Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producers Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Jeff Bell break down the emotional rollercoaster of the Marvel series’ epic 100th episode.
Let’s start at the beginning! How did you approach writing your milestone 100th episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? What were your priorities in this particular story?
Whedon: You know we wanted it to be about our people, so we tried to put them in a situation where they were mostly dealing with each other and not some external threat — or the external threat is generated by them. We went into it knowing we wanted it to feel like a reward for people who’ve been with the show for this long, so there was talk about different ways to do that and, you know, stuff like the fear-generating dimension was a way to do greatest hits, and touched on our characters and the journeys they’ve been through. So, it helped us in a lot of different ways.
Bell: It helped us look backwards and then did a couple of new [things], by revealing Coulson’s fate to everybody and dangerous things going forward, and then FitzSimmons at the end seems like the frosting on the cake, literally, for people who’ve been [with us] all this time. We can’t all be as sad and gloomy!
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 5×12, it’s confirmed that Coulson is really dying. Can you tell me how you reached that decision? Did you have this in mind for a while, or did you just decide last season, “I know what will really mess with people!”
Whedon: That was it right there. You know, we hit on this idea at some point last year, of sort of playing some of this drama with him. Most of our motivation usually is trying to find new stuff for our characters, new stuff for them to play. [Coulson] grappled with his mortality early, but it was with the fact that he had been given a strange second chance and…
Tancharoen: Yeah, I mean he’s essentially been on borrowed time for the past five seasons. And we knew at some point we would have to confront the notion of, “How long can this borrowed time last?” And so, in him becoming Ghost Rider, we saw that as a way to perhaps accelerate the clock that he’s on.
Let’s talk about FitzSimmons. Not only do they finally get married in “The Real Deal,” but you reveal that Deke is their grandson! How is this going to play out going forward?
Whedon: Well, you know, we’ll have to wait and see. We love the idea that no one knows. There’s a sort of many stages to be played. There’s no one knows, which is a reward for the audience. And then there’s one of them knows, and that’s has its own implications. We’ll get to see that play out and hopefully get some good stuff along the line. You know, we’re big fans of [actor] Jeff Ward and of Deke, and FitzSimmons are fan-favorites, so there should be some humor that comes out of it.
Bell: And then we’ll kill them all!
I don’t put anything past you guys. But General Hale knows, right? She’s put this together, and that might influence her path going forward.
Whedon: Yes, who knows if or how she’ll use that against us.
I feel like I’m on the phone with people who know, I don’t know why I get that feeling. So another question: So is Simmons pregnant now, or is that something that we should look for…
Tancharoen: Yes! With twins! [laughs] Oh, no, what happened to the other one??
Whedon: They would never do that before their wedding night!
Bell: They’re just getting married, so there’s no way! Impossible! The only thing that’s promised is that some day in the future they could have, they consummated their marriage.
In terms of the other emotional relationships in the episode, May doesn’t seem impressed by the idea that she shouldn’t want to be with Coulson, just because he peskily happens to be dying. Will we see their relationship move forward at all?
Bell: Sure! I mean, there are certain things we know for our characters to explore, and that could be one of them.
And as for Daisy, how will she handle the news that Coulson expects her to take the lead at S.H.I.E.L.D.? Will she reject the idea completely, or does the idea of leadership appeal to her at all?
Bell: I think those are great questions.
Tancharoen: Yeah, those are really great questions. Perhaps they’ll be answered in the coming episode!
Oh, you guys!
Tancharoen: I know, we’re terrible, terrible!
Whedon: Welcome to our world.
Bell: It would suck if we just told you. You wouldn’t have to watch!
This is true.
Whedon: You’re asking the right questions. That doesn’t mean that they’ll ever get answered, but you’re asking the right questions.
Tancharoen: We applaud your really good questions. See, these are questions that we think of ourselves, so that bodes well for your answers.
Well, my other question is about Elena’s lingering bombshell — the directive from her future self to not save Coulson. How will the team respond when she gives them this information that is completely counter to everything they feel and believe?
Bell: Sounds to me like the possibilities of really great conflict coming up.
Whedon: Yeah, one of the things that … our whole game in the back half here is, can we change the future? So anything that creates an obstacle for them, that creates good drama. So we only have very few tent-poles of what we can look for. We’ve already encountered one with the “light in the sky.” [Elena] already has lost her arm. So one of those obstacles may be her own team, and maybe we’ll get in our own way of saving the world. So that’s part of the drama we’ll play moving forward.
Tell me about writing that trippy scene with “Mike” and Coulson. What do you hope fans take away from that?
Whedon: Well, you know, we played a lot with reality, especially for Coulson, with Tahiti and the Framework and stuff. It makes sense that [S.H.I.E.L.D. being a figment of his imagination] is his deepest fear. Really, it was two things: It was A) A game-changing idea that we hope people will debate, whether it’s the validity of it, and there’s some things that indicate those paths. But it’s also a great way to sort of have an excuse for Coulson to sit there, flashing back on five years of our show, and to reward the fans for paying attention to all of these things, to bring them off and sort of kick up the dust on it, and have a big fireworks show with a fight with Deathlok, with Mike Peterson, who is literally the first person we encountered [on the show]. And then go to the greatest hits of our villains. It worked as a great story-telling device for multiple reasons.
Bell: It also allowed us to showcase a bunch of people. [The episode] was directed by Kevin Tancharoen, Maurissa’s brother, who did an amazing job, and our visual effects team got to bring back some great characters. And our editorial team was able to go ahead — and Bear [McCreary on the] score–
Whedon: They are bringing back the original S.H.I.E.L.D. theme at that moment.
Bell: It was spectacular. And so, for us, it was a really nice, circular way of going back to the beginning and trying to tie it all together. And for Coulson, the guy who had died to start the whole thing, for him to question everything that came since then, felt like a really valid and emotional path for us to explore.
Whedon: Our show wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t come back to life. So the question sort of is, “Did it?”
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again,” when she thinks that she’s in a mental hospital. Were you guys inspired by any of that?
Whedon: Part of the fun of TV, when it’s this serialized, is there a lot of great examples of the St. Elsewhere trick. When you’re dealing with reality, and when you’re dealing with a character who’s questioning his reality, that’s sort of a natural thing to say to the audience: “Did it? Did it happen?”
Tancharoen: We basically want our entire audience to be screaming at the television screen during the scene, “No, you’re not doing this to us!”
I’m pretty sure you’ve achieved that! Finally, I was wondering — as the architect of all these fears that come back to haunt the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. team, what would you guys experience in the fear dimension?
Whedon: That’s an interesting question. Having to come up with another season of story?
Tancharoen: I was just about to say the same thing!
Whedon: I don’t know. Not to get cheesy, the 100th episode is sort of the opposite for us, of a nightmare come true. It’s not just getting to that number, but the fact that we’ve done it with people who we respect and a bunch of people who’ve been here from the beginning. It’s sort of a dream to get to that, and part of making this was bringing back old faces, and celebrating with the crew off a bunch of hard work that paid off in rewarding the fans. I’d say this is a dream, not a nightmare.
Tancharoen: Aww. Isn’t he sweet?
That’s adorable. And I think that’s actually all of my questions. I’m probably missing something completely obvious, but you guys have scrambled my brain.
Bell: You can rest assured that we would only half-answer it anyway.