With Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s unconventional sixth season renewal being announced – something that has both pleased and confused the show’s many fans – the pressure fell on season 5’s final episode to deliver something special. While it succeeded on many levels, the resolution also left some viewers scratching their heads. The defeat of Graviton felt strangely anti-climactic, the fate of Agent Phil Coulson remained vague, and Deke’s off-screen disappearance created more questions than answers.
Plus, of course, there was the shocking death of SHIELD’s top scientist Leo Fitz… and the mention of him still being alive, despite all evidence to the contrary.
That last moment, in particular, threw many viewers. How was such a thing even possible, after he’d sustained a fatal injury? If any episode of any show needed just a few more minutes of screentime to explain what had happened, it was this one. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. More attentive viewers will have realised, however, that while Fitz did indeed die there was also his months-younger self still existing in cryogenic suspension in space – being watched over by Enoch the Living Recorder. Enoch, of course, being another character whose death occurred earlier in the season but in the future… when he was older.
If that all sounds confusing, welcome to the wonderful world of time travel paradoxes.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fifth season has been a lesson in the contradictory nature of time travel paradoxes, starting with a majority of the team having been sent 74 years into Earth’s future. For them, the time travel was instantaneous and it became their plan to return to their own time in order to prevent that particular future from happening. Fitz was purposefully left behind in the present, however, and with Enoch’s help he froze himself and made his way to the future the long way around by simply existing as years passed by. The team’s return to the present (along with new team member Deke) found them trapped in a time-loop, uncertain as to how to break it and create a better future.
The nature of time-travel has always been a speculative one, with some believing that the course of time can be changed (resulting in a paradox that contradicts itself) while others believe in pre-determinism – meaning that time can’t be changed everything will always happen the way it was meant to. It’s the latter idea which fuelled SHIELD’s problematic time-loop struggle to alter the course of future history. Yet they managed to break that loop, proving that time is fluid and can indeed be altered… at least in the MCU. That last part makes sense since Doctor Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto/Time Stone has already been shown to do exactly that same thing.
The future that the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. travelled to and lived in briefly was a potential future, not a certainty. That potential future was the reason why a younger Fitz is slowly making his gradual way through time in cryogenic suspension, and all the team have to do is find out where he is in the present and thaw him out to have him return to the team. By now breaking the time-loop, the team have managed to prevent that potential future from happening. That’s easy enough. But… they also lived through it and still retain memories of it, which is what helped them to break the time-loop in the first place. Not only that, but Fitz was revived in the future and helped to rescue them.
The real problem is the paradox. Since that potential future timeline has been wiped out, then how could the team have travelled to it? Why do they still remember it since it never existed? If Fitz is rescued now, then how can he help to save them in that future? What really happened to Deke – the young man they brought back with them from that timeline?
Time travel stories usually create countless contradictions, and this is one of them. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly no critique of the show since it’s allowed the writers to play around with some intriguing concepts this season. It’s led to fascinating situations and debates, as well as offered a fascinating bigger-picture story arc throughout the season. Yet it’s still contradictory.
And this is why a few extra minutes of screentime would have helped to explore the situation a little further. All it would have taken was a brief exchange of dialogue between characters at the end to explain that they’ve become living, breathing anomalies – that they remember a future that no longer exists but that was still completely real. The events they lived through and the personal scars they accumulated in that time still remain with them. For that same reason, even the missing Deke should still be with them just as he was… his very existence being an even greater anomaly. They shouldn’t exist as they do, nor should any of the events of the season have unfolded as they did this season… but they do and it did.
Of course, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a fictional show. More than that, it’s a Marvel show. If Marvel comics have proven anything over the years, it’s that trying to make sense of Marvel time travel stories will melt your brain. Characters like Cable and storylines like Age Of Apocalypse reveal how fast-and-loose the paradoxical nature of time travel and alternate/parallel timelines can be, especially when it comes to the world of comic books. Meanwhile, the X-Men films have contradicted their own timelines repeatedly and with little apology. It’s entertainment, and that’s what counts.