SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for both this week’s episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
The folks behind “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” made it very clear to fans last month at the PaleyFest in Hollywood that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — the recently released, latest Marvel Studios hit — would have an impact on the ABC series, now in the final third of its first season.
As of tonight, viewers know the film had a very big impact indeed, with the Hydra infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. depicted in “The Winter Soldier” slithering directly into the small screen. Not only was the season-long mystery of unseen villain “The Clairvoyant” revealed to be part of the Hydra scheme, so was The Clairvoyant — Agent John Garrett (Bill Paxton), leveraging his access to sensitive S.H.I.E.L.D. intel. That would be a shocking turn in itself — the episode is titled “Turn, Turn, Turn” — but the hour ended with Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), appearing to reveal himself as part of the insidious plot — saving Garrett, and murdering Agent Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows), who turned out to actually be one of the good ones, despite how things appeared at the end of last week’s installment.
Not only is the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” team evidently dealing with a sleeper agent in their midst — something they’re not yet aware of — they’re also hit with some genuine tension within their ranks, notably between Coulson (Clark Gregg) and May (Ming-Na Wen), after the former found out the latter had been reporting to Nick Fury on Coulson’s mental state post-resurrection. All that makes for pretty poor timing for the first kiss between Skye (Chloe Bennet) and Ward, but that happened, too.
CBR News: Jed, Maurissa, we’ll get into full-on spoiler territory — not that anything notable happened in this episode.
Jed Whedon: We like to think of it as just a cost-along placeholder. [Laughs]
Let’s talk about this all came to be: You both have been maybe a little bit coy as to how much “Winter Soldier” would affect the show, as obviously the answer is, “a lot.” You’ve said from the start that there’s always been a plan and that you’ve been following it — was the massive Hydra infiltration and the fallout therein always part of the show from its original conception?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yes sir.
Whedon: In our very first conversations with Joss, we were talking about what the show could be, and the challenges and opportunities a S.H.I.E.L.D. show would bring. We were discussing, all sort of on the same page, and there was a moment — “Oh, there is this one other thing.”
Tancharoen: Joss said, “Oh, any by the way, towards the end of your season, this happens. So let’s try and build a season around that.” That’s what we’ve done. So we’ve known about it from the outset. It puts us in a bit of a pickle, but it’s something we found both challenging, and also looked at as a very unique opportunity. It’s been thrilling for us to roll out the back half, now that “Captain America” is out.
Going into it, was this something that made the whole prospect more exciting creatively? Knowing there’s this twist coming, and that’s it’s a surprise to the audience, and makes the show a different thing from what people might have thought it would be going in — was that part of what appealed to you, going into this endeavor?
Tancharoen: Absolutely. From a character standpoint, we have Coulson, who literally has a second chance at life, and he’s a company man — he’s dedicated his life to an organization, and it’s a shadow organization comprised of secrets. Of course, we play into the themes of that; people who live with secrets, who work in secrets. It’s a new team that’s being assembled, so it’s strangers coming together and learning to trust each other, and forming a bond, despite the secrets. Then of course, “Captain America 2” happens, and just as they’re becoming a bona fide team, it shatters — to put it lightly.
Whedon: Knowing this was coming, our goal at first was to establish what the day-to-day was like in S.H.I.E.L.D. A little bit of a procedural — they’re a unit, they get their assignments and they go and take care of it. To establish it as the big organization that it is. In the previous episode, we had every agent that we’ve established standing in one room together.
Tancharoen: Throughout the season, we’ve seen the faces of big S.H.I.E.L.D., whether it’s Victoria Hand, or Agent Blake, Sitwell, and now, more recently, Garrett. Putting them all together, you can really feel the power in the room.
Whedon: And it’s not a coincidence that it happens when it does.
For as big as these twists are, they feel like they come from a logical place, and as you said there’s been a plan. How far back have you been planting some of these seeds? There was an episode called “Seeds” a couple of months ago, even. Have you been deliberately putting a lot of hints out there to lead to to this point?
Tancharoen: Yes, we have. And I think it’ll be interesting for the viewer once they see the big reveal to go back and look at places where those seeds have been planted. In episode #10, there’s a nice, private moment that Ward has with Coulson — they’re in Lola, and I think they’re going to see a Centipede soldier’s sister, and they’re just having a conversation, finally, about their personal lives. Coulson brings up that he had someone in his past, a cellist, and that he had dinners at the Richmond, and that’s something that comes up later — that’s a tool that Raina uses to help coerce Coulson to get into the machine in episode #11.
And then in “Seeds,” there’s a really nice moment where Skye is standing at the wall of valor, and we hear Coulson’s voice off-camera saying that the world is full of evil, pain, lies and death — and the camera pans and lands on Ward when he says “lies” and “evil.”
Whedon: Because it’s a big part of the film, we couldn’t really have anybody bad within the organization, we couldn’t paint the organization in a negative light, and we couldn’t say the H-word. The concept of the Clairvoyant, which I think we mentioned for the first time in episode #5, that whole thing was born out of a desire for us to have our big bad be tied to it, without us being able to talk about it. We came up with the concept of someone who appears to have powers that we can be chasing on our own, and then reveal exactly how they’re manipulating things later on. That was sort of our way of…
Tancharoen: Hiding the Hydra bomb.
This episode contained the big reveal of Garrett as the Clairvoyant. It’s interesting to see his performance flip, from a genial badass S.H.I.E.L.D. guy, then switching to the villain role. What inspired going in that direction?
Whedon: There are two things that character got us: He certainly doesn’t appear conniving. He seems like a guy who just wants to go in and blow things up.
Tancharoen: We wanted Garrett to be inherently likable, and Paxton is also someone who brings that to the character.
Whedon: It’s not that he’s simple, it’s just that he’s kind of an average joe kind of guy. And, we wanted to have an attachment to Coulson — their relationship is personal, which makes it a little bit more painful.
Then at the very end of the episode comes Ward’s betrayal, establishing that he’s apparently a major part of this conspiracy as well. What can you say about his status going forward? is he straight-up evil? is it somehow more than it seems? Because it seems fairly unambiguous at first.
Tancharoen: You’ll just have to wait and see. This is the unique opportunity we have as a show that’s linked to the big movies — in “Captain America 2” we see the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. on such a massive scale, and it would only make sense that what occurs in that movie directly affects our team. To have a sleeper agent in the mix all along, and to explore the emotional consequences of that and the fallout from that, I think you’ll see with the shift in dynamic, it’s something that our team will have to come to terms with — not only on an intimate level, but also the entire organization that they’ve dedicated their lives to is now in shambles.
Whedon: We knew from the get-go that this thing can’t just be the world falling around them, it would have to have a personal toll. At this point in the story, we’re getting a glimpse of what that is. The team doesn’t know it yet, but there’s still drama to be played.
Has this always been in the works for Ward’s character? Was it always designed to be the path that he was going to be on?
Tancharoen: Yup. We knew from the beginning of the events that happened in “Winter Soldier,” so we had to shape our stories around that. This made sense to us.
Whedon: When we first conceived of the show, there were options on how to do it. We just knew there was going to have to be a hefty price, and it just logically started to make sense that that would be the path that we would go down. You’ll have to see how it shakes out and what the reasoning is, but we planted it from the get-go.
And there are a lot of questions involving reasoning and Ward’s motives here — will those be answered pretty soon, or stretched out a bit?
Tancharoen: You’ll know very soon after that — more about why and how, and just more Ward.
How much are you looking forward to the fan reactions by having this development in the same episode as the first kiss between Skye and Ward?
Tancharoen: We’re excited to scour Twitter tomorrow night, and see how people are responding to what’s happening on screen. [Laughs]
This episode certainly appears to be a wrap for Saffron Burrows as Agent Hand. What did you guys like about the work that she did as that character?
Whedon: She has just a strength that comes across. Agent Hand in the comics is no-nonsense, and kind of ruthless.
Tancharoen: Saffron has a very commanding presence, and so does Victoria Hand in the comics. It was very nice to see her own the character.
Whedon: She’s also the first character we introduced where as soon as she turned around, you’re like, “Ooh, that’s the comic book!” She loves her red hair, she really embraces it.
Tancharoen: And the glasses. And the power suit.
Whedon: We needed both that reveal to break hearts, but also to have real consequences. Unfortunately, her character suffered the consequences.
Yeah, it definitely seems like that even though Hand did something very different in the show than she did in the comics, that there was definitely a priority made in making the characters very similar.
Whedon: Sometimes you just throw an actress in, and they bring what they bring, and that definitely happened here. I can’t separate her from her character in my brain.
With Hand gone, and the end of the episode leaving a lot of things in doubt, are we going to see who’s left standing in S.H.I.E.L.D. beyond the main characters? Get a hint of where the organization is at as a whole, the place it’s in now?
Tancharoen: You’ll get more than hints, I believe.
Is there a chance to see again this season characters like Maria Hill — or even Nick Fury, even though he’s obviously way off the grid now? [Note: This interview took place before Monday’s report that Samuel L. Jackson would return as Nick Fury on the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season finale.]
Whedon: There’s always a chance. There’s our cryptic answer!
Coming up in the next episode after this is the debut of both Adrian Pasdar as Glenn Talbot and Patton Oswalt as Agent Eric Koenig. Can you say anything more at this point about the roles that either of them are going to be playing in the show?
Whedon: S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles, and we’re trying to pick up the pieces. They’ll play a role in how we illustrate that.
Tancharoen: It just makes sense that the military comes into play now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a questionable organization, and has been infiltrated at its roots by an evil organization. For the rest of the season, tension is high, trust is thin, and we’re just going to have to see how our team tries to hold it together.
On that note, on one hand there’s obviously a very clear enemy for the rest of the season going forward in Hydra, but within the main cast, there’s obviously a huge amount of tension — May and Coulson are in a very different place at the end of the episode, and obviously there’s the Ward of it all. Are those almost equal threats going on: both the exterior threat of Hydra, and the internal tension within the team?
Whedon: And that’s the fun part of the season — we’ve established early that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s an organization that goes and fights these external threats, and now in the last couple of episodes we start to point inwards, and turn the drama towards each other. We’ve really stirred the pot. No one can relax, and all that tension that used to be only external is now between our people, who used to love each other.
With #117 being such an eventful episode, how much bigger and more intense does it get over the last few, towards the season finale?
Whedon: It doesn’t get small.
Tancharoen: It’s pretty much full-throttle until it ends.
Whedon: One of the things that we like about these plot points is that it generated a ton of story for us right away — we could see how at this point in the season, even though it’s a turn, it’s a turn onto a whole new road, which led to all sorts of interesting stuff. We’re really excited about what’s coming up.
Between Garrett, Ward — depending on how that manifests itself — Deathlok, and Raina, there’s almost a counter-team to the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew at this point. Is that something we’ll see take shape in a real way coming up?
Whedon: That would be interesting.
Tancharoen: Wouldn’t that be cool? [Laughs] Maybe so.
Jed, Maurissa, is there anything else viewers should know at this point in the season?
Tancharoen: We’re just very much looking forward to seeing what [tonight] looks like on the Internet.
Whedon: We’re also excited that we don’t have any more breaks — we’re airing the rest of them back-to-back. That’s something we’ve been longing to have for a while, a stretch of episodes.
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” returns with a new episode, “Providence,” Tuesday, April 15 at 8 p.m. on ABC.