“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is six episodes into its second season, and it’s a very different show than it was this time last year. The core six are still there — Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Skye (Chloe Bennet), Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), albeit in both literally and figuratively very different places than when viewers first met them.
Not to mention, there’s been plenty of new additions to the regular mix, headlined by Bobbi Morse, known as Avengers veteran Mockingbird in Marvel‘s comics, and played by “Friday Night Lights” alum Adrianne Palicki. The show has also introduced British mercenary Lance Hunter (Nick Blood), mechanic/Fitz confidant Mack (Henry Simmons) and made greater use of Agent Antoine “Trip” Triplett (B.J. Britt) — not to mention introduced new main villain Daniel Whitehall (Reed Diamond), a major cog in the Hydra wheel.
With a new episode titled “The Writing on the Wall” airing tonight, CBR News caught up with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon to discuss the “liberating” season so far, and what’s coming up next — including answers coming “rapidly” regarding the mysterious etchings that Coulson’s been doing since the end of last season, a source of much speculation in recent weeks.
CBR News: Maurissa, Jed, it feels like for the most part this season, a lot of the folks that were skeptics last season but won over by the twists brought by “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” have remained on board, and there’s a lot of positive reviews and buzz out there. I’m not sure how much you’ve been able to monitor the response, but how are you feeling about the reaction so far to season two?
Maurissa Tancharoen: It’s definitely nicer to read nice things. [Laughs] We’re just thrilled that the work we’re doing is being well-received. Our day to day is so insane and busy that we’re kind of just operating in our own little bubble, and the fact that people are getting and enjoying the work we’re putting out, that’s basically the best we can do.
And how are both of you feeling about how this season has progressed? You’re doing a lot of different things, with a lot of new elements, a lot of new characters — all new variables at play. Are things landing pretty much the way you’ve been hoping?
Jed Whedon: Yeah. We’re really proud and excited about what’s happening this year. Almost everybody’s back from last year, and has been working hard, pretty much solidly through both seasons. It’s cool to see ideas that, just the seed of which were planted over a year ago, or some idea that was thrown out in the room randomly one day, finally paying off, and seeing actors bring it to life.
We’re feeling really good. Part of the reason we do this for a living is to enjoy it. We’re having a lot of fun making this season. So far it’s been a really enjoyable experience this year.
One thing that’s struck me as a viewer are the new dynamics you’ve been able to explore. There are scenes where you see some combination of say, Mack, Trip, Skye and Hunter — a mix of old and new. It feels at sometimes like an entirely different cast. How much fun as that aspect been, getting to mix up the old and new in these individual episodes?
Tancharoen: It’s been great to add new people into the mix. We already have a cast of six that we started off with from last season, and at times people think, “Oh, that’s a lot of characters to service in each episode.” But adding these new people in like Hunter, Mack, and now Bobbi, it just sort of organically opened up the world. Our whole team is in a new situation this year. Things are definitely more dire. They’re underground. And it’s very clear that their dependence on each other is more profound, and the bond is there.
A new dynamic that we really enjoy writing and watching is Fitz and Mack, because Fitz has come back into this season a different person. It’s nice to see not only their contrast in size, but just in personality and how well they gel. It’s just a really fun new relationship that we’re exploring.
Whedon: One of the things that is very rewarding as writers is — we all sit in a room dreaming things up, but there are chances that when you shoot it, it does not play the way you imagined it. That’s a relationship that, in the conception of it, is almost exactly how we imagined it, and more so. They just have such a great dynamic, and both actors are so charming in their roles. It’s wonderful to see it come to life.
Tancharoen: And they like each other off-screen, as well. They play off each other very well. It’s so funny — after every take Henry and Iain do together, Henry’s like, “Man, I love that kid.” It’s really fun.
Whedon: One of the risks when you bring in a bunch of new cast members — we did have such a tight unit last year, everybody was very close, and everybody gets along. So there’s a risk that you’ll be throwing a bad apple into the mix, but so far everybody’s just joined the family, and it’s just made it more fun. That makes our lives easier.
Tancharoen: We’re very happy that everyone gets along. [Laughs]
Despite already having a cast of six, which is not small, and then introducing more people — it sounds like for you, it hasn’t been that tricky of a balance, to give all those characters time. Has that also been fairly organic, figuring out where everyone’s going to be and how much time will be dedicated to each character’s arc?
Whedon: Last year, we had to spend some time, because we were introducing all new characters. We had to spend some time getting to know them. Now that you already know the core six and slowly are getting to know the new people, as we’ve moved further away from our origin point, it’s OK to leave a character alone for an episode, or have them play on the back burner, and then bringing them back to the foreground later. It makes it so it’s easier to move around. You don’t feel like you have to owe full-blast story for everybody at all times. So you get to sort of shift things around. So it hasn’t been a struggle. For us, it’s been liberating.
Tancharoen: Ironically, adding more people has given us more breathing room, story-wise, and given the characters more breathing room. That way, you look forward to seeing everyone.
Let’s individually about a couple of these new additions, starting with Adrianne Palicki as Bobbi Morse — that’s a significant character in Marvel Comics, and much like Deathlok, a character that could have been earmarked for introduction in a film. What’s it been like getting to introduce her in live-action on this show? How have you enjoyed that process?
Tancharoen: It’s always a privilege to be able to take a beloved Marvel property and bring it to life. And it’s been great working with Adrianne — she just stepped into the role so perfectly. I think “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is known at this point for having strong women on the show, and it’s nice to add another one to the cast. She brings her own thing to the mix. Not only is she a badass, but she’s very intelligent, and she’s a scientist, and she also picks up on things very easily — and she can read people very well. And, you know, duh, she’s very sexy, so there’s that.
Whedon: Yeah, duh! And also it’s just fun — the idea of her having an established relationship on the show helped us introduce her in a nice, organic way, and give her a fun dynamic right off the bat, so it isn’t all just shaking hands. “Hi, yes, nice to meet you.” Her relationship with Hunter, which we’ve glimpsed a little bit now, is a fun one for us.
Tancharoen: We get our own little version of “Moonlighting.”
In the ABC tradition. And based on the character, it seems like a natural fit for the show.
Whedon: I think that’s why they let us have her. [Laughs]
Speaking of Hunter — Nick Blood has brought a very different energy from a lot of the other characters that have been seen on the show, that charming rogue type. What has it meant for you to have a character like that in the mix this season, and interacting with everyone else?
Tancharoen: He’s a hell of a lot of fun to write for, that’s for sure. He always has something to say. One thing about Hunter is you can always depend on him to have something to say, whether it’s snarky, or a commentary on what’s just happened. And not only that, I think the thing that Nick Blood brings to it — because you can always have that very roguish, mercenary type who doesn’t play by the rules and all that — but he brings a certain vulnerability to it. So underneath his snark is a little softie, and it’s made very apparent when he sees his ex-wife. You’ll see that yes, he’s calm and cool in most situations, but as we get further along into the season you’ll see that she’s the one that can ruffle his feathers.
Whedon: And vice versa.
Also wanted to touch on a character that is not new to this season but certainly seems like he’s heading in an interesting direction — Grant Ward. In the first few episodes, he’s by nature a passive character by being imprisoned, but it’s clear from the last time viewers saw him that he’s about to become very active. How much of an impact is he going to have on the season going forward now that he’s out there, presumably on the run?
Whedon: A fair amount!
Tancharoen: We can’t really say too much.
Whedon: But we can say that we love the character. The response to Brett as Ward this year is even better than last year. The turn was hard for some people to swallow, and some people delighted in it, but now it seems that people either hate to love him or love to hate him.
Tancharoen: That’s exactly what we want. [Laughs]
Whedon: We’re really happy with it. In our minds, he’s killing it this year. The confidence that Ward has is so terrifying, and we think he’s playing it wonderfully.
Tancharoen: What we love about him is, he’s a villain that you desperately want to trust, even though you don’t trust him at all, but you want to so badly, because you know he’s telling the truth all the time.
Whedon: And then if you find yourself trusting him, you’re like, “What’s wrong with me?” [Laughs]
Tancharoen: “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I so damaged?”
Interesting that you characterized him as a villain.
Tancharoen: From his past actions, I think it’s OK to categorize him as that.
Whedon: It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have reasons for doing what he’s done, but he’s done some bad things.
Tancharoen: He’s complicated.
On a similar note — one of the other differences between this season and last is that there’s such a clear enemy from the onset, Hydra. It feels like a little bit more of a linear path, a little bit more of a velocity in that way. How much has that changed this season for you in having that big name enemy right up front?
Whedon: It helps. We struggled for a while at the beginning of last year, because we were leading towards an event at the back half of our season that we weren’t allowed to talk about, or even hint at. We were trying to build separate elements and start to weave them together, and then eventually lead to launching the whole Hydra story. We had a big bad that we couldn’t talk about, and the fact that we can talk about it now makes it much easier to grasp onto each individual story, and a good entry point for a villain standpoint for the audience to know, “OK, I know these bad guys, I know what their agenda is.” There’s a lot less time needing to be spent on explaining each villain’s motivation, and things like that.
And that special effect when the Obelisk-powered weapon kills people is genuinely pretty creepy.
Whedon: That’s the goal!
Obviously, the big ongoing mystery has been this crazy writing that Coulson has been doing — now it’s been seen it on some other places, including possibly being tattooed on an actor from “Cougar Town.” I’m not thinking I’m going to get any definitive info at this point, but there’s been a lot of speculation out there, certainly. Some of our most popular articles as of late have been by Meagan Damore, speculating what it’s all about — have you guys kept tabs, peeked at what the fans have been saying?
Whedon: We’ve read some theories. All of the theories are out there. [Laughs] Every possible option and opinion seems to be represented. That’s our goal.
Tancharoen: We’re just glad people are talking about it. Are some of those theories right? Maybe…
Whedon: We can say that answers are coming. Rapidly.
Tancharoen: And just when you think you’ve gotten an answer, then we will present you with something else to wrap your brain around. Because that’s the fun of television!
Legitimately, I am a big fan of “Cougar Town,” and seeing Brian Van Holt at the end of the most recent episode was both genuinely surprising and pretty cool. Will he have a pretty big role going forward?
Whedon: He will be involved, for sure. That’s all we can say. So far he’s the only member of “Cougar Town” involved.
Tancharoen: We’re trying to get Busy Philipps on board.
Speaking of people getting involved — any chance of J. August Richards showing up again anytime soon?
Tancharoen: We love J. August, we love his characters, and he’s a part of our world.
Whedon: Once something’s introduced in the Marvel Universe, it doesn’t usually go away. Sometimes even when it’s murdered. So he’s on our radar for sure.
Looking way down the line, but just to get that question out there now. People saw how big of an effect “Winter Soldier” had on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” last season, which brings to mind that there’s another major Marvel movie coming out the same month that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” should be heading towards its season finale. So can fans expect something of an impact from “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on “Agents OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”?
Whedon: It’s one world. There is no way, I don’t think, that the movie can impact us as much as “Winter Soldier” did last year, which destroyed our organization. [Laughs] But yes. It is one universe, so it would be strange if it didn’t.
To wrap — is there anything you’d like people to know about this episode, coming back after a one-week break?
Whedon: I’ll just say that we’ll get an answer to a question that we’ve been asking.
Tancharoen: And while we find that answer, you’ll be very concerned about Coulson, and his well-being and his behavior.
And not to stir up trouble, but does it feel good to be the comic book-based TV show that gets to take advantage of Adrianne Palicki, given her past history?
Whedon: No comment. She’s delightful. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be a delightful experience for anyone.
Tancharoen: We love having her on the show. In this situation, we win. Just having her on the show.
“The Writing on the Wall,” the latest episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” airs 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11 on ABC.