Loeb and Bell go in-depth on ‘Agents of SHIELD’ finale: ‘We swung for the fence’

(CBR) SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for the freshly aired “Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” first season finale, “Beginning of the End,” and the show up to this point as a whole.

“Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has reached the finish line for its first season — and, following last week's renewal news, it's more like a victory lap. Not that Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg's) team look entirely like winners at the outcome of the season finale, “Beginning of the End.” Sure, the forces of evil led by a supercharged (and superbly unhinged) John Garrett (Bill Paxton) have been defeated, thanks in part to the intercession of a newly thinking-for-himself Deathlok (J. August Richards) and help from off-the-grid, presumed dead, former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), plus the traitorous Ward (Brett Dalton) is now in custody, thanks to a vengeful May (Ming-Na Wen).

Yet the crew is still reeling from Ward's betrayal, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) escaped a watery death, but just barely for the former; and S.H.I.E.L.D. is still in shambles, with Coulson put in charge of rebuilding the super-spy organization. Plus, Skye's (Chloe Bennet) 8-0-4 origins remain mysterious, though the episode ends with an intriguing, bizarre hint. CBR News spoke with show executive producer Jeffrey Bell and head of Marvel Television (and fellow series EP) Jeph Loeb about “Beginning of the End” and the first season as a whole, along with some brief teases about where the show might be headed in the future.

CBR News: Jeph, Jeffrey, Marvel is known for explosive final acts, but as has been discussed in the past, obviously the options are realistically limited for a TV show. Was it a daunting prospect to put this season finale together, and something that would satisfy with suitably high stakes?

Jeffrey Bell: Honestly, every episode is daunting. It's like building an airplane while you're flying it. And we literally are in an airplane as we're flying it. We knew a lot of what the season finale was going to be when we started, but then you find things that you love over the course of the season that you want to incorporate.

You want to pay off the things you set up, so for us it was Coulson and Tahiti and how he came back; it was Skye coming in, questioning whether S.H.I.E.L.D. is a benevolent, wonderful organization or not; it was meeting Mike Peterson, who wanted to be a superhero, giving him an origin and turning him into Deathlok; it was bringing in a guy like Grant Ward, who didn't really want to be part of the team, who had the best score since Romanoff, revealing the truth about him, and then playing that out as part of the big Hydra reveal with [“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”].

Around that were all kinds of wonderful, emotional things that you develop over the course of the season — and then you're setting up, “Why is Coulson writing that?” and “Who is that? That's Skye father?” We swung for the fence. We loved having Bill Paxton on. We had our cavalcade of bad guys — we had Garrett, and we had Deathlok, and we had Raina, and we had Quinn, and we had Ward all together. It was a lot of fun.

Let's talk about the performance of Bill Paxton over this course of episodes, and the range he showed from first seemingly being a fun, down-to-Earth, good guy to the very creepy place he was at in the finale. How much did his presence mean to the second half of the season for both of you? Both having an actor of his caliber added to the mix, and also representing a real supervillain for the team to face?

Jeph Loeb: It meant a lot. In fairness, we knew where we were going — the reveal in “The Winter Soldier,” and how that was going to dramatically affect our cast. We always had the Clairvoyant in our pocket — if you go back to the early episodes, you can see it's all laid out there — and it just came down to, “OK, when we start to introduce this guy, who's he going to be?”

The writers came up with this fantastic character of John Garrett, who exists in the Marvel Universe, and we went on a hunt. The good news is that at the top of the list was an actor by the name of Bill Paxton, and he read the script and said, “I'm in.” It literally was that fast. It was one of those very strange, wonderful moments, of where you create a character, hope that a certain actor is going to play that character, and he does so with aplomb.

Bell: Part of what we did to attract him was we let him know coming in that he was the Clairvoyant. With that knowledge, he said, “Well, then I'm going to be everybody's best friend.” The comic book character is also a larger than life, complicated character, who has a very questionable background. So we knew that the DNA of somebody who could do questionable things was there.
But what Bill brought to it was a joy that we could not have expected. Watching him and Clark as old pals who are very different characters, but respected each other, was a lot of fun. Watching him hide in plain sight and react — “What, Victoria Hand is the Clairvoyant?” — was terrific. What we couldn't imagine was where he took it in the last episode, which was, for us, a delight.
And it was even revealed that the show's John Garrett was also a cyborg, much like the comic book character.
Loeb: All of it was there from the very beginning. We knew about the Deathlok project, Garrett's original ties to it, and all of that. We went to the source material, and it helped us out enormously. But the execution of it is the thing that we're most proud of, and that falls in the capable hands of our writing staff and our executive producers.
Garrett's of course closely tied to another major element from the season finale — Ward, who's played such a vital part in these last few episodes. By the end of this season, he's certainly not redeemed — he doesn't have a moment where he turns back to the side of the good guys — but viewers know enough about him and his background at this point that they might still feel a little sympathy for him. Is there still chance for redemption for the character? Is it right to still feel a little sympathetic towards him?
Bell: We hope so. We don't write anyone as a villain, and for us, Ward was a spy who came in to do his job, and surprisingly fell for a young woman on the staff, and cared about other people, but had this rather strong father figure who started pulling him in the other direction. As Mr. Loeb has said, look at the Winter Soldier, look at the horrible things he's done, and yet you're rooting for him. We hope people care about Ward, and are conflicted about him. We think the fact that he didn't do something necessarily redemptive in this season doesn't mean that down the road he can't do something that would surprise us in the other direction.

Loeb: We're in the Marvel Universe. It is filled with villains who then turn out to be heroes, and then turn out to be villains. Or the other way around. It's the fun of working in the Marvel Universe. We believe that our audience is so intrigued by that, because it's the way that Marvel approaches our heroes and our villains. It always starts with the character — it always starts with the person inside the suit, and not the suit itself. Whether it's Tony Stark or Steve Rogers or Bucky Barnes, the truth is, at some point these people do things that are conflicted with, “what is the greater good?”

The character of Grant Ward was created to, in many ways, help the audience know what it is like to experience, on a personal level, what happened in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” We had a gift that the movie did not: The movie had to finish in two hours, so you couldn't really deal a lot with the impact of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents whose lives were ripped apart by find out that they were working for a horrible terrorist organization, and who was good and who was bad. We needed to show that in our show. It would have been unfair and unrealistic that there wasn't someone on the team who was playing both sides of the fence.

Where that goes, and how that gets resolved, in a world where S.H.I.E.L.D. is in pieces and Hydra is in pieces — you form strange allies. Every comic book that you can think of, there's been a moment where the hero and the villain have had to make peace with one another, because there's something worse out there. Just for example.

Speaking of conflicted characters, this episode sees the season-long arc of Mike Peterson wrap up, at least for now. His story started in the pilot, so there's clearly a large degree of symmetry there. Is that another thing planned from the start, the rather twisty path the character would take?

Loeb: Deathlok was very much a choice that we made at the top, where we knew this was a character that we could mine, who has a lot of conflict, both within his own head, and with how people see him. He's got a tremendous fan base as a character. But I have to give a lot of the credit to J., who brought a humanity to the role that was both expected and unexpected. We haven't seen the last of him.

Bell: What we couldn't expect was what J. August Richards brought to the character. From the first speech he did in the pilot in Union Station, where he's talking about, “They're gods, they crush people like us,” and how he just wanted to be a hero — from thereon, there was something special about him that we hadn't anticipated, and at every turn J. delivered beyond what we could have expected.

In many ways, we kept writing to J., because we loved what he was doing. Our own little twist on the character was, there wasn't a computer inside his head controlling him, it was the voice of his handler. It seemed like a reasonable way for us to approximate what had happened with him in the comics.

Let's talk one more major thing from the finale — the appearance of Nick Fury, and the major role that Samuel L. Jackson played in the episode. How important was it to get him in the season finale?

Bell: We knew from the beginning that Coulson had been behind “Project T.A.H.I.T.I.,” and that Fury was the one who had done that, because he valued Coulson. For us to give Coulson the mandate to restart S.H.I.E.L.D. could only come from one person. Having the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. give the mandate to rebuild it gave us symmetry and a scale to our finale. We were thrilled to have top agents show up.

That felt like a big moment for not just the show, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general — it's the first time seeing Fury since he went off the grid, and he's giving the word to restart S.H.I.E.L.D. Do you see that as bigger vote of confidence in the show and the stories it's allowed to tell?

Loeb: We write them, and hope that we can pull them off, and hope that the audience shows up. What Jeff said is really the most accurate. It had to happen — the way the story was being told, the events of “Winter Soldier,” how we were going to be able to move forward, not just with the series, but with Agent Coulson's life — it could only come from one person, and that person showed up to do it.

With regards to Coulson, following him having that talk with Fury and being given clear new, very important, mission — he's been a tortured character all season long, but is it fair to say that this is a sense of closure for him moving forward?
Bell: I think it's fair. I think a lot of the things he was tortured by this season can be put to rest, and he can move on, and should we get a second season, have new issues and things to combat rather than his own fate at the hands of “Project T.A.H.I.T.I.”
Loeb: But he may have some new problems.
By the end of the episode, quite a bit has been wrapped up, but obviously there are things set up for the future, and some mysteries — prominently, Skye's true, full origins — are definitely left open. How did you strike that balance of what to wrap up definitively, and what to leave out there for the future?
Bell: I think we felt compelled to wrap up the major stuff that was set up at the beginning of the season — the question of Tahiti, who and what was behind the Centipede program and what that was about, Deathlok. Emotionally, there's a lot of stuff that's still alive. There were subplots throughout the season we felt weren't necessarily ready to be wrapped up, but we brought to the surface to hopefully launch people's interest — like Skye's parents, or what Coulson's doing at the end.
Loeb: Or wherever any of our characters are — Fitz's fate, what happens to Ward, what happens to Simmons in a world with or without Fitz.

Bell: And who's going to stay with S.H.I.E.L.D. and who isn't? There's a sense of hope at the end of the episode, and yet everything is in disarray. There are terrorists by the world, and they have no resources other than this mysterious cube that Fury has given Coulson. Someone within them has been betrayed, and someone within them has suffered near-death. They're standing, but it's not like, “Yay, we won!”

Loeb: It's the fun and challenge of telling 22 hours of story. That challenge will be equally daunting as we go forward. The fun will be, however, that our audience now knows these characters, and knows that our writers like to pull twists and surprises, and when you think you're going left, you suddenly turn right. That'll be the fun and excitement of a new season.

Let's talk a bit about the experience of working on this show in general this season. It was a new challenge for Marvel, as you put it, to produce 22 hours of live-action TV — given the considerable task that must have been, what are some of the things both of you are most proud of with this inaugural “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” season?

Bell: Here's what made it about a thousand times easier and better than it would have been: The head of Marvel Television was Jeph Loeb, who is a terrific writer, who has not just done comics and movies but television, and understands how to make television, understands the challenges of television, understands more than most people do about television. And the fact that he knew that, and was the Marvel representative and knew that world equally well — he was a great advocate for our show. It wouldn't have happened without him. That's an easy piece for me to say. Now you can deny that, and look uncomfortably at your shoes.

Loeb: He knows me too well. This was an amazing adventure, and the start of something that had never happened before. In the 75-year history of Marvel, there had not been a television division. Being given the responsibility of coming up with our first live-action television series — we cheated. We went to Joss Whedon, who put together an extraordinary group of people in Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell. They were our first and only choices to run the show and take us through this adventure. They in turn put together an extraordinary writing staff that worked endlessly and tirelessly through weekends, and past midnight, and came up with stories that felt like they came out of the Marvel Universe, but by the same token, were brand new.

I don't know that the show gets enough for the fact that everything that's been done up to this point in live action was based on something, and had the foundation of comic books that had been telling stories with these characters for decades.

What Joss and Maurissa and Jed and Jeff took on, from the very beginning, was one character who came from the movies — and that was Agent Coulson — and helped out enormously, gigantically, by Clark Gregg, who we never dreamed of doing the show without. But everybody else was new. They were new characters, they were in many cases new faces to the television audience.

We were put up on what could arguably be the most difficult night of television — to be an 8 o'clock show with no lead-in, to go up against “NCIS” and “The Voice” — and to hold our own, and to come out at the end of the season as strong as we did, and to have as loyal a fanbase, who's there with us, tweeting and on Facebook, and talking about the show, and getting so excited, and being on hyperdrive after “Captain America 2” and what that did to the show — again, historically unprecedented that the stories that are being told on an ongoing basis were irrevocably changed by what was going on in a movie that was currently in theaters — to be able to put all of that together, and come out at the end of the year and feel really good about the cast, the crew —

Garry Brown our producer, who every week we gave an impossible script to be able to produce in the team that we had. Chris Cheramie, who's our post-production supervisor, who had to put it all together and make it sing. Bear [McCreary], who did the music. Mark Kolpack and his team, on visual effects. I could be here all afternoon long. I'm picking up the Oscar, and forgetting a hundred thousand people. And the folks back in New York — Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley and Alan Fine, who did nothing but make sure that we stayed in between the guard rails, and told the best stories that we could. It's just been an extraordinary ride, and we look forward to doing more of it — a lot more of it.

You mention the fans, and some of the initial skepticism that the show had among fans and critics has been well noted. Since that turning point with “Winter Soldier,” that seems to have turned around, and the show has appeared to win over a lot of those people. Is that satisfying? And something you expected would happen around that point?
Loeb: Yes. Look, you always want to be liked, in anything that you do. If folks that are skeptical needed something to show that we did know where we were going, and then actually were thrilled by the choices that were made? It's very rewarding.
Jeph, as the head of Marvel TV, having this experience now of seeing the first season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. take shape, does that inspire further confidence going forward with Marvel TV's multiple other projects in the works?
Loeb: Yes, but if you know me, all I do is worry. [Laughs] The short answer is, I'm very, very lucky to work with extremely talented people. I have been in every single corner of my life, whether it was film or television or comics, and I hope to continue having that experience, and having fun. That's what it's all about at the end of the day.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on the future of ABC's “Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”