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‘Agents of SHIELD’ Season Premiere Postmortem: Cast and Creators Talk ‘Shadows’ Twists

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on unless you’ve season the season two premiere of “Agents of SHIELD,” titled “Shadows.”

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” established a new world order in its season two opener, rejoining our heroes underground and on the run after terrorist group HYDRA decimated the organization in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Last season’s finale installed Clark Gregg’s trusty Agent Coulson as SHIELD’s new Director in the wake of Nick Fury’s faked death, and the gang are now laying low at a secret base known as “The Playground,” trying to recruit SHIELD’s few remaining loyal agents and allies to bolster their forces in the ongoing war with HYDRA.

The mutinous Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is now their captive (and has grown a rather fetching beard while doing his best Hannibal Lecter impersonation in lockup) and the season premiere revealed that Agent Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) has left the team after her best friend and partner, Agent Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) was brain damaged from oxygen deprivation when Agent Ward dumped the duo in the ocean last season. In a heartbreaking and perfectly executed twist, viewers learned that Fitz has been hallucinating that Simmons is still with the team to help him cope with his condition, but that he’s growing more detached from reality as the days pass.

Variety was among a number of outlets invited to join the cast and creators for a Q&A and screening of the first two episodes of season two, and while the team was as spoiler-resistant as ever, they did drop a few hints about what’s coming up this season on the ABC action series.

Executive producer Jeffrey Bell admitted that after the “Winter Solider” crossover set the show on its new course, the producers felt that it was important to strip away the artifice of SHIELD as an all-seeing (and somewhat unsympathetic) government organization in order to get to the true heart of the series — the makeshift family at its core: “HYDRA happened, we lost our big Triskelion, we lost all of our toys, we lost our authority… For us, it’s really hard to cheer for the NSA… we feel like the team [are] underdogs this season; ‘this is what we have, how can we make it work?’ The stakes are much higher because of that, so it’s easier to cheer for this team.”

And shaking up the show’s structure has proved inspiring for the writers, according to showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who were excited to add new characters this season. “It’s fun for us… as we move into the season it gives us more options as storytellers, in terms of where we can go and how we divide things up,” Whedon said of new cast members like Nick Blood (who plays mercenary Lance Hunter) and Henry Simmons (playing Alphonso ‘Mac’ Mackenzie), who join last year’s midseason addition, B.J. Britt (Antoine Triplett), on the team this season.

“It’s an example of what SHIELD is now — we’re seeing a guy like Mac who might’ve been a mechanic at the Triskelion, but we would never have heard of him before, and now he’s part of our team,” Tancharoen added.

Bell pointed out that now that Coulson is SHIELD’s Director, The Playground is the organization’s new hub, so “there’s got to be a lot more going on, not just with us, but around the world.” He also noted that part of the fun of adding new characters was in finding “new dynamics” between the various personalities on the show. “Last year, Fitz and Simmons were one person, now they’re not… Last year there was a paternal thing between Coulson and Skye (Chloe Bennet) and that seems to be a little different now, and May (Ming-Na Wen) is her SO. Ward’s now HYDRA, and what’s the deal with Simmons? We have all these characters and new relationships… that’s really fun for the writers to come up with new combinations and create new conflicts. Those are inspiring to us.”

While it remains to be seen how Ward will figure into the season as a whole, the producers did give one ominous hint: “You saw that he was in our basement,” Tancharoen teased. “When you have a monster in the basement, generally there’s a problem,” Bell coyly agreed.

Was Ward being honest with Skye when she came down to interrogate him in the premiere? According to Dalton, there was truthfulness in their interaction, but “there’s a lot going on there… That’s one of the really wonderful things about this season — there’s so much complexity. All of us have gone through so much.”

Ward isn’t the only challenge for Skye this season — Kyle MacLachlan is also joining “SHIELD” as the hacker’s long-lost father; an obstacle that Skye and the team as a whole will struggle with. “Coulson is essentially Skye’s father. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when her actual father comes into play,” Tancharoen said.

Despite the upheavals between their various characters, the cast seemed genuinely thrilled by the show’s direction, each one expressing pride in the group’s relationships and how much their characters have already evolved — perhaps none more so than Gregg. “It’s funny, going from being this guy with a briefcase doing a scene or two in ‘Iron Man’ to being [Director Coulson],” he laughed. “I’m just struck by how different Coulson is, being Director. But more than anything else, I’m struck by the growth of the show, personally; how much it’s found itself, how much our great writers have taken what was really working after the crossover with ‘Winter Soldier’… I’m so proud of the cast we started with and how they’ve turned these characters — with the help of these writers — into these fully-realized, really compelling people. It’s such a terrific ensemble, I’m really proud to see what the show’s becoming.”

“Shadows” also opened with a tantalizing glimpse at Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter and the Howling Commandos in the 1940s, since Atwell’s character is headlining her own upcoming spinoff — which will air in “SHIELD’s” timeslot when the series goes on winter hiatus, in an attempt to keep viewers sated with as many uninterrupted original episodes as possible.

“Last season, a consistent cry from our viewers was that there were a lot of repeats… we started talking ‘what’s the best thing we could do?'” said Jeph Loeb, Marvel’s Head of Television. “There is going to be our fall-winter season, then we’re going to take a break and do a little show called ‘Agent Carter’… then we’ll be back and we’ll run all the way through [to the finale]. The idea is trying to give you as much Marvel as we can at 9 o’clock on Tuesdays on ABC.”

With 22 episodes of “SHIELD” and 8 episodes of “Agent Carter” running almost continuously throughout the TV season, Marvel hopes fans won’t lose the narrative threads of the two series. “SHIELD” is also following the example set by ABC’s other high-concept genre show, “Once Upon a Time,” and constructing the two halves of its season almost as self-contained arcs. “By the time we get to the winter break, a lot of the stories that we’ve picked up, you’ll see resolved in a wonderful way, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have new things that are surprising and different [in the back half],” said Loeb.

Since “Agent Carter” is set in a different time period, fans shouldn’t expect too much crossover between the two shows — although, as the season premiere demonstrated, it’s not impossible. “As with all Marvel properties, they want it to exist in its own right, so it’s not like we’re just going to hand it off to them to tell our story — they’ll have their own thing,” Whedon insisted.

“But it’s an extra, added bonus when things do link up,” Tancharoen added. “Much like we communicate with the Cinematic Universe, we’ve been communicating with theirs — everybody’s on the same page.”

“It is all connected,” Loeb said — repeating a familiar phrase for fans of the Marvel Universe. “We have an ongoing relationship not only with our other shows, but with Kevin [Feige] who runs the studio… We talk all the time: where are the lucky things we can take from that tree and make it work? We never want to do it just to do it — we always want to do it in a way that moves things forward.”

“Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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