I’ve always said that I really respected this show’s devotion to self-improvement. Hell, thinking of the last four seasons, I hardly recognize the sci-fi-themed-NCIS-clone first season as being the same show. Characters have grown and changed so much, the premise has been blown up repeatedly. It’s been mostly the same people, but the show constantly worked to expand and rejuvenate itself. If anything underlined that, it was Mack’s reaction to finding out they were in space in the fifth season premiere: “Makes sense. It’s the only thing we haven’t done.”
Season one was stuck in a case-of-the-week test pattern while they waited for Winter Soldier to blow up their premise. Season two almost overcompensated when they hit the throttle, burning through an entire story of SHIELD vs Hydra (led by a fantastically creepy Reed Diamond as old-school Hydra scientist Daniel Whitehall) by their fall finale, wrapping it up just in time to take an extended hiatus so Agent Carter’s first season could have their time slot. This left the back half for the duelling plots of the introduction of the Inhumans (and that Skye/Daisy now was one) and a brewing conflict with a different batch of ex-agents who felt they were the new SHIELD, led by Edward James Olmos and featuring a few people we already knew. And all of this connected by the season-long thread of Skye getting to know her less-than-noble parents. No wonder she leaned on Coulson as her father figure right up to the end.
Season three dealt with a global outbreak of Terrigenesis, with new Inhumans being activated everywhere and, naturally, angry bigots rising to oppose them. This again split into two parts: Lash, a monster who stalked Inhumans it saw as unworthy (while Fitz tried to save Simmons from some alien planet), and Hive, a parasite that possessed the dead, could control Inhumans, and had dark plans for Earth. No wonder someone imprisoned it on a planet only reachable by stone monolith. Naturally Lash and Hive went a couple rounds before the season ended.
Season four was perhaps the best one. An evil spellbook and an evolving Artifical Intelligence (Aida, we mentioned her) shouldn’t mesh perfectly but they did. Season four broke into three parts: the supernatural horror of Ghost Rider (also featuring the more real horror of hate group the Watchdogs); the paranoid techno-thriller of LMD*, in which Aida became self-aware and realized SHIELD might not approve, and thus turned to the Watchdogs; and Agents of Hydra, in which Aida begins sticking SHIELD agents in the virtual world of the Framework, where their biggest regrets didn’t happen, but thanks to this Hydra now runs the Framework’s US. Agents of Hydra was better at bringing back old familiar faces than the final season. And then a slam-bang finale combining all arcs, in which SHIELD needs the Ghost Rider to help stop Aida and the top Watchdog from starting a war.
Season five started in the future, after Daisy supposedly destroyed Earth, and the remains of humanity live under the thumb of the Kree (you know them from Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel, both of which explained that the Kree are dicks), then came back to the present as SHIELD tried to avoid that future happening. They thought this was the final season, played it as such, and it was a bit of a thrill.
Season six was a mess and I don’t think I could explain the plot if I tried. The important bit is the B-story, in which the Chronicoms, sentient robots that observed people or time or something, lost their homeworld, and decided to claim Earth as a replacement.
Every time, every season, some new twist or element was introduced. They were always looking for a new angle, a new scenario, a way to keep things fresh.
And as we saw in the final season, sometimes this was trickier than they’d like. After four fun episodes chasing alien Terminators through the 30s and 50s (with fun period-appropriate title cards, which continued for most of the season), the money ran out a bit and for the 70s and 80s we were right back in the grey corridors of the Lighthouse where we’d spent the previous two seasons. It was a little frustrating, although the Chopping Mall homage that was “The Totally Excellent Adventures of Mack and the D” was plenty fun, and the obligatory Groundhog Day story in “As I Have Always Been” was very much a bottle episode but still easily the best episode in at least three years.
So yes, sometimes the money runs out and the new circumstance ends up in familiar terrain. Sometimes the new villain is just Hydra again. But damn it they tried. Every year, sometimes multiple times per year, they shook things up and found a whole new sort of story to tell, and that kept the show fresh and interesting for seven years. Well, except maybe for season six, but come on, six out of seven ain’t bad.
There was one real problem with season seven, though, even beyond the FitzSimmons of it all. And like the FitzSimmons issue, this has been a problem for a long time.
*In season one a nerd TV group I was part of, connected to a hilarious but defunct webcomic, was obsessed with the idea that someone, somehow, was going to be an LMD, despite the phrase “Live Model Decoy” having only been used as an excuse for Tony Stark to get out of a phone call. Coulson was an LMD, the multiple Patton Oswalts were LMDs… By the time they thought the sympathetic SHIELD bigwig that Ward killed, exposing him as Hydra, might have been an LMD, I snapped and shouted into the thread “NO ONE IS AN LMD.” I wish I could go back to 2014 and tell them “It takes FOUR YEARS for ANYONE to be an LMD!”