Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season 3 finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s third season finale was ostensibly about stopping Hive from deploying a warhead to obliterate a third of planet Earth, but the real tension was the question of who would die.
For the latter half of season 3, the show has been teasing a major character death. Thanks to a prophetic vision, Daisy knew that a member of her S.H.I.E.L.D. team would die—but, conveniently, the dream didn’t specify who, allowing ABC to promote the finale with a series of trailers hinting at the death of each character.
The result was a two-hour series of cliffhangers that was fun to watch, but whose premise felt a little hollow. The “who will die” question was slightly too arbitrary to accept as an organic part of the story, and while Lincoln presumably has some fans out there, we doubt that most viewers will be sad to see him go.
Despite giving Lincoln a Captain America-style heroic death, complete with some rather cheesy Jesus imagery, the main emotional payoff was Daisy’s grief. And while we’re all in favor of flipping the fridged girlfriend trope, hasn’t Daisy suffered enough? After the death of her mother, Hive’s brainwashing, and three years of S.H.I.E.L.D.-related trauma, why bother dramatically killing off her not-very-interesting boyfriend?
For the most part, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has grown stronger with every season. Featuring an endless stream of plot twists and double-crosses, it’s an entertaining interpretation of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric comics, which combine dark espionage stories with sci-fi worldbuilding. Case in point: the last five minutes of the finale, which included a six-month time jump; Daisy adopting a mallgoth vigilante persona; and the “birth” of AIDA, a humanoid A.I. Unfortunately, the finale also played into the show’s greatest weaknesses: its overcrowded cast and the increasingly incoherent characterization of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an organization.
— Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (@AgentsofSHIELD) May 18, 2016
We’ve said before that there are no heroes left in this show. While Nick Fury was portrayed as a pragmatist who made unpleasant decisions for the greater good, Coulson is basically just bad at his job. Under his leadership, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in chaos and has no coherent moral center.
This season saw Coulson torture a coma patient for information and outfit his Inhuman agents with explosive “murder vests,” giving the killswitch to human agents as a precaution against Hive. And while the show occasionally acknowledges this descent into authoritarian supervillainhood, the main team are still framed as heroes—even when they’re killing or detaining people without trial, or doing bafflingly incompetent things like “imprisoning” Hive in an aircraft hangar with the doors wide open.
As for the “too many characters” issue, this ties into the show’s need for more meaningful deaths. The finale included red herrings for the death of every main character, but by process of elimination, Lincoln was one of very few plausible options. (Skye and Coulson are too important to die; supporting characters like Yo-Yo are not important enough.)
— Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (@AgentsofSHIELD) May 14, 2016
Until one of the lead actors decides to leave, the main characters are functionally immortal. So, our brutal hope for season 4 is to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. take a leaf from The 100‘s book: Spend more time on emotional arcs for the supporting cast, so their deaths feel like a real loss, adding weight to all those fight scenes.
Aside from these structural issues—which at this point we’ve accepted as unavoidable—the finale did a good job of wrapping up the loose ends of season 3. Hive had almost outstayed his welcome, and with HYDRA out of the way, this frees up season 4 to focus on some new enemies.
As of now, we’re left with three big questions. First of all, what will AIDA do? Secondly, who is the new director? (We’re rooting for Maria Hill.) And in a broader sense, what will happen with the Sokovia Accords? With the Inhumans increasingly unlikely to ever appear in the movie franchise, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the ideal place to deal with the aftermath of Civil War.