'Agents of SHIELD' Bosses Talk Finale Deaths, Time Jump and Agent Carter's Future in the MCU

Showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen break down all the shocking events from the two-part season three finale, including what the flash forward ending means for season four.
Richard Cartwright/ABC

[Warning: The following story contains spoilers from Tuesday's Agents of SHIELD season three finale, "Absolution/Ascension."]

Agents of SHIELD promised that one agent would die in the season three finale. But in the end, one agent and one former agent both met their fiery end in space.

The agent formerly known as Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), who was killed by Coulson (Clark Gregg) halfway through this season only to be resurrected as the ancient Inhuman known as Hive (also Dalton), was trapped in the Quinjet explosion in space that Daisy (Chloe Bennet) saw in her vision in the midseason premiere. He had been trying to use a nuclear warhead to disperse the Inhuman virus across the globe, and Lincoln (Luke Mitchell) made the ultimate sacrifice to make sure that would never happen. Despite Daisy trying to take on the vision for herself after all the hurt and destruction she caused her team while under Hive's sway, Lincoln ended up stealing Yo-Yo's (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) crucifix necklace from Daisy after getting shot. Knowing that he wouldn't survive his wounds, he stowed away in the Quinjet and fried all the machinery using his powers, ensuring that Hive and the virus would be destroyed in space. It was a heroic death, and one that completely broke Daisy. 

The finale then jumped ahead six months, where Coulson, no longer the Director of SHIELD, and Daisy's former partner Mack (Henry Simmons) were staking out where Daisy might show up. She had gone rogue, and was using her powers to destroy major buildings and keep off the grid. Newspaper clippings revealed the world knew about "Quake" and her powers, but no one knew if she was a friend or foe. Elsewhere, Dr. Radcliffe (John Hannah) began experiments to bring computer A.I. "AIDA" to life in a humanoid body.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with SHIELD showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen to find out what this flash-forward means for the series going into next season, the reason both of those finale deaths and where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the wake of her Captain America: Civil War death.  

We've seen Brett Dalton cheat death on this show before, so is there a chance we could still see him next season despite Hive blowing up in space?

Jed Whedon: Well, you know …

Maurissa Tancharoen: In the Marvel universe, it's always a possibility that once someone's dead, they may return. The very center of our show is founded upon that notion. But the character of Grant Ward has been with us since season one and we have evolved his character a number of times and we crushed his chest in and we brought him back which is just a testament to how we feel about the character as well as the actor. We did feel that perhaps in making him the full incarnation of evil or implying that is the most ultimate villain he could possibly be and to proceed beyond that, we feel that the story ran its course.

Whedon: Yeah, and we wanted to give him a fairly glorious, fireworks show of an ending. That's where the ending for that came up. That being said, of course it's the Marvel universe. Everything is fluid and we are such fans of the character and more importantly of Brett, so I'm sure there will be something [with him returning] in the future.

Did you know that Brett's time on the show was going to be finite once you decided to make him Hive?

Whedon: Yeah, we knew what the turn would mean. Truthfully, we killed Grant Ward halfway through the season. That was the end of that character, but he lingered within Hive. It was a way to end Grant Ward's story but keep Brett around. (Laughs.) So yes, we did know when we were doing that turn, that that would be the end of him. We've had to have sit-downs with Brett through the years. He's had a lot of turns with this character. Season one, we sat down with him and said, "So there's this thing that's going to happen. ... Do you know what Hydra is?" And then again this year, saying, "Hey, the end of [episode] 310, the good news is that you're in the next episode, but the bad news is that you die in this one." (Laughs.) He's weathered all those storms so well. We were able to maintain him as an antagonist for three seasons which is a lot for one character.

Were there any conversations to continue Hive's story next season or did you know it would be a close-ended chapter for this season?

Whedon: We knew it would be a close-ended chapter. We have big plans for what happens next year and so we wanted to tell this Inhuman story and tied to the idea of Inhumans and their purpose and with Simmons on the other planet, we generated that story. It was a bookend to the season.

It was so powerful to see Hive sharing his last moments with Lincoln, because it was almost like Daisy's two loves were dying together. Was that intentional?

Tancharoen: Yes, that love triangle does exist and we did want to highlight that at the end of the show. Despite Brett Dalton playing essentially another character, he still has the face of Grant Ward and memories of Daisy/Skye's former love interest. And he's standing next to her current love.

Whedon: And Hive's motivation was just wanting a connection, which is his tie to Ward who wanted that with Skye. And now he's sitting next to the one person who had it with her. There's a poetry to the scene which we liked.

When you first introduced the flash-forward of a SHIELD agent dying in space, did you know it was going to be Lincoln? Or did that come about organically as you were planning the finale?

Whedon: We did know when we did the flash-forward. We knew at some point last year that that was going to be our plan. In trying to figure out both Ward/Hive's arc and Lincoln's arc and Daisy's arc, we came to that as our idea as most ideas come organically as we discuss all the possible outcomes. We did know that when we introduced the flash forward. However, we did not know how we were going to get them in that Quinjet or all the machinations that would end up in it, so we painted ourselves into a corner.

Tancharoen: We like painting ourselves into corners. (Laughs.) The idea of it being Lincoln was directly tied to the notion of purpose in the show that has come up several times, especially in the back half of this season. A lot of that is voiced through Lincoln. He's the one who points out that Inhumans are specifically designed with a purpose to serve within a whole.

Whedon: This was him finding his purpose. Finally, a person who had been lost for most of the time that we'd seen him, this was him finally finding his purpose. And not only that, one of the reasons we landed on him was the idea that we could do the full, heroic death. We had done that with Agent Triplett but everything in that scenario was an accident. It was more tragic and not intentional. Whereas this was someone intentionally doing something heroic who doesn't think he's a hero, but he's doing it because he feels that everyone around him is more valuable to this cause than him. We love that idea that he's doing it because he doesn't think he's a hero, but in believing that, he becomes one.

Lincoln and Daisy's goodbyes over the radio totally reminded me of Captain America (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter's goodbyes in the first Captain America film. Was that intentional as well, or a happy accident in the way that scene mirrored the other?

Whedon: It's a little of both. We were aware of it. We'd referenced it a bunch when talking about writing that scene. Also, we talked about The Abyss as well. There's something heartbreaking about your last moment being with someone and you're not able to see them. Plus, we had this Quinjet problem, so it shook its way out that way anyway. We had a lot of discussions over whether their last talk should be face-to-face through a pane of glass, but there's something about the momentum of the heroic act carrying him forward while she's sitting there still and helpless that has a beauty to it.

Now let's talk about the flash-forward six months later. Clearly Daisy hasn't turned into a villain since she's helping Charles Hinton's wife and daughter, but based on the newspaper clippings Coulson collected, she's been causing a lot of destruction and damage with her powers. What has she been up to?

Whedon: Some of that will be revealed, but it's safe to surmise from what you see at the end that she has returned to her roots of being a loner. After everything that she's been through and all the chaos around and all the destruction at her hand, she feels that getting close to people was a mistake and she's better off on her own. We can see through, yes, dealing with Hinton's wife and the girl that she's keeping a promise, but she's also honoring what Lincoln said, which is he believed she was meant for more than this. While she would feel that maybe there's now nothing to lose, she also wants to live up to his belief in her and whether or not she's doing that through good means or whether or not she's a rogue, we'll see. But all that is the wake of what was left behind after everything that happened.

Now that Daisy is no longer a part of SHIELD, and is actually on the run from her old team, what does that mean for the Secret Warriors? Has that been disbanded?

Whedon: We have them in the mix still. We’ve introduced some great characters who we've been bringing back, pending their availability. (Laughs.) But yeah, I think they'll still be in the mix. As far as an initiative that she would be spearheading, that is tabled for the time being, because she's nowhere to be found.

We also find out Coulson isn't the Director of SHIELD anymore. Are there any hints you can say about who has that position now?

Whedon: There are no hints.

Tancharoen: We cannot give you any hints. (Laughs.)

Whedon: There's only one person we know it isn't.

Well, two, if you count Daisy as well as Coulson. And Mack too, since he's with Coulson in the field, talking about the new Director. Would there have been any other events that transpired in those six months to make Coulson vacate that position or is that just the culmination of everything that happened to his team in the finale?

Tancharoen: We'll answer all of that in the beginning of next season. But there's a lot you can glean from that flash-forward, even in his appearance. He's worse for wear, he's not wearing suits, he and Mack are holed up in that hotel room, he's obviously been on stakeout for a while. And obviously Daisy has changed her appearance and is a loner gone rogue.

How much has the world changed in those six months when it comes to Inhumans being in the public eye? Based on those newspaper headlines, the world now knows about Daisy's powers.

Tancharoen: We know for now that the world is aware of Daisy and calling her Quake. They're aware of her presence. But that's all we can really say for now.

We saw AIDA essentially being "born" into a humanoid figure in the final moments. Should we be worried that this is going to turn out to be an Ultron situation, or more of a Jarvis situation, or something else entirely?

Whedon: Radcliffe has a good heart, but he's willing to do anything for science. He's excited about the prospect. He said Fitz and Simmons had friends die and maybe they didn't have to. He's clearly opening a box. Whether or not it's Pandora's box, we'll see.

Tancharoen: To someone like Radcliffe, he might believe that to be just the next step in human evolution. There are a number of people who are into body modification now, so what does that mean? What's the root of that? Now we are going to dive deeper into this man, Radcliffe, who is into that endeavor.

Whedon: He thinks there's something beyond humans. What that will turn into, we'll have to wait and see.

Fitz, Simmons and May (Ming-Na Wen) weren't seen in the flash-forward. What can you say about what they've been up to in the past six months?

Whedon: They're all dead, sadly.

Tancharoen: (Laughs.) You just didn't see but they were in that Quinjet in the finale.

Whedon: Yeah, they were hiding under the floorboards. (Laughs.) No, that's another wait and see. We like to time-jump because we can make the audience play catch up. They'll be doing some of that when they come back to how things are different in season four.

Looking at Agent Carter's cancellation, and Peggy's death in both Captain America: Civil War and her obituary in SHIELD, is there any chance we could still see her pop into SHIELD in flashbacks going forward? Or have you closed the chapter on Agent Carter in the MCU?

Whedon: She is the founder of SHIELD and once an agent, always an agent. There is, of course, that possibility. The great thing about the Marvel comics and the Marvel universe in general is that nothing is really off the table. Coulson is living proof of it. So yes, of course there is that possibility.

If this season's overarching theme was launching the Secret Warriors initiative and exploring more of the Inhuman mythology, what will next season focus on?

Tancharoen: The tag [with Radcliffe] highlights what we'll be exploring.

Whedon: Yeah, we've talked about what are the differences between people with powers and people without powers and I think our show started as not all heroes are super because we were about the little guy who doesn't have powers. Now, some of our people do have powers and some of them don't. Next year, with the advances in technology, we might be asking the question of, "If you can have this, do you want it?" And a little bit of be careful what you wish for. That's about as specific as we can get.

Agents of SHIELD season four will return this fall on ABC.

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