This interview includes spoilers for the series finale of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Almost exactly eight years ago, the husband-and-wife writing partners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen were having a pitch meeting at a Brentwood sushi restaurant in Los Angeles with Jed’s celebrated older brother Joss and two Marvel Television executives. The Whedon-Tancharoen trio had already collaborated on the musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (along with another Whedon brother, Zack) and had written the short-lived Fox TV show “Dollhouse.”
Their latest idea was a TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about the fictional Marvel Comics agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), which is dedicated to investigating the paranormal and supernatural. The budget for the proposed series was to be a fraction of what is spent on Marvel films, but it would place one of the movies’ characters at its center: Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).
“We knew that our show would be character-focused, about getting to know these people, and slowly building a team that becomes a family,” said Jed Whedon, who oversaw the show with Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell. (The elder Whedon, credited as a creator, stayed focused on directing the “Avengers” films.)
The resulting series, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” went on to have a successful seven-season run on ABC, which ended Wednesday with a complex two-hour series finale. That didn’t seem especially likely after its rough debut in 2013. Some critics wanted flashier connections to Marvel cinema — where was Iron Man? — and the show had to operate in the shadow of the movies: The existence of magic couldn’t be acknowledged until it was first revealed by the 2016 film “Doctor Strange” first; “life-model decoys,” a kind of android, weren’t permissible until an android character appeared in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
But about halfway through its run, the show began reinventing itself, with characters ping-ponging through space, time and alternative realities. Once the writers freed themselves of the timeline and narrative restraints established by the movies (and even ignored a few), the series started to soar.
“We could just make up our own stories,” said Jed Whedon. “It was liberating.”
In the final season, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hopped around different decades, with a pit stop in the 1980s that provided pure pop-geek joy. (Agent Coulson as Max Headroom? Check.)
But the show never lost its emotional core: the relationship between Agents Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who crossed the galaxy more than once to be together, only to be repeatedly pulled apart. In the finale, they reunited, as Fitz helped the ragtag team save both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Earth from a takeover by an alien android race.
In a phone interview Monday, Tancharoen and Jed Whedon discussed bringing “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” to a conclusion. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
A couple of years ago, you constructed the end of Season 5 to serve as a series finale in case the show was canceled. How did that affect planning this series finale?
MAURISSA TANCHAROEN It’s so strange because we feel that we’ve said goodbye to the show a number of times now. We tied everyone’s arcs up with a nice little bow back in Season 5.
JED WHEDON We wanted this to be different, not another goodbye. We landed on the feeling of nostalgia, a feeling of moving on as life changes around you. It’s not a sense of loss. Lives change. Paths diverge. You have that sense of longing, nostalgia and connection with people with whom you spent lots of time.
TANCHAROEN I was not only working with my show family but with my actual family. My father was there from Day 1, working in transportation. My brother [Kevin Tancharoen] came on and directed over a dozen episodes. I have countless memories where my daughter is sitting on [the producer] Megan Thomas Bradner’s lap, I’m watching my husband talking to my brother, setting up a shot, and my father is nearby, at craft service. So much of our experience bled into what we were trying to say. Jumping the characters ahead a year also amplifies the bittersweet feeling, because it’s clear they have moved on. They’re settling into new lives.
WHEDON On the last day, we went over to see the last shot, and Chloe Bennet sat down with tears in her eyes. She joined the show [as Skye/Daisy/Quake] when she was 20 years old, she grew up on it, and now it was ending. It was so bittersweet. There was a lump in our throats at every turn.
TANCHAROEN We had no idea we were predicting the near future with our social-distance ending, our virtual Zoom call between the characters. Of course, we conceived of all that before 2020. If we were developing the last season right now ——
WHEDON There would be a virus story line. It would have a different tone.
If you were developing it now, would you have expanded upon the sexism and racism of the 1930s and 1950s that the characters encounter when they time-travel to those decades this season?
TANCHAROEN There would have been more of an opportunity to do that with Mack [Henry Simmons], obviously. But we were able to turn those issues into metaphor and address them with time travel and have Deke [Jeff Ward], being a man out of time, comment on how absurd the racial and social injustice is. Just him learning about white privilege was a fun thing to play with.
When we first pitched the show, we all wanted it to reflect the world that we live in and what it aspires to be — a world full of diversity, where men and women are on equal footing when it comes to fighting the good fight. That’s been evident throughout the series, in front of the camera, behind the camera, and also in our storytelling. It was a show about hope and love, filled with beautiful, diverse faces.
Losing Iain De Caestecker to other productions meant he was absent for much of this season. How did you sort that out? Did you ever worry about keeping Fitz and Simmons apart too much?
WHEDON As we were ending Season 6, we knew we were going to have very little Fitz. So we sort of jumped in with time travel, knowing that we were creating a puzzle that would be very hard to solve. For Fitz, one of the things that justified it is that for him, only a moment in time has passed. And we knew it would a fun boost of adrenaline for the production and the actors to be able to play in different time periods and tell stories based on S.H.I.E.L.D. history.
The problem is that there are so many details! And with time travel stories, loose ends can turn you into a pretzel, your best friends into enemies and the writers’ room into a war zone. [Laughs.] We had a couple of time travel experts write diagrams so we could wrap our heads around it and make it consistent with the M.C.U. and everything we had done in the past. The short answer is that we solved some of it.
Did the altered timelines in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” actually shift time enough to enable events in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”? Did the show ultimately reconnect with the Marvel movies in the end? Some of the Time Stream is melting my brain.
TANCHAROEN Melting brains is what we do. I’m still confused a bit, too.
WHEDON Some of the stuff they did with time travel in “Endgame” indicated that there are other timelines where other adventures are occurring. We’re following the multi-verse rule. The only way that someone survives Thanos’s snap in the movies is go into the quantum realm, and we originally did plan to give that a mention — because we used the quantum realm to move between timelines — but it got cut for time.
TANCHAROEN It’s very clear that Fitz and Simmons now live a life that they want to live, retired and raising a daughter.
WHEDON With everyone else, they’re on a new journey, which allows the audience to fill in what they believe could happen next.
TANCHAROEN That iconic image at the end of Coulson, flying off into whatever lies ahead? I’m just going to cry. There are so many spinoffs that could happen because there’s Quake in space, with Sousa and Kora …
WHEDON All the adventures on Kitson. The stories will continue. I think of it as when a song you love fades out, and we’re sort of allowed to keep singing it in our heads.
I assume Deke continues to use his knowledge of the future, singing songs in the ’80s before they’ve been written? We don’t see how he fares in his alternate timeline.
WHEDON There was talk of flashing to what he was doing, but that would have undercut the emotional development. He’s playing Madison Square Garden, singing “Money for Nothing,” but it’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. operation.
TANCHAROEN That would have our dream end credit sequence.
TANCHAROEN Was that our secret wish of wishes? Yes. If there were a Season 8, our entire cast would jump at the chance, and all of them can dance.
WHEDON And Quake can control vibrations! We did get to check off a lot of other boxes on our wish list. This last season, we lined up a bunch of sharks every week and jumped over them.
Unlike with our agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this won’t be your last mission together, will it?
TANCHAROEN Not unless we get a divorce! [Laughs.] Which might be in line with the theme of 2020 — everything’s falling apart!
WHEDON We are writing new stuff.
Might there finally be a sequel to “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”? You dropped a few hints this season, such as Coulson’s reference to a certain henchmen when he said, “How does it make you feel when I say the word moist?” and calling a recent episode “Brand New Day.”
TANCHAROEN [Laughs] Wow!
WHEDON Catching all the little hints! We cannot confirm nor deny …
TANCHAROEN I feel like we should just release one of the songs.
WHEDON You know what? After this, we’ll make some calls.