Welp, the final episode of Agents of Shield has aired and an era has ended. Beware spoilers. I’m not going to be careful here. If you read this and you haven’t watched the entire series, on your own head be it.
So it’s been a wild ride from when a recently resurrected Coulson put together is band of merry misfits. That first sequence of episodes that were basically macguffin of the week stories with some ongoing character development made the whole affair feel like it was going to largely be another procedural show. And it made a good showing of itself while it was doing that. But from the point of the Hydra reveal from Winter Soldier, everything changed. From that point on, the series became a sequence of story arcs, multiple per season, starting with the team recovering from Ward’s betrayal.
As each arc unfolds, the lore of the series expands. This is really kicked into high gear with the midseason cliffhanger of the second season when, unbeknownst to the characters (or the viewers), Terrigensis is triggered in Skye and Raina leading to the revelation that Skye is actually Daisy Johnson (Quake). This also embeds the inhumans into the lore of the series and leads to a very impactful season finale where Daisy must watch her mother die. And all of this is with the ongoing struggle against Hydra and Ward, and the rebuilding of Shield, as a backdrop. The third season involves even more heartache and character development for Daisy and other inhumans, not to mention the rest of the team. Simmons spends half the season trapped on a distant destroyed planet. Then the thing that destroyed that planet ends up on Earth. In the body of Ward! And that’s only one of the insane events that conspires to keep Fitz and Simmons apart for years before they finally achieve their happy ending. And all through it, they show the impact on the characters and events have lasting impact.
It’s this focus on the characters that is almost certainly the reason for the success of Agents of Shield. It has always been about the characters as much as or moreso than the events and setting. While they didn’t ignore the ongoing events of the plot and implications of the settings, they always focused on the characters. And this is why the events of the fourth season are so poignant as everything builds through the Ghostrider arc and into the LMD arc and the events of the Agents of Hydra arc in the Framework. And then that ended with the absolute most insane stinger for the next season ever.
The fifth season really amps everything up, though, as the team ends up something like a century in the future on what we later discover is the remains of the Earth which was destroyed, apparently, by Quake who has gained the monicker “Destroyer of Worlds”. it is with this season that the story line starts to become very complicated to follow due to time travel. It seems they are in a sort of time loop. Eventually, however, the team manages to come home thanks to the sacrifice of Enoch (poor Enoch. He took bold action.) and work to break the loop, which they are eventually successful in doing through a sequence of slightly confusing events that culminate in the breaking of the loop and the death of Fitz. And Coulson, whose adventure with Ghostrider burned out the magic resurrection thing. Oh, yes, and we end up with Fitzsimmons’s grandson Deke coming back to the present with them and he still exists which means there’s some sort of paradox or multiple timelines.
Then we get the search for Fitz (who went to the future the long way around with Enoch) which is Daisy and Simmons kicking ass across space and Enoch and Fitz bro-ing it up across space. And then Daisy coming home and Fitzsimmons adventuring home along with Izel (the “big bad”) in tow. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Sarge (who looks exactly like Coulson) is wreaking havoc. All manner of chaos occurs, including the most delightful shared mind experience for Fitz and Simmons under the influence of the Chronocoms, which sets up the events for the seventh and final season.
And then the final season. Oof. The less said the better, I think, save that it builds steadily to the final massive crescendo where the team takes down the Chronocoms in a way that seems almost trivial, but, in reality, can only work because of everything (and I mean everything) that went before. Even if it isn’t clear at the time, every episode has a role to play in the final resolution. Every member of the team had to arrive at the correct emotional and physical place. Things set up at the beginning of the season are critical at the end of the season. Then, after all the dust settles, the final dénouement serves as a perfect bookend for the characters we have come to love over the seasons they were part of the show. And not all of them were there from the start, either. But it came at a cost. (Poor Enoch. He took bold action.)
It is unusual for a series to get a proper series finale and also be able to stick the landing. Often shows continue until they just fizzle out as they steadily lose the audience and never really properly end, or they get cancelled before their story is told, or if they do have a chance to do a finale, they manage to make a hash of it one way or another. Even worse is when they get a late renewal and have to cobble something together after they have done a nice sendoff. (See Elementary though they did manage to stick the landing on that one in the end. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer where whether they stuck the landing is a matter of opinion.) However, the producers of Agents of Shield clearly planned out this story arc well in advance and were able to work a series finale into it. In fact, the arc was clearly designed such that with a few strategic insertions to the script, it would set up nicely for another season had it been in the cards, but it was also clearly designed that a series finale could be worked in.
All that said, there is one huge bugbear lurking in the shadows around Agents of Shield. That is: is it associated with the MCU or not? Early seasons are very clearly associated as we see the direct effects of the revelation from Winter Soldier. There are even fairly vague references to the events of Infinity War at the end of the fifth season (though they’re vague enough that it could be something else). However, there is no reference to the finger snap or Thanos in the sixth of seventh seasons. That would suggest that the show wasn’t taking place in the prime MCU timeline at all, but, instead, a similar timeline that diverged substantially somewhere between Winter Soldier and Infinity War. This could be the timeline that would have branched off when Thanos travelled forward to the battle in Endgame and lost, meaning he never went back to his original timeline, thus creating a branching timline. That would leave all the Hydra events on Earth unaffected but would eliminate anything Thanos directly caused after that point. On the other hand, it could simply be a timeline where Thor aimed for Thanos’s head in Wakanda, thus ending the threat before the finger snap happened. Or even the later fight might still have been won had Quill kept his head. Either of those changes would have led to everything being identical up to just before the finger snap but no finger snap happening.
It’s likely, however, that Marvel will treat every television show (or group of shows) as though it’s in its own universe or timeline. That solves any potential continuity conflicts. Now that they have established that the Quantum Realm can be used to travel between timelines and through time, it’s perfectly reasonable that characters from different groups could meet in future outings, say in a version of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Anyway, until there’s some sort of retcon, I’m going to assume that either 1) Agents of Shield was in the prime MCU timeline until the events in Wakanda where something different happened and the finger snap did not occur, or 2) it was always in a separate universe which was had a substantially similar history until Coulson’s death and then things began to diverge, little by little, such that some other power defeats Thanos and the events alluded to at the end of season five are something else going on.
Also, there’s one more bit that I feel I should mention: I think they’re working on a bit of a hybrid theory of time travel. Anything that does not affect the sequence of events does not cause a branching timeline, or, perhaps, timelines that are similar enough merge back together (that’s suggested by the graphics for the time stream in season seven, actually). However, any significant change will cause a branching timeline. However, I think there’s one more possible rule: a predestination loop need not create a separate timeline. This rule would probably be present for narrative convenience. This avoids the infinite series of parallel timelines such as we see in Déjà Vu where a detective travels back in time, leaves clues for himself in the new timeline, and then attempts to solve the problem he came back in time to solve. Then, if he fails, his alternate self will, himself, travel back in time and leave the same clues and strive to solve the problem, hopefully taking different steps each time (aided by the “viewer” tech in this case). This is one possible interpretation of the time loop in season five and a similar interpretation could be made of the situation in season seven when they arrive back at the temple after the defeat of Izel. However, I’m going to assume that it is, instead, a predestination loop and that there is only one instance of that timeline and that there is no instance where the hazmat suited people do not show up or are not our future characters. That avoids much brainmelting and it would also plug the potential glitch at the end of Endgame.
Anyway, the point is that they haven’t necessarily messed up their theory of time. We just don’t know that much about it yet.
So, that’s all I have to say about Agents of Shield at this point other than to give it a rating: Definitely watch. It’s well worth the time investment. You can assume it’s in its own separate world compared to the MCU and do just fine with it. Even the crossover points will make as much sense as they need to. So give it a watch. Even with what I’ve said above, I have spoiled relatively little. it’s about the journey, not the ending.