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Producers: Last Night’s “Show-Changing” Events on Agents of SHIELD Have Been Planned from the Very Beginning

A common refrain from the producers and actors involved with Agents of SHIELD is that their critics simply needed to adjust their expectations and realize Iron Man and Captain America weren’t going to show up and the episodes weren’t going to be as big and look as awesome as the Marvel movies.  This line of defense always seemed a tad disingenuous as it ignored the more substantive complaints about SHIELD – hey, we’re not idiots; we know Iron Man isn’t going to drop by, but when an actually good TV show finally arrives could you let us know?

However, beyond that bit of wave-away-the-criticism defense from the show’s makers they also consistently preached patience, as if to say, “Trust us, this gets good real soon.  We just can’t tell you how yet.”  Of course, isn’t that what the producer of any show struggling to match expectations might say?  Luckily, in this case those weren’t empty words from desperate businessmen.  ABC’s long-promised “show-changing” episode finally arrived last night, with “Turn, Turn, Turn” as SHIELD’s tie-in to Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw SHIELD disbanded, Agent Garrett revealed as not just a member of Hydra but also the Clairvoyant, Melinda May’s altruistic but deceitful intentions explained, and Ward cliffhanged as also being a card-carrying member of the “Hail Hydra!” club.  A show about spies finally incorporated an obvious trope of the spy genre: the paranoid, “who can you trust?” story line.

To hear executive producer Jeff Bell, and executive producer Jeph Loeb, Head of Marvel Television, tell it this was their plan for Agents of SHIELD from the very start.  In discussion with EW’s InsideTV blog, Bell and Loeb finally let loose and revealed how everything had been leading up to this point: 

First of all, tell me how long the events in this episode were planned.

JEFF BELL: We’ve known what Captain America: The Winter Solider was all about since we came together a year ago. And so we knew that we were doing a show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that in the movie, S.H.I.E.L.D. gets blown up. And it’s full of the “H word” [Hydra.] And so we’ve been working with the studio from the get-go towards this moment. Our challenge was that we couldn’t say the “H word” until after Captain America 2…so we had to have an ongoing threat that we’ve called Centipede, that we’ve called The Clairvoyant, that we’ve called other things, because we could not say the word Hydra. What wasn’t a challenge was coming up with twists and turns, and making you think it was this person, because we work very hard to hopefully hide the ball with who it is.

JEPH LOEB: And the fun of the show was taking our time in order to let you get to know our characters and hopefully fall in love with them. One of the things that makes our job both challenging and very exciting is the movies — these gigantic tentpoles — that have the widescreen adventure that we obviously can’t do every week on a television budget and television schedule. But what we can do is create an intimacy with the audience and create characters that our audience is invested in, so when you find out that someone on the team is not who you think they are — at least now, not to say there aren’t more twists to come — that’s the fun of it. We’re hoping that the reason you’ve had this visceral reaction to the reveal is because you are invested in those people. We have told 16 stories to get you to a place where the 17th story turns 17 all on its head. And then what happens? Because that’s not the end. This isn’t the season finale. We have a long way to go, six big more episodes.

As a regular viewer of SHIELD, I had long since wondered if they were about to all Angel season 5 on by building up its characters through episodic adventures which secretly plant the seeds for a rich interconnected conspiracy which kicks the show in non-stop serialization during its final run third by which point we will have come to understand and like the characters.  However, in the case of Angel season 5 they were forced into that mode of storytelling by a network anxious to make the show as accessible as possible [read: more episodic], but its bombshell reveals and serialization came after it had already been canceled (in time to plan its last batch of episodes) and the writers either finally realized their plans or simply connected the dots to go out on their own terms.  It’s interesting to know with complete certainty that SHIELD’s approach was planned from the get-go, and they were operating under a Marvel mandate not to use the world Hydra thus forcing the creation of proxy villainous entities like Centipede and the Clairvoyant.

Agents of Shield surprise!
It’s a good thing that probably wasn’t real truth serum Coulson gave Ward in the pilot – imagine the secrets he might have inadvertently spilled

Going into the series, how much did the actors know about their specific character journeys?

BELL: Different people knew different amounts. We didn’t tell Brett [Dalton] at the very beginning because it didn’t seem fair to have him carry that burden all season, but we made sure to always write him a way that when you look back, we can say, “this is why you did this, this is why you did that from the get-go.” He understood all the dots, he understood what we were planning, and we understood what we were writing. And one of the things that’s fun for us is that now that the gloves are off, he can be this other guy. And having seen where it goes, watching this Grant Ward is a lot of fun.

I’m really impressed at how you set everyone up to get to this point, because once you realize what’s happening, you definitely see how it all ties together.

LOEB: And part of what’s so much fun is being able to go back and look at the pilot and see where Coulson says to Ward, “we haven’t scores like yours since Romanov.” Now, at the time, you probably thought “oh, that’s a really good spy.” But then if you think about what Natasha has done with her life and the number of identities she’s had and the number of people that she’s burned along the way, that may have not been the best compliment to give somebody.

BELL: Let me put this on another level: Ward had put Garrett on this plane for a reason, and so he had to come in and be accepted to this team. And so if you’d look at how he related to everyone — Coulson loves projects. Here is a guy who didn’t have people skills. So Garrett says, can you help this guy Ward round off some of the rough edges? So he comes onto the team. Coulson is now vested, because he’s got a project. Who is Ward’s greatest threat? May. What does he do? He seduces her. Who is the one unknown on the team? Skye. He becomes her S.O. How do you get everyone rally around and trust you? You jump out of a plan trying to save someone else. Now, he had a parachute. Let’s say he failed to save Simmons, he would’ve been fine. Everything he’s done has solidified how people feel about him over the course of the season.

LOEB: And what was the next thing he had to do after he saved Simmons? He had someone on the plane who was jealous of him: Fitz. And what did they do? They went on a mission together and they had a really good time together. And a bromance was started. And that took care of that.

BELL: And then even when he was with Lorelei, and she was talking about the darkness inside of him and the other qualities, she saw something that a lot of other people hadn’t seen. So we feel like we laid things out pretty well. Because you don’t want to over tip your hand, but we think people are pretty smart, and you can look back and go, “oh yeah, it was all there the whole time if I had looked.” And what’s fun now that you’ve seen 17, watch it again, or watch 16 again, and every look Ward does seems to have a double meaning.

I love that. Give me an example of something that might be a little less “obvious” than the Romanov line that could be fun for viewers to realize.
LOEB: We’ll give you one that’s a lot of fun, and that’s in “Seeds,” episode 12. Towards the very end, there’s a lovely, heartwarming moment where Skye is standing in front of the fallen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents through the decades. Watch that scene, and keep an eye on Ward.

But what becomes of Agents of SHIELD now?  After the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier it is more than fair to wonder how you can have a show called Agents of SHIELD when Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill just completely disbanded SHIELD.  Well, the producers don’t indicate any movement toward re-naming the show, but they, like Coulson at the end of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” sure hope to survive and continue on with the SHIELD vs. Hydra story angle.

How many stories do you have planned out?
BELL: We can’t wait for next season. Here’s the thing: Hydra is now loose. A lot of things that we couldn’t talk about in the first 2/3 of the season are now our in our world.S.H.I.E.L.D. has fallen apart, we’re trying to figure who we can and cannot trust, and all the bad things that S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever caught have been loosed upon the world. Hydra’s out there, nobody trusts us…we can’t wait to tell those stories.

I feel like that it might’ve taken awhile to build up to the intensity of this episode, but now it’s all paying off in a very real way.
BELL: I’ve said before, when you’re doing a 22 season arc, it moves at a different pace than when you’re telling a 13 episode cable arc. When you’re doing 13 episodes, episode 7, you’re halfway through. We got episode 11, we were getting just halfway. And so it does give us more time to set things up, and our goal is to pay everything off, and I think 17 is a good start of that.

You can read the full interview at InsideTVEW.com.

This was a risky move on SHIELD‘s part as unlike fellow comic book show Arrow they took a slow-and-steady approach rather than just going for broke right away.  I was honestly floored by what they did in “Turn, Turn, Turn” – they have finally introduced a necessary level of doubt and uncertainty where we can’t easily see where this is all going!  However, the build up to this point was the type of compromise demanded of the needs to maintain a broad appeal while holding back story elements meant to be a surprise in the next big Marvel film.  Will those fans who gave up on the show really be won back just because it turns out that stupid Centipede organization was secretly Hydra?  Sadly, the overnight ratings for “Turn, Turn, Turn” argue otherwise, with no boost in the ratings among the key 18-49 demographic.  Instead, the episode set a series low in that demographic meaning that SHIELD has become a show which picks up most of its viewers on DVR, and even with a lead-in as hot as Captain America: The Winter Soldier that didn’t change last night.

What do you think about any of this?  Was all of this worth the wait?  Let us know what you think in the comments.

3 comments

  1. I think the main issue is that SHIELD burned a lot of bridges with its slow build to anything substantial. It didn’t help that many of the characters weren’t as engaging as they could have been. Even as the show got better, the damage had already been done. Many people didn’t get the show they were promised.

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