We spoke to Jed Whedon, Jeff Bell, and Jeph Loeb for the scoop on what’s up with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. timeline.
This article contains some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
If you watched the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 6 premiere and were left doing some wonky timeline math, you definitely aren’t alone.
After a brief introductory scene featuring a disastrous moment for Fitz, a chyron appears at the bottom of the screen. “One Year Later,” it solemnly reads, placing the events of season 6 a year distant from the deaths of Coulson and Fitz (well, one version of him) and Mack’s assuming the position of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
As well as, at least theoretically, Thanos’s great Snapture in Infinity War. There was good reason to believe these actions would echo into the new season, as the chaotic early movements of Infinity War were hinted at in the final episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5.
But it’s a bit of a hard-knock life when you have to plan a network television series around the most popular movies of all time. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producers Jed Whedon, Jeff Bell, and Jeph Loeb are clear that fans should not expect to see repercussions of Infinity War or Endgame on season 6.
It’s a year later, yes. But “we’re playing it pre-Snap,” Bell confirms.
The reason? Primarily logistical: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn’t take the risk that ABC might decide to schedule the show ahead of Endgame.
“We had talked about [airing in] summer,” Whedon says. “But there was always the chance that we’d get moved up to the beginning of the year, and with the amount of characters and money and machine in place with Endgame… We had to dodge it completely.”
“Imagine if we had incorporated it, and then at the last minute, [ABC] was like, ‘You know what, we’d love to have this on in January!'” Whedon continues. “Then all of a sudden, we’ve spoiled something horrible.”
Though increasingly distant from the major events of the film side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the choice to elide Endgame was not made lightly.
“It was a challenge,” Bell admits. “We talked a lot about it.” The problems weren’t only logistical: In addition to the Snapture, major battles, and restoration of half of all life, Endgame‘s five-year gap in time would wreak major changes on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Ultimately, Bell says, “There were too many threads, too many words we were not allowed to say” to carry the series forward effectively, while also incorporating the films.
“We made the decision to just be pre-Snap and tell our story and just carry it forward,” Whedon says.
But though the deviation is unexplained in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 6 premiere, time-wonks should not abandon all hope of an in-world explanation.
“It does work,” Loeb promises. “You just have to sort of figure it out.”
Adds Whedon, “We have our logic. We don’t spend any time saying ‘SO!’ because we just want people to be able to enjoy our story.”
So what could have gone down to create such a massive change? The answer may hide in hints Marvel has already been planting about a “Multiverse,” a vast array of timelines in which various conflicting canonical events can play out simultaneously.
Fans have already speculated that this might provide an answer to the conundrum at the conclusion of Endgame, in which Steve Rogers lives out another life with Peggy Carter. And the Multiverse was called out explicitly in the new trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home, bringing the possibility even closer to realization in the MCU’s canon.
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 6 premiere even gets in on the action when Simmons refers explicitly to “changing the timeline” foretold in the previous season. While not confirmation that the series now takes place in an alternate branch of the timeline, it does indicate a potential fluidity in the fixed nature of events.
It remains to be seen whether or not Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will swivel toward the camera and lay out an explanation for its apparent-but-unacknowledged deviation from the greater timeline. But according to Whedon (who is now writing and filming season 7) fans should neither get hung up on matters of time, or lose hope for a sensible reconciliation.
“Hopefully by the end of these next two [seasons, the timeline] will be satisfying,” he says, “And in no way a thing that bothers you about the show.”