Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has no business being so damn good. It’s no easy feat to wrap up a story in a satisfying way, much less one that’s set within a connected universe where the spotlight is mostly on the blockbuster movies. To do it right, you have to strip away the easter eggs, the connective tissue, and everything else to find what makes this story work — and what’s most important to resolve.
**Spoilers ahead for “The End,” the Season 5 finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which aired Friday, May 18, 2018.**
“We’re held together by hope, so we cling to it.” -Mack
That’s what the creative team behind S.H.I.E.L.D. did with “The End,” a season finale that’s better and more emotionally satisfying than most series finales you’ll ever see. Wow. Just wow.
It’s clear the producers approached this finale as the likely end of a five-year journey, since the episode was written and shot long before ABC decided to bring the show back in the summer of 2019 for 13 additional episodes. So something about “The End” really does feel like the end, as stories are wrapped up and new journeys are lined up just outside the margins.
With the team’s biggest threat yet literally ripping the city of Chicago up from the studs (and preparing to rip the world apart, keen-eyed fans would notice, via the half-blacked-out globe Robin gave him, denoting that there is Gravitonium buried all over the planet), what’s left of S.H.I.E.L.D. is literally ripping itself apart feuding over what to do about Coulson’s condition and what it could mean for the future. Coulson, a man who’s been on borrowed time since before the series began half a decade ago, opts to let nature take its course. He knew his days were numbered after cutting a deal with the Ghost Rider, and feels he’s cheated death enough times. This might’ve started as Coulson’s show, but if anything, it’s become a show about his legacy. Coulson’s life’s work is assembling heroes, and he’s done it here in spades.
As Daisy is driven to save Coulson at whatever cost, she finally realizes something only a true leader could accept — she doesn’t need to be the one in charge. Instead, she passes the reins to Mack, a character who has been the heart and moral center of this show for years. The team needs someone it can rally behind, someone to make the call to do what’s right even when the ends might justify the means. That man is Mack. He's been a quiet force within this team for years, and the payoff of seeing him take charge of the team is simply amazing.
His first order of business is to take S.H.I.E.L.D. back to its original mission: saving lives. The team arrives to face Graviton and starts rescue and recovery efforts, while an ailing Coulson gives Daisy one last pep talk as she prepares to take on Talbot. It’s these calls, made in the heat of the moment, that finally break the time loop that has haunted the team all year. Coulson chooses not to use the Centipede serum, and instead sneaks it into Daisy’s gauntlet for a power boost in the field. It works — and juices up Daisy’s quake powers to the point where she literally rockets a surprised Talbot into space with one blow. Saving the world and breaking the loop with one punch.
Even though S.H.I.E.L.D. emerges victorious, that doesn’t mean the war didn’t have casualties. Fitz is crushed and impaled by falling debris while trying to rescue Robin’s mother, leading to one of the most brutal and heart-wrenching death scenes of the year (though that doesn’t mean Fitz is gone for good; more on that later). He dies holding Mack’s hand, having gotten caught in the fray at least doing the right thing, after two seasons of making hard, dark choices along the way.
With the world saved, the final act of the episode shifts into what’s next for the team. Despite his condition, Coulson does manage to live through the final battle — and finally gets to enjoy his retirement (however many days that might entail) in the real-life Tahiti. Turns out it really is a magical place. May joins him on the island getaway, to spend however many days he may have left together to, ahem, check a few things off their bucket lists.
As for Fitz, a sly fakeout surrounding a badge dedicated to Coulson’s retirement ends with the reveal that Fitz (or at least a version of him) really is still alive. A quick reminder on how all that time travel worked out: The team jumped ahead in time, all except for Fitz. He met up with the team in the future by taking the long way around, spending decades frozen in suspended animation in a spaceship to eventually rendezvous with the team. With the time loop broken, that version of Fitz no longer has anyone to meet in the future — but he’s still frozen, out there in space, waiting to be rescued. They allude to the fact that Simmons’ next mission will be to track down her lost husband, though he’s from an earlier point in the timeline and will not have lived through anything from pretty much the back half of the season. But with a sixth season now in the cards, there’s every chance we’ll see Fitz back in action.
The episode ends with the new-look team assembled under the leadership of Mack, flying off to get back to basics and keep saving the day. Again, it’s clear the writers approached this story as a potential end point, and to be honest, it’s so good you’d have to think most fans would’ve been pleased to see the story end here. Obviously, excited to see where the show goes next, but there’s no doubt this is a fitting end to the story they’ve been telling for five years. By the same token, there’s now a fresh page to write new stories next year.
*Any fans hoping to see a big tie-in to Infinity War were likely disappointed, but if you really thought half the cast would just blink out of existence, you haven’t been watching this series. S.H.I.E.L.D. links to the films when it serves its own story, typically, not the other way around. Having a forced cliffhanger where half the team simply dusts out wouldn’t have been true to the story they’re telling here, and would’ve been truly random when looking at the emotional and personal stakes. Sure, it creates a bit of wonky time-keeping and continuity to sidestep Thanos’ finger snap completely (maybe the episode technically ended before Thanos snapped?), but there’s no denying it was the right call. This is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s story. If you want to see people go poof, go see Infinity War again.
*One big question that’s not really answered is what became of Deke. Is he still out there seeing the world, or did he blink out of existence when they broke the time loop? Here’s hoping Season 6 finally brings some definitive answers.
*Amid all the Infinity War chaos, Talbot also caused some noise in Chicago, literally crashing an alien ship into the city. Obviously the Avengers were a bit too busy to respond, so it makes sense the response would be somewhat underpowered.
*Once it’s clear the time loop is broken, we get a quick montage showing the team breaking anything they know they’d eventually see in the future. Smart move, better safe than sorry.
*With a sixth season in the offing, the big question is what they’ll do about Coulson? Sure, there’s a million ways they could McGuffin some tech to keep him alive (especially since he never actually dies before the episode ends). He’s arguably the biggest star of the show, and it’d obviously make sense to keep him around. That said, this really did feel like the end of his story, and to retcon that in Season 6 just to get him back on the cast list would only cheapen what was a truly moving finale. At this point, I don’t envy the writers tasked with figuring that one out. Luckily, they have a while to sort it all out.