Sorry, Hydra, but the biggest enemy that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. faced in its first year was the show itself. Arriving last fall on a tsunami of hype, the ABC drama, about a team of do-gooders (who, unlike most Marvel leads, have no actual superpowers) including Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Skye (Chloe Bennet) stumbled for much of the season. But it finally found its way, thanks in large part to the huge twist forced upon them by the events of April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that film, S.H.I.E.L.D. (the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) was revealed to have been almost completely infiltrated by the evil organization Hydra. Among the many moles: Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton).
As Season 1 ended, the remaining team lived to fight another day, and Coulson was named the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., just as he began exhibiting some peculiar behavior in the finale’s closing moments. The show is now leaner, meaner, and much, much improved, with real momentum going into Season 2 (which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT). And showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen have no intention of squandering that hard-won goodwill as the second season kicks off. They talked about balancing secrecy and spoilers, what they learned from Season 1’s rocky start and which Marvel Universe characters will—and won’t—be making appearances this season:
Let’s look back at Season 1 first. Now that you have a couple months’ distance, how do you think it turned out?
Jed Whedon: We’re proud of how it turned out. It was a stressful year for us because it’s a first year show and there was a lot of work. But we’re really proud of what we accomplished and the team we put together and how the story’s unfolded. And of the fact that we were able to navigate the film that dropped in the middle of the first season.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Basically, we lost the entire concept of our show! But we knew about that from the beginning, so it was really this very challenging game of chess as to when we were gonna reveal things and how to unfold it all. I do think once the reveal happened with Hydra being inside of S.H.I.E.L.D., and with one of our own we had grown to know and like over the first part of the season, Grant Ward, we took off running.
Early on, many viewers had problems connecting to the team: May, Skye, even Coulson to a degree. But it really felt by the end you had developed all of them and made them into people that viewers really embraced and cared about. When and how did you turn the corner on those characters?
Tancharoen: Well, it was a project full of firsts. It was Marvel’s first live-action television show. It was Marvel and ABC’s first joint project. And also we were introducing a whole team of characters that had not yet existed in the Marvel Universe.
Whedon: Which was a first for a Marvel property, you know. People are very used to seeing that Marvel [Films] flip logo and then seeing a character that they’d had in the comics for decades. And this was the first time that after seeing that Marvel logo, you were introduced to all new people. We hadn’t really anticipated how different that would feel for the fans. So we think that at some level, it created a different expectation of who these people would be. With any new show, you have to meet the people and learn about them. And so we have that hurdle, which is normal for a first-year show, but there was an expectation that felt a little different because we were existing in the universe with so many established characters.
Maurissa, you’ve mentioned how your hands were tied last season, having to react to Winter Soldier’s big reveal. How is this season different, knowing you don’t have something like that hanging over your head? There must be a lot more freedom on your part.
Tancharoen: Right. Well, we have a very clear big bad. We have Hydra. It’s very nice and liberating to say “Hydra” and have it out in the open! Last season was definitely challenging, because we were not allowed to mention them or allude to a mole of any kind. So now, coming into Season 2, we exist in a new paradigm. S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra are viewed as one and the same. So we’re putting our characters through a different sort of journey, where they still want to be out there and helping the world and the people through this world, but they have to do it from the shadows.
Whedon: We obviously came from an established universe. But now that they’ve torn S.H.I.E.L.D. down and we get to build it back up, we do get a little more freedom in terms of how we build it back up and reestablishing it in a way we’d like to.
The next Marvel Universe film is May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. To what degree will this season be setting up the events of that movie? Will it be as significant an overlap as Winter Solider?
Tancharoen: I don’t really think we can tell you much but…
Whedon: We can say that I don’t think it’s possible to have more of an overlap than there was with Winter Soldier, where they literally took the name of our show and kind of made it meaningless! But there is always that possibility with any of these properties, because it is one universe.
Tancharoen: Yeah, that’s a trait of Marvel properties. They all connect somehow.
You had talked a few months ago about how there weren’t any plans to tie-in to Guardians of the Galaxy, especially with that being set entirely in space. But have those plans changed now that it’s become the biggest movie of the year? Is there anything, even Easter eggs, that will connect back to Guardians?
Whedon: It is more difficult because of what you said. It is a whole other universe within our universe. And we also have to be careful to not do it in a way that feels cheap or just a wink. An Easter egg is a precious thing and it has to be either a little something for people to find, or respectful. We certainly don’t want to foist it in where it doesn’t fit.
The Captain America spinoff series Agent Carter is going to debut between the two halves of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s season. Is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s midseason finale going to leave off in an area that Carter will pick up?
Whedon: There is…that would be cool.
Tancharoen: That would be super cool. There might be little connections.
Whedon: They do exist in different times.
[Editor’s Note: Shortly after this interview, ABC announced that the S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere will include a 1940s-era flashback featuring Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter.]
Looking at the new season, we now have Coulson as the new S.H.I.E.L.D. director, tasked with rebuilding the agency. We last saw him writing those alien equations on the wall, and judging by the Season 2 billboards that reference those equations, that’s something you’ll be delving into.
Tancharoen: The thing we like about that is the man who is now the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a big wildcard. Why did we last see him writing on that wall? What does that mean? We also saw [Bill Paxton’s John] Garrett writing on glass and he of course turned into a madman. So there is that question at the heart of the show.
In the Season 2 trailer, Ward is still around, now in custody. You could have killed him off in the finale, or at least sent him away from a long while. Had you considered moving on from the character, or did you always want him to stay in the mix?
Whedon: We didn’t really discuss that. It’s not often that you get to spend that much time with a character and then turn them [bad]. We had hoped that he would be compelling as a villain and he was very much, both the character and the actor. So if it hadn’t worked out and it didn’t have appeal we would have maybe had discussions about how else to turn the character. But we were very happy with Brett’s performance, so we had some long-term plans which we are now putting into effect.
Tancharoen: Yeah, we really loved the villain and also just in capturing Ward he is a valuable source of information about the enemy.
Whedon: And Andy’s a person who followed a man [John Garrett] who’s now gone. And so it’s a question of…
Tancharoen: What does that mean for him?
Last year there was so much secrecy about everything from the start. But this year, you’ve already revealed that Kyle MacLachlan will be playing Skye’s father and Lucy Lawless is playing a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. We know that Mockingbird, played by Adrianne Palicki, will be making an appearance, as well as the Absorbing Man. How do you strike the balance between maintaining that Marvel secrecy while revealing enough to get fans excited about Season 2?
Tancharoen: A big part of having these new characters come onto the show is to highlight the new state of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is that we are smaller, we are spread out over the world and Coulson might have to reach outside of the organization to enlist people for help. Mockingbird, we know that she’s a beloved Marvel character but it’s still a question as to where her true loyalties lie. The same goes with Lance Hunter [a new addition to Coulson’s team, played by Nick Blood]. He’s a mercenary. So it’s a situation of many uneasy alliances and that is another example of the new paradigm and how Coulson has to think outside of the box.
Whedon: So in terms of announcing the characters, when they’re story-driven like Maurissa’s talking about, we don’t mind it. We have to be realistic about the fact that some of these things will get out. Especially with casting, those things are hard to keep under wraps. So if it doesn’t hurt the story to tell anybody, then we don’t mind it. And there’s the element where you want people to show up. Keeping all the spoilers back are great, but if no one shows up then it doesn’t matter.
Joss Whedon, who is an executive producer and directed the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, has his hands full with the Avengers sequel. What is his involvement with Season 2, and how it has changed from Season 1?
Tancharoen: His involvement will be the same. He’s a very busy man and he will continue to be a very busy man.
Whedon: He’s back in town, at least!
Tancharoen: Yeah, at least he’s back in town and we can feel his presence a little more. But he’s well aware of everything that we do on the show and signs off on everything.
Whedon: We still send him all the outlines, all the drafts, all the cuts. We try to put some stuff on his plate, but his plate is extremely full. To say that the project he’s working on is large would be a gross understatement. “All-consuming” is more accurate.
Are we going to see Cobie Smulders back as Maria Hill this season?
Whedon: We hope so. We’re big fans.
Many people, including myself, hoped that once How I Met Your Mother ended, she would join S.H.I.E.L.D. full-time because we love her and the character so much. Was that something you pursued?
Whedon: Well, there’s multiple factors. One is she just came off of a decade-long gig. And she appears in other films in the Marvel Universe, and we have to be respectful of that. And, they have their mythology with her which they’re spinning out and so we have to exist within it. But there are all these discussions about her and her involvement because we’re big fans and she’s a pleasure to work with and the character, as you were saying, is a winner. So factoring all those things, we’re hoping she’ll come and play with us. To what extent is unclear.
What can you promise about Season 2 for fans who are counting the days until Sept. 23?
Whedon: Well, we left last season with a lot of questions. And we tied some things up, but we didn’t tie up a lot of stuff and we asked some very new questions right at the end. We can go as far as saying we will answer those questions and the audience will not have to wait long to find out some of the things that they’re begging to know about.
Finally, on behalf of all of us who have to write about the show: is there anything you can do about getting the periods out of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the title for Season 2?
Tancharoen: Ha, ha, ha!
Whedon: Let’s put it this way: we never put them in.
Tancharoen: Yeah, we forget to put them in.
Whedon: We just all-caps it.
Tancharoen: And then [Marvel Television head] Jeph Loeb comes in and reprimands us for it.
Whedon: Yeah, he puts the periods in himself.
Tancharoen: Wherever we go!