What The "Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Bosses Learned From That Tumultuous First Season
Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen spoke exclusively with BuzzFeed about the highs and lows of Season 1, the finale’s ramifications on Season 2, and the one thing they’ll never do again.
It's hard to remember a TV show that had higher pre-premiere expectations than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel Studios' first foray into episodic television on ABC. Designed to present (slightly more) grounded stories, no one knew quite what to expect from the weekly series, executive produced by Jed Whedon (brother of Joss) and his wife, Maurissa Tancharoen.
The duo certainly boasted the right geek cred (Dollhouse, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, The Avengers), but many questioned why Marvel would hand over the reigns to one of their most important endeavors to first-time showrunners. The Joss Whedon-directed pilot, with a script penned by all three, did an excellent job of welcoming new viewers to The Avengers universe, while also introducing new agents: company man Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), butt-kicking Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), hacktivist Skye (Chloe Bennet), and technogeeks Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge ) and Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker).
But the celebration was short-lived as the early episodes were tasked with an unenviable amount of heavy lifting: cementing the core dynamics of this freshly formed team, fleshing out five new characters, producing an engaging procedural that's visually and conceptually worthy of the Marvel brand, explaining how Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) was resurrected after dying in The Avengers, and contributing to the ongoing stories of the cinematic Marvel universe.
While many episodes excelled at this balancing act (February's "T.R.A.C.K.S.," in which Skye is shot and nearly dies, is a near-perfect hour of television), the weight of all that responsibility often crushed the series. All freshman shows experience growing pains, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s built-in audience awareness served as a doubled-edged sword, driving a blade deeper into every fracture.
Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the blockbuster film that — SPOILER ALERT — destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D., sending a shockwave through the series. It's only in retrospect that one realizes the true degree of difficulty that Whedon, Tancharoen, and their team have faced, since they were secretly building to this seismic shift all along.
The S.H.I.E.L.D.–HYDRA twist reinvigorated the show and revealed that a myriad of subplots — Ward's relationships with Skye and May, Coulson's resurrection, the repeated efforts of Ian Quinn (David Conrad) to become a super-villain — were secretly designed, all along, to culminate in this moment.
In many ways, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was itself a sleeper agent, making you believe it was a rote procedural with only the most tangential relationship to the mother ship, when in reality, it was a cooly calculated extension of every Marvel outing to date. In short, the show's first season is a 22-hour movie, one that has left its creators elated — and exhausted.
Before taking a well-deserved vacation, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen spoke exclusively with BuzzFeed about the high and low points of Season 1, how S.H.I.E.L.D.'s May 13 season finale sets up Season 2, and why they will absolutely never read internet comments again.
Ed.: This interview was conducted on May 7, before ABC renewed Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a second season.
Let's go back to when ABC picked up the show. What was your trick to handling the inherent pressure that comes along with creating Marvel's first TV series?
Jed Whedon: We sort of ignored it. It's not an option to feel the pressure because if we went in trying to tell stories with all that in mind, we wouldn't sleep at night and wouldn't be able to come up with anything because our decisions would have been based on fear, as opposed to figuring out how to lay the groundwork for what we wanted the show to be, and trying to tell stories we would want to watch.
Maurissa Tancharoen: If we thought about that we'd be rocking in a corner of our own feces. Instead, what we did was just focus on the task at hand and focus on story and focus on the new characters that were never established in the Marvel universe.
At what point were you told that S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency your show was built around, would cease to exist come April 4, when Winter Solder hit theaters?
MT: Basically, the same day we were picked up. We have the privilege of seeing every Marvel script, and knowing what they have in the pipeline, so we knew going in that would be a part of our show and that we had to build toward that.
JW: It's the kind of thing that if someone told you that concept, you'd think it was a great thing to have happen at the beginning of the show or the end of Season 3. To have it happen in the middle of your first season is an interesting kind of riddle because we had to quickly establish what a regular day at S.H.I.E.L.D. looks like, what it is it like to go on a mission, say here's the team, and that there are also different teams all over the world. Then to blow that up, we knew the way to best illustrate that was by putting it on a personal level with our main man Coulson and to put him through the paces as a man dedicated to an organization.
MT: We see what it actually looks like for S.H.I.E.L.D. to crumble in Captain America 2, we see the Helicarriers literally barreling through the Triskelion, we see the massive destruction throughout the city, but the benefit of our show is we get to dive into the emotional toll of that. To build our characters up to a point where they have established a bond, and they are working together in a way they've never worked together before, and to strip away the foundation that they've dedicated their lives to and the trust they've now laid with one another, it's a really fun thing to play.
When did you decide Agent Ward would be a sleeper agent?
JW: When we started conceptualizing the show with Joss, knowing this was coming, we knew there would have to be some sort of personal toll, and there's the version of it where someone gets injured, but since this is an infiltration based on betrayal on a massive scale, we wanted to have it on the small scale, and have it be a really personal dagger to the heart.
MT: We had to be very careful about what was revealed in Cap 2, so any mention of HYDRA was off-limits. We knew that reveal would make a big impact, but we also knew we wanted to make everyone free from any suspicion. We didn't want there to be any stink on any of our characters.
Knowing what you know now — about what it really takes to make the show while keeping your secrets — do look back on day one and think, What innocent young children we were then?
JW: We heard all about the secrecy. We jumped through a lot of hoops to get in the door at Marvel. We had to be careful with our scripts, we had our special laptops, and blah blah blah. Our first day on the pilot, we arrived on our location, which was just a half-day shoot, at an empty hanger, and [Marvel Executive Vice President and Head of Television] Jeph Loeb walked up to us with an iPad; already on the internet was a leaked vehicle from that morning driving there!
MT: And that was just a car on a flatbed being transported to set.
JW: The wind had blown the tarp up and revealed a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on a truck, and someone snapped it and it was online before we even got to set. We were very aware of how quickly the wildfire can spread if you drop the match.
MT: We'd been exposed to the security rules when we worked with Joss on The Avengers, so we knew going into a Marvel project that security is a big part of it. But now, having our own show and seeing all the details that go into keeping everything under lock and key, it's a very intricate system. Even down to the characters we're allowed to use, and the plans they have for years and years to come. It's really impressive and to be a part of that, and to know there's such a long game — as much as it feels giant, it also feels pretty damn cool.
How did it work: Were you asked by Marvel to get the characters from point A to point B or told 10 things that needed to happen?
MT: It wasn't really, These 10 things need to happen. There was one major headline, which is, Captain America 2 happens, and that's going to happen to S.H.I.E.L.D. As far as everyone's character arcs, that is something that was definitely designed by us and Joss and [executive producer] Jeff Bell.
JW: One of the things we faced that was an interesting challenge and made the season a little bit of a puzzle is they don't cement the airing schedule until a couple months before. Not to mention, security-wise, we're saying the words HYDRA, revealing this stuff, and shooting these scenes weeks before Captain America premieres. So we were very eager to get those airdates to know which episode would come right before and which would come right after.
The show has tons of effects and gadgetry, the things we've come to know and love about Marvel movies, but you're doing it on a TV scale. Was there anything you wanted to do and for financial or logistical reasons, couldn't?
JW: We have to build from the idea of story first. Yes, we wanted to have a Helicarrier in every episode [but] we have 50 times less money and time, so we have to pick and choose our moments. I will say that every story starts with the kitchen sink in it.
MT: And then we slowly strip it away.
JW: We get to the point of, What do we need for the story to be told, and how can we change these sequences to be from the point of view of the characters? That's something we talk about a lot. If a monster is landing on a car, instead of showing the whole monster leaping through the skyline, we want to be in the car with the character having that experience. It works for our show, but also on a budgetary and time level. It helps us avoid these big effects by personalizing them and making them more visceral.
MT: Our eyes are now more open to the reality of how big or how small we can go. Granted, our visual effects are stunning, but I think now that people actually know our characters, the moments that have stood out to them are between our characters.
Absolutely. That said, what was the most expensive shot in the first season?
JW: The alien [in Episode 14, "T.A.H.I.T.I."] was generated completely digitally. That was a sneaky cost. Sometimes it's the thing you weren't prepared for, you think, Oh it'll just be a guy in a tube. But when you think about the logistics of it, you can't have water in the tube so the tube has to be empty so we have to generate the water, and then we have to distort the images through the tube. I know that was our most expensive episode.
MT: The Lola sequence that just aired in Episode 20, that was a pretty expensive effects sequence. And the sky diving in Episode 6, where Ward saves Simmons.
JW: Also the storm in Episode 12 — completely generated clouds. A lot of the effects that are really great are the ones you don't notice.
Let's turn toward the finale. First of all, I lost my mind when Garrett ripped out that guy's rib and then stabbed him with it.
MT: As twisted as that sounds, that has been something I've wanted to get on screen for a while and am so happy it landed at 8 o'clock on ABC.
When you talk about character moments making the biggest impact, I immediately think of Fitz and Simmons saying good-bye underwater. Why did you want to take their storyline that way?
MT: When Iain and Elizabeth screen-tested for us, way back when, the scene that sealed the deal was a scene that was basically what these pod scenes were built out of. It's a very emotional scene where we see the intricacies of their friendship and it was important to actually show that at some point, so we were very happy we were able to map out a story that could land at this place in the finale.
JW: When they initially auditioned, there were a lot of funny scenes, and when we wrote the emotional scene it was just to make sure they had the ability to pull it off, and both of them broke our heart when they auditioned. They have this brother–sister inseparable feeling between them, but we wanted to evolve Fitz past that and have him break your heart in a different way. We shot those scenes very quickly and they just absolutely nailed it.
MT: Those two have amazing chemistry together, and they break your heart even if they're not doing an emotional scene. You just so badly want them together.
So should fans take heart in the fact there was so much kissing during their good-bye?
JW: Well, we know how he feels. But we're not positive how he made it through — or how far he made it through. There are still some questions to be answered there.
There are also a lot of question marks surrounding Ward, especially after the final two episodes. What was important to accomplish with him toward the end of the season?
MT: We wanted to represent, in our characters, the different voices factions of our audience would have. Fitz still believes that Ward has been conditioned to be this way, and that's definitely an opinion some of our audience has. We want to play the question of, Is he redeemable? There's still glimpses of Ward where you feel there's more going on with him being a bad guy. And, of course, we show in Episode 21 the conditioning. But we have yet to see what Garrett pulled him out of. We saw glimpses of his family life in Episode 7, but we still don't know how dire or how toxic that was.
JW: We saw in the finale it was a little bit of one step at a time with helping Garrett and now that they reached the finish line, he was looking to Garrett for answers and Garrett's not giving them to him, which emotionally affected Ward. For the first time he's lost, and how that will play out in Season 2 is one of the things we're excited to explore.
MT: In a way, there's a nice parallel between Agent Ward and Agent Coulson, two men who've sort of been stripped of everything they've believed in and are left with nothing — all of them, collectively, are searching for their purpose. What is the purpose of S.H.I.E.L.D.? How will they define themselves now? Now that Garrett is gone, what does that mean for Ward? Will he come to something on his own? That is something we hope to explore in Season 2.
JW: With success.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) also returned in the finale to tell Phil to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D. — was that something Marvel wanted, you wanted, or, at this point, are those wants one in the same?
JW: They're one in the same. They have plans for films, and we have plans to intermingle with them, and it's the name of our show. The second to last episode is called "Ragtag," and that's a term we've used; we wanted to create this ragtag group, but within this giant organization with billions of dollars and support all over the globe and satellite feeds on their luxurious plane. Now we have a chance to start them over and figure out what it's like to really be a secret again.
MT: And have them need to cobble things together, literally, MacGyver.
JW: All of a sudden it makes our giant organization the underdog. Now HYDRA's out there, so we know who our enemy is.
Triplett (B.J. Britt) became a big character in the last stretch. Do you envision him being a part of this team next season?
MT: He'll be around. We definitely like the character, and absolutely like the actor. He's a great part of the show.
The finale also saw the return of Patton Oswalt, but with a different name in a different location. Talk us through that: Is he a twin, a clone, a robot?
JW: We actually cannot talk you through that.
MT: But those are all good questions. It was fun to do that with Patton because we're obviously such huge fans of his, so we knew that immediately when he showed up on screen, he would be beloved. And then the fact we took him away right away...
JW: We knew there would be an uproar.
MT: We pissed a lot of people off, but I think it'll be a nice surprise to see him back in the finale.
One of the final shots of the season is Raina (Ruth Negga) seemingly meeting Skye's father. What are you comfortable saying about that?
JW: I think we can't really say anything, but I think the end of the season answers some questions, but asked a lot of new questions. We're optimistic about a Season 2, and the chance to answer those questions.
MT: Like, who that guy is.
Will you at least say if he was dripping in blood?
MT: No, we'll leave that a question.
JW: We're not going to say it wasn't not not blood.
Fair enough. So, now that all is said and done, how are you feeling about the first season as a whole?
JW: We're really proud. Obviously not just of our contribution to the season, but also the people we assembled. We're also really happy with the product [and] I feel really, really positive about the experience, aside from the product.
MT: As much as you go in knowing working in television is going to be a grind because the demand for the product's turn around is very swift, it was really wonderful how, through the course of the whole season, everyone showed up happy to do the work. It really is a nice environment and I think, as Jed said, we're proud of all the people we have the privilege of working with.
JW: It is such a grind; 22 episodes is a ludicrous ask, but there's an excitement in telling stories on such a grand scale. Even through the grind, everyone felt the enthusiasm to make something cool. It got hard at times, and everyone was exhausted, but the enthusiasm was still there.
MT: Jed and I have been through some real-life shit. I'm just going to say shit. Some real-life challenges, and at the end of the day, if you're not having fun spending your days the way you are, then it's sort of pointless.
JW: We hope people had as much fun watching it as we did making it.
Is there anything, looking back, you wish you'd done differently?
JW: It's so hard because any first-year show has its growing pains, and any first-year showrunner has their growing pains. A lot of our actors were new to it, and there were some bumps in the road, but most of them were necessary and things we had to go through in order to figure out how to run it better and get the ship moving in the right direction.
MT: I think in the beginning a lot of our growing pains were born out of learning how to navigate all the different moving parts. Because there were many — and there were many, many expectations [from] our audience. I think maybe if I were to look back, I wouldn't have read as much of the criticism as I did, only because we knew going in that we had this grand design that coincided with the films, and we knew that we had to slow play things to lead up to that point. If I had focused on that more, I would have saved myself a lot of grief at times.
JW: Whereas I was totally Zen the whole time.
MT: Yeah, he didn't read anything.
JW: I coasted along like I was riding a wave.
You just stayed off the internet the whole time, Jed?
MT: He stayed off the internet more than I did.
JW: Yeah, but Zen does not describe me.
Did anything about the online criticism surprise you?
JW: One of the things that's hard is we had to trust what we were doing and trust ourselves and trust the process of these things airing. It's a little bit frustrating when you're off for a few weeks and everybody's used to watching everything in one big run, so it felt like everyone was waiting a long time for these pieces of the yellow brick road that we were creating to be laid brick by brick. We just had to be patient with it, and that's something we learned. Yes, there was vocal criticism of the show early on; there was also people who loved it, but they were all new characters for the Marvel universe. Now, in the back half of the season, they're invested in the characters, but that took some time. We learned to trust that early on.
Finally, is there anything else you want the audience to know?
MT: I do think we have a lot of crazy stuff in store for Season 2. The questions that we leave you with in the finale, we want to answer them as much as you want them answered.
JW: We're very excited about the idea of a Season 2, even though we're very tired. I would love for someone to stop time, unfortunately…
MT: We have to start [Season 2] right away.
This interview has been condensed and edited.