One day it's a punctured plane, the next a horde of Peruvian rebels blasting AK-47s, the next a mad scientist or a serial killer. There always seems to be danger in the air on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though that's not the case right now. What's wafting through the show's Los Angeles soundstage is the unmistakable scent of love.
The cast of the ABC action-fantasy series has gathered on the Bus — a high-tech megajet — to shoot a scene that finds the government agents regrouping after a particularly rough mission. Black-ops specialist Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) came damn close to losing his life and was saved by, of all people, meek engineer Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker). Hacker chick Skye (Chloe Bennet) — she of the mysteriously missing last name — comes up to the ever-stoic Ward and gives him a flirty, glad-you're-back punch to the shoulder. For a split second, Ward is ticked, and then he seems to melt a bit. Yes, he maybe kinda sorta likes being hit by this beauty — but of course he'd never admit it.
Meanwhile, sweetheart scientist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is equally relieved to see her close pal and lab partner Fitz come back safely, but she tries to hide her feelings for him with small talk. Did he like the sandwich she made him before he went into the fray? He hesitates. "Too much aioli?" she asks, packing the three little words with volumes of covert affection. All that's missing are the animated tweety birds circling over her head. Then, before the two get back to work, Simmons drops a bombshell: While she and Fitz were separated, she shot a superior officer.
This is an episode in which there's lots of hell to pay. Earlier this season, team leader Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) got his comeuppance from S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) for going against protocol during a mission. Now he's about to clash with another boss from the Marvel universe — lesbian powerhouse Victoria Hand (former Boston Legal star Saffron Burrows).
"We decided it was time to send little S.H.I.E.L.D., our show's team of six, into the big S.H.I.E.L.D. facility," says executive producer Jed Whedon of the episode (airing Nov. 12). "We especially wanted to throw Skye, who is new to all this, into the massive organization she was once scared of. Victoria Hand is the next phase of the fans' S.H.I.E.L.D. experience — a strong, ruthless woman who will do anything to get the job done. She and Agent Coulson will have a power play."
The mystery of Coulson's bizarre resurrection — he was killed by the villain Loki in the 2012 box-office smash Marvel's The Avengers — will continue all season. "There is a lot that's strange and different about Coulson since his return to duty, and even he's noticing it," says executive producer Jeffrey Bell. "It sets him on a quest. 'What happened to me? Why am I feeling this way? Who am I?'" But he may regret getting too nosy. "When you start to pull on a thread," cautions executive producer Jeph Loeb, "you run the risk of unraveling the whole sweater."
Many fans suspect that the Coulson we see is actually an LMD (Life Model Decoy), a body-double android that's common in the Marvel universe. If that is the case, Gregg is keeping it to himself. "When [cocreator] Joss Whedon asked me to come do this show, it was the reason Coulson is still alive that hooked me," says the actor during a break in filming. "The idea of a supersecret organization that keeps secrets even from him is the stuff I used to love about the Marvel comics when I was young. I get such a kick out of it. Every day on this job feels like Bring Your Kid to Work Day — only the kid I'm bringing with me is my 11-year-old self!"
Not even the imposing Hand is likely to shake the increasingly nervy Coulson. "When Nick Fury threatened to punish him by taking away his plane, it didn't rattle my character — not the way it would have before the Battle of New York," notes Gregg, referring to the epic clash in The Avengers that was triggered by Coulson's death. "Now Coulson is like, 'Go ahead. Take the plane. I've had an Asgardian scepter through my chest. It's all relative now!'"
Another big secret waiting to be spilled is why Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), the team's karate-chopping Bus driver, is nicknamed the Cavalry. She hates it. It haunts her. Don't dare say it in her presence. In fact, whatever May went through to get that tag was so horrific that she fled to a job pushing papers in some obscure department in the S.H.I.E.L.D. basement before Coulson persuaded her to return to action.
"May needed to be saved, and I can so relate to that — in fact, I've lived it," says Wen as a squad of hair, makeup and wardrobe pros gets her ready for the next scene. "As actors, we get knocked down all the time. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to quit this business. We always need that one friend, like Coulson, who kicks you in the ass, pushes you back out there and yells, 'You idiot! This is what you're good at!'"
That said, May still has her issues. "She returned to S.H.I.E.L.D. out of loyalty to Coulson, but there's a part of her that remains reluctant," Wen says. "She still gets her pissed-off face. If it weren't for his intervention, she'd still be down in that dark, dingy room stapling things."
For more on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Nov. 7!