Superpowered Spy Games
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has had a fairly eventful season so far this autumn and our friends at comicbook.com interviewed its executive producer recently…
This season of Marvel’s Agent’s Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a roller coaster since the premiere. We’ve met characters, we’ve lost characters and we’ve visited new planets with evil aliens. Even with all that, the relationships between characters (good and bad) have been at the forefront each week.During season 3’s midseason finale, so much happened that needs to be unpacked. We were lucky enough to get on the horn with Executive Producer, Jeff Bell, who wrote the episode to talk through what we’ve learned and give us some teases for things to come.
When it comes time to pick who writes what episode, do you get to pick which ones you want? Or is it names out of a hat type thing?
Jeff Bell: Well, it varies. Jed and Maurissa have written the season opener each year. Then, I wrote the mid season finale last year and this year. We break stories together, but there are times when you really, really, really want an episode and sometimes in the room where everyone’s sitting together and we start breaking a story, somebody is bound to get really jealous.Like episode 5, which was the ‘4,722 Hours,’ episode with Simmons. We all wanted to write that, you know? Craig had really had a sense of it, and we’re not the kind of group that would fight one another for episodes. There are certain times that certain people have an affinity for a story, sometimes it’s just you in rotation, and sometimes you want to cherry pick. I hadn’t written yet this year. I hadn’t been on a script yet, and so, yeah, I was very happy to take this one. Honestly, I’ve been jealous of all of them so far. You know what I mean? To write episode 9 and have Rosalind get shot, and to write Coulson going on a rampage, jumping out of a quinjet, and diving through a portal is not a bad story to tell.
From a writer’s perspective, do you enjoy being put in the position that is this far into the game where so much has happened from a plot standpoint, a relationship standpoint where now you have to land the plane and then turn around to prep it for takeoff?
Bell: Yes. I think we all have satisfaction. I really do. The truth is, the brilliance of most TV shows is, is that there are a bunch of smart people working together very quickly to come up with the best story possible. Then we break these as a room, and with Jed, Maurissa, and I guiding the shape of that, but everybody contributes. Our team is realizing, okay, we’re heading towards this, and oh, this is where we’re going, and he’s going through, and this is going to happen, and this is how it’s going to happen, it’s very satisfying. It was really fun, actually, Season 1, when there was still a lot of hating going on early because we were not allowed to say the word ‘Hydra.’ We weren’t allowed to say it because the features were like, ‘Don’t spoil the movie.’ We knew that all these things that had been stand alone building up to it, were actually all the little clues about Ward, about all this stuff. It was all in there, but we couldn’t brand any of it Hydra. So then we had to get creative and answer the question, “How do you set up Ward?” Well, you have him sleep with his greatest adversary, and begin to layer all of these things that when it comes time to put our cards on the table, it’s earned. He did all these things, but we couldn’t say, ‘Hey, look he’s Hydra.’ It’s always satisfying when you can set things up, and then pay them off, and people don’t see it. It’s that whole thing where it has to be set up properly enough that when it happens, you go, ‘Oh shit,’ and not, ‘Really? Him?’Speaking of Ward, when did you break it to Brett what was going to happen to him in this episode? What was his reaction?Bell: Well, it’s a little like when we had to go tell him that he was Hydra. We didn’t tell him that he was Hydra from the get go. As good a actor as Brett is, he’s not a super spy who could never have a tell. It wasn’t until we got closer to it that we started to let him know. That’s a hard thing. You go, ‘Does that mean I’m dead? Does that mean my character is gone? Does that mean I’m going away? Am I unemployed?’ Really, for actors, this is their livelihood. When you’re Hydra, the first thought is, ‘I’m dead. This sucks. Baby needs a new pair of shoes.’ We said, ‘Look, you’re not dying. You’re not going anywhere, but you are this person.’ The other thing that it really affected, was it affected the family dynamic of the cast. Our cast really likes each other. They hang out together all the time, and suddenly he was an antagonist to those people onscreen, and that’s not as fun as being on the same team as … you know? When we went to him this time, it wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, you’re Hydra,’ it’s like, ‘Grant you’re just getting killed, but you’re not leaving.’As you’ve seen at the end of 10, something else is happening. It’s always scary, but as an actor he’s really risen to all these challenges, and I really look forward to whatever’s going to happen, seeing what he does with that.
On the topic of relationships, it’s funny that you mention how close they are off screen, because on screen you can see that chemistry. I know this question is a little bit Sophie’s Choice, but from a writer’s standpoint, and just looking at the characters, is there a relationship that you really enjoy writing?
Bell: It really is a Sophie’s Choice, to your first question. What I would say is, what we’ve tried to do as each season has gone along, is to pair people differently. First season, Fitzsimmons were one person, they weren’t even two people. Then we split them up and they were fractured. Then we start to see Fitz with Mac last year, and Simmons with Bobby really hit it off, and then things with Adrianne and Elizabeth also really got along, but on camera there was something about these two very different women liking each other and getting along that was fun. Early on it was Coulson and Daisy in a very much surrogate father, daughter relationship.
What we try and do is we try and find new combos, new pairings. Hunter and May have been really fun this year to write. I think we’ve all enjoyed seeing those two. Mac and Daisy as a pair has been fun, and then Coulson and Ros, which was banter, banter, banter, snappy cracker, patter was a lot of fun to write. It’s about constantly putting different people together so it feels fresh and new, and what’s it like when those two hang out. It’s fun to put Lincoln and May together because he’s terrified of her. I guess kind of everybody’s terrified of May, but that’s fun to watch. There are moments in any of those pairings where it’s new, and fresh, and fun, and then after awhile you feel like we’ve had this beat before. We’ve played this dynamic before. How can we flip it? How can we make it something new? It’s really much more about that.
In this episode we see Mac take this leadership role really seriously. On the flip side, we’ve seen Coulson really start to get his hands dirty again. Could we be seeing a changing of the guard, with responsibilities shifting around on the team? Mac seems like a born leader.
Bell: You know it’s been really fun to bring Henry, who plays Mac, into the mix. When you first met him, he was leaning over the hood of an engine, and then you go, ‘Oh, he’s funny. Oh, he’s really good.’ We go, ‘Oh, I like him with Daisy. Oh, I like him with Fitz.’ He’s kind of good with everybody. In your head you write things, and you see the scenes and you’re delighted, so you want to lean more into that. What we love about Mac’s character is, he really hates all this stuff. He hates the alien stuff, he’s the 7 foot tall guy who doesn’t want to play basketball. He’s this big physical guy who really doesn’t want to fight. It’s been really, I’ll use the word fun, to write that character into situations where he’s uncomfortable. He does end up very earnestly taking over for Coulson, and he takes all those life and death decisions very seriously.
At the same time, Coulson, has gone from being this squeaky clean company man, to a guy who’s really wrestling with his humanity, and just wonders has he gone too far? Did he do something he regrets? Maybe even if it was the right thing to do, the way he went about it, he might not feel great about. The more we can make these characters behave outside of their defined parenthesis, if that makes sense, and do things that are surprising, yet plausible, I think the more the people who watch it will find them 3-dimensional, interesting people, as opposed to just characters.
When talking about Coulson, he’s someone who, over the course of three seasons, has probably changed the most. He’s gone through a lot. You brought up an interesting point in questioning whether or not Coulson regrets what he did. Given the history that he’s had with Ward…does he? Have we just witnessed a true turning point with Coulson’s character?
Bell: I’ll ask you. Based on what you saw, and how the show ended … we end for the tag close on Coulson. I guess the question is, what did you feel he was thinking?
The look on his face says he knows what he did, and he wasn’t going to be sorry about it, but it felt like there was an internal strife. Almost as if that even he’s surprised with how far he went, but he’s okay with it. Am I too far off?
Bell: No. Part of the reason we shoot is so people have opinions about that. I’m curious. No, I feel like that’s a perfectly plausible thing. I think somebody else could look at it and say, ‘He’s 100% good with it.’ I think somebody else could say, ‘Oh man. Yeah Ward deserved to die, but the fact that it went in that way … ‘
Given what Ward has put that team through, can we anticipate huge backlash from the team? Or is everyone going to be like, ‘He got what’s coming to him.’
Bell: Yeah. The only people who know the truth right now, I think is Fitz is the only who really was there and saw how personal it got. I will say that I think that question is something that we feel is worth playing out going forward.
In this episode we saw Daisy and her little team of Inhumans in action. Is this episode our first official look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of the Secret Warriors?
Bell: I would say it’s certainly a warning shot over the bow. They certainly came in and were helpful. It was the first time that they were put together in some kind of meaningful way, and I would say just keep looking forward to more of that as we … I think we, as writers on the show, feel like we have to earn this group. It wasn’t just like everybody who had a power could suddenly get a cool uniform and be part of a team, you have to figure out how to do that. Yeah, we’re moving in that direction.
Last question for you, When we get to the point where we see the abandoned civilization, the Evil formerly known as Will, makes a point to say that this was one of 9 civilizations. Should comic fans start doing their homework?
Bell: People should always do their homework.
Is this something we’ll see payoff this season, or is a new long game being played?
Bell: Sometimes things lay fallow for a long time, sometimes things pay off right away.
Bell: We try not to leave anything laid out … we try to eventually turn all cards over, just sometimes it takes longer than other times. I’ll just say that.