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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye

Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson on Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson on Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Image: ABC
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“Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few.”

Those words aren’t uttered in the series finale of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. They were spoken by Phil Coulson in the last episode of season five, a toast that the creators of the show had originally thought would close the curtain on their plucky little series, which had survived generally shoddy treatment at the hands of Marvel and ABC and managed to craft a moving, memorable finale. Then, they got two additional seasons.

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The final final season of S.H.I.E.L.D. has jumped through time, altered the course of history, and now, in its two-part conclusion, managed to deliver a spectacle truly worthy of its outsized ambitions. Then, it ended on a surprisingly quiet, bittersweet note, an ending sequence that—much like the heroes who gather together one year after their team called it quits—is a little sad, a little funny, and feels over before it’s really begun. No one we care for dies (permanently, anyway), but in some ways, there’s something almost more downbeat about an ending acknowledging the fact that even after world-altering events that forge permanent bonds, life just...goes on, in all its prosaic reality, the day-to-day intimacy that once existed an ever-more-distant memory. It may be an intentionally crafted sense of disappointment at the end of something meaningful—a solid approximation of the way most of us feel saying goodbye to a part of our life that meant something—but it still feels like disappointment. These two episodes tell a single story, but they are very deliberately crafted to be stand-alone installments (future binge watchers won’t necessarily see them one right after the other), so let’s look at each in turn.

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Episode 12: “The End Is At Hand”

All of that skimping on budget when it came to the back half of this season might have been worth it, because “The End Is At Hand” is the best-looking, most visually sumptuous episode of the season. Giant space battles, massive alien ships, Lighthouse-shaking explosions—it’s all here, and all enormous fun. (Sure, there’s still a few too many hallways, but at least they’re brightly lit and loudly colored for a change.) This doesn’t feel like a build-up to the actual finale; it feels like the conclusion is already here, and everything has been kick-started into high gear from the second the Zephyr gets tractor-beamed onto the Chronicom ship. (Speaking of great-looking images, the CGI interior of the hangar is the rare establishing shot that feels equally epic in scale and scope to the story being told.)

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It’s still not entirely clear why Malick’s trip inside Jemma’s head last week caused her to forget who Fitz was, but at least there’s a much better justification created for her memory issues here: Sibyl injects Simmons with a serum that dissolves the implant hiding her memories, and the ensuing confusion sends the poor S.H.I.E.L.D. agent into a mental tailspin. Her entire memory is coming and going in fits and starts (Fitz and starts?), and it’s causing difficulties, given that the team could really use her help right about now—or at least not actively resist their help. (Daisy and Deke don’t miss a beat when Jemma asks if she can have a costume like Daisy’s.) But by the time they’ve escaped the Chronicoms and reunited with the team in the old New York S.H.I.E.L.D. hideout, it all comes together. The artifacts brought there by the surviving members of S.H.I.E.L.D. were left by Enoch through the decades, all so that Simmons could assemble them and summon her husband, the long-lost Leo Fitz. Even if she doesn’t remember him.

Illustration for article titled iMarvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye
Image: ABC
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The majority of the episode is broken into three sections: Coulson, May, and Yo-Yo racing to prevent Garrett from blowing up the Lighthouse and escaping to rendezvous with the team; Daisy rescuing Deke and Jemma while being hunted down by her sister, Kora; and Mack and Sousa trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to escape once Daisy gets back to the ship. Each one adeptly balances action, humor, and heart, and allows for some meaningful discussions without feeling too much like it’s hitting pause on all the high-intensity, clock-ticking action unfolding. Daisy’s segment is maybe the most straightforward—she gets her teammates and almost makes it back to the ship without incident, because Sibyl thinks it’s going to uncover Fitz’s location faster if they let Daisy be—but when Kora confronts her, it’s still not a fight. Daisy just calmly refuses to fight her sister, rebuffing each strike not with a counter-attack, but by diffusing her sibling’s power blasts. It’s moments like this when the show’s idealistic heart is most visible on its sleeve—there’s always the chance our enemies could listen to reason, and heroes have to take that shot.

Mack and Sousa’s time together might be the most unexpectedly rewarding. It’s impossible for me to know the degree to which my affection for the character from his time on Agent Carter colors my perspective, but for someone who only appeared for three-fourths of the final season, Daniel Sousa became a dependably enjoyable addition to the roster. Enver Gjokaj and Henry Simmons have an easy chemistry that makes their characters’ interactions feel loose and comfortable, making them a solid pair to task with figuring out how to blast open the Chronicom ship. Plus, tying a bunch of Chronicom bodies to a Gravitonium-enhanced bomb to make their getaway? That’s just fun.

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Illustration for article titled iMarvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye
Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC

Speaking of Chroni-bombs, May somehow manages to not roll her eyes at Coulson’s use of the term when they see Garrett has teleported down and is planning to rig the place with explosives. It’s a very funny beat when Garrett teleports right into their trap, and equally funny when he’s forced to make a “heyyyy, buddy!” call to Malick, who predictably leaves his new recruit to die. But May and Coulson’s conversation is the closest thing the episode has to a thematically key moment, as they both admit they’re still trying to figure out their new senses of self. “How did I become this me?” Coulson says, and it’s not just rhetorical; none of these characters are the same people they were seven years ago. They’re steadily changing, just like the rest of us, and it means there’s no ongoing sense of chipper adventure. Coulson—and May, it seems—are just about ready for this ride to stop. Like Mack suggested last episode, sometimes you can feel when it’s time for a change. Or rather, you don’t always get to pick a time: Change is coming, whether you like it or not.

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No one seemed to be under any illusions that John Garrett was suddenly a good guy, but it’s still a shock when he gets instantly shot in the head when they teleport into the hideout. (Hey look, young version of Agent Victoria Hand! Haven’t seen you since, um, Grant Ward murdered you back in season one.) Still, this final scene made for a nice trip down memory lane, evoking memories of this show’s infancy. (Anyone remember the last time they even used the term “084"? Me neither.) But it’s symbolic of the shift in everyone’s role when May impulsively hugs Daisy; these people have been through too much together to be able to really explain it. But they’ve got impending death looming, and only one person who knows what’s happening. Save us, Agent Fitz, you’re our only hope.

Illustration for article titled iMarvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye
Image: ABC
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Episode 13: “What We’re Fighting For”

The most entertaining element of the series finale of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also the thing that causes it to be somewhat less impactful in its emotional resonance. Namely, all the time-travel shenanigans. “You guys are messing with time again?!” accuses Piper (Hi, Piper!), and in a lot of ways, it’s fantastic fun. I tip my hat to how all-in this show went making a conclusion so proudly, unabashedly nerdy. There’s no hand-holding to remind viewers how season six ended. It’s just a lot of puzzle pieces sliding into place, from Fitz’s act-long explanation of what really happened during his and Jemma’s disappearance to the choice to have the team defeat the Chronicoms by using what is surely the greatest superpower of all: empathy. (Granted, it’s not the most visually striking power, so thankfully there’s a signal boost from Kora’s abilities to give it a little pop.) That’s a move worthy of Star Trek: TNG—fitting, given this show got its very own Data in the form of Enoch.

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But when a show requires a lengthy explanation of events that already took place to give it emotional heft, the overall effect loses some of its power. It’s a bit like someone telling you what happened last night on a TV show you really like, rather than watching the episode yourself; by having Fitz recount his and Jemma’s years of happiness together, up to and including the subsequent revision of those memories in Jemma’s head to include their daughter, Alya, it crosses the “show, don’t tell” line a little too much. Combine that with Fitz’s absence for the entire season, and it’s easier to appreciate on an intellectual level than it is to feel passionately about it. There’s something undeniably moving about the reveal of Alya, to be sure—it would be hard not to get a little emotional, seeing Jemma and Fitz have become parents—but it comes abruptly, and via a retroactive understanding that their happy ending has already happened, in a matter of speaking. (Plus, no mention of those worrying blood tests; guess they were only a temporary problem.)

Illustration for article titled iMarvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye
Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC
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Still, there’s a lot to absorb. For seven seasons, we’ve watched these people evolve, becoming, if not always better versions of themselves, then wiser ones. That’s one of the best things about this series: It’s never reduced anyone to an increasingly one-dimensional version of themselves as so many shows do, just relying on the same old traits instead of letting them grow. Mack walked away from S.H.I.E.L.D. life quite recently, before accepting his losses and returning to duty. Yo-Yo spent most of this season undergoing a crisis of conscience, doubting herself and her abilities. Fitz confronted the worst version of himself, and had to accept there’s a dark side of him he can never fully erase. May, Coulson, Daisy—all of them literally became different people as time went by. Jemma might have remained the most like herself (and honestly, this season didn’t do much with her), but even she changed in profound ways, as one of the series’ finest moments can attest. So watching as they peel off from their digitally-aided reunion, one by one, to move on from this time in their lives, should inevitably resonate with anyone who’s been there for all of it. They’ve already moved on, the show says, so it’s okay for us to do the same.

Not before kicking some ass, of course. After far too many episodes devoid of it, the finale returns the show to its fundamentals, with some exhilarating fight scenes and super-powered battles. If anything, the episode could’ve leaned into the hand-to-hand choreography a little harder, as it was a reminder that S.H.I.E.L.D., at its best, is an action series, meant to deliver more literal punches than dramatic ones. It was satisfying to finally see May, Daisy, and Coulson deliver some physical beatdowns that felt kinetically intense, thanks to MVP action director Kevin Tancharoen. (May even got a just-enough-over-the-top one-liner when she crashed the Chronicom deck, responding to Sibyl’s “What’s that?” query with a grin-inducing, “The cavalry.”) And Yo-Yo’s slo-mo knockouts of the Hunters was the kind of thing that made you wish the show had the budget to do that sort of excitement every week.

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Illustration for article titled iMarvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye
Image: ABC

But it was Daisy and Malick’s battle of the Quake powers that served as a centerpiece of what the show can be when it leans into the superhero elements that were its original raison d’être. Again, it’s anyone’s guess what budget considerations did to the series’ ability to film this kind of sequence (they were in vanishingly short supply these last two seasons), but it’s what I—and a lot of other people, I would guess—are hoping for when we sit down to watch a Marvel TV show. The series never really made a case for being anything else, so seeing it get to really unleash Inhuman powers (we don’t say the “M” word, let’s not forget) was cathartic in a way I hadn’t expected.

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Less cathartic? Immediately walking back Daisy’s sacrifice to take down Malick by letting Kora resuscitate her back to life. Apparently, a neck snap is permanent, but quaking yourself to death and then having your body go frozen floating in the vacuum of space is only a minor inconvenience for Kora’s raise-the-dead powers. That’s not to say Daisy should’ve died, simply that it cheapens death when you have a character make the ultimate sacrifice and then immediately undo it seconds later. So many films and shows do this now that it’s become part of the furniture, storytelling-wise, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. Death should really mean something, not be a stop-gap for quick emotional button-pushing. On a show that has historically always treated it with the gravity that it deserves, this was a little surprising.

Illustration for article titled iMarvels Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D./i ends with massive spectacle and a bittersweet goodbye
Photo: Mitch Haaseth/ABC
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But ultimately, the theme of why they do all this came through strong, with multiple characters having the “this is why we fight” line uttered in the moment, in case the episode title didn’t make it clear. But the family, it should be clear, was this team. “I already have a sister. Her name is Jemma Simmons,” Daisy said a couple episodes ago, and that sentiment remains far more potent than any last-minute sisters or kids turning up. Family is what you make of it, and these people made this team their family for seven seasons’ worth of adventures. Every member of the team was the reason for the others to keep showing up, day after day. And superpowers or no, they were the reason we showed up, too. So here’s to them. Who’s like them? Damn few.

Stray observations:

  • If you’d like to read my interview with showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, and exec producer Jeffrey Bell, where they talk about crafting this finale and a bunch of other fascinating stuff about making the show over the years, it’s up on the site now.
  • I got my wish: One last round of Kevin Tancharoen-directed fight scenes!
  • That “unfinished business at the temple,” with the faceless people in hazmat suits turning out to be our heroes from the future, was maybe the best nerdy bit in an episode stuffed with them, penned by Whedon himself.
  • It was fun to have a little jaunt through the Quantum Realm, now that the place is familiar to even the casual MCU fan. (As was Malick referring to it as “being trapped in a Grateful Dead poster.”)
  • Farewell, Deke: “Honestly, I’m kind of a rock god here anyway.” A rock god who now runs S.H.I.E.L.D., maybe.
  • Mack now rocks a Nick Fury-style coat, which feels apropos.
  • “Oh, a creepy smile. That’s new.” Ending aside, stuff like this is why Clark Gregg was the heart and soul of this series.
  • So many callbacks here, from just seeing Flint again to Coulson’s new-and-improved Lola.
  • “After all those years in hallways, I’m not used to having a view.” Same, Mack, same.
  • In a perfect world, that last shot of Daisy, Sousa, and Kora looking out at a nebula would be the announcement of an Agents Of S.W.O.R.D. series.
  • Thanks, everyone, for watching and reading along, and for your comments every week. It’s been a total blast watching this show with such funny, thoughtful folks. See you again exactly one year from now, right here? Let’s make it a tradition.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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