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'Agents of SHIELD' Stars Talk Time Travel, New Coulson and What's Ahead in the Final Season (Exclusive)

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Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is headed back in time for its final adventure -- and the cast couldn't be more thrilled!

The team of adventurous agents return for their seventh and final season on Wednesday, and their mission will send them throughout history, chasing after the villainous alien Chronicoms in order to prevent them from destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside out.

For the cast and crew of the show, the final two seasons were a bit of a bonus adventure -- after initially planning to say goodbye at the end of season 5, ABC renewed the series for two more seasons. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team spent season 6 battling the Chronicoms in space, and now return to Earth for a timeline-hopping adventure that calls back some of the levity of the show's earlier seasons.

"The writers knew it was our last season, and we've done everything. I think there's just a real surrender to, well, if this is our last one, let's go big or go home," star Elizabeth Henstridge told ET ahead of the season premiere. "Everything was just more extreme. The fights, the costumes, the comedy, the charm, it's very-- it's a real roller coaster of emotions, which, as an actor, I mean, that was just a dream come true."

"It was really, really fun… [for us] and for the crew, to really see every department just feel invigorated by each time period," Chloe Bennetagreed, noting that she actually had an easier time performing the fight scenes in her period-appropriate dresses than in her skintight Quake suit. "It's such a gift to be able to kind of see these characters you know well, and throw them into such different environments and obviously, clothing… It was just such a fun way to express the individuality of each of the characters through this time period, with the wardrobe and the hair and makeup. And I think it's something that fans are going to, like, really, really enjoy seeing. There's some really fun episodes"

The season premiere kicks off in 1930s New York -- before even the MCU-canon adventures of Captain America and Peggy Carter, which lead to the foundation of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a post-World War II intelligence agency. However, the poster for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s final season offered fans some clues about other decades the team might be visiting in their mission to stop the Chronicoms.

While each member of the cast had their own decade they were keen on visiting -- Henry Simmons told ET he was most hoping to explore the culture and clothing of the '70s, Clark Gregg couldn't wait for the '80s, and Iain De Caestecker joked that he wanted to travel all the back to "Year Zero" -- the final episodes show the team treading lightly as they attempt to prevent the Chronicoms from altering the course of history. 

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD
ABC

"When you go in the past, there's a butterfly effect -- you do one thing and it changes something in the future," cautioned Simmons, whose Alphonso "Mack" MacKenzie is leading the charge as S.H.I.E.L.D. director. "There's always the threat of that happening. So that does not necessarily translate to the team always staying together."

For Gregg, coming back for the final season also meant inhabiting a new version of Agent Phil Coulson -- after dying at the end of season 5, he's resurrected by the team in the season premiere as a hyperrealistic Life Model Decoy, who contains all of Coulson's past memories and knowledge, and then some.

"I was really kind of fascinated by this part of it, just because I love sci-fi and everything from Blade Runner to X-men, the idea of a being who realizes that they are not organic, essentially," Gregg explained of inhabiting the "new" character. "Is this really Coulson or is it just a kind of algorithm that thinks it's Coulson? And then this, whoever is in there, Coulson is discovering that he doesn't feel as weird as he thought he might -- which is also strange -- and that he has abilities that surprise him."

Parts of the old Coulson are certainly hard-wired in this new LMD, as Gregg noted that his character's S.H.I.E.L.D. fanboy will definitely come out when he gets to meet one of the "legendary" founding members, Agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj, reprising his Agent Carter role) in the 1950s.

enver gjokaj agents of shield agent carter
ABC

However, while Mack and Coulson share a candid moment about his return in the season premiere, both Simmons and Gregg assured that the tension to come is not about leadership dynamics as much as the uncharted territory Coulson's LMD presents to the team.

"Coulson did not want to come back in any way, shape or form. And it wasn't his decision to bring him back," Simmons explained. "But now that he's back, he has to be an asset in one way or the other. And being a good leader, I have to use him as that asset, whether he or I want him there or not."

Gregg agreed, noting of the new Coulson, "I think he's very comfortable with the role he has, which is more, in some ways, more like how he started out in S.H.I.E.L.D. He has a very specific job, that's what he focuses on. And he's one of the agents on the squad. He wants someone else to run it. He prefers to be out in the field anyway."

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The transition likely won't be so easy for Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who is recovering after being mortally wounded by Sarge, Coulson's evil doppelganger, at the end of season 6,  and doesn't yet know that her former love has returned in this new life form.

"Poor Melinda May," Gregg said with a laugh. "She's not that comfortable with her feelings to begin with. She finally managed to have some, and to reveal them with Phil Coulson... and they finally get together and then he dies and he comes back and he's an evil alter ego. And now he's a synthetic being."

"Give the poor woman a break," he added. "We'll see. I think he ends up being a lot more lifelike than she might've imagined, so that's going to challenge both of them."

As for the team's other romantic entanglements, Simmons had hope for the on-again, off-again Mack and Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), even if the agents initially have to prioritize their mission over their relationship.

"Mac and Yo-Yo have been through quite a bit," he noted. "Death, loss, breaking up, and so many different things. And they've always managed to find their way back to each other. So I would bet on that… If I survive, I will bet on it. We'll see."

However, the biggest rift in season 7 is certainly between Fitz (De Caestecker) and Simmons (Henstridge), who, while being the series' most solid couple, have seen their share of hardships and roadblocks. The final episodes are no different, as the married pair are separated once again in their mission to defeat the Chronicoms -- and, most tragically, cannot know of each other's whereabouts in order to protect themselves and the team from the powerful intelligence of their alien adversaries.

"They're used to being apart. I think the difference this time is they're not- Simmons, she says, 'I can't know where Fitz is,'" Henstridge previewed. "It's a new challenge that she hasn't faced before... it's the unknown. And I think that, as somebody that is so intelligent and has built her life around knowing things, that is almost the most terrifying thing for her -- to not know and to have no control over that."

"I think that they've made a decision and they're going to deal with the consequences of it," De Caestecker added. "You'll see that play out through the season."

"That relationship and the way that relationship played out is something we're all very proud of on the show," he noted. "I think as someone who's quite close to that story, especially those two, Fitz and Simmons, I think that the writers finish it off in a very satisfying way for people that stuck with the show this long, in my personal opinion."

While there's certainly drama to come, the cast said they were most excited for the unique adventures that time-traveling presents, week after week. For Bennet, circling back to more lighthearted capers was the perfect way to cap off the story for her character, Daisy Johnson, who has evolved from hacktivist to S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit to Inhuman superhero over the series' epic run.

"Throughout the past seven seasons, she's really had quite the journey," she noted. "She's been through so much, whether it was trying to find her parents, getting powers, not wanting them, dealing with them, feeling guilty about it, then dealing with Coulson dying... all these things that she's dealt with."

"What I wanted to bring back to her in the seventh and final season is really that kind of lightness that she had in the first season… a sense of groundedness in who she was, in kind of accepting all versions of her that we've seen and been through."

The whole cast agreed that the levity of the final season helped them prepare to say goodbye to a show that's seen their team embark on a truly epic amount of adventures through Marvel lore -- through space and time, into the Framework and a Hydra alternate universe, fighting alongside Ghost Rider, Lady Sif and many more legends of comic canon. Plus, they added, it was just a lot of fun.

"It's just fun to put a dress on and kind of like, swirl around a bit while fighting aliens," Bennet added with a laugh. "And it's also something I'll probably never do again. I'll probably never be dressed up in 1930s clothes while fighting aliens ever again. So I really had a good time with the chaos of it all."

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. PT/ET on ABC.

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