[WARNING: This story contains major spoilers from Tuesday's episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Read at your own risk!]
Those who thought Jasper Sitwell running off to Lemurian Star in last week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the ABC series' idea of a crossover with Captain America: The Winter Soldier were sorely mistaken on Tuesday night. In truth, the implications of how Marvel's latest blockbuster will affect the TV offshoot run much, much deeper.
In keeping with the film's big twist, Hydra agents who had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. made themselves known during Tuesday's episode, when Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) turned out not to be the bad guy. In truth, it's Agent John Garrett (Bill Paxton) who is both a member of Hydra and also the malevolent villain Clairvoyant. Although Coulson (Clark Gregg) & Co. are able to get the upper hand and arrest Garrett, his trip to the fridge is cut short when it's revealed that beloved teammember Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is also a member of Hydra — the true sleeper within Coulson's team.
With S.H.I.E.L.D. effectively shut down in the Captain America sequel, what does this mean for the show? It's the start of a new era as Coulson and his team are on their own without the help of the larger organization, who they can no longer trust — especially now that Victoria Hand has been killed and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is believed to be dead. Thanks to Captain America 2 leaving its story open-ended, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now has ample opportunity to take hold of the reins when it comes to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s future.
With that in mind, this was a storyline that took a lot of preparation considering how deeply tied it is to the film, which hit theaters Friday. The producers weren't just given a heads up about what was in store for the sequel, they had actually been planning for this moment since the beginning of the series. Fans who go back and watch past episodes can even see the breadcrumbs that lead to Ward's big betrayal. So where does that leave the team that we've come to know? TVGuide.com got special Level 8 access from executive producers Jeffrey Bell and Jeph Loeb to get the scoop:
When the show was first conceived, did you always plan to have this big crossover with Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
Jeph Loeb: Yes, and it was both our blessing and our curse. What I mean by that is we knew who our big bad for the season was going to be from the very beginning, but we couldn't say that word until after the movie came out.
Jeffrey Bell: We refer to that as the H word.
Did you guys feel it was a risk having to wait to reveal that until Cap came out since it would be so far into the season?
Loeb: No. It was always our plan to do what we did, which was build a show on brand new characters that were entering the Marvel Universe along with our audience. Was it continually a challenge to have to play Clark down that there was a secret going on? Yes, but for us, the fun of that is that we now have six episodes in a row to take advantage of. It's an unprecedented thing in the history of television, where an ongoing continuity that is going on in a tentpole film shifts what happens in our show. This changes what happens from now on.
How much planning did you have to do with those behind Captain America to make sure this all lined up?
Bell: A. Lot. [Laughs] What's wonderful is the Marvel movie universe is letting us play in their world. We talked with them at the beginning of what we wanted to do, which Marvel characters we wanted to tie in. They created this universe, so we've been talking about it with them the whole time. It was also why we knew from the beginning that what the movie reveals is Hydra is everywhere. If that were true, that meant it had to be true on our crew as well. It was exciting for us that, oh my God, we have a giant secret that we're keeping all season! But it was also hard that there was a snake in the grass that we had to build in and keep that secret the whole season.
Loeb: How much fun is it to, in the pilot, have Coulson look at Ward and say, "I haven't seen scores like this since Romanoff [Scarlett Johansson]," and have everyone in the audience go, "Oh, that's so great. He's a good spy." No, what that means is he's somebody who can work at the same level as somebody who's done nothing but fool people about her identity from the very beginning. The clues were there, you just didn't know where to look.
Did Brett Dalton know from the beginning or did you keep it from him as well?
Loeb: Brett did not know from the beginning beginning. You all start the beginning with a handful of ideas and tent poles and directional markers that you intend to hit over the course of the season, but you don't plan out all the details because cooler and more interesting stuff will come along on your journey. That was one of the tent poles that we knew from the beginning, but where that would happen and how we would reveal that was a living, breathing process as we went along. At a certain period, we realized we needed to let Brett know so he could start playing that on a certain level.
Bell: But it's also that you have to be fair to an actor. To be the clean-cut, square jaw Agent Ward that we needed him to be, then to basically saddle him with this secret that would inevitably change not only his relationship to the character, but his relationship to everybody else on the show, that's a lot to ask someone to do as they're just getting to know the character. We wanted Brett to be able to establish the Agent Ward that we know and love so that when the turn comes, he'd have the opportunity to do that work, too.
Is Ward going full-on villain now or are there any redeemable qualities left in him?
Bell: If you've seen Winter Soldier, the question is: Is the Winter Soldier [Sebastian Stan] really a bad guy or has he been programmed? We're not saying either way, but that's a question for us. In stories going forward, we're going to look more into Ward's relationship to Garrett, Ward's history, Ward's family, how Ward really does feel about the people on the team, how the people in the team feel about him and how they're split over what's happening. We think it creates a lot of great conflict. In our mind, Ward doesn't view himself as a villain any more than Garrett views himself as a villain. Hopefully they're really rich, entertaining characters who lead very complicated lives.
Loeb: That's very true to Marvel. Marvel always tries to find a way where the villain of the story sees himself as the hero of the story. It's the hero's story that has to be more compelling and something that people are rooting for in order to make it come to a satisfying end.
If people were to go back and watch past episodes, what breadcrumbs would they now spot knowing that Ward was actually a bad guy the whole time?
Bell: In upcoming episodes, we'll get into the agenda of why he was on the team. There's a very specific reason that he's there. In terms of Ward making himself invisible, Coulson loves projects. He likes to take people and fix them up. Ward was a project. Who was the biggest threat on the plane? Who could do the worst damage to him? May [Ming-Na Wen]. He seduced her and slept with her. Who was the unknown on the plane? Skye [Chloe Bennet]. He became her S.O. How do you endure yourself to a team? You do something selfless. He jumped out of the plane after Simmons [Elizabeth Henstridge]. If he had failed to save Simmons, he'd be OK. He had a parachute. But he did all these things along the way to neutralize or take the stink off or to bring people to his side in each of those instances. Those are just some of the examples. There was a method to the madness.
Loeb: Take a look at Episodes 6, 7 and 8. In Episode 6, he jumps out of a plane and saves Simmons. So he's now endeared himself to everybody there, but the one person he's not endeared himself to is Fitz (Iain De Caestecker). How are you going to fix that? Well, you go on a mission with Fitz and make Fitz feel like he's the hero of the story. Now, all of a sudden, the one guy who didn't like you likes you more than he ever did. Now there's a bromance going on. Then he gets a hold of the berserker staff and we see a very, very dark side of this guy. But, fortunately, it's not something that you hold onto very hard. When he winds up in bed with Lorelei (Elena Satine) and she talks about how different he is, again, those were little things along the way that hopefully when people and go back and look, they'll do, "Wow, it really was there."
Bell: Before you flip somebody, before you do something different with them, you have to get the audience to know them. Because we were on network, we brought Skye on as a civilian. She comes in with our audience who might not know the Marvel world. We grow her out, she becomes a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. The idea is to bring the audience along with her so just as she's feeling part of the team, it all gets blown up.
Are we going to see Ward come back onto the team as a sleeper?
Loeb: Wouldn't you like to be watching the next six episodes in a row without a repeat in order to make that answer crystal clear? Oh wait, that is what you get to do!
Bell: Finally, thank God!
How does Ward being the villain the whole time change the show moving forward?
Loeb: I would say his role doesn't change it as much as what happens to S.H.I.E.L.D. in Cap 2.
Bell: One of the things we're very grateful to the movie is that the movie shows the gigantic, epic adventure of what happens when you find out that this enormous government organization is rife with something terribly troubling. What television gets to do, and there's a reason why S.H.I.E.L.D. works as well as it does, is that it deals with the relationships. It deals with the very small, interpersonal ways that people both love and hate each other. When you get that opportunity, it would be disingenuous if it didn't affect our plane. What it did for us was it gave us an opportunity to say that we're not going to be able to crash a helicarrier into [S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters] the Triskelion, but we are going to be able to blow your minds by being able to say, "Look what's happened to this team." There's nothing to say that what we've told you is the way it's going to stay, and there's nothing to say that it ends there.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has been disbanded. What does that mean for a show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Loeb: What's great about it is that we can make it personal. What does that mean to Agent Coulson, who has given his life, literally, for this organization? What does he do now? And what does he do to these people who have followed him and where are they going to go? That's the adventure and that's the journey.
Bell: In our mind, the Coulson season arc has been, here's the ultimate company man who's been loyal and by-the-books the whole way. We found out that there's a secret that Tahiti isn't the truth. He learns that he was operated on and they were lied to. We've been chipping away at his core beliefs the whole season. Now that Hydra has been revealed, how does he react to that? We think that's great emotional drama. Does he react in disbelief? Does he resent it? Does he step up? Does he continue to be a company man? Those are all really great, compelling questions for Clark to get to play as Coulson that we explore in the last part of the season.
Both in the movie and in Tuesday's episode, there's a mention of the other Hydra factions that are still out there. Is the rest of the season focused on going after Hydra?
Bell: We can now say the H word and it is an aspect to it. But there's a lot of things that we've set up that we feel need to be brought to a conclusion. Hydra and its factions and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of that, but it all falls back to the personal stuff we set up at the beginning of the season.
Loeb: Most importantly, this obviously gives tremendous urgency to all of our stories, but we will continually ask the question: Who can you trust? Once you reveal that someone you can trust so emotionally and down to the core is somebody you should not have done that with, what happens now to everybody else?
Bell: And who else can we trust? Are there other snakes in the grass? That's a question we have to ask ourselves.
John Garrett is actually the Clairvoyant. Will we see more of his operation and how Raina (Ruth Negga) fits into that?
Loeb: Everything that we've set up, we intend to pay off. We set up J. August Richards as a guy who wants to be a hero. He says in the pilot that this is his origin story, and he becomes Deathlok. Currently that's a character who's in the middle of a bunch of terrible stuff and we'd like to bring that to a resolution. We've brought questions about Skye and her past. We've brought up stuff about Centipede and Garrett and things about Coulson. These are all things that we feel that we set up from the beginning and our hope is to pay all of those off in a really satisfying way that also ties into the events of the last couple episodes you've seen.
Will we get a definitive answer as to what the Clairvoyant wants with Coulson?
Loeb: Everyone's motivations will be clear by the season finale. Whether or not their story is over is another question.
With Hydra taking more of a focus, are you getting away from the villain-of-the-week storylines, or will you continue to have procedural elements?
Loeb: We view ourselves as telling all different kinds of stories. Even our villains-of-the-week have all tied into our serialization. Quinn [David Conrad] showed up as a one-off. Even Akela Amador [Pascale Armand], who was in "Eye Spy," her eye technology tied into that.
Bell: When we told the berserker staff story and the story of the man who could control fire, it was all about moving forward with the Centipede program. The Centipede program clearly has something to do with the H word. Where that goes and how that ties together is something that you can look forward to.
Loeb: There is a serialized aspect, but we also want people to be able to show up and enjoy an episode. When we did the Asgardian story with Lorelei and Lady Sif [Jaimie Alexander], even though that was a standalone episode, emotionally it was all about Ward and May, where they've been and what happens to them. Ideally, whether it's plot or emotion, you'll always feel it being part of our continuity. There's a gazillion Marvel villains and good guys and we want to dip into that as often as possible.
Do you hope that the tie-in to Captain America gives S.H.I.E.L.D. a ratings bump for the rest of the season?
Loeb: We hope people are watching the show. We don't focus too much on where ratings are. That's a network thing. We're putting out a terrific show. Here's the good news: By all indications, everyone is talking about what happened last [week]. We know that Captain America is an astonishingly good movie. Hopefully, you come out of that movie, even if you've never seen S.H.I.E.L.D., you're scratching your head going, "Isn't there a television show that's about this?" Even if half the people are as mind blown as you are, it seems like there's going to be a lot of what used to be called "watercooler talk" about this show, and that's a good thing.
There are a few moments in Tuesday's episode that if you hadn't seen the movie, you either might not understand or feel it's a spoiler — like mentioning that Nick Fury is dead. Are you expecting any backlash?
Loeb: All we can do is tell really good stories. Everything that we did we did completely in conjunction with and with the help of the folks at the movie studio, Kevin Feige in particular. We would never do anything that would feel like it's spoilerific. We're hoping that it all goes hand in hand.
Bell: To your Fury point, as far as our team knows, Fury is dead. That actually just adds to the surprise of how it plays out in the movie.
Is there a chance the team will discover that Fury is still alive and he'll pop up?
Bell: We love when people from the movies visit us. We're grateful when that happens and we don't expect it to happen very often, nor do we want that to be the reason people come to our show. Right now, our characters believe Fury is dead, so that's what they're playing.
[Editor's note: After this interview was done, Samuel L. Jackson went on record to say that he will be returning in the season finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.]
Were you surprised by the big Ward reveal? Are you happy that Hydra is factoring into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Hit the comments!
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on ABC.