In the beginning, there were the six agents: Phil Coulson and the ragtag team of misfits who were also an elite group of top specialists sent to investigate the odd and inexplicable… and on one occasion sort through rubble because Thor: The Dark World had just come out and they made the terrible choice to have their cold open be the agents helping with clean-up, saying “Wow all that stuff with Thor sure was crazy,” and then leaving to do something completely unrelated with some other random Asgardian nonsense. I still think that was their single worst episode but where was I…
Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, Gold Medalist, Male Lead, 2016), top SHIELD guy, hand-picked by Nick Fury for this assignment, and not as dead as we last saw him for reasons they tease constantly but take minimum 12 episodes to start explaining. Coulson’s second lease on life came to an end in season five, but he doesn’t go far… as he says in season seven, now an android version of himself, “Death is my superpower.”
Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), known around SHIELD as “The Cavalry,” a nickname she initially hates, Coulson recruits her from desk duty to be his crew’s pilot, but it’s clear she has skills far beyond flying. May was their go-to for incredible fight scenes for all seven seasons, often directed by showrunner Maurissa’s brother Kevin Tancharoen, who has a gift for directing action sequences.
A hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennet, Bronze Medallist, Female Lead, 2015; Bronze Medallist, Female Supporting Character, 2016), who initially opposes SHIELD but is brought into the fold by Coulson, who becomes a surrogate father figure to her. In season two she does meet her real father, and her mother, and finds out two things: one, her birth name is Daisy Johnson; two, she is an Inhuman, meaning that exposure to Terrigen crystals unlocks a power, a vibration power that can knock a person into a wall or shatter a mountain. And so did Agents of SHIELD trick everyone by sneaking an actual Marvel Comics character into the core team: Skye was Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, created by Brian Michael Bendis in his Secret War miniseries, that I could talk about a lot but we don’t have time. If Coulson is the heart of SHIELD, Daisy is the soul.
Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge, Bronze Medallist, Female Supporting Character, 2017), gifted biologist, which also press-gangs her into being the team medic. The universe sometimes has it out for Simmons, but she never buckles.
Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker, Silver Medallist, Male Supporting Character, 2017), the team gadgeteer. When you’re dealing with fringe science and superpowers, it helps to have a talented gadgeteer (aka “engineer” of non-specific speciality) around to whip up the whirligig that’s going to help out with the case of the week.
Fitz and Simmons were immediately connected, so much so that they were introduced as “FitzSimmons.” A single unit. Their relationship, and its gradual evolution, would be a key part of the show, and a key example of what they tended to do wrong. We’ll get to that in a minute.
And last but initially least, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a kind of generic secret agent type, who was the “New guy who introduces us to the team” before Skye signed on. Ward was not the most interesting character… until The Winter Soldier happened, and they revealed that Ward had been Hydra this entire time, and suddenly he was very interesting. Interesting enough that he stuck around for two more years.
Five out of six of those characters would remain integral to the show all the way to the finale, but they weren’t the only series regulars. A few more would be introduced over the years, some of which were more significant than others.
Season two introduced a bunch. Mercenary Lance Hunter (a name that would seem ridiculous if he weren’t played by someone named Nick Blood) joined the team to get vengeance for the death of his SHIELD-allied squad (including Lucy Lawless); this meant an unpleasant reunion with his ex-wife, Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse (Adrianne Palicki), the first character in the main cast to be overtly based on not just a Marvel Comics character, but an actual Avenger (we found out the Quake thing later); their best pal Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie (Henry Simmons), skilled mechanic, known in later seasons for his shotgun-axe, often the team’s conscience; and towards the end of the season, electric-powered Inhuman with a soft spot for Daisy, Lincoln Campbell (Luke Mitchell).
If you had told anyone watching the show back then that the most significant cast addition at that point was Mack, we’d have thought you were crazy. But while all four were series regulars in season three, clearly the writers thought the cast as a little big, ’cause there was a purge that season. Ward died, became possessed by a being called Hive, and then died again in the finale; Lincoln sacrificed himself to stop Hive; and Hunter and Bobbi were written out partway through the season (Bronze medallist, Biggest Heartbreak, 2016) for a spin-off that wasn’t picked up. Mack, however, was a core cast member to the end.
There were still a few additions. Season three introduced Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), an Inhuman with superspeed who became a full-time cast member in season four; a trip to the future in season five added Deke Shaw, a hustler/grifter with an unexpected connection to the team, and if I’d known how much fun he was going to be for seasons six and seven I definitely would have put him on the podium for Rookie of the Year; and even in the final season, the squad got a boost when they met Agent Carter’s Daniel Sousa (always good to see Enver Gjokaj), and ended up taking him along for their ride through the 20th century.
(There was also The Mummy’s John Hannah as mad robotics scientist Holden Radcliffe and the always solid Jason O’Mara as SHIELD’s government-appointed new director Jeffrey Mace, but neither of them made it out of season four.)
So this was the final season, and they were hurtling through the past… would we have a parade of familiar faces, like Arrow did? Hunter and Bobbi, Lincoln or Mace, maybe at least bring back Ward to give the original team one last mission together?
No. None of that. They brought back three past recurring characters, aside from people who were part of season six: Patton Oswalt as the grandfather of his previous characters the Koening quintuplets (I could explain that but I’m not going to); Patrick Warburton as a SHIELD general previously seen in holograms welcoming people to the long-since-decommissioned Lighthouse facility that was home base for the final three seasons; and Dichen Lachman as Daisy’s mother Jiaying. Other than that, it’s just familiar names thrown around. Remember Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), the World Council guy from Avengers they retconned into a secret Hydra bigwig? Well, here comes… his father and brother. Remember the season one Big Bad, John Garrett, played by the late, great Bill Paxton? Here he is thirty years younger, played by Bill’s son James Paxton, who has his father’s grin but slightly less charisma than Bill had in Predator 2.
I guess never making it past the 80s limited their options, returning-character-wise, but nobody forced them to make the journey through time so one-way. The sad fact is that not only didn’t they put too much effort into bringing past characters back, they didn’t even keep the main cast together for the last season.
So here’s perpetual problem number one.