destruction of the Earth will be prevented (a TV show, after all, cannot upset the status quo that the MCU’s movies are built around). But how, exactly, that will happen can still be an interesting tale, and Coulson’s illness should provide an interesting focus for the next arc. I can’t imagine S.H.I.E.L.D. without Coulson, but while the ratings have been solid for a Friday night show, they haven’t been overwhelming, and it’s entirely possible that this season could be their last.
Now it’s your turn to discuss the show: What did you think of the way they wrapped up the post-apocalyptic future arc, and the way they handled the characters and their various fates? What do you think will happen next? And what were your favorite quips in this episode?
And, as always, I leave you with the words of the affable Stan Lee, “Don’t yield, back S.H.I.E.L.D.!”
Alan Brown has been a fan of S.H.I.E.L.D. from its comic book beginning over fifty years ago. He still remembers reading that very first adventure in Strange Tales #135.