The team saved the day once again in Wednesday's series finale, defeating the alien Chronicoms at their own game -- pulling them through space and time, retroactively setting in motion the events of last season's finale and ultimately blowing them to bits, saving S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world itself in the process.
It was, appropriately, an effort requiring each member of the team -- including the previously-MIA Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), who finally appeared at the perfect moment to explain the time-bending solution to the universe's impending doom. As it turns out, he and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) had already constructed the only plan that had a chance of succeeding against their powerful opponents, though thanks to her memory-erasing implant, he was the only one who could remember how or why.
After pulling the Chronicom vessels back through to the original timeline, part of the team headed to the Lighthouse base to help thwart the ground attack, while the others staged the ambush on the alien ship, taking out the Predictor, Sybil (Tamara Taylor), and reprogramming the army of advanced lifeforms to feel empathy, with the help of Kora (Dianne Doan), who turned against the villainous Nathaniel Malick (Thomas E. Sullivan) and used her Inhuman powers for good.
The final part of the plan was the face-off a full season in the making. Daisy (Chloe Bennet) took on Malick, the man who tortured her and stole her powers, killed her mother and turned her sister to the dark side. The battle, though, was a means to an end -- as Daisy's true goal was to set off the radioactive material aboard the Chronicom ship, blowing the fleet to bits and destroying the threat once and for all. She survived, however, thanks to Kora, and the assembled power of her found family.
Following that battle, the S.H.I.E.L.D. family went their separate ways. Flashing forward one year from their epic battle, the team came together again in a final scene that was eerily prescient of the current times. They gathered for a virtual reunion -- beaming their likenesses into a "socially distanced" circle of chairs at the old S.H.I.E.L.D. speakeasy to catch each other up on their individual adventures -- a bittersweet fulfillment of the season-long prophecy that they would never be in the same room again.
"It was just sort of about the promise of a new adventure for each of them and sort of a completion of their arc," series creator Jed Whedon said of crafting the final scene when the S.H.I.E.LD. cast and crew came together for virtual roundtable interviews this week. "We knew we wanted to sort of hit that idea that life moves on. You grow up and these characters -- who started with their puppy love and their wide eyes -- are now seasoned veterans, and you go through life. As Mack says, yeah, it'll be different, but that's OK."
"The year jump sort of amplifies the nostalgia of the moment as well, because you're aware that they're now established in their new lives that are separate from one another," creator Maurissa Tancharoen agreed. "It sort of hits harder that they have essentially moved on, but then there's this longing for one another, not only just emotionally and what you feel in the room, but the fact that they're not in the same room with one another and they cannot touch one another."
Filming the nostalgic sequence -- the cast's final group scene together, in which each S.H.I.E.L.D. team member signs off and departs one by one -- was just as melancholy for the performers as it was for their characters.
"It was a tough scene to do, because there were moments where we were realizing that it was our final scene together as a group," recalled Ming-Na Wen, who has played Agent Melinda May since the series' premiere in 2013. "And then it was tough, because then we would have to pause, and one of us leaves...knowing for sure that it was the series finale that we were shooting. It was very bittersweet."
"I just remember the immense weight that was in the room," agreed Henry Simmons, aka Alphonso "Mack" Mackenzie. "You try to have moments of levity in there, the joking around, the connecting, but there's always that pall of, 'this is the end.'"
"Being together, but not being together, attempting to stay connected, but actually being in different spaces, it was kind of sci-fi version of the Zoom nightmare-slash-reality that we're all living in now," added Clark Gregg, who has played fan-favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson since his introduction in the first Iron Man film, back in 2008. "So much of the show felt like life and art bled back and forth. And certainly saying goodbye to people you'd been working with... and knowing that your lives were taking these different paths... it felt prescient and appropriate."
As anyone who's spent the last few months on Zoom calls can attest, there's also an authentic "awkwardness" to the scene, Henstridge pointed out. "People don't quite know what to say and when to say it."
Amid it all, the blessing is that each member of the team found themselves a happy ending of their own -- unexpected though they may be. "When I read it, I thought that they gave everybody a very satisfying end," De Caestecker recalled. "And I also think more than that, there's people that have stuck with the show through seven seasons. It felt like a very satisfying end, I hope, for all of them, too."
As each member signed off from that final scene, fans got a glimpse of what their life is like now. Mack and Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) are still paired up and still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. -- with Yo-Yo running missions and Mack in command on a Helicarrier, rocking a very Nick Fury-esque ensemble. ("There is a power to wearing a full-length coat like that," Simmons marveled. "When you put on a coat, and it goes down to your ankles and it's going in the wind, there's power in that.")
"We've seen them go through so much, and they've sacrificed so much and given so much to the team, that for them to end up together, but also be individuals [is great]," Cordova-Buckley said of the "Mackelena" relationship and the couple's future. "She's doing her own thing. He's in command. I just love that it feels like the relationship's now settled… They're both in places professionally and personally, and individually and in a relationship, that they both feel very comfortable and stable, and I think it's a great ending for them that way."
"I think people will be happy, but hopefully they won't be satisfied, because you always want to leave them wanting more," Simmons agreed.
Perhaps the most unexpected happy ending came for school rivals-turned-S.H.I.E.LD. teammates-turned-star-crossed lovers Fitz and Simmons who, after being ripped apart by space and time again and again throughout the series, were retired from the organization (at least, Fitz is) and living a carefree, simple life with their daughter, Alya.
"We always knew we wanted Fitz and Simmons to have retired and have a happy ending," Whedon said of planning the pair's resolution. "They're what we would call in our business a 'Forever Love.' We knew that early on. And so the only thing you can do with a Forever Love is make it hard for them to be together… The thing that we felt paid it off, or at least as best we could, was the idea that they get a super happy ending and a big reward."
"We've been ripped apart so many times and so many tragedies have happened… and I think they definitely earned that happy ending," Henstridge said. "It's also nice that they still have that conflict between them that Simmons is like, sneakily staying in the game a little bit and he's completely checked out for a while. It's nice that they've got their happily ever after, but they still have that classic bickering and they're not perfect."
The introduction of Alya -- who had been stashed away in secret while her parents traveled across timelines -- was also a crucial moment for the one member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team who didn't make it to the virtual reunion. Deke Shaw (Jeff Ward), Fitzsimmons' grandson from the future, sacrificed himself to stay behind in the alternate 1980s, in order to direct the massive power blast that allowed the team to blast the Chronicom ships across timelines. However, even that loss was less tragic than fans might have expected -- as Deke himself reminds the team, "I'm kind of a rock god here."
Plus, given the way the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in that timeline deferred to him, he might also be the new director?
"It's a blend of the two," Ward joked of his character's fate, "because imagine if you found out that Bruce Springsteen was actually the head of the FBI. You'd never suspect it, right? He's using his rockstar persona as the ultimate hiding-in-plain-sight tactic to be running an international superhero policing ring, and [performing] at night gigs with various songs that he's ripped off and passed off as his own."
Deke's sacrifice also paved the way for the season's most unexpected romance, between Daisy Johnson (Bennet) and Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), an Agent Carter crossover that the team picked up in the 1950s after helping him to fake his death. Sousa and Daisy's chemistry was immediately apparent to fans -- working alongside Peggy Carter, he explains in one scene, has given him an appreciation and supportive instinct for powerful women -- even as the connection took the actors and EPs by surprise.
"I'll be honest, I was a little hesitant about a love interest, just because I felt like her narrative was kind of about finding herself and her family, and the real relationship was with Coulson and with the S.H.I.E.L.D. family," Bennet said of her character's final season journey. "This one snuck up on me as Chloe as much as it did as Daisy, I think."
"It's one of those things where you go, 'Oh, she needed this,'" she explained. "She doesn't need a man, but the way that he complements her so well… I feel like right when she just settles into who she is, who her family is, the history of losing her family and then settling into her powers, her understanding of what being powerful means, and she's like, 'I know myself.' And then bam, this guy comes in, and I think that was the perfect way to end it for Daisy. "
"It feels appropriate," Gjokaj agreed. "There's so many parallels right now, that something comes along in the world and just smashes everything that you knew, and then you're sailing forward into a completely unknown universe. And so, more than ever, actually, I feel like somehow these writers were a little bit ahead of it."
"They're such an unlikely pair," Tancharoen said of finding the chemistry between Daisy and Sousa "right from the start," and shaping the relationship as the final season evolved. "We liked the idea of Daisy -- this, strong, powerful woman who's been through a slew of failed relationships -- doesn't even realize that she's finding him charming."
"She can't quite put her finger on it until it's right there, until she has to go through a time loop over and over and over again, and has that same moment where she realizes, 'My God, this guy is so solid.'"
"It took a man out of time to really come in and complement her in a way that she's completely taken off guard by," Bennet agreed. "And I think that was the only way that something for Daisy was ever going to happen."
Daisy is flying solo during the team's virtual reunion, and is notably the last to leave the room -- "She's the one who kind of clings to it the most… she misses it the most, but she's OK," Whedon noted. But as she signs off, fans get to see her, Sousa and Kora together on their latest intergalactic mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. -- the "Astro Ambassadors," as Sousa affectionately calls them.
Gjokaj explained to reporters that he was excited about the Daisy and Sousa relationship, not just because it came as a surprise, but because there was so much potential for what's to come. "In sci-fi, you get to imagine things that don't exist. And here's this new dynamic between the two of them, and we get to create our own future now."
"It's real life. Something happens and you adjust and you sail into some unknown future. I love it. I think it's absolutely beautiful."
As for Melinda May (Wen) -- who had to use both her legendary combat skills and her newly-acquired empathy in her final battle as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent -- the future has her channeling years of being a "reluctant maternal figure" to the younger team members into her new venture as an instructor at the "Coulson Academy," which "sort of speaks to her whole legacy," Tancharoen said.
That's not to say May's farewell isn't a little heart-wrenching, especially when she asks Coulson if he might pay a visit to his namesake school in the future. His answer is uncertain, as is the future between the once solid pair.
"We're in tight with each one of them for most of that conversation," Tancharoen said of the final group scene, "to be able to capture these looks that at one another while they're speaking -- especially with May, and that moment when she looks at Coulson, as he's talking, it's very clear, the love that she will always have for him, the grieving of what once was."
"I think the Philinda fans are going to be a little bit sad about the outcome, again," Wen admitted. "But you know what, we've seen this happen before, so don't be surprised if he is resurrected once again."
It is, in fact, Coulson who receives the most ambiguous ending. After saying his final farewells to Daisy, he removes his virtual projection headpiece and reveals his new future -- where Mack has modified his beloved convertible, Lola, into a futuristic flying machine.
While the former director found his latest reincarnation as a Life Model Decoy more than a little off-putting throughout the final season, it seems he's decided to stick around a little longer, forgoing offers from all of his former teammates in lieu of setting out on a solo journey to "see the world."
For Gregg, it was fitting that Coulson and Daisy share the final goodbye of the group, and a sincere promise to stay in touch. The two characters found not just a purpose in S.H.I.E.L.D., but a family, and the bond was a special one for the actors as well. "This is what we were fighting for," Coulson tells Daisy when she's resurrected following the final battle. With a look to the team around her, she answers in kind: "Family."
"I mean, from the first interrogation scene with Skye, after we pulled her out of her van, there was something just different about Chloe Bennet and the way she has a realness and a fire to her as a performer," Gregg raved. "There were a lot of great actors to work with on the show, but that through line of that relationship, that friendship, that family-type relationship -- people say father-daughter, and it definitely has that in it. But I think like my relationship with Chloe, it has so many permutations."
"There are ways where it isn't that simple, where she's helping and teaching and rescuing me as often as I'm doing that for her. So to have that part of the show was the one where I grew the most as an actor and as a human."
While the actor previously told ET that he's had a "great run" as Coulson, the final season's looming meta joke rings true: It may not be that easy to say goodbye to a character who has thwarted death so many times already. A younger version appeared in 2019's Captain Marvel, and whether past, present or future, human or less so, it's difficult to imagine not seeing the iconic S.H.I.E.L.D. agent onscreen again.
"The connection that this character has with people and fans, that he's kind of their avatar in the Marvel Universe, and one [who] is a regular person, it's really meaningful to me," Gregg explained.
"It's a deep honor when I'm in other places in the country, or the world, and people come up -- especially people in uniform, who kind of feel like they are the unappreciated heroes who really do work just for the sake of the work and the principle behind it... It would be really hard to say no to anything that kept that relationship alive."