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If not Coulson, who is Clark Gregg playing in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s 6th season?

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Apr 15, 2019, 12:18 PM EDT (Updated)

After putting together a Season 5 finale that felt like the perfect coda to a low-rated but beloved series, ABC went ahead and pulled the trigger on two additional seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show's unexpected return promises big changes, and we have some theories on what looks to be one of the show's biggest mysteries.

Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson was introduced in the big screen MCU films, died in The Avengers, and was subsequently resurrected to headline ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. He led the motley crew of heroes for five years and was on the verge of death as Season 5 closed, as Coulson looked to accept his fate and say goodbye to a world that had been well-saved (or at least until Avengers: Infinity War).

With the show coming back, word broke that longtime S.H.I.E.L.D. team member Mack (Henry Simmons) would be taking over as the team’s new director, with Coulson seemingly dead. Then the first trailer dropped, revealing Gregg is actually coming back… just not playing Coulson anymore. It's since been teased his new role is that as an antagonist to his old team of heroes and Gregg has promised the character is dramatically different than Coulson.

We put together six leading theories as to who this Faux Coulson might actually be, so we can all theorize while we wait for Season 6 to premiere on ABC on May 10. Check out our best guesses below, then give us your best theory.

Skrulls Captain Marvel Marvel Studios

A Skrull

Fresh off the events of Captain Marvel this feels like the most obvious and prevailing theory for how Gregg will stay in the mix. Captain Marvel introduced the shape-shifting aliens as a mysterious but largely neutral group of alien refugees looking for a home. The ones we met during Captain Marvel turned out to be decent folks, as revealed following a good head fake, but that doesn't mean some bad ones aren't running around the MCU circa 2019.

The show has often borrowed elements from the movies, and this would make for an easy way to explain Coulson's face still hanging around. Plus, it'd give the new season a tangential connection to what looks to be the MCU's newest breakout hero, and that's always a good thing.

Phil Coulson, Clark Gregg

Brainwashed Coulson

This is a comic book show, after all — and who doesn't love a good brainwashing story? The concept is basically a holy chapter in the comic book lore. There are plenty of sci-fi MacGuffins to explain how Coulson might've survived his pending death, and some nefarious group would certainly have much to gain by putting Nick Fury's right-hand man unwittingly on their payroll.

It's worth noting they've teased Gregg will be playing a new-ish character, which makes this a bit of a stretch, but it'd also leave the door open to eventually bring Coulson back home to be a hero once again.

LMD Marvel Comics

Evil LMD Coulson

One of the best arcs of the past few seasons focused on the development of Life Model Decoys (LMDs), which are essentially extremely human-like androids that bordered on having their own self-awareness (they've been around in the comics for decades). It was a heady, fun story — and who's to say there's not a Coulson LMD sitting out there on a shelf somewhere, just waiting to be programmed and activated?

The technology has already been introduced within S.H.I.E.L.D.'s corner of the MCU, and it'd also provide a good throughline to those previous stories. Sure, Dr. Radcliffe not being around anymore might make things a bit more complicated, but it's certainly still possible.


Undercover Coulson

This one would probably just be too easy, but it's worth noting. What if, while on the verge of death, Coulson is saved thanks to some magical/sci-fi MacGuffin and realizes he must go undercover to stop some mysterious new threat. But, to do so, he has to cut off all ties (and maybe even memories, which is again, something we've seen before) to stop this new enemy. Maybe this new Coulson really is the old Coulson, just so deep undercover he can't tip off the team? It's not the most likely option, but still a possibility.


Evil, Possessed Coulson

As fans are well aware, there's some direct precedent for this one. Much like they're getting creative to keep Gregg in the cast, the writers did the same a few years ago for original co-star Brett Dalton. After it was revealed that Dalton's Ward was actually a Hydra double agent, he stuck around as an antagonist before finally being killed and left for dead on an alien planet. It's at this point he was possessed by the alien entity Hive, and returned as a fresh new baddie for the rest of the season.

Could the same happen to Coulson? Six seasons in and S.H.I.E.L.D. has touched on everything from sci-fi, to magic, and the weird places in-between. He could be possessed by an alien, a mystical creature, or myriad other things to keep him around and causing trouble.


Something Else Entirely

Of course, there's always the option that none of these theories are remotely close. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has proven time and time again to be a clever, thoughtful take on the Marvel Comics universe. That universe has a deep, deep well of stories to draw on. More than we could name here, and more than we could probably imagine. If the writers don't take one of these more obvious routes, it could literally be anything. Maybe he's an evil twin? Or they're finally taking a stab at the multiverse, and this is actually Earth-2 Coulson? Ooh, wouldn't that be fun?