This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. We stand with the SAG-AFTRA. Without them, the movies and television shows we cover would not exist.
Nowadays, Marvel is best known for its powerhouse presence in the entertainment space. Starting with Iron Man in 2008, Marvel set the precedent for other studios to create their own interconnected universes, spanning a myriad of onscreen projects. But what began with just movies has expanded into TV/streaming series.
For two-plus years and counting, Marvel has been following up the Infinity Saga of its Marvel Cinematic Universe with an array of both movies and original Disney+ shows. The company began its Disney+ reign with WandaVision, which premiered in January 2021. But the fan-favorite series was far from the first Marvel show with ties to the MCU.
It all started 10 years ago on September 24, 2013, when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered on ABC. Created in the aftermath of The Avengers, the Marvel television show revived a beloved character in Phil Coulson and gave fans a look at the more grounded life of the Marvel universe. It wasn’t about the big-name heroes and villains and monumental battles. It was about seemingly everyday people who happened to be (or become) agents and spies whose mission was to be the shield. It featured references to the larger MCU and the events of the movies but stood well on its own.
What would become a seven-season show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. paved the way for Marvel to really utilize TV as another storytelling outlet. It set the stage for a two-season Agent Carter show to run on ABC and preceded the Defenders Saga shows that debuted on Netflix: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and The Defenders.
Whether you’ve seen the show once or are on your umpteenth rewatch of the series, certain episodes stay with you. It could be for the story and emotion, the art and acting, or a combination of it all.
In honor of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s 10th anniversary, here are 10 must-watch episodes (including at least one from every season) from the groundbreaking Marvel TV show:
(If you have yet to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this is your spoiler alert! Check out the series, and come back here to see if your picks align with ours!)
Episode 1×01: “Pilot”
This one is kind of a given, because it’s where everything started. It’s far from one of the best episodes of the show, but it does a good job of establishing what the show is and becomes. You get a solid sense of who every character is and the possibilities that lie ahead for them. You get a legitimate idea of the tone the series will take and what it wants to be.
The pilot serves as a great reminder of not only how much the characters grow but also how far the show has come. Plus, it’s one of the episodes featuring a cameo by none other than Cobie Smulders’s Agent Maria Hill herself.
Episode 1×17: “Turn, Turn, Turn”
Marvel fans are no strangers to the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D. So what happens in a show about a spy organization that will implode and had been infiltrated by Hydra all along? This episode explores the peak of that chaos in a deep, intimate, personal way. It is truly a classic that never gets old — much like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the movie that addresses that game-changing event. No matter how many or how few times you’ve seen the episode, watching it is a gutwrenching experience that will likely leave you screaming at your screen through tears.
Episode 2×10: “What They Become”
By the end of the 136-episode series, Daisy Johnson has become known as this badass Inhuman superhero not only on Earth but across different planets. She even has her own superhero moniker of “Quake.” But “What They Become” offers a bittersweet reminder of how her Inhuman journey all started — when she still went by “Skye.” From Skye’s unideal first meeting with her father to the utterly heartbreaking ending for the beloved Antoine Triplett, the emotional turmoil of the narrative never lets up as the episode goes by. That’s just part of what made Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a compelling show that lasted years.
Episode 3×05: “4,722 Hours”
“4,722 Hours” is a very different episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but not in a bad way. It’s just a significant contrast to what the ensemble show had and goes on to present.
For one, episode 3×05 is not primarily set on Earth, making the start of the series’s narratives concerning foreign planets and interplanetary travel. It takes place on Maveth, a planet none of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team even knew existed. This episode is all about the show’s resident biochemist Jemma Simmons, played by Elizabeth Henstridge. Henstridge showcases her acting range and greatly demonstrates the depth of emotion that her character’s dire situation of being stranded on a foreign planet presents.
Episode 4×06: “The Good Samaritan”
This list would be incomplete without at least one episode featuring Ghost Rider. Widely regarded as one of the best arcs in the seven-season series, this storyline is excellent as a whole. So it was tough to narrow it down to what Ghost Rider-centric episode to include. But what made “The Good Samaritan” ultimately win out in the end is that it really highlights the humanity behind the person carrying that spirit of vengeance: Robbie Reyes.
Episode 4×06 tells the story of how Robbie, played by Gabriel Luna, becomes Ghost Rider. That alone should be more than enough to make a Marvel fan want to watch. But, beyond that, the episode also showcases his relationship with his disabled younger brother, Gabe.
Episode 4×15: “Self Control”
If Secret Invasion didn’t satisfy your craving for a science fiction takeover storyline, then this is the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode for you. By way of Life Model Decoys, episode 4×15 does a tremendous job of exploring the idea of a discrete invasion that makes you question whether you can trust those you know and love. The emotional trauma isn’t great to experience, but the suspense, paranoia and heartbreak will keep you engaged.
Episode 4×16: “What If…”
Yes, this list includes yet another episode from season 4. After all, there’s a reason season 4 is regarded by many fans as the show’s best one. Titled “What If” as a nod to the Marvel Comics of the same theme, episode 4×16 utilizes the LMD storyline to answer the question “What if Hydra was in control?” It’s a thought-provoking but very jarring reality to experience even as a viewer. From mind-boggling revelations to the hellish contrasts from their real world, the episode makes for excellent storytelling and marks the beginning of the “Agents of Hydra” story arc.
Episode 5×12: “The Real Deal”
When a TV show reaches 100 episodes, you know something special and especially noteworthy is going to happen. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s 100th episode contained no shortage of prominent events. The news of Coulson’s imminent death makes for a heavy beginning. But “The Real Deal” also features FitzSimmons’s wedding — a satisfying milestone for a slow-burn ship that goes back to the show’s beginning. Not to mention the Deke Shaw grandson discovery and the return of Mike Peterson/Deathlok! All in all, this episode feels like a brief respite heading into what’s to come in the season: a time of turmoil within the team — and in the world, too, of course.
Episode 6×03: “Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson”
One of the best things about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it was never afraid to be funny, but the humor isn’t forced. It’s nice to experience in a show that tends to feature such high stakes and serious matters that necessitate world-saving actions.
“Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson” may not include the peak of high stakes, but it is the peak of S.H.I.E.L.D. comedy. The episode is a great watch if you just want to see something fun and silly in science fiction. After all, who doesn’t want to see the shenanigans of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents after consuming alien puffies that cause (ultimately harmless) hallucinations?
Episode 7×09: “As I Have Always Been”
The best is for last, coincidentally. “As I Have Always Been” is a time loop episode that’s not only a fan favorite but also seen by many fans as one of the series’s best — if not the best. It features everything there is to love about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s plenty of action, drama and suspense with bits of humor and even some romance. Episode 7×09 is such a fun use of the time loop trope while cleverly propelling the story in various ways. It’s such a great episode that it could, coincidentally, be watched on a loop and never get old.
Honorable Mentions: Episode 1×06: “FZZT”; episode 1×13: “T.R.A.C.K.S.”; episode 3×13: “Parting Shot”; episode 5×05: “Rewind”; episode 7×03: “Alien Commies From the Future!”