WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avengers: Infinity War.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always tended to be Marvel's official tie-in TV series, but now the show faces its greatest challenge to date: how to reference the cosmic events of Avengers: Infinity War. The last two seasons saw S.H.I.E.L.D. abandon explicit tie-ins in favor of thematic links - think Season 4's Ghost Rider arc, for example. But that approach isn't going to work for Infinity War.
It always seemed likely that Season 5 would tie in directly to Infinity War. This season didn't kick off till December, and as a result is building to a head right when Infinity War is releasing at cinemas worldwide. When S.H.I.E.L.D. returned to their own time, the ill-fated Recorder Noah referred to an Asgardian in the city; that was a clear reference to Thor: Ragnarok. The post-credits scene for Thor: Ragnarok happens just moments before Infinity War, so there was obvious going to be some sort of reference.
In the latest episode, "Option Two," there was a reference to Infinity War's opening events. One secondary character, Tony Caine, referred to "weird stuff happening in New York." That was a reference to Thanos's arrival in New York, and the Black Order's attack on Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. S.H.I.E.L.D. are otherwise engaged, desperately attempting to avert the destruction of the planet. They simply don't know what's going on, and Daisy dismissed Tony by simply reporting that watching the news makes her crazy. But that means events are now building to the cliffhanger ending of Infinity War, where half the life in the universe blinks out of existence. There's no way Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can ignore that.
The Clock Is Ticking Down
It's important to remember that events in Infinity War seem to take at least a couple of days. The attack on New York is, so far as Earth is concerned, the first strike; enough time then passes for the news to go global, including that Tony Stark is missing. Steve Rogers's team then has enough time to pick up Vision, travel to Washington D.C. for a chat with General Ross, and then head to Wakanda. An unspecified amount of time passes in Wakanda, with Shuri beginning work on Vision, even as the Battle of Wakanda rages around her. You're realistically talking a maximum timescale of a couple of days.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now sits inside that two-day period. When Infinity War comes to an end, Thanos will stand triumphant, and half of the human race will disappear. Infinity War screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely freely admitted that they don't envy Marvel TV working out how to deal with the "ripple effect" of this, given it will necessarily take over the entire plot.
But showrunner Jed Whedon does seem to have a plan. "We are waiting for that movie to come out," he commented, "so it can open a new playground for us." A throwaway reference to another attack on New York is hardly a "new playground." He can only have been referencing the climax of Infinity War, which will plunge the Earth into chaos.
How Will Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Reference Infinity War?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could handle this in two different ways. The first is to have the disappearance occur partway through their endgame story, to incorporate it into the planet-shattering climax they're building up to. It would complicate S.H.I.E.L.D.'s desperate attempt to save the world, adding a dangerous new dynamic to it all. But, in narrative terms, this may not actually be a smart move. It would mean that, as part of the time loop, Thanos's victory always happened. Given flashbacks have already revealed the team's futures, they all clearly survive Thanos's finger-snap.
A better approach, though, would be for the rest of Season 5 to happen at speed, with the time loop averted in the season finale - all before Thanos's finger-snap. That would free up the series to launch a potential sixth season that explores the fate of the world left behind. Ironically, it would also mean that - inside the time loop - Earth's destruction probably brought an end to the Battle of Wakanda, and saved half the life in the universe. Maybe the whole cosmos would have been better off if S.H.I.E.L.D. had failed.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 continues with “The One Who Will Save Us All” Friday May 4 at 9pm on ABC.