Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the season finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Read at your own risk.
You were warned. You knew Coulson was going to lose something important to him. And yet, you probably never could have guessed that the dogged director would lose his freaking arm in the season finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
As the Inhumans plotted to unleash the Terrigen crystals aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft carrier, Coulson (Clark Gregg), Mack (Henry Simmons) and Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) went up against formidable teleporter Gordon (Jamie Harris), whose last act before he was impaled was to drop one of the crystals that could’ve wiped out every human on the ship.
Coulson jumped into action and caught the crystal, but his heroic act came at a price as he began to petrify. Fortunately, Mack made the swift and executive decision to cut off Coulson’s arm in order to save him. “It really hurt,” Gregg tells EW with a laugh.
Don’t worry, Gregg still has both of his appendages—though he did end up a little sore the morning after production wrapped from diving head-first to catch the crystal over multiple takes. The TV magic of the scene includes a mechanical axe that actually cuts through a faux arm made up of tripe wrapped around a chicken thigh—which is what gives you the crunching sound of a bone being chopped in two. Yummy.
It all started prior to production on the finale, when the producers sought Gregg out for a little chat one day on set. “It’s always terrifying when they do that,” Gregg says. “Maybe it’s just post-traumatic stress from already having been killed off once, but they said they needed to talk to me about something. They pulled me out into an alley and told me some of the stuff that was coming in the finale. I was as happy to hear that I was going to patch some of my difficulties up with Henry Simmons, whom I love so much—I have been at odds with his character all season—as I was sad to learn that I was going to lose a hand.”
Following talk of which hand would end up on the chopping block, the realization of what was happening began to settle in. “It’s heavy,” Gregg says. “You go, ‘Wow that’s a big change,'” which is true for both character and actor. “It’s one of those things where you’re having the practical difficulty your character does. People were handing me stuff, like files, and I couldn’t really open them without using my nose. I had to do a lot of practicing.”
“Then, it came to the process of actually doing that scene, which was a really key, climactic, really beautifully written, heroic scene,” Gregg says. “There’s no way around it. It’s either you or it’s not you diving head first across the floor and trying to save the rest of the team. You go out with a bang. There are a lot of questions in Coulson’s mind, like what does this mean? It’s clear that it’s the end for a moment or two.”
However, Coulson doesn’t necessarily fear death in that moment. “I feel like he’s a guy who loves his life as much as he loves his job, and feels like there are people living around the world because he’s there, and that gives him a real purpose, but I just don’t think he came back after The Avengers the same, not deep down,” Gregg says. “I feel like he has a different relationship with death in that it’s not something that he’s longing for, but I don’t think he’s as afraid of it as he was. It’s almost like he’s not 100 percent meant to be here now. If things had gone one way, at least it’s him returning to his non-living state—in a way, that’s restoring order in the universe. That’s a little fatalistic, but I think that’s an element of what’s in there for him.”
Still, Gregg is happy Coulson just ended up losing his hand and not his life. “I’m thrilled to have survived another season,” he says. “I never take it as a given. There are very few people who get one heroic death, never mind two.”
What does this mean for Coulson next season? It’s still TBD. “They hinted that it’s a real loss, but certainly in this world, with some of the friends we have at S.H.I.E.L.D., there may be some technology that makes the loss of that hand, at some point down the line, a little bit less painful.” That, or, “I’m hoping that Deathlok will lend me one of his amazing hands if I ever need to fight anybody,” Gregg says.
For the finale, at least, Gregg explains that they used more low-tech methods to hide his arm in order to shoot the scene with Skye and Lola. “There was some clever work done by the wardrobe and props department to make it look really believable,” Gregg says. “It freaked people out who walked by.”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will return to ABC in the fall. In the meantime, read our finale post-game with executive producer Jeffrey Bell here. Elizabeth Henstridge also weighs in on the mystery of Simmons’ disappearance here. And Brett Dalton ponders whether Ward is beyond redemption after taking over Hydra here.