Even after being elevated to Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Phil Coulson’s always represented the Everyman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, those who fight the good fight even without incredible powers or super high-tech advantages, and one of his most grounding qualities was the fatherly bond he’s developed with his equally down-to-earth protegee Skye.
Now, as “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” returns to ABC following a midseason finale in which with Skye has apparently been transformed into a probable Inhuman with potent seismic powers (revealing her as the MCU analogue to Daisy Johnson, AKA Quake), how will Coulson handle it when he learns his favored agent has joined the ranks of the super-powered?
Joining a group of journalists on set, actor Clark Gregg weighed in with a preview of “Aftershocks,” the first episode following the series’ winter hiatus, and takes a look at changing dynamics in the weeks ahead, along with the various other thorny dilemmas facing the Director in the back half of Season 2.
Can you talk about what the Coulson/Skye dynamic looks like moving forward, now that Skye has been transformed?
Clark Gregg: It’s a really good question. I think it’s a really cool writing choice, when it was revealed to the audience and was done in a way where we don’t really quite know what’s going on. She’s in quarantine, alien biotech is in play, and we don’t quite know what happened — and yet, something clearly happened, and that’s really the tension of the first couple episodes back, is what happened to Skye.
This is one of the things that I’ve liked most about this season, in that that relationship got so tight by the end of last season, and only more so this season, and yet she’s risen to a place where she’s one of the most effective agents he has. And so, he’s put in this position where she’s a daughter to him. She’s the closest thing to a daughter, and what bonds them is their dedication to this cause where, as head of S.H.I.E.L.D., he doesn’t get to be quite as touchy-feely as he was Season 1. He has to make choices that are simply for the greater good that S.H.I.E.L.D. provides, which is protecting the world from the strange, the weird — the line that Joss [Whedon] wrote in the pilot — and it means putting her in dangerous situations. And I think it makes him feel very responsible for whatever’s going on with her.
So much of the show to this point has been about S.H.I.E.L.D. versus HYDRA. But now, with the introduction of the Inhuman race, how does that change Coulson’s mission statement with S.H.I.E.L.D.?
I forgot how hard it is to answer this stuff. [Laughs] You’d think at this point I’d be better at this, without saying stuff that will put Coulson in danger again. [Sighs]
I can only talk about the first couple of episodes: the Inhumans are something that Clark knows about, because I like comics — it’s certainly not something that Coulson knows about, and they aren’t kind of giving out infomercials about who they are, or what Skye’s connection to them is. Certainly in the first half of the season, the writing made it clear that we brought Coulson back to life using the blood of this — we can say — Kree warrior, and made he and Skye have this connection, that they both had that in them. And he’s driven by things out of his consciousness, that’s clear.
Coulson doesn’t know anything about Inhumans. No one in our world does, yet. This awareness of this blue warrior is a kind of first awareness, and then the fact that it led to a temple where the Terrigenesis happens. There’s nothing I can say about this, man. We don’t know that. We’re trying to fight — all I can answer is that question which is something happened to Skye. Coulson desperately went to this alien city, underground, that his writings had led him to, and it certainly seemed like she was a partner in getting them there. And something happened that has put her in quarantine, which makes her at the same time in jeopardy — which is the most terrifying thing to Coulson that can happen because of the emotional bond I described. And, also, potentially a threat and connected to something bigger that we don’t understand yet.
As a fan of the comics, Clark — not Coulson — will say that I’ve always loved the Inhuman part of the Marvel Universe and it’s exciting to me because they’re as close to what I would call mutants: the idea that there is evolutionary potential within us that makes some people suddenly evolve differently and represent something either very special, very exciting, and a saving element for humanity or a potential weapon or a threat. And the topicality of the way that people evolve differently seems very important in this moment. And I love when the comics are a great, interesting, off-kilter prism to look at our world a little differently.
Going into the back end of the season, how is Coulson bearing the Director title, given that he has to keep secrets from his friend, and his agents are keeping secrets from him? Is he going to be as up to the task as Nick Fury, or is it going to take a greater toll on him?
Pretty much the dilemma of Coulson has been the dilemma of Coulson in the first half of the season, which is, “Who am I in this job?” He’s a huge fan of Nick Fury’s in many, many ways, but was close enough to him to not see him as some deity. And what’s clear is that he’s smart enough to know that you can’t do the job by impersonating anybody. The best you can do is bring your best version of yourself.
In the episode in Puerto Rico, he kind of says it: “I don’t have an acceptable body count. I don’t think that’s the way you can do this job.” And I think that is a concept that is going to be challenged early and often in the back half of the season. The choices you have to make, often, by their nature, require some form of sacrifice. “Heavy is the Head” that wears the crown, was [the title of] the second or third episode, and I think that could have been a title for what Coulson’s got to deal with the whole season.
How important is it for Coulson to keep the team together?
One of the things I love, that became clear early on, is that he went from not being comfortable keeping any secrets from his small team, after realizing that so many secrets had been kept from him in Season 1. So suddenly, it ended with him being handed this magical cube by Nick, and suddenly being the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., very quickly. By the time we came back, in Season 2, he’s got more than one team working, and they don’t even know about each other. And they collide in the field with kind of positive and kind of disastrous results in that it cost me a chance to hang out with Lucy Lawless more.
I think he’s determined to keep a team together that will not replicate the rotten version of S.H.I.E.L.D. that we saw in “[Captain America:] Winter Soldier” and the Garrett plot of our back-half of the season. There’s an ongoing attempt to broaden the team of S.H.I.E.L.D. that he will need to protect the world from what’s going on within HYDRA. And at the same time, there’s a lot of people there he doesn’t know that well, [like] Agent Hunter. Agent Morse, he has some history with, but not enough to know where everyone stands.
What I loved about what we got to do in our show after “Winter Soldier” — it’s such a great idea — is you don’t know who’s lying to you at any given moment. People have been keeping the secret for years and years, and after a betrayal like that, you have to kind of constantly evaluate everyone and their motives. I feel like that’s another thing you see play out in a deep way this season.
People with powers aren’t something new to Coulson, but will Coulson have prejudice against alien people who he doesn’t yet understand?
To me, that’s the real question that we’ll be dealing with this season. The Inhumans are different. It’s different than Iron Man. It’s different than Bruce Banner. It’s different than Steve Rogers. Many of those are created by science, either tech, in Tony Stark’s case, or experiments gone awry is the classic way, [like] Spider-Man. The Inhumans are different. Inhumans represent — and we get into some of that backstory, maybe — people walking around with a potential that they’re not aware of. And I love that part of last season, the kind of discovering that Skye’s an 084, and the story of the village that gave their lives to protect her and then finding out how much that was true, and this crazy father walking around.
I think the idea that there are people who contain within them the potential to blossom into something else is such a fantastic idea, and it’s very different from the other superheroes. The Inhumans in the comics, the graphic novels, are a whole kind of separate, isolated, alien race, where they nurture people when this change happens, and it’s a ritual. That’s the comic book world, but even in our world, it’s hard to imagine that Skye is having that same experience. She’s on her own, and so she and Coulson are there to figure out what this means, and the exciting and very scary part of it is, it seems destined to really challenge how real their connection is.
Can you talk about having to face Skye’s father Cal again?
It’s tricky with Cal. Coulson’s love for Skye is deep enough that it’s hard to wrap his head around killing her father, and at the same time, he’s not so happy with how the last fight went, there’s a score he wants to settle, and he wants to protect her from whatever stuff he’s got going on. And, to a certain extent, he seems to be connected to whatever’s happened to her — although I shouldn’t have said that, because I don’t think we start to feel that for a couple of episodes. So maybe I should go before I — I’m already getting bad looks!
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs Tuesdays at 9pm on ABC.