After a year off the air, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns to ABC for its sixth season on Friday, May 10 with a refreshed premise, a seeming departure from its big screen Marvel Cinematic Universe cousin, and a new director at the center of television’s Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Luckily, Rotten Tomatoes had the chance to visit S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ and debrief the cast ahead of the new season’s premiere.
As first revealed at the end of season 5, Alfonso Mackenzie — better known as “Mack” — succeeded the dying Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) as the head of the agency after Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) turned down the position. Season 6 picks up sometime after Coulson’s apparent death, with Mack now firmly entrenched as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director. It is a leadership role actor Henry Simmons, who plays Mack, said he loves. In previous seasons, Mack was most frequently seen offering a bewildered punchline about the group’s latest adversary or impossible scenario. But now he’s front and center.
“Now, you have to drive the scenes as a director. I was talking with Clark about this,” Simmons said. “The weird thing is when you become director you feel responsible for each person, for what’s happening in the scene. It’s weird. And I enjoy that. I am grateful for the fact that they put it in my hands.”
As the actor recalled, Mack started as a mechanic who wound up in S.H.I.E.L.D. prior to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He first became part of Coulson’s team when another faction of S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted to test their loyalty following the revelation that Hydra had infiltrated the organization. But after years of dealing with demons and traveling though time, Mack grew to respect Coulson and his team.
And as seen in some of the previews for the new season, Mack still refers back to a hologram of Coulson contained within Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) toolbox from earlier seasons.
“This is a daily thing,” Simmons explained. “Mack really relies on this hologram for advice, for direction … there’s a lot to deal with. We have a member that’s out there somewhere, a team member that we have to find. And we have an occurrence that’s happening around Earth that is unpredictable and deadly.”
Both objectives will hopefully allow Mack to prove to himself he was the right choice to succeed Coulson, a theme executive producer Jeff Bell said will recur through the season.
“In the same way that Coulson questioned his ability after Fury — ‘Can I be a director? Do I have what it takes?’ — I think Mack is going through his own version of that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the missing team member Simmons mentioned is Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), who also died at the end of season 5. But thanks to the malleable nature of time travel on the series, an earlier version of Fitz is still alive somewhere in deep space and it’s up to a team comprised of Daisy, Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), Agent Piper (Briana Venskus), and Agent Davis (Maximilian Osinski) to find him.
For Daisy, the mission is particularly fraught considering the future version of Fitz tried to kill her to prevent the world from ending. (Things got a little crazy last season.) But this Fitz never hurt her.
“I think the one thing that connects all of them is that they’re all trying to be the best versions of themselves, but still at the end of the day, there’s darkness within every character,” Bennet said.
That darkness may be most apparent in Jemma Simmons, whose dedication to finding Fitz tests the patience of the others as the season begins.
“Ethically she’s just so biased on finding him. So she is not worried about other people’s feelings. She doesn’t care what the consequences are,” Henstridge said of her character’s state of mind. She noted the character has become single-minded before, but never to this extent — threatening the lives of the others. “She’s can’t fit anything else in her head at the moment, because as soon as she starts to think about other people, she’ll start to think about the crazy odds of what she’s trying to do and she’ll break down.”
For Piper and Davis, the mission means a certain sacrifice, but for Venskus and Osinski, it means a promotion. After appearing on the series off-and-on for the past four years, both will feature regularly for the first time this season. It means an expansion of the characters and a new role for them to share.
“We are kind of like the ‘everyman’ of the show,” Osinski explained, adding, “We don’t have superpowers; we don’t have robotic arms or special weapons.”
Said Venskus, “We’re the ones who are more surprised by things still — which is kind of cool. We provide that comedic relief of being, like, ‘This isn’t normal, right?’”
They are, however, highly trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who managed to survive just about every upheaval since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s initial fall in The Winter Soldier. As Venskus put it, that means Piper went to from learning about aliens in her first episode to treating space travel like “no big deal” in season 6. And if previous seasons are any indication, the duo’s deep space adventure will continue for quite awhile.
“They have a similar drive and focus,” Gregg said of Coulson and Sarge. “They’re both, I think, not someone whose willpower you want to question. But everything else, the moral framework, all that stuff, is different.”
According to executive producer Jed Whedon, Sarge’s frame of mind will be “so shocking to people” that it “actually has its own power.” At the same time, watching Sarge make the choices he does while looking and sounding like Coulson “gives those moments more weight than they normally would have.”
“It was very, very hard to get my balance,” Gregg said of switching gears into Sarge. “It really felt odd. There’s a part of [his thinking] that’s so clean. He has a mission and he does [it] … life means nothing to him. He wants what he wants. And he’s going to get it done. And that’s very freeing, and it’s kind of sexy, it feels like it’s fun. And yet I had a lot of questions about how he’s justifying that.”
One character also having a hard time justifying Sarge’s presence is Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen). She stayed with Coulson during his last days and returned to S.H.I.E.L.D. a “freer” person. As Wen put it, “She doesn’t have the burden of dealing with either him being sick or die or come back after he died and die again.”
Of course, that sense of freedom gets “skewered” when she first sees Sarge.
“It’s a moment of disbelief and major angst for her,” Wen explained. But once May understands the real story behind Sarge, the character will have a familiar Melinda May reaction. “She’s pissed,” Wen added. “She’s really pissed.”
Beyond her reaction to Coulson, May brings her experience and honesty back to S.H.I.E.L.D. This includes an advisory role to Mack and Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova- Buckley). The latter continues to serve as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and, but Cordova-Buckley noted that her character has undergone a shift from the rebellious Yo-Yo we first met.
“It was really interesting for me to go from a girl that’s so [about] her word, her mind, her beliefs, and always really going against anything that goes against that,” Cordova-Buckley said, “to now saying, ‘You know what, there’s a bigger picture. I need to be more diplomatic. I need to settle the fire down and find my way within the institution, the bureaucracy, and all that stuff.’”
That said, Cordova-Buckley said Yo-Yo may still decline a leadership position within S.H.I.E.L.D., although she would become a great leader if circumstances forced the role upon her.
“I get a sense that she would rather be a mentor of sorts to young children, to Inhumans coming up, to sort of be the leader underground,” she said. ” Not the face of [a group].”
Circumstances always change quickly for S.H.I.E.L.D., both within its world and without. Last season, events appeared to coincide with Thanos’s (Josh Brolin) arrival on Earth to collect the Time and Mind Stones. But as the series was unclear when it would coming back — or even if it would come back — they could not plan a proper connection with the events of Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame. That means the slightest bit of retconning will be on display in the season to come.
“However the Time Lords want to work it out, all of this had to happen before the Snap,” executive producer Jeph Loeb explained. “Otherwise, we’d be living in the world that was brilliantly showed in Endgame.”
Then again, perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will employ the notion of tangent timelines to explain itself in some yet-to-be-written episode. The show always excels at finding the odd corners of the MCU to examine and that would be a fine one to use. In the meantime, though, S.H.I.E.L.D. has plenty of personal crises and intergalactic stakes to keep themselves busy ahead of the already planned season 7.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on ABC.