The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are quite familiar with saving the world, having thwarted villains like Hydra, Inhumans, Hive, and Life Model Decoys at the end of every season. But each time it’s been a bootstrap, do-or-die affair, with the outcome far from certain. In this season finale, having destroyed the alien Confederacy spaceship that hovered over the Earth, our heroes still faced the homegrown threat of Graviton—their old ally General Talbot, his mind fragmented by the process of gaining his gravitonium-fueled powers. Like cartoon character Marvin the Martian, many fans went into the episode bracing for “an Earth-shattering kaboom!”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are at the end of their fifth season, and everything has come down to this final dilemma. The pre-show ABC episode synopsis teased: “Coulson’s life or death is the challenge the team finds themselves in, as the wrong decision will cause the destruction of Earth.” Moreover, the episode bore the ominous title “The End.”
Earth-Shattering Events in the Comics
Threats to the planet Earth have been a staple of Marvel comic books from the earliest days of the Silver Age, which started with the creation of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Avengers. If you go to the Marvel wiki website and type in the words “earth threatening event,” you get the reply: “About 170,000 results for earth threatening event from Marvel Database.” In quick succession, the Fantastic Four faced a Skrull invasion from space, an alien infant so powerful that he could drag the Earth out of its orbit, and the world-devouring alien Galactus, who could bring about the extinction of the human race. The Avengers, with Thor on the team, often clashed with Asgardians with god-like powers, and eventually embarked upon one of the grandest Silver Age battles, the star-spanning Kree-Skrull War.
The scope of these grand events was replicated to enhance sales in what became known as “crossover events,” where stories would cross from one series of comic book into another. The stakes of these events grew from threatening worlds, to star systems, to galaxies, and even universes. Threats included the villain Thanos, god-like Celestials, massive interstellar wars, and a variety of magical or paranormal threats. All this culminated in the Secret Wars event of 2015 and 2016, which collapsed the Marvel multiverse into a single, massive world called Battleworld, ruled by Doctor Doom. Many fans thought this would reboot the Marvel multiverse, but the ending surprisingly restored the status quo with very little change, other than the elimination of the Ultimate Marvel timeline.
These ever-increasing stakes, lack of attention to character development, and massive amounts of damage and disruption which is often undone with a wave of the authorial hand at the end, have produced a certain amount of fatigue among comic book readers, and it looks like future events in the comics may have more limited scopes and smaller stakes to help counterbalance this reaction. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, is just moving into the “Massive Event” phase with Avengers: Infinity War and its upcoming sequel.
The Season So Far
Season Five has certainly taken the S.H.I.E.L.D. team in new directions. Before the agents could catch their breath after escaping the virtual reality Framework and defeating rogue Life Model Decoys (LMDs), they were kidnapped and sent into the future by the mysterious alien Enoch. There, they found the last remnants of humanity under alien Kree domination, clinging to life in the Lighthouse, a facility on a fragment of an Earth torn to pieces. Only Fitz was left in the present, and was quickly captured by General Hale, an Air Force officer charged with neutralizing S.H.I.E.L.D., who were blamed for destruction caused by rogue LMDs. Fitz escaped with the help of old team member Hunter and found Enoch, who had apparently sent the team into the future in order to help humanity, based on information received from the young precognitive girl, Robin. Enoch put Fitz into suspended animation and sent him into space so that he could rejoin the team in the future. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team was able to defeat the Kree and, thanks to the sacrifice of Enoch, assemble the elements needed to return to their own time. While in the future, the agents received hints of what the future holds for them. Daisy found that she had been blamed for the destruction of Earth and named the Destroyer of Worlds. Coulson fell ill as the treatments that had saved him from death began to break down. Yo-Yo met her armless future self, who warned that saving Coulson from death was what led to the Earth’s destruction.
Upon their return to the present (with the addition of Deke, an ally from the future), the agents find themselves pursued by General Hale’s forces, and took refuge in the present-day Lighthouse, a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility that did not appear even in Nick Fury’s secret files. General Hale turned out to be a secret Hydra agent, who has a daughter, Ruby, bred from birth for combat. Hale has taken General Talbot prisoner and brainwashed him. Ruby cuts off Yo-Yo’s arms in an attack, seeming to reinforce the warnings of future Yo-Yo; she is eventually outfitted with a pair of robot arms. Hale set off an explosion in the Lighthouse that opened rifts to a “fear dimension,” causing much trouble for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. The agents discover that Hale was plotting with an alien Confederacy, and rescue Talbot. Fitz and Simmons finally get married, and it’s revealed that Deke is their grandson. Hale has created a chamber that could fuse a person with gravitonium, making them into a human weapon, and has assembled a team to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team foils this plot, and Yo-Yo killed Ruby.
Grieving, Hale goes to the alien Confederacy and gives them the location of the Lighthouse, attempting to trigger Talbot’s mental programming. Talbot, in a misguided effort to help, enters the chamber, merging with the gravitonium. He is driven mad in the process, and formed an alliance with the aliens. S.H.I.E.L.D. boards the alien ship, and Deke reprograms their missiles to turn back on them while May is able to defeat their leader in single combat. Coulson’s illness becomes worse, leading to his collapse. Talbot returns to Earth with incredible planet-threatening gravity powers, killing people along the way and threatening his own family. By this point, Fitz and Simmons have developed the means to either use the Centipede formula to create a serum that could save Coulson, or combine it with the alien berserker odium formula, creating a serum to kill Talbot and end the threat to Earth. But there is only enough Centipede formula to do one of these things, and the team’s loyalties are fractured.
The production team had a smaller budget to work with this season, but did a good job with what they had. The Lighthouse of the future, with a different paint job and set dressing, became the Lighthouse of the present, and the sets also served as General Hale’s secret lair. CGI was used sparingly, but there were some good exterior shots set in outer space that kept the interior action from feeling claustrophobic. At the end of the season, we even saw a little in-joke where May flirted with breaking the fourth wall by remarking, “All these hallways look the same.” Especially in the second half of the season, there were many touches that linked the current adventures with missions from the team’s past. We saw references to the Centipede formula, gravitonium, Daisy’s mother, and Hydra, as well as guest appearances by Hunter, Robin, Deathlok, Daniel Whitehall, Werner von Strucker, the Absorbing Man, and The Superior.
Just before the finale, ABC announced that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be returning for a sixth season—reportedly a shorter, thirteen-episode season that will not appear until the summer of 2019. The fan base for the show is not as large as the network might like, but the show has strong support from those who do watch it, and the ability of the production team to put together such a strong fifth season on a limited budget no doubt contributed to the decision to renew the show.
The Season Finale: “The End”
The episode starts with an argument over the Centipede formula, which Yo-Yo grabs using her super speed, arguing that it should be used to stop Talbot. The argument draws out two key motivations for the team: to save lives, as expressed by Daisy, and to hang onto hope, as expressed by Mack. But May short-circuits the argument by destroying the odium, and Simmons prepares the formula for Coulson. He hesitates, however, because he saw a previous version of that formula drive someone mad. May tries to talk him into using it, but we cut away before seeing if he does.
Following the directions he has coerced from Robin by threatening her mother, Polly, Talbot crashes the damaged alien ship into the center of Chicago and begins pulling gravitonium from the ground. The team heads in on the linked Zephyr and quinjet. Daisy pulls the core team together, admits she doesn’t feel that she’s cut out to lead the team and nominates Mack, and everyone except the modest Mack raises their hand in agreement. Coulson emerges from the shadows and concurs, asking Mack what they should do. Mack says they will save lives. Coulson hands Daisy her Quake Gauntlets.
The team announces their presence to first responders, and they begin evacuating survivors. In a building, Mack and May find Robin, and Mack goes into the alien wreckage to find Polly, his shotgun-axe at the ready. He finds her, only to be attacked by the last of the alien warriors, and May and Fitz rescue them.
Coulson and Daisy, with Davis piloting the quinjet, head toward Talbot. Coulson admits he didn’t take the formula, and says it must be Daisy who faces Talbot. He thinks the time for talking may be past, and this time it will take her superpowers to save the world. As she runs away from the quinjet, we see the scene that was replayed during their adventures in the future, supposedly the last time the world saw Daisy Johnson. Daisy uses her quake powers to slam into Talbot, and tries to talk him out of his actions. Even though the alien threat is neutralized, he continues to amass more power for no clear purpose. She tells him he doesn’t need to become a hero, he has been one ever since he enlisted. She tries to remind him of the love of his son. But he has heard too many speeches, and thinks he is the only one who can save the planet. Daisy asks him to join them, and he agrees, but has a different idea of “joining,” wanting to absorb her and her powers. Talbot takes her high into the air, and slams her into the ground so hard they leave a crater.
Davis finds that Coulson has collapsed in the quinjet, and Yo-Yo and Simmons struggle to save him. When they clear the alien wreck, Fitz is buried by falling debris. Just as Talbot attempts to absorb Daisy, she finds a syringe hidden in her gauntlet and realizes it is the formula prepared for Coulson, and will boost her powers. Accepting Coulson’s sacrifice, she injects herself, and with the additional strength, propels Talbot into the sky at a speed that must be well in excess of 25,000 miles per hour, because he is headed into deep space. As we see his features freezing, we realize why the show made it clear in previous episodes that his powers would not protect him from the vacuum of space.
When they uncover Fitz, he is badly injured, and dies with Mack at his side. The differences and disagreements the two of them had recently had fade away as Mack tries to comfort his friend “Turbo.” A moment with Robin makes it clear her view of the future has changed: the time loop is broken. At their base, while Simmons tends to Coulson in his hospital bed, Mack breaks the bad news to her.
We cut to a memorial plaque being prepared, and assume that the team will be gathering to remember Fitz. Simmons finds Deke’s room empty except for the multitool he inherited from Fitz, leaving his fate unclear. The team burns Robin’s pictures of a future that will no longer come to pass, and smash remnants of the Kree monolith that propelled them into the future. They pour drinks in the hold of the Zephyr, and Coulson says this is a celebration, not a funeral. The team shares memories, and Coulson chokes up and gives a speech about them being heroes. It turns out that they are gathered for Coulson’s retirement, and the plaque is for him. From their conversation, we gather that while Fitz died, another version of him is still in cold sleep somewhere in space…and the Zephyr has been refitted for space flight. Coulson offers a toast: “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few.” Coulson leaves Mack in charge, and admits to Daisy that he only has days or weeks left to live. He tells her he’s proud of her, and they both say, “I love you.” He opens the rear hatch, puts on his sunglasses, and walks out onto a beach. On the flight deck, the new team assembles, comprised of Mack, Daisy, Yo-Yo and Simmons, along with the apparently promoted Davis and Piper. Coulson is joined by May, also wearing sunglasses. He says it’s a magical place, and we realize his story is ending in the real Tahiti. They hold hands and watch the Zephyr take off for its next adventure.
The show wisely ended the action just before Thanos’ pivotal “finger snap” moment at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. That would have added one more huge element to an already over-stuffed episode, and would have required a fair amount of explanation and set-up and thrown off the impact of a very satisfying ending.
This episode would have been a fitting end for the series as a whole, but contains just enough open-ended threads to promise an exciting future. The new team has a solid base back at the Lighthouse, as well as the collective gratitude of the city of Chicago and an immediate mission to go search of Fitz. While Coulson could return for the recently announced sixth season, I almost hope he doesn’t, except perhaps in flashbacks, because he got such a good sendoff. And like so many people who have shipped FitzSimmons over the years, while I tend to hate seeing deaths undone in later episodes, I’m glad their story is not at an end.
The episode had a lot packed into it, almost too much, and it took a second viewing to take it all in. Actress Natalia Cordova-Buckley did a masterful job in this episode, especially in portraying Yo-Yo’s anguish during the passionate argument that opened the show. Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen had some fine understated moments, especially when the two of them danced around the love they couldn’t express in words. Henry Simmons was solid as always as Mack, and he and Iain De Caestecker did fine work in Fitz’s death scene. Chloe Bennet did a good job in her quinjet argument with Coulson, her fight with Talbot, and the final scene with Coulson. Elizabeth Henstridge was superb, especially in the wordless scenes toward the end of the episode. Briana Venskus and Maximilian Osinski, who have been doing solid work in the background as Piper and Davis, would make fine members of the core cast going forward. And finally, recurring guest star Adrian Pasdar was compelling throughout, giving us just enough of the man Talbot had once been to keep us caring about him right up until his tragic end.
The episode, while it gave us some epic action scenes and grand stakes, quite correctly focused on the characters and emotions that give such momentous events their meaning. We like seeing earth-shattering kabooms averted, but it is far more important to see what happens to the characters we have grown to know and care for over these last five seasons. I found this to be a more than satisfying end to the current arc.
Now it’s your turn to discuss the show: What were your favorite action set pieces, favorite character moments, and favorite quips from this episode? Now that the story is complete, how did you like the fifth season as a whole? What do you think about the possibilities for the show, and what would you like to see as it moves forward into a sixth season?
Until next season, as always, I leave you with the words of the omnipresent 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.