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The Marvel Cinematic Universe had it’s first foray onto the small screen when Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted on ABC in 2013. Not only was Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) revealed to be alive following the events of The Avengers, and he was charged with leading his own team of agents on weekly adventures.
For a few seasons, the show loved to tell us, “it’s all connected.” Many events of the series did connect to the greater MCU, until gradually the show diverged and timelines got weird. Even when it was connected, things always flowed one way. Events of the movies would affect the show, but no Avenger ever found out that Coulson was alive or met an Inhuman.
The new age of Marvel shows on Disney+ is another matter, as they are deeply connected to the MCU. Whether the seven seasons of this series are still connected or not is anyone’s guess (no one seems to know), but who cares? It’s a fantastic show on it’s own, filled with incredible characters, Marvel deep cuts, and tons of stunning action. It has moved over to Disney+ along with most of the rest of Marvel, so now is a fine time to join up with Coulson and the gang. We’d recommend watching the pilot first (mostly so you’ll know who everyone is), but after that, space and time will have no hold on you. Here’s our list of what we think are the more essential and action-packed episodes of the series.
1. “Turn, Turn, Turn” (Season 1)
We learned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. itself had been infiltrated by HYDRA long ago. Nothing was as we’d thought it was. A series based around S.H.I.E.L.D. would naturally have to change as a result, and this one did. This fun and kooky show instantly became a nail-biting must-watch.
The HYDRA reveal changed this series for good, and also for the better. Every character was affected, especially because one member of Coulson’s core team turned out to be a HYDRA sleeper agent. That character became a thousand times more interesting. This episode marks the point where this series showed its true potential. The entire arc that follows it fulfills the promise. It's also loaded with the dearly departed Bill Paxton in a recurring role.
2. “What They Become” (Season 2)
This is another game-changing episode, as Agent Skye (Chloe Bennet) attains her true form thanks to Terrigen Mist. This series had multiple storylines revolving around Inhumans, even though the MCU at large never mentioned them. Skye, however, was never the same.
Skye was cocooned before she exploded in a quake of power. She was revealed to be an Inhuman, and not just any Inhuman; she was (and is) Quake, aka Daisy Johnson. This was her rebirth. We liked Skye, but we loved Daisy. Though this moment of rebirth is bittersweet (another beloved agent dies in the same scene), it cemented Daisy’s ongoing arc for the rest of the series. The moment of Daisy bursting out of her stone cocoon is just as iconic then as it is now.
3. “S.O.S.” (Season 2)
The two-part finale of Season 2 continued on the promise of Daisy and the ongoing Inhuman storyline, but it also brought the story of Calvin Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan) to completion in satisfying fashion. The story of “the real S.H.I.E.L.D.” also ended, with Agent Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie (Henry Simmons) truly coming into his own.
You've got inventive battles with Inhumans, Coulson having a hand chopped off, and Mack starting to really like the idea of a “shotgun axe.” It’s packed with so much action that it’s a movie in and of itself. The fish oil ending, with the implication that Inhumans were going to be everywhere, does pay off in later seasons. The MCU never brought it up, but who cares? As Zabo often said, “best day ever.”
4. “4,722 Hours” (Season 3)
Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) begin the series as a fun duo of scientists known as “Fitzsimmons.” They were best friends, but then we found out that Fitz has an unrequited crush on Simmons. Somewhere in Season 2 Simmons changed, and thought she might have feelings too. They were all set for a real date, but then Simmons got whisked away to a distant planet by herself.
The couple is always (always) thwarted, to the point where the show hurts the viewer by hurting them. This episode marks a notable part of their journey, because though we see Jemma get rescued early on in Season 3, it isn’t until this flashback episode that we saw what she actually went through.
Though hard to watch for die-hard Fitzsimmons shippers, the episode is an acting master class from Henstridge. She’s alone on the distant planet, save for a husky astronaut that she gradually gets close to. The cinematography on display was a huge step up for the series as a whole, and people took notice. Fitzsimmons served as the beating heart of this show. So when Henstridge's passionate, emotional portrayal of her half the duo is seen going through considerable hell, you can't help but feel invested.
5. “Self Control” (Season 4)
Season 4 may be the show's best, most complete, season. It is divided into three arcs; the first focuses on Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna), the second gets into Life Model Decoys, and the third is a whole other ball of wax. We’re in the LMD period with this installment, and recurring guest stars Mallory Janson and John Hannah have caused serious doppelgänger panic.
Right in the thick of it is Fitzsimmons, having to figure out which one of their friends has been replaced, and which ones are real. LMD Aida (Janson) and Dr. Radcliffe (Hannah) have been building a virtual world called the “framework” the entire time, and everyone gets loaded into it by the end of the episode.
It’s a gut punch, because the world of the framework is a horror. HYDRA reigns because Radcliffe changed one regret that every member of the team had. Fitz is a rich (and evil) HYDRA scientist, Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) works for HYDRA, Coulson is a teacher, and some agents who left the show seasons ago are now alive. Thus began the final (and probably best) arc of the season; get the team back together, and get out of this virtual hellhole. It was horrifying, thrilling, and Fitzsimmons went through more turmoil. We were on the edge of our seats the whole time. You will be, too.
6. “World’s End” (Season 4)
The explosive finale of Season 4 blended all three arcs of the season together, as Ghost Rider returned to help stop the ongoing menace that was Aida/Madame Hydra. It’s another episode filled with incredible action, but it’s two of the more intimate scenes that stay with us.
Yo-Yo Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) is a mainstay now, and her scenes with Mack are beautifully sad. Mack’s daughter Hope is alive in the framework, so he doesn’t want to leave. Yo-Yo is ready to stay there with him, until Hope vanishes as the framework crumbles around them. Yo-Yo thankfully has a way to get them both out of there. The bond between these two characters has its ups and downs, but it is always a beautiful thing. This may be our favorite moment with them.
The other scene features Dr. Radcliffe, who only exists in the framework because Aida has killed his real body. He sits on the beach and has a drink before he vanishes. Sure, we’re absolute suckers for anything involving John Hannah, but this remains a beautiful and poetic scene. It's a definitive end to what was ultimately a selfish dream. Hopefully Radcliffe went to a place where there were no mummies.
7. “The End” (Season 5)
We never knew whether the series would get renewed or not. The ratings were never great, but ABC continued to bring it back. The ending of Season 5 could have acted as a series finale in case the show got the shotgun axe. Thankfully, two more seasons would come.
The episode itself is, like all of the best episodes of the show, loaded with action that will have you clutching your chair. The show had gone to space (and come back) by this point. You have Daisy performing some incredible feats as well as new characters Deke (Jeff Ward) and the always welcome Enoch (Joel Stoffer). Because of the time-jumping lunacy of the season, not everything that happens is permanent. For example, Fitz dies (because of course), but another version of him is alive on Enoch’s sleeper ship somewhere.
The real joy of the episode comes down to Coulson and Melinda May. Because of the deal he made with Ghost Rider, the mechanisms keeping Coulson alive were shutting down. The Coulson/May friendship gradually became a “will they won’t they” thing, with many fans shipping “Philinda” hard. Philinda happened this season, and Coulson decided to end his life (and the season) by going to Tahiti with May. Unlike the fake Tahiti, this one truly was a magical place. Coulson came back in a couple of different forms, but this only led to confusion and agony for May. For now, though, May got a rare moment of true happiness. Tragedy was always right around the corner for her, and Ming-Na Wen always played at least seven different notes at once.
8. “Inescapable” (Season 6)
For fans, "Inescapable" is the ultimate Fitzsimmons episode. After all of the hell that this show put our two lovable characters through (death, space, time, alternate fake virtual worlds, randy astronauts, and randy LMDs) the two were placed in a “cerebral fusion machine.” The Chronicoms wanted them to figure out time travel together, but this mostly turned into an morbidly entertaining therapy session.
They’ve both been traumatized by six seasons. Name a single event; they either don’t want to talk about it, or they have to avoid it so they don’t trigger the other. Fitz talks to a child version of Jemma, the evil framework Fitz is in there to menace them both, and so is a ghastly nightmare version of Simmons. The duo does eventually decided to face their demons together because they are always stronger that way.
Nothing can stop these two. Throw anything and everything at them (and the show did) and they scoff. Even death itself didn't stop them from becoming engaged here, for the, um, second time. It also didn't stop Nightmare Jemma from a furious makeout session with Evil Fitz.
It is weird, it is hilarious, and it’s all too real. This episode hits almost every emotion it can while advancing the season’s story at the same time. For Fitzsimmons die-hards (which we are, we probably didn’t hide that very well), this is paradise.
9. “As I Always Have Been” (Season 7)
It’s another time loop episode! Many shows do versions of this, but this late addition is particularly well done. Daisy was the focus, along with the LMD Coulson. Yeah, he came back as an antagonist from another timeline in the previous season, before returning again as an LMD. Coulson lives and lives and lives.
Daisy figuring out how to free herself and her team from a time storm is exciting, but it’s also hilarious. Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is now a regular fixture (after being a main character on Agent Carter), and his romance with Daisy is sweet. This episode is fun (with Daisy just giving up in some spins around the loop) until it isn’t. Naturally, death has to come calling. Enoch’s rumination on the nature of friendship and loneliness may sum up the entire series, and it is gorgeously played by Stoffer.
The best thing of all is that this masterful episode was directed by Elizabeth Henstridge herself. As time loop episodes go, it’s hard to beat this one.
10. “What We’re Fighting For” (Season 7)
How could they possibly end a show that was constantly evolving satisfy every character arc at the same time? We didn’t think it was possible, but the finale managed to do it.
There’s sacrifice all around, as formerly selfish characters (Deke) made choices that showed their growth. There’s catharsis, as the returning Fitz finally gets something resembling peace with Simmons. Daisy and Sousa were off on other adventures, May now teaches at “Coulson Academy” and Coulson himself flies off in a Mack-enhanced version of his beloved Lola. The "how" of they got to these places is far more interesting than the places themselves. The family is no longer together, but they make it a point to keep in touch through hologram zoom sessions. Their paths have diverged, but they will always be a part of each other’s lives. That is both a comforting and accurate thing in this day and age.
Don’t jump ahead and watch the finale first. Treat yourself to the entire series first, so that this underrated series ender hits the way it was intended.
Boot up Disney+ and revel in Coulson quips, Daisy Johnson becoming a hero, Melinda May kicking ass for days (and days), the Fitzsimmons roller coaster, Mack and his shotgun axe, Yo-Yo’s honesty, and a hell of a lot of Kree. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not to be missed.