Ever since its premiere three-and-a-half years ago, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ridden a very fine line between developing its own characters and story-lines and maintaining continuity with the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both of these efforts seemed to hit an almost-perfect climax in the first season finale, when Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the lead of the series and the only character to transition over from the movies, was promoted to director of the just-gutted S.H.I.E.L.D. (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) by none other than Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) himself and tasked with rebuilding the organization into a smaller, sleeker, and more secretive affair.
This balancing act continued throughout season two, when Director Coulson and his new team battled against Hydra, established the Inhumans (characters who will get their own film outing – eventually), and supported the Avengers, by rebuilding the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier and helping track down Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) for them (as seen in The Avengers: Age of Ultron). But the third season saw a noticeable drop in these crossover elements – and even ended on a cliffhanger that heralded the end of Phil’s tenure as director.
Speaking with EW, Clark Gregg addresses who the new director just may be and remarks upon season three’s mention of events in Captain America: Civil War – which, in Gregg's mind, are more than likely linked together. So, just who is the new leader of the newly-federally-recognized spy organization? According to Gregg:
“I was not given a clear answer. I don’t know that it’s been determined. I thought I was going to find out when I saw Civil War, but it’s not at all clear. It all depends when the glorious Nick Fury returns from the cold and the shadows. I suspect, in the wake of the Sokovia Accords and the end of Civil War, the people involved in choosing who the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be are other than in-house S.H.I.E.L.D. people. If I know my government bureaucracies, I have a feeling it will be someone somewhat less qualified than Coulson to run S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Coulson, Gregg goes on to hypothesize, was probably demoted because of his being against Civil War’s Sokovia Accords, which would require all of his Inhuman agents and assets to register with the government – a push which had not gone so well with the greater Inhuman community back during the show’s second season.
If true, this would mark the next step forward in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s efforts to incorporate developments in the larger MCU into its own narrative progression - something which the series had (more or less) done a good job at, given the constraints of film and television production, up until season three. Just as S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to show the in-the-trenches warfare against Hydra in a way that Winter Soldier or Age of Ultron never could, season four could explore the full extent of Civil War’s consequences by showing the personal, professional, and political fallout among its core group of characters (and President Matthew Ellis (William Sadler), who was introduced in Iron Man 3 and has become a recurring character of sorts on the TV show).
Then again, given the creative break-up between Marvel Studios (the film side) and Marvel TV, it just may be that the showrunners and their writing-producing staff have even less of an appetite – and, certainly, less of an impetus – to keep up such storytelling synchronicity. At this point, it's unlikely that Fury will play a major role on S.H.I.E.L.D. (well, save for the series finale, perhaps), let alone become a recurring character by becoming S.H.I.E.L.D.'s leader again. It just may be that Coulson’s single reference to being on Team Cap will be all that audiences get – and considering that next May’s big movie release is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which takes place almost exclusively in deep space, it’s possibly that season four will be the first to not have any reference to the greater MCU at all.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 will premiere on ABC in Fall 2016.