Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sends its characters off into the sunset by reckoning with its own most important theme.
Right from its opening moments, empathy has been an important theme in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Much of the drama in the pilot episode centered around saving the life of Mike Peterson, a man driven to violence and potential destruction by forces beyond his control. Throughout the series, characters have grappled with the demands of empathy, sometimes rising to moments of lovely grace, and sometimes failing as painful circumstances forced the choice between grace, expediency, and — more than once — the instinct of revenge.
After all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never been a show without its agonies. Coulson’s multiple deaths come to mind, as do the loss of characters like Trip and Lincoln, May’s haunted past, and a solid half of any time Fitz and Simmons were on screen. And that pain spread around, sometimes to the point where the show itself denied the empathy it clearly valued to certain characters (often goodies turned baddies like Agent 33 and Glen Talbot) who came to abrupt and disturbing ends.
But in its final act, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reconnects with its core values, promoting bright themes that maintain enough of an edge to feel earned. Pain is an important part of “The End is At Hand” and “What We’re Fighting For,” but only insofar as it enables the action of empathy.
For seven seasons, through times good and bad, the agents have grappled with loss, grief, physical agony, and psychological torment. Now, in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series finale, they harness this pain and use it actively, in ways that profoundly alter the arc of the story.
Take Kora, Daisy’s loose-canon half sister who was introduced a mere handful of episodes before the finale. Teeth-grittingly stubborn and yet maddeningly tractable before the season’s floppy-haired antagonist Nathaniel Malick, Kora challenges Daisy not with her powers, but with her existence. What’s our battle-hardened hero to do in the face of a sister who tossed away the family that Daisy so desperately wanted? What kind of response can be offered to an instinctively furious person who caters to destruction at every turn?
The crucial answer is this repeating theme that, for much of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 7 was carried and embodied by by Agent May — empathy. This was a particularly fitting choice, given that May’s longstanding emotional restraint was the direct result of her trauma and pain. Transformed by her temporary death into an empath who struggles to manage the emotions of the people around her, May established the transformative nature of empathy in a supernatural interpretation. As she grapples with this new ability throughout the final season, she allows the twined concepts of pain and empathy to come (quite literally) down to Earth in its closing act.
In the first part of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finale, “The End is at Hand,” it’s Daisy who decides how to implement empathy in a challenging but crucial practice. She takes on her conflicted feelings and confronts Kora — but refuses to fight her. Daisy recognizes her sister’s pain and, instead of battling against it, deflects her violence. She offers support and understanding in the face of repeated rejection.
It’s a challenging scene for both Daisy and the viewer, both of whom could be forgiven in writing off the mercurial Kora as a lost cause (as Kora, in fact, sees herself.) But Daisy commits to compassion, to the comprehension of another person’s pain. The outcome is not initially obvious, but in doing so, Daisy sets off a chain of events that derail Malick and the nefarious Chronicoms’ plans to devastate humanity.
The consequences of Daisy’s empathy blossom throughout the rest of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finale. Mack, May, and Coulson echo her choice as they rescue Kora from Malick’s clutches (loyalties do change quickly on this show!) This in turn allows the finale to employ one of those delightful tricks of speculative fiction, and turn a theme into a physical force that transforms the arc of the story.
With the idea of empathy embodied by May, Kora, so recently defined by spite and violence, becomes a physical conduit of the theme. For the first time, she uses her explosive power (one that, coincidentally, has caused her great pain) constructively. She amplifies the signal of empathy that reaches the Chronicoms, which in turn saves the lives of the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew down in the Lighthouse.
And this is not just an act of salvation for Yo-Yo, Sousa, Simmons, and Fitz. Enabling the ostensible villains to engage in empathy is an act of grace toward the Chronicoms themselves.
Though they function mostly as diabolical Terminators (who, it’s fair to note, can be dispatched by our heroes with remorseless abandon), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t ignore the race’s origin story — a people homeless and decimated by the villain of season 6. Like Kora, the Chronicoms have experienced pain. They too, are seeking to resolve that pain through conquest and violence. And as with Kora, the infusion of empathy — the recognition that they are capable of morally elevated choices — allows them to turn away from the unblinking slaughter they have so effectively pursued until now.
It’s not a command so much as it is a capability that Enoch long displayed, and now the remnants of his race can follow in his footsteps.
This thread continues in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series finale when Daisy’s own life is saved by the empathy she extends to her sister. In the episode’s climactic scene, Daisy sacrifices herself to end the threat of Nathaniel Malick, but is rescued and revived by Kora.
Now, it’s impossible not to acknowledge Daisy’s resurrection as something of a deus-ex-machina (for most of her time on the show, Kora’s powers are nothing much more than nebulously destructive.) But thematically speaking, the loss doesn’t stick precisely because Daisy has created the conditions under which Kora would find that loss unacceptable. As it does in the Lighthouse, empathy ultimately manifests as life pouring from Kora’s fingers into the sister who saved her.
After all of this, it’s fitting that the series’ in-world display of empathy is followed by a much more meta-textual manifestation. It’s the last scene of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finale where empathy is truly on display, and what transforms the two-part episode from wholesome bang-pow popcorn-party to a thoughtful, lovely, and deeply resonant ending.
One year after this grand finale, the team reunites virtually, checking in on each other’s lives and allowing the audience to linger in their connection one last time. It’s a scene that is in many ways suffused with pain; set in the original S.H.I.E.L.D. speakeasy of the 1930’s — a place that no longer actually exists — a layer of loss gilds the proceedings before they even start.
The team is thrilled to see each other, but they are also scattered millions of miles apart, able to connect only through a simulation that feels uncannily recognizable in 2020. There is excitement and joy over Simmons and Fitz’s young daughter, awkwardness and new barriers to navigate between old friends. There is regret and hope, the delicate negotiation of dialogue between old friends turned new.
The reunion, like the lives of our dear agents, is not perfect. Simmons clearly misses her work at S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson is still at sixes and sevens, tapping out his place as an immortal robot with a very human heart. He and May haven’t gotten together romantically, though it’s clear their bond is very much alive. Mack and Yo-Yo are still a couple, but work often keeps them apart.
The final scene of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finale works, however, precisely because it is imperfect and painful. Those gaps in perfect happiness is where the empathy floods in, from writers, to actors, to characters, to audience. The disparate, ongoing adventures of the S.H.I.E.L.D. family resonate not because they are idealized, but because we can empathize with them as a recognizable blend of joy and pain, the stuff of ordinary life played out by agents and superheroes and professors and (retired) scientists.
Fitz and Simmons get marriage and a child. Daisy gets partnership and sisterhood. Mack and Yo-Yo get the adventure of leading and doing good. May gets connection, and the chance to write the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. in her own hand.
And Coulson? Coulson gets time.
The agent-turned-Director-turned-LMD’s ending is the least definitive among the members of this unshakable team, but it is possibly the most empathetic. He is non-committal as to his future plans, mentioning only that he will continue his “assessment” of his strange existence. In the closing moments of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series finale, Coulson fires up a revamped Lola and flies off past the camera, his life ahead full of questions.
While this may not fulfill all of the fans’ hopes, Coulson’s conclusion brings full circle the season’s and the series’ contemplation of empathy. This is an ending that responds to Coulson’s existential pain; his uncertainty as to his place in the world; his desire to discover for himself, rather than be assured of, his lingering humanity. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t speed toward a neat conclusion for Coulson, but affords him the time he will need to resolve his questions, and his pain.
That of itself highlights a bittersweet truth about empathy. Empathy is not a mechanism to resolve pain; it merely makes that resolution possible.
Which is quite a fitting way for the story of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to end. This was, after all, always a story about possibility. A divergent team could unite; an earth-shattering superhero could find her family; space and time and life itself might be bent to the will of people audacious enough to challenge their laws. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always about what could be, rather than what was, from our ordinary lives to the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.
And so Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. concludes its run with empathy having birthed possibility. From the joyful to the bittersweet, the team resolves their time in our presence but carries on their essential mission: To preserve and foster possibility.
“Don’t ever tell me there’s ‘no way’,” Agent Phil Coulson barked in the series premiere, an idea that endures through the final credits. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — overlooked yet enduring, long-lived despite years of uncertainty — has taught us anything, it is that there is always a way forward, a path through every problem.
It is a lesson not just of hope but of empathy, especially in times like these, and it’s hard to think of a better way for the show to take its final flight.