2) Gradually More Complex Narrative Arcs
Part 1 demonstrated that the Agents of SHIELD showrunners have been playing with the structure of their seasons since the beginning, largely through the dynamics of protagonists and antagonists. The reality of “pods” for each season can also be determined through the actual plot that the seasons run through. Sometimes these pods are defined by subtitles (as in seasons 3 and 4). Other times they can only be seen through particular turns in the overarching plot. Within each larger pod the showrunners, even from the very beginning, have inserted “mini-arcs” that pay off particular characters, themes, and questions while pivoting to new ones. These pods and mini-arcs can best be discerned through outlines of the plots for each season. Those outlines are below. The titles for the Pods and mini-arcs (except for some for seasons 3 and 4) are my own.
SEASON 1: Characterized by looser pods, but still identifiable, based upon culminating moments at three distinct points that close off some narratives while opening up others. A sort of mini-arc structure in the first half, but less well-defined than in future seasons.
Pod 1 - "Beginnings" - Episodes 1-11, culminating in Peterson's apparent death and Raina revealing that the Clairvoyant and his minions are trying to figure out how Coulson was resurrected. The final two episodes bring together threads from preceding episodes, including Peterson and Centipede (Episode 1), the eye implants (Episode 4), Raina, Po, and the Clairvoyant (Episode 5), Victoria Hand (Episode 7) and Skye’s untrustworthiness (multiple previous episodes) and Coulson's concerns about his resurrection (most previous Episodes). As seen above, this first pod is even broken into a few “mini-arcs”:
--Mini-Arc A - Episodes 1-5 - introducing Coulson and Skye and their season-long arcs, as well as the important characters who will recur later in the season.
--Mini-Arc B - Episodes 6-9 - fleshing out the characters of Fitz, Simmons, May and Ward.
--Mini-Arc C - Episodes 10-11 - the culmination of the first pod, demonstrated by the returns of Peterson and Raina.
Pod 2 – “The Hunt” – Episodes 12-17, culminating in the reveal that Garrett was the Clairvoyant and Ward is working with him. This arc mainly involves the search for the Clairvoyant and begins the real “serialization” of the show. Most people say this doesn’t happen until Episode 16, but Episode 12 brings back Quinn from Episode 3, who also appears in episodes 13 and 14; as well as Skye’s 0-8-4 connection (related to Episode 2, but threaded throughout the first half of the season). The tag ending of 12 kicks off the hunt for the Clairvoyant, which occupies narrative space in episodes 13, 16 and 17. Episode 14 deals directly with the aftermath of Quinn shooting Skye in Episode 13, which was a part of the hunt for the Clairvoyant. Episode 15 (“Yes Men”) is the only real “outlier” that shifts away from the Clairvoyant focus.
Pod 3 – “The Aftermath” – Episodes 18-22, culminating in Coulson being charged by Fury with re-building SHIELD after narrating the organization’s “fall” in episode 17.
SEASON 2: Two large pods, with new experimentation into “mini-arcs.” A total of four mini-arcs.
Pod 1 – “The Obelisk” – Episodes 1-10 - Mainly concerns the Obelisk and what it does. Although the arc ends with a powerful moment for Daisy, the protagonist here is mainly Coulson, who is trying to rebuild SHIELD while dealing with his “Writing on the Wall” illness.
--Mini-Arc A – “Repercussions” – Episodes 1-5 – The through-line here is the fallout of everything that happened last season. Simmons is separated from the team and doesn’t return until Episode 5. Culminates in the return of Simmons in Episode 5 and the introduction of Bobbi, who rounds out the new team.
--Mini-Arc B – “The Writing on the Wall” – Episodes 6-10 – The through-line here is the search for the city. Culminates in Skye gaining her powers.
Pod 2 – “Introducing the Inhumans” – Episodes 11-22 – What the title says. Daisy is the main protagonist for this arc.
--Mini-Arc A – “Aftershocks” – Episodes 11-15 – The through-line is Daisy dealing with her powers in the context of SHIELD. Culminates in Daisy choosing to go with Gordon. The final episode (One Door Closes) also reveals the true intentions of the “other SHIELD,” thus closing a loop.
--Mini-Arc B – “Afterlife” – Episodes 16-22 – The through-line is Daisy’s relationship with the Afterlife Community and her mother. Culminates in her killing her mother, who she first meets in Episode 16.
SEASON 3: Two large pods, with a similar set-up to season 2, though less well-defined. Also includes even smaller mini-arcs. The first pod, once again, has Coulson as the main protagonist, as he works with the ATCU and falls tragically in love. The second pod, once again, has Daisy as the main protagonist, as she tries to build up the Secret Warriors, but falls under Hive’s Sway. Notice that both pods end with the deaths of both the protagonist’s love interests and antagonists. A total of five mini-arcs.
Pod 1 – “ATCU” – Episodes 1-10 – Mainly deals with the ATCU, which functionally ceases to exist after Rosalind Price’s death in episode 9.
--Mini-Arc A – "Rosalind" – Episodes 1-3 – The ATCU acts against SHIELD’s interests, culminates in Coulson agreeing to work with Rosalind in Episode 3.
--Mini-Arc B – "Lash" – Episodes 4-7 – Lash, who appeared briefly in Episode 1, occupies a lot of narrative space in Episodes 4-7. He appears in Episode 4, the team tries to figure out who he is in Episode 6, and he is put in stasis in Episode 7. This is also the “courting” phase of Coulson and Rosalind’s relationship. They work together throughout all of these episodes, culminating in Coulson spending the night with Rosalind in Episode 7.
--Mini-Arc C – "Ward" – Episodes 8-10 - While the ATCU was the antagonist in 1-3 and Lash was in 4-7, Ward is the main antagonist in 8-10. Ward had appeared in a few previous episodes, but takes center stage in 8, 9 and 10. This arc culminates in Ward’s death in Episode 10.
Pod 2 – “Secret Warriors” – Episodes 11-22 – Mainly deals with the rise and fall of the Secret Warriors Team.
--Mini-Arc A – “Secret Warriors” – Episodes 11-17. Begins with Elena Rodriquez (Yo-Yo), who agrees to join the Secret Warriors in Episode 11. Ends with the team fully formed, but falling apart in Episode 17.
--Mini-Arc B – “Fallen Agent” – Episodes 18-22. Daisy is under Hive’s Sway. Ends with Hive defeated and Lincoln dying with him.
SEASON 4: Three large, very well-defined pods, that, nevertheless, also include several mini-arcs. A total of six mini-arcs.
Pod 1 – "Ghost Rider" – Episodes 1-8.
--Mini-Arc A – “Daisy apart from SHIELD” – Episodes 1-4. Culminates with Daisy coming back to the team in Episode 4.
--Mini-Arc B – “Ghost Rider” – Episodes 5-8. Although he had been introduced vaguely in the previous four episodes, his backstory is fully fleshed out in these episodes, including flashbacks for Lucy and for Robbie Reyes.
Pod 2 – "LMD" – Episodes 9-15.
--Mini-Arc A – "May" - Episodes 9-11 - May does not know she is an LMD, and slowly discovers that she is.
--Mini-Arc B – "The Superior" - Episodes 12-15 – The Superior takes a prominent role as the antagonist. Ends with LMD May sacrificing herself.
Pod 3 – Agents of Hydra – Episodes 16-22
--Mini-Arc A – Episodes 16-20 – The team within the Framework.
--Mini-Arc B – Episodes 21-22 – The team fights Aida in the real world and the threads from all of the three season arcs come together.
SEASON 5: Three more subtle pods, that seem like two, but are actually three. Five mini-arcs.
Pod 1 - The Future - Episodes 1-10 - defined by the team being in the future. Culminates in their return to the present.
--Mini-Arc A - Episodes 1-6 - “Scattered” - defined by the team being scattered throughout both space and time. The team starts “together” in the diner, and is slowly separated more and more throughout the first few episodes, before being brought back together by the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh episodes.
--Mini-Arc B - Episodes 7-10 - “Escape” - defined by the team’s attempts to escape the future and go back into the past in order to prevent this future from happening. Also defined by Robin and her visions. Elderly Robin enters the scene for the first time in Episode 7.
Pod 2 - "The Rift" - Episodes 11-14 - defined by the team trying to seal the rift. Culminates in sealing the rift, but creating real personal rifts between the members of the team.
No mini-arcs, since this pod is so short in and of itself.
Pod 3 - "The Destroyer of Worlds" - Episodes 15-22 - defined by the shifting realizations of who the Destroyer of Worlds actually is, and by the reintroduction of General Talbot, who is the true antagonist of this final pod.
--Mini-Arc A - "Ruby" - Episodes 15-18 - defined by Ruby’s story, which is given flashback context in Episode 15 and ends in Episode 18 with her death.
--Mini-Arc B - "Graviton" - Episodes 19-22 - defined by Talbot absorbing the gravitonium in Episode 19, ending in Episode 22 with...
From the analysis contained in the last two posts, it seems clear to me that Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Jeff Bell have been playing with Pods and mini-arcs from the very beginning. The creative success of each season depends on the interplay of pods and arcs that are focused on character and pods and arcs that are focused on plot.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this. Please play nice in the comments below.