Spoiler alert for AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1 and season 2 through episode 8. If you’re not caught up, you’ll get spoiled by the below:
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans have been on quite the ride this season, even dating back to the Season 1 crossover with April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The pace and immediacy of the show changed that day, as traitors were revealed and Hydra all-but took over S.H.I.E.L.D. from within their ranks.
Season two started off by introducing a few new members of the team, killing one nearly immediately, changing the dynamics between existing team members, and showing what Coulson can do when he’s in charge, all while introducing more Hydra, more alien mysteries, and continuing to deepen the mythology. And that’s just eight episodes into a 22-episode season that will presumably have another major motion picture to crossover with right at the end of its run – Avengers: Age of Ultron.
On the eve of the last two episodes before the mid-season break, there are still major questions to be answered about the mysterious island with ties to the alien Kree, whether or not we’re dealing with Inhumans, what exactly motivates Agent Ward and Skye’s father, and Coulson, and Whitehall, and… and…
Okay, deep breath.
The best way to get some answers is, of course, to watch those two episodes. But if you want some hints to those answers, you do what we did: turned to Executive Producer Jeff Bell, who along with Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, steers the ship called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. During our in-depth interview with Bell, he dropped some very big hints about all the mysteries we mentioned above, as well as what’s coming not just in these next two episodes, but in the second half of the season (which kicks up in March, after Agent Carter’s 8-week run).
Newsarama: Jeff, I want to ask you about the slow burn of the central mystery of the show so far, and the way it has evolved. It started out being about “How is Coulson alive?” Then it turned into “What is the formula? What is this blue alien?” and then “Why wasn’t Skye affected? What is the writing?” How much of these changes and these evolutions to that mystery were planned out originally?
Jeff Bell: Everything that’s happened, plus a few to come! The thing about – one of the challenges of doing network, where you do 22 episodes, you can’t really devote (unless you’re 24 which is concentrated), it’s very difficult to sustain people’s interest or attention on a single arc. You can do it in 10, you can do it in 13, but when you have 22, it begins to feel like the same slice of pizza every week. If we spent 22 episodes dedicating to finding out the truth about Coulson… you could’ve done that a few years ago. I keep saying, it took 7 years to learn about Mulder’s sister on X-Files, but if they did that now, I don’t think you could sustain that mystery through even the first season – viewing habits have changed so much. So you need to find ways to have your stories evolve. Bring up a mystery, ask logical questions, and as you set it down and answer it, pick up a new question.
We were very aware of that going into the first season. We knew we had this big thing coming up, Hydra, which we called “the H word” last year, because we weren’t allowed to say that word. We had to have other presenting problems, but we also knew we had to solve at least the first piece of the Coulson mystery before that happened, so it gave us a timeline on that. As we resolved that, we brought up Hydra and were able to then segue from Coulson in TAHITI to Hydra and Ward’s betrayal, which took us to the end of the season. That was by design, and the timing and structure of it was predicated on Cap 2. There was a movie coming out that was going to blow up our organization, we knew that was coming.
So with this season, we knew that we were going to be on for 10 episodes, then be off the air for a bunch of time, then come back and do 12 in a row. So it made sense to us to treat these, not as two seasons, but to spend the first half dealing with one arc. As we answer some of those questions, blow it up and present a new mystery at the end of that, which we’re still heading towards. When we come back in episode 11 in March, hopefully everything that happens in 9 and 10 will have people freaking out and excited to come back!
But the tent poles have been there. I’ve said this before: we work toward tent poles. We know that by this episode we need that to happen. How you get there is where the fun is. Those elements can change. Ruth Negga who plays Raina – we had no idea we were going to love her so much. So we kept giving her more and more – things like that can evolve. The overall shape of it is what we sat down and were discussing at the beginning of the season.
Nrama: So obviously the reveal of the map being a city was one of those tent poles, right?
Bell: Yes. We’ve got, “oh what is this thing?” “Oh, it looks like a map.” “Oh, it’s a map of a city.” “Oh, let’s find the city,” and that’s how we left 8. So I don’t need to say much to go, “What do you think episode 9 is about?” [laughs] So yes, there is a progression, and there’s “What’s in the city? Should we be here? What’s happening?” I think there are sort of natural questions that people have right now that set themselves up for us to look at.
And hopefully we can subvert a lot of those expectations and make something else happen – because that’s what we do! Otherwise it wouldn’t be a good story.
Nrama: Absolutely. With this storyline, at it’s core it’s been building since literally season 1, episode 1. What do you see being the pressures of the payoff of a story that has built upon itself that way over the course of a season and a half?
Bell: I would say the way we view it, it’s not a single payoff, it’s been a whole bunch of payoffs as we ask and answer new questions. So learning things about Tahiti, then seemingly putting it down last season and coming back to it in episode 7 this year to learn more about it was fun. Seeing a blue guy in an episode last year, then getting back into the GH formula this year, it’s been putting things down and picking them back up. So I think we feel pretty confident that what we’re building to is cool! We think it’s cool, we hope people think it’s cool! Beyond that, it’s not a final, final – we’re not revealing every secret of the island here, it’s not the payoff of just one central question, it’s “we have a cool reveal coming up,” and after that, we’re only halfway through Season 2. So we have many more cool reveals that we hope will lead to many more cool questions.
Nrama: What do you guys do to make sure that you’re making these reveals big for both longtime Marvel Comics fans and accessible enough for people who are only in this world through the MCU?
Bell: Well, in general we try to break a cool story that anyone can show up and understand. We then try and populate that with details that are meaningful to Marvel fans.
The fact that Bill Paxton showed up last year and was John Garrett, he’s this really fun, big presence, and eventually he was revealed to be a bad guy and everything else. For Marvel fans, they know, “Oh, John Garrett, that’s super cool – does he have his cyborg body? What are they going to do with that?” And we show a piece of that. We do our version of that. So I think it’s really exciting for Marvel fans to get those pieces, but you don’t need to know that for the story to be enjoyable. That’s the key to doing it, and I think the movies do that really well.
Guardians of the Galaxywas a property where there are 12 people that know that comic, and they did an amazing job of making these alien worlds feel warm and familiar. It’s also the most genius use of pop songs I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
Nrama: Yeah, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t listened to that soundtrack on repeat since this Summer. So great.
Bell: It really was! You have a person walking through an alien world doing alien things, but he’s listening to a song you know and it makes it feel welcome and nothing feels weird. It was brilliant.
We try to tell you stories – S.H.I.E.L.D. is a family, and Coulson is a surrogate father for Skye – this year her biological father shows up, so you have a daughter torn between two fathers. That’s something that thematically plays to everyone, no matter what, regardless of who she is, or what her name is, or who her father is, or what he is, that’s something that anybody at home can enjoy and understand. And if those people do in fact tie into the Marvel Universe in an extra cool way, then for those fans, hopefully it’s sprinkles on top of your ice cream.
Nrama: Okay, the way you just answered that – you’re just baiting me now…
Bell: [laughs] I am not baiting you! I work for Marvel, we don’t bait, we obfuscate!
Nrama: [laughs] I and many others like me in the comic book press have been doing a lot of writing and speculation, especially in the last month or so…
Bell: I know, they’ve been a lot of fun to read!
Nrama: Thanks! Obviously, you came out and finally said the word “Kree” about our friendly little blue alien.
Bell: [laughs] We did, did we?
Nrama: No takebacks! You also said that the aliens have been around for hundreds or thousands of years, and that they came to test humanity… and we have a hidden city… this all makes people think of places like Attilan, for example, then Kevin Feige comes out during the big Phase 3 announcement and says “you might see Inhumans sooner than you think)… Obviously, if nothing else, you guys are laying down a foundation that will make people think this way…
Bell: I… I understand why people might think that way. And our job is to… This is something that I have felt on every show that I’ve done. I did this little show called Harper’s Island which was fun, it was a murder mystery where there were 25 people, the mystery of who’s the killer, and we’re going to reveal that in 13 episodes. The way I and my partners approached that was, it can’t be a complete surprise, because then you suck and you cheated. It can’t be that obvious that everybody understand, because then you suck.
So you try to lay breadcrumbs that a third of the people go, “Oh my god, it’s that!” and a third of the people go, “I can’t believe it was that!” and the other third go, “I’m sorry, what was the conversation?” You try to present it that way. So that doesn’t mean we’re always literally going where we’re laying breadcrumbs, but wherever we’re going, we trust that we’ve set it up properly, so when it happens, the right people will go, ‘That was cool” or “that make sense” or “I didn’t think that was coming,” but it’s all earned.
So yes, we’ve been seeing a lot of stuff, and it’s fun to read all the theories, and fun to see them develop over the last year and a half.
Nrama: Well, it’s been fun developing them!
Bell: Cool! And what I hope you realize – if you go back and watch from the very beginning, and you think about Grant Ward turning Hydra in episode 16, there was stuff from the beginning where we laid in pipe for that. We put in things he says and does, “Oh, he just took May off the radar by sleeping with her,” and “he’s Skye’s C.O.” – we try not to cheat, is what I’m saying, and we also try and surprise.
There are lots of theories about who people are and what’s going to happen with all of that stuff – that’s all very fun. Some things don’t necessarily line up because some characters belong to certain parts of the Marvel Universe and some people don’t… Anyway, I’m just saying, I’m glad people are enjoying that, because we’re working very hard to do it.
Nrama: How much of that particular pay off will we see in these last two episodes before the break?
Bell: All I will say is… we want the first half to end in a way that people will go, “Holy shit, I have to come back and see the second half.”
Nrama: Let’s talk about Grant Ward. You just brought him up, and his character development has been incredible, especially in just these last two or three episodes. It’s gone at this incredible pace, and I know that can be kind of overshadowed by the mystery of the City and the Kree and Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. both trying to get there as fast as possible. How tied in is Ward’s story to this overall mythological story?
Bell: Well, Ward’s a part of all of our… there’s not an easy way to answer that. It lays out really beautifully in 9 and 10. It becomes evident in those episodes. If you go back and do the math about what he says and what he wants, I don’t think you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a short list of moves that he might make now.
Nrama: Right. It’s been interesting to see people talk about whether Ward was truly honest with Skye, and whether he’s working as a… well, here’s how I’ll ask you this: Do you feel like, are you trying to make fans view Ward as a bad guy doing good things, or as a good guy doing bad things?
Bell: I would say that what I love about it is seeing people on both sides of that! I know there’s been a lot of online discussion about him. The only thing I want to say about that is, we’re not writing a person to represent any kind of group or situation. He has become someone that a lot of people are reading into and through, and making a lot of generalizations about him.
What we love is that Brett Dalton is this actor that brings this complexity to this guy, a lot of the way that James Marsters brought it to Spike on Buffy and Angel. What I loved about Spike, and what we loved writing for Spike back in the day was that he was a wild card. Okay, he was a vampire, he did terrible things, and there were people who said “look at what he did to Buffy, he’s terrible!” But then there were people who thought he and Buffy were soul mates, and people who thought Angel and Buffy were soul mates, and lively discussion about that. What I and my partners cherish about that is the lively discussion! It’s not our job, really, to tell you, “oh, in his heart, this is how Ward really feels.” Our job as storytellers is to excite you, make you curious, make you angry, make you hopeful. I think Ward is a fantastic person to do that. He’s so much fun to write and he’s so mercurial. At the heart of the character, what I love about the Coulson-Skye-Skye’s Father thing is, it’s a family drama – at his heart, Ward is someone who has trusted other people and is a product of that. He’s now taking responsibility for that and moving forward making decisions for himself. What are those decisions? Is he a good guy or not a good guy? I don’t know that even Ward knows the answers to that. I think that Ward will figure that out as he goes along. The fact that he goes back to Hydra at the end of episode 8, did he go back into the fold because that’s his default, or does he have an agenda? That’s how you should always think of him, and that’s why he’s a lot of fun.
Nrama: Very cool. Likewise, you guys brought in a lot of new faces at the start of Season 2 and throughout – why was this the right time to expand the core roster?
Bell: Well, if you remember, at the beginning of Season 1, we brought in five new faces, new faces that weren’t even part of the Marvel Universe. Coulson was the only one who existed prior to that, and for a long time he only existed in the movies. I think we took a lot of flack for that! What I love now, is people saying “what’s with all the new people, we have all these awesome characters already!” [laughs] So yeah we have Skye and Fitz and Simmons and Ward and May all now as a part of the canon in a way that people care about.
Nrama: And soon in the pages of the comic books!
Bell: Yes, very excited about that!
So honestly, last year, we brought in five new characters. At the end of the season, after 22 episodes, that’s two seasons in cable years, you don’t want to keep playing the same dynamics, the same relationships. So May and Ward go out, they break up, Ward and Skye are interested and that … doesn’t work out. Fitz and Simmons are kind of the same person, and at the end of the season they break up; you start having all these new dynamics. It’s fun to bring in new characters because it forces you to look at your characters in new ways, and also expand.
Bringing in Adrianne Palicki as Mockingbird, who is a well-known Marvel character helps us on that front, for people who know the Marvel Comics universe. She’s also just a different flavor with different skills. We love both Henry Simmons as Mac and Nick Blood as Lance Hunter. They’re interesting characters to have for our show – they make everybody else more interesting.
Nick is that cool guy who can throw a line of humor and also be sexy and also be tough. Henry is “just the mechanic” but then he’s 6’4” and incredibly handsome and has that voice and the strength. The relationship with he and Fitz, going back to what we plan and don’t plan – we knew in the beginning that with Fitz and Simmons splitting, he would need someone to talk to. We wrote Fitz and Mac a couple of scenes and had no idea how well they’d work together, so those scenes have become something we’re all really enamored with.
Nrama: Yeah, I wanted to tell you, Fitz this season is just a great character – when he pulled off getting that signal boost done, my wife and I literally jumped up off our couch cheering, it’s so great to see him get a moment.
Bell: Oh, we feel the same. It’s been really – sending Simmons undercover and seeing her under Hydra and seeing him struggle. If you go back and look at Chloe Bennet as Skye and look at Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge at the beginning, they were kind of kids! Look who they’ve become in a year and a half, and how they’ve grown and matured, it’s pretty cool
Nrama: Wrapping up here, we know that Jeph Loeb and Kevin Feige love the motto, “Everything’s connected.” Would you say there’s another general motto or modus operandi for you guys on the day to day of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Bell: Oh boy, I’m not good at these kinds of questions! [laughs]
Not really… we all sort of; although Joss has been off doing Avengers: Age of Ultron and everything, he is the spiritual godfather of this show. It’s all been about the emotional life of these characters, and making people care about these people, finding the right metaphors to bring out their pain and their triumphs. We’re trying to do that with urgency and momentum, and it’s really just about, we want to make people feel. So whenever we’re breaking stories, it’s about that, while we’re aware of being in the Marvel brand and the aspirations and the action and the humor. It’s not like we have a sentence.
We used to say, we had four words. It was: Funny, Sad, Strange, and Beautiful. If we can get all four of those into an episode, it is a pretty special episode.
So that’s what we shoot for, I think. That’s the best I can do!
Nrama: That’s perfect! Got any final little tease or a specific moment you’re really excited for fans to see in the last two episodes of 2014?
Bell: You know, I think we’ve done a lot of good episodes. Knock on wood, I don’t think people will be disappointed in 9 or 10.
Nrama: So will we hear Skye’s real name or the name of the island? Yes or no…
Bell: [laughs] I’m sorry, you seem to be breaking up, we seem to have a bad connection!
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.airs Tuesday nights at 9pm ET/PT. December 2 and December 9 are the final episodes before a planned three-month mid-season break.