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How Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Became Marvel's Best-Reviewed TV Show

SHIELD's Characters Have Become Incredibly Well-Developed

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. began, the lead characters were often criticized as being rather flat and one-dimensional. Five seasons on, nobody makes that criticism anymore.

Related: How Agents of SHIELD’s New Villain May Connect to Black Panther

The classic example is Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward. Back in Season 1, fans initially complained that he was "too good to be true." How could a black ops spy and assassin really be so morally impeccable? Early attempts to give Ward depth, such as "The Well," were initially dismissed. Then, shockingly, the episode "Turn, Turn, Turn" stripped away Ward’s mask and revealed he really had been "too good to be true." The Ward identity fans had seen in the first half-season was a cover, and Grant Ward was actually an agent of Hydra. It was a stunning reveal, transforming the series, and it’s nicely symbolic of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s approach to characterization.

In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., character layers are always peeled away. Sometimes that means character arcs are a little slow-burn; it took far too long for Fitz and Simmons to get together, for example. Sometimes, though, it pays off in a big way. The subtle, consistent development for Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May is a highlight; even now, five seasons on, May’s actions in Bahrain continue to define her. Parallel May’s relationship with the Inhuman Robin to her haunting actions in Bahrain, and the character development becomes tremendously impressive.

The actors, too, have gone from strength to strength. Chloe Bennett, for example, has grown in confidence and skill, and is now able to present an emotional nuance she’d never have been able to handle back in Season 1. In Season 4’s "No Regrets," there’s a moment when Aida tempts Daisy with the seductive concept of the Framework. So many conflicting emotions pass across Bennett’s face in a matter of seconds, giving that scene a remarkable emotional depth.

Agents of SHIELD's Family Matters

Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons and Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz in Agents of Shield season 4

The defining theme of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not espionage: it’s family. Everything in S.H.I.E.L.D. is intimate and personal, shaped by the relationships between characters. The series goes to great lengths to ensure its greatest twists and reveals matter to the team on a personal level; when the show fired the gun on Terrigenesis, for example, it was through Daisy’s experience of it. There’s a sense in which the S.H.I.E.L.D. team really aren’t very professional, but that often leads to mistakes. Coulson’s act of vengeance, when he killed Ward on the planet Maveth, actually gave the Inhuman Hive a vessel in which to return to Earth.

Related: Why S.H.I.E.L.D. Isn’t Helping Marvel’s Inhumans

But that gives the series heart. Every character is defined by their relationships with the rest of the team, and the bonds that tie the group together are stronger than any family. Nobody was surprised when Coulson refused to leave Daisy stranded in a dystopian future; he thinks of her almost as a daughter. The relationships between Fitz and Simmons, Coulson and May, and Mack and Yo-Yo, have in equal parts excited and annoyed fans.

Even the secondary characters are defined by this theme of "family." According to Marvel’s Jeph Loeb, that was why they chose to use Robbie Reyes’s version of Ghost Rider; his relationship with his brother Gabe and his uncle Eli Morrow made him a perfect thematic fit. In "All the Comforts of Home," the series revealed that Dove Cameron’s Ruby wasn’t just the daughter of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest adversary – she was also a fanatical villain in her own right. Given S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recurring themes, it shouldn’t actually have been as shocking a reveal as it was.

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