Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD – Season 5 Episode 22
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD ends its fifth season by revealing whether it’s possible to change the future and save the planet.
This season has focused on a singular story told in two distinct arcs. In the first the characters learn about a really dark future and in the second they try to figure out a way to prevent it. Hanging over both sides of the season is the possibility that nothing can be changed backed up by the constant reminders that they could all be playing their roles in an inescapable time loop. It’s an interesting problem because it allows for the characters to continue making decisions based on who they are as people while still being at risk of following a predetermined path.
It all comes together here and we learn if the timeline can be changed. The short answer is that it can and one of the few flaws this episode has is not really justifying what actually allowed the timeline to change. We saw the choices that altered the timeline but the point where changes could be made wasn’t as strongly explained as I was expecting particularly when much of the tension in the second half of the season came from the future playing out as expected despite the best efforts of the characters.
It’s a minor niggle in an otherwise excellent episode. Changing the future was always going to happen because this show exists as part of an extended cinematic universe so having the Earth crack apart would have a noticeable effect on everything else this universe provides. Some might say this removes tension but for me the intrigue comes from “how” they prevent the destruction of Earth rather than “if” they’ll manage to do it.
The basic answer to “how” is that the characters make the right choices at the most critical moment and end up saving the entire planet. There is some risk early in the episode when the team can’t agree how to proceed. Last week established that they could use the Centipede Serum to either heal Coulson or stop Talbot but it wasn’t possible to do both. This presented the very difficult choice to be made between Coulson and the world. The answer to that choice seems clear but it isn’t quite so simple considering how important Coulson is to each of them.
A brief debate is had by the team before May forces the choice on them. She apologises for it but clearly has no regrets because saving Coulson is her top priority. It’s a very emotional decision that forces the hand of everyone else to a degree but there’s no denying that it makes perfect sense for May to make that decision.
Before that happens Mack takes charge of the conversation in order to focus it in a productive way. He recognises that everyone has an opinion here and turns it into a vote so that whatever decision they make is one they arrive at together. It’s somewhat disappointing that we never see this vote take place as it would have clearly show the stance of each character in the ongoing debate between strategic and emotional decision-making.
With Coulson apparently safe the focus is on stopping Talbot. An approach needs to be agreed and Daisy makes a speech about Mack being best place to lead them because he has the biggest heart on the team. In a morally ambiguous world he acts as a natural moral centre and Daisy’s opinion is that this makes him qualified to lead the team because he can steer them in the “right” direction in a broader sense of the word. Everyone on the team agrees but I’m not entirely sure I do. Mack and Fitz have had disagreements recently because Fitz believes that it’s sometimes necessary to make a difficult decision that may require certain ideals to be compromised and Mack disagrees with that. Since Mack is unwilling to make those sorts of decisions then he may not be leadership material. That could cause issues next season as he struggles with that though the earlier scene might offer a solution to that if Mack opts to run the team as a democracy.
For the purposes of this episode it makes a lot of sense as Mack’s unflinching morality allows for a really satisfying hero moment when he decides that their operation is all about saving civilians and makes a speech reassuring the people on the ground that help is on the way and that S.H.I.E.L.D. is there to help him. This idea reminded me of Avengers: Age of Ultron where it was declared that it was what S.H.I.E.L.D.is supposed to be. Having the focus be the protection of civilians is definitely what it should all be about so it’s good that the episode addresses that and makes it a central focus.
The protection of others being definitively heroic is one of the central themes of this episode. Daisy’s confrontation with Talbot discusses this idea in as much detail as it can given the urgency of the situation. Talbot has descended into full villain territory though is fully convinced that he’s doing what is necessary to save the world. He thinks that absorbing more Gravitonium is letting him become a hero though Daisy points out that he is already a hero and has been one since the day he enlisted in the military. She uses the example of the first responders in the area and points out that anyone who devotes their life to helping others is automatically a hero. Talbot has lost sight of that and has become blinded by his desire for more power because he thinks that’s all he needs to face his enemies.
He has completely lost sight of everything he’s trying to protect and has twisted the situation to suit his own perception of it. His son being terrified of him has been dismissed as being due to Talbot seeming different to him. In his mind once he becomes more powerful then everything else will fall into place. Even Daisy’s speech about heroes falls on deaf ears because he associates what she says with negativity. Hale told him the same thing before torturing him and Coulson uses those words before betraying him -at least in his head- so he’s unwilling to listen to it. This makes him the enemy for the purposes of this episode which may lose him a lot of his nuance but that came in earlier episodes where his role here is more about the removal of an obstacle that could be powerful enough to cause the end of life as they know it.
We learn how the Earth would have been destroyed if the timeline hadn’t been changed when Talbot tries to absorb Daisy so that he has access her her powers so that he can more easily take the Gravitonium out of the Earth. The implication is that his powers grow exponentially and he cracks the Earth apart while looking for more Gravitonium. Coulson is the one who brings the change in the timeline by hiding the Centipede serum in one of Daisy’s gauntlets so that she gets a much needed power boost at the right moment and stops Talbot from absorbing her. This boost also allows her to knock him into space and get rid of him entirely. In some ways the fight it slightly anticlimactic but the lack of action is more than made up for by Daisy’s confident approach when she attempts to appeal to Talbot’s better nature.
Before she goes into battle she has a really moving exchange with Coulson when she learns that he decided not to take the serum because it doesn’t feel right to him. This scene is all about him encouraging Daisy to use everything she has learned to stop Talbot. Coulson has given her all the skills she need whether they be the ability to talk him out of continuing with his campaign or defeating him using more violently than that. Daisy has to deal with the fact that he has completely sealed his own fate by refusing to take the serum and she struggles with that realisation. It’s a scene loaded with emotion handled wonderfully by Clark Gregg and Chloe Bennet who channel the long relationship between these two characters in order to deliver a moment between them that could be the last time they are ever together as far as either of them knows.
The defeat of Talbot doesn’t mean the team are out of the woods at least in terms of their own safety. Earth may be safe from destruction but there are still threats to the team. The most immediate threat is to Mack who goes after Polly after realising that she is being held prisoner on the derelict alien ship. Fitz sees this as a bad omen because Mack and Polly don’t make it through the destruction of Earth. He realises that this is when that happens and likely fears that the future is set at that point. The apparent inevitability of the events isn’t accepted though as shown by Fitz and May going to Mack and Polly’s rescue causing Robin to realise that something is different.
One of the key differences comes when Fitz is trapped under falling rubble and dies from his injuries. His death is devastating in all the right ways. Mack being with him at the end of his life feels fitting considering their complex friendship over the years. It’s a really well written and performed moment that shows great respect to the characters involved. I thought that Fitz spending his last moments worrying about the well-being of others was a really nice touch and made his death more brutal as a result.
The aftermath of this is equally devastating as the other characters process Fitz’ death as well as the loss yet to come. Coulson gives a really moving toast talking about how privileged he feels to have known the heroes that make up his team and encouraging them to remember but also move on. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Coulson as the heart of this show as well as -arguably- the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. His “death” in The Avengers was what inspired those heroes to come together and he has been holding the various configurations of this team together over the seasons of this show. Even though he isn’t dead yet everyone around him feels that loss and tries to contemplate what their lives will be like without Coulson. It’s a massive consideration as I can’t fathom what this show would be like without Coulson in it. The characters clearly feel the same but they’ll forge ahead regardless because accepting loss is part of what they signed up for.
Coulson’s condition has a kindness associated with it as he has a good idea of when his life will come to an end and can use the time effectively in terms of preparing those closest to him for a world without him in it. He can meet his end with dignity and pride because he believes in the team he’s leaving behind. Coulson feels that he has done good work and sees proof of that in those he trusts. The drinks they share aren’t a memorial as far as he’s concerned so it can be called a retirement party instead. There’s no sorrow in Coulson because he is proud of what has been accomplished and is ready to meet the end. The fact that he gets to spend his last days in Tahiti adds wonderful symmetry to Coulson’s journey through the show and May being with him at the end is perfect.
Fitz’ death doesn’t have much in the way of aftermath which seems strange at first but only because I had forgotten that he actually has a duplicate out there from when he was frozen to take the slower path to the future so that he could help his friends. That Fitz is still out there and now that the timeline has changed there’s no need for him to stay frozen. He won’t have experienced the life changing events that happened since their return to the present but he’s still Fitz. This accounts for Simmons appearing less than devastated by the death of the man she loves. In some ways it does cheapen Fitz’ onscreen death since there’s a spare out there that can guarantee his return but for me the loss isn’t diminished because a character that shared in this most recent adventure has been lost and the one that could be revived isn’t exactly the same person.
Deke is absent from the bulk of the episode which makes sense if the focus of a finale is to be on the characters the show has had around for longer. He leaves because he’s not sure if he will be erased from existence should they succeed so would rather spend his potential last days exploring the world he has come to love rather than sitting around in a bunker with no windows. It works for Deke and means that he doesn’t get in the way of the moving character drama that fills the episode.
This is a stunning looking episode with a real cinematic quality to it. The scenes in Chicago involving Talbot, Daisy and the rest of the team are really impressive. It’s rare that this show will deliver visuals that take advantage of open spaces that have lots of people around but for this episode it feels right because it presents the appearance of an epic conclusion. The widened scope reminds the audience of what’s at stake and hints at what the impact will be if the Earth is destroyed. Not all of the visuals are great such as some problematic green screen when Coulson and May are standing on the beach in Tahiti.
I get the distinct impression that this episode was designed to be the end of the series should it not be renewed. There’s a real finality to everything that happens and there’s no tease for a thread that can take us into the confirmed next season. If this were to be the end of the show then as a viewer I would be almost completely satisfied by it due to the excellent work the episode did celebrating the relationships forged between these characters. Coulson would end the series alive with the suggestion that his death would soon come and the rest of the team continue on as they always have with Mack as their leader. It effectively closes the book on the series and could have easily been left here. The fact that we’re getting another season is something I’ll talk about after the rating but if this was intended to be a series finale then those involved deserve credit for delivering one that they can be proud of.
An excellent and emotionally devastating season finale that makes great use of the characters to deliver a heart wrenching experience. Putting Mack in charge of the team is a reasonable choice that does admittedly have some problems but his first decision to keep the focus on protecting people makes for an excellent heroic moment that ties into the overall theme of protecting others. Daisy uses this in her attempt to motivate Talbot to stop what he’s doing. The reminder that anyone who devotes their life to protecting others is automatically considered a hero is a touching sentiment that shows how badly corrupted Talbot has become by his own quest for power. Daisy’s fight with him is brief but loaded with emotional weight and makes for a moving sacrifice on Coulson’s part.
Fitz’ death is devastating. It’s such a well written and acted moment that makes great use of his complex friendship with Mack who is there for him in the end. Having this immediately follow the realisation that the timeline can be changed is certainly fitting. Arguably it’s cheapened by the knowledge that there is another Fitz out there that can be revived at any time but it doesn’t diminish his death as far as I’m concerned. The aftermath of this is equally as devastating with Coulson delivering a moving toast where he tells the team how proud he is of what they are and what they’ve accomplished together. He can meet his end with dignity knowing that he’s done a good job and is leaving behind a very capable team who can do great things. Having him live out his last days in Tahiti is a really nice touch and caps off the episode wonderfully. It’s also a stunning looking episode with a lot of scope to the action serving as a reminder of how much is at stake while furthering the theme of protecting innocent people. If this was supposed to be the end of the entire series then all involved should be proud.
It took a while for it to be confirmed but we are definitely getting another season and there are a few things to consider going into it. The final episode doesn’t reference the events of Avengers: Infinity War which I personally don’t have a problem with it as it made sense to keep everything focused on the characters and events of this show. This means that it took place before the end of that film since the events depicted there had no impact here. It has been confirmed that the next season will appear on screens in summer of 2019 which puts it after the events of whatever Avengers 4 happens to be called. This is a smart move as it allows the show to avoid the events of both of those films and continue to be its own thing while still referencing what happened.
I am of course assuming that the show will jump forward in time following the events of the finale. It may not or it could be more loose with its overall timeline. A couple of episodes could be set in the aftermath of the events of Avengers: Infinity War and the rest could take place following the events of Avengers 4 for example. They could also jump forward years and barely reference anything that has gone on in the films. The possibilities are certainly endless. Either way the team as it exists now with possibly a few other additions here and there will be dealing with new threats and situations for at least one more shortened season.
In terms of characters I suspect that the frozen duplicate of Fitz will be found and unfrozen which could also bring back Enoch into the mix so there will be some opportunities presented by having an earlier version of Fitz who didn’t experience most of what went on in this season. He won’t be aware of his wedding to Simmons, being taken over by his alternate personality or anything else that went on. This allows for a fairly different version of the character to develop and bring something new to the show.
As much as it pains me to type this, Coulson is a character who should be retired at this point. It’s unknown at this time if Clark Gregg will return for next season but I’d rather he didn’t. His exit was a perfect end point for this character and bringing him back would almost definitely cheapen that. I’m not sure if this show will be nearly as good with him but I strongly suspect that it won’t. Based on how good this episode was as an end point for the series as a whole I’m concerned that season 6 will end up being one of those seasons that will be remembered as unnecessary because it undermines a better ending. I am still interested to see how this show will continue and will definitely review it when it appears.
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