Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "The Magical Place" Review: What Happened In Tahiti

By Kaitlin Thomas

Jan 08, 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E11: "The Magical Place"


It's more than fair to say that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't always lived up to expectations. It promised fans a small-screen adventure filled with action and mystery as seen through the eyes of a whip-smart relative outsider acting as the audience stand-in. It posed several important questions, and it had big dreams, but so far, it's largely failed to deliver any answers or achieve its ambitions. There have been adventures around the globe, and there have been fisticuffs in nearly every episode, but the series has faltered where it counts: the meaningful overarching story. 

Thankfully, now that we've reached the halfway point of the first season, the series is at least attempting to address some of the big question marks that've been looming over it like rainclouds, and "The Magical Place" was the first episode in quite awhile that really felt like a series Joss Whedon would want to be a part of.

In the pilot, we were taken under Agent Coulson's wing and granted access to S.H.I.E.L.D. that we've never had before, and that was all fine and dandy. There were cool spy gadgets, and the aforementioned "exotic" locales, but something was always missing. I've discussed before the series' problem with its stakes never feeling all that real, but that isn't its only problem. The series lacks a villain. There've been hints and references, and single-episode baddies, but until this week, there hadn't been a true villain in the comic book sense of the word. And even viewers with only a basic knowledge of the medium know that in comics, there are heroes and there are villains and the stories are then built around them.

The ongoing Centipede storyline is, for all intents and purposes, this season's Big Bad. But it has suffered for two reasons. First, it's been the focus of less than a handful of episodes. With little to no screen time, it's still largely a mystery. That in itself is annoying, but not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to the series. The real problem plaguing S.H.I.E.L.D. is that Centipede is faceless. It's hard to hate something, or fight against something, when you don't even know who or what it is that you're up against. To make matters worse, every time we've been introduced to someone involved in the Centipede operation to create super soldiers, they've dispatched within an episode or two. 


Shannon Lucio played the doctor who gave J. August Richards' Mike Peterson the Extremis serum in the pilot. She appeared briefly in "The Girl in the Flower Dress" but was killed by episode's end. Raina, that episode's titular floral-apparel fanatic, has been the face most associated with Centipede, but now she too has been dealt with (at least for the time being). She was taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody after Skye and the rest of the team rescued Coulson in this week's episode. Po, the man they'd sprung from jail only a few episodes ago, was dispatched by the Clairvoyant for being a violent asshole midway through "The Magical Place." Creating characters and then killing them off or relegating them to the sidelines makes it difficult for viewers to stay invested in the story. It makes it equally hard for fans to direct their emotions toward the right characters. It's clear now that the Clairvoyant, whoever he/she is, is the one calling the shots here, but the character remains an enigma. It's frustrating that this is where we've ended up, but that's how mysteries work, I guess. 

Anyway, after four paragraphs of complaints, please allow me to attempt to explain why it is I do believe, despite its problems, that there's still hope for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Thanks to Raina and her brain machine, we have the answer to at least one of the series' mysteries. Coulson's resurrection is no longer a secret. Or at least not as much of a secret as it was prior to this week's episode. He didn't die for eight seconds, or even 40 seconds. He died for days. Director Fury brought in several doctors to operate on and revive Coulson following the Battle of New York. Ron Glass, whose character Dr. Streiten appeared in the pilot alongside Cobie Smulders' Agent Maria Hill, was brought in on the seventh operation, but he wasn't operating on Coulson's heart, he was operating on Coulson's brain. They rewired it (in a pretty cool, if also kind of gross, scene) and gave him new memories (the Tahiti visions we've been seeing this whole time), so he wouldn't remember the fact that he had lost the will to live and begged for them to let him die. 


It's still not clear how Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. brought Coulson back, but we can at least eliminate the idea that he's a Life Model Decoy now, right? Just kidding, this isn't my first rodeo. I know better than to believe everything I'm told up front, because nothing is ever as it seems in worlds like this one. How do we know this isn't just a fail-safe? How do we know this isn't just the first layer of security to prevent Coulson (or anyone else, like, say, the Clairvoyant) from discovering the real truth? Before I get too deep into conspiracy theories, because we could be here all day, Dr. Streiten did at least appear to be sincere when he apologized for the part he'd played in Coulson's "resurrection," but let's just agree to not trust anyone right now and move on, because we've got bigger fish to fry.

Learning the truth about what happened to Coulson was only part of the story. There are always consequences to discovering the truth, which has been a recurring theme throughout the first 11 episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D.. From Skye's search for her parents to Coulson's search for the truth, there's always the notion that what we discover might not be any better than what we've always known or imagined. That's definitely true in Coulson's case, but now we must face the fallout from this discovery. Which brings me to my next point about what's been missing from the series until now: the rage against the machine theme.


Most of Whedon's work follows the less fortunate, the outsiders, the ragtag team of misfits fighting the good fight even if they're on their own. It's a trend that flows from Buffy to Angel to Firefly and beyond. Large corporations or governmental bodies have always been the enemy of Whedon's protagonists, but that hasn't been the case here. Part of the reason Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't felt like a typical Whedon production, aside from the fact that it really isn't, is that Coulson and most of his team blindly believe in the S.H.I.E.L.D. system. They don't question it. They accept it when they're told they can't do something or enter somewhere because they don't have clearance. They follow orders. The only person questioning the system in the series' first ten episodes was Skye, and that makes sense given that she's not a real agent. She's a hacker, an outsider, and as Agent Hand pointed out: She's still just a consultant, even if she has been training. 

But what Hand didn't realize (but May did) is that's exactly what S.H.I.E.L.D. needs in order to get shit done. Hand's intel on where Coulson was being held was wrong, but Skye followed her natural instincts, impersonated Agent May, kidnapped guest-star Rob Huebel, and discovered the truth. But it isn't enough for only Skye to be bucking the flawed system, because the show will never evolve if that remains the case. Skye's character, in addition to being the audience proxy, is also there to shine a light on all of the system's flaws and change the team's way of thinking. And you have to admit, she's been doing an okay job. It was fun when the rest of the team aided Skye's escape, and it's refreshing now to see Coulson also questioning his trust in S.H.I.E.L.D. They brought him back to life when all he wanted was to die, and then they implanted fake memories in his brain to cover it up. This begs a lot of questions, like the one posed by Agent Hand: Why does Coulson matter so much? Obviously S.H.I.E.L.D. invested a lot of time and resources in bringing him back to life, but why? Needing him for a TV series is beside the point, there has to be something bigger, and I hope we find out before the season ends just what that was. 


Despite how this review might come off, "The Magical Place" was actually a pretty good episode. Clark Gregg was outstanding, and the hour moved the plot forward, even if it was just a little bit. We might not have learned anything about Coulson that we didn't already know, but Coulson did, and that's what really matters. We've got momentum on both his timeline and the Centipede storyline (also, Mike survived the explosion in "The Bridge" and has been upgraded with a fancy new killer eyeball). If the series continues down this path of distrusting S.H.I.E.L.D. and letting the characters show emotion—even if it's Fitz's anger—then the series can only get better. Now that we're moving into the second half of the season, I have a feeling the series is headed for a much more serialized format, and that will also help sustain it.



DECLASSIFIED CASE FILES

– When I was downloading photos from ABC's press site before the episode, I was like, "WTF why does Skye look like she raided May's wardrobe?" Well now we know why. It was kind of funny to see her impersonation. 

– There were recognizable guest-stars all over the place this week. Saffron Burrows returned (with a better American accent?) as Agent Victoria Hand, Firefly's Ron Glass was back as Dr. Streiten, Rob Huebel (Childrens Hospital) played Lloyd Rathman, Aiden Turner (All My Children) played Vanchat, and Felisha Terrell (Teen Wolf) played Emily Deville, who clearly has never owned a Roomba in her life. 

– I doubt we'll be seeing more of Mike Peterson every week. He'll disappear until later in the season when he'll obviously return as a reluctant enemy in need of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s assistance. But I'm excited to see it. J. August Richards is always a good time.

– Just WTF is up with Raina? I mean, for real, guys. So she'd had her brain tampered with, too? I just don't like it when the enemy finds common ground with our protagonists, because it's too easy of a trope. But it did lead to Coulson distrusting S.H.I.E.L.D. and discovering the truth (even if he didn't tell Raina what he saw) so maybe I can get over it this once.

– "Bet there aren't any flower dresses where she's going." ZING! Good one, Simmons. (J/K Simmons continues to be one of my favorite characters of the season, especially when paired with Fitz: "Amen to that, sister!")

– Did you like "The Magical Place"?

thekaitling:list:agents-of-shield-what-did-you-think-of-the-magical-place/

 

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  • CherokeeRose4 Jan 21, 2014

    I felt like the end when Coulson was talking to the Doctor is what made this episode for me. The rest of the episode was "average", though I did get a kick out of Skye impersonating May.

  • Loralee_jk Jan 12, 2014

    Oh man! the part where he's like "No, stop. Please let me die. Please let me die." that hurt my heart

  • marlonjones Jan 11, 2014

    Good episode, but the ending was hella dumb and didn't even reveal anything.
    Why was Coulsin so upset he left the doc's car with no further 'real' questions?
    Did I miss something here? Doesn' make any sense to me...neither did the ghost town, the interaction between Coulson & Raina, nor why Po had to die...actually, the only good thing this epi had was Sky...and FitzSimmons of course! So yeah, not a good episode! There better be some answers next week!

  • Loralee_jk Jan 12, 2014

    He left the car b/c he got all the answered he needed. He wasn't interested in the Dr.s apology. He wasn't upset, he was surprised along with a bunch of other emotions to the fact that he was dead for a week +. & now it remembering some on the physical & mental pain he was in. When they said it was UnGodly, & no Dr. should have preformed it. They were trying to draw a line to human experimentation. Something they used to do to the jews in WWII

  • marlonjones Jan 12, 2014

    Ok...that makes sense too, but still doesn't warrant the extremity surrounding the ordeal...they did save his life after all...in the end, he should just be thankful no?

  • Loralee_jk Jan 13, 2014

    Human experimentation is just that. Experimentation. It could have just as easily ended up that they only re-booted his nervous system & he could feel the pain but not move. They had no way of knowing if it was going to work. It could have just as easily ended up that he was in extreme pain & being more or less tourtured unable to move for two weeks, Sure in the end your dead, but it would have been a slow 2 weeks.

  • Copioli Jan 11, 2014

    I liked this episode, but I hope you are wrong in your expectations. I personally don't want to see anybody, and specially not Coulson, mistrusting SHIELD , IRL, I mistrust practically every organization, In all the shows I see (but one) it's the same. Well, I want a show where people truly believes in the institution they represents, so I can have some pure fun and no problems. Like when I was a child and watched shows and trusted in the good guys vs the bad guys,

  • JT_Kirk Jan 11, 2014

    IGN gave this episode a 7.3, I'd say that was a touch generous but basically it.

    It was a fun episode but really felt like it was missing crucial info, like this was the 3rd act of the story and we never got the 2nd act. The idea that Mike Peterson is alive and nobody from SHIELD gave a shit to look for his burned-up body is kind of a dick move. And what precisely did Centipede really expect to get from Coulson's memories in this, especially when we finally do discover what was up and it helps them in NO WAY AT ALL? Why break out that one guy from prison just to kill him randomly? And The Bus has been taken over by Victoria Hand and her actual Agents of SHIELD but they are useless when it comes down to it. Then we get the Skye storyline, and as cute as it was, it felt like a sitcom storyline rather than anything from Agents of SHIELD. How did nobody get wise to her goofy fake May gag? What was the point of Rob Huebel's character and how did she find him so quickly? These little niggles all add up while watching, so a kinda-fun adventure becomes a snore.

    Coulson's story was nothing, the secret still is a secret, just because Nicky Fury ordered something nigh-impossible doesn't say how it worked or what it really did, it doesn't say how it helps the enemy, and it barely touches on how it affects Agent Coulson. So we get a strong Phil Coulson story that feels like it says something but really doesn't. Coulson knows he died, there was no reason to give him new memories, he knew they operated on him, so what? Rewiring his brain made no sense and the payoff wasn't worthwhile, it only felt like it because it was a bone they threw us.

    If May really believed someone needed to do what Skye did, why didn't May do it instead, or team up with Skye? Pretty thin. There wasn't much highlighting of issues here at all, and by putting Victoria Hand's face on SHIELD's bureaucracy problem bringing it down, it's taken away the systemic issue that should be there.

    So, I guess I feel like the show was better at faking it than usual, but unlike your review Kaitlin I just don't think this was a "pretty good" episode, "better" yes but "pretty good" I dunno.

  • CBourque2025 Jan 15, 2014

    why didn't May do it instead -- because she is no computer genius. What was the point of Rob Huebel's character and how did she find him so quickly? she didn't find him she found the car with onstar. she needed the car to get him home so he could be her hands in hacking the system. He could have been any rich dude. She was able to get his info to force him to help since he is not in shield security. She can hack lower level stuff.

  • JT_Kirk Jan 16, 2014

    The problem with relying on computer stuff to justify a character is that watching someone type is boring and there's very little focus on the motivation of a scene and its goals.

    Rob Huebel's character wasn't some random rich computer guy, he was a money-launderer for Centipede's buyer, it had to be him who get into the system to find where the money was going. But is it really hard to believe that May couldn't have simply slapped some folks around, or made a call to FitzSimmons to do help hack something? And the whole time she could have been making sure things were being done right instead of just hoping for the best. Nothing about the scene really felt like Skye was the only one who could run that op unless you assume that hacking is the only way to get those answers.

  • CBourque2025 Feb 22, 2014

    Victoria Hand wasn't willing to let the others go out on their own, but was quite willing to get rid of Skye. And bank accounts are not something easily slapped or scientifically investigated. That takes a hacker or computer data expert. V Hand turned down that line of investigation.

  • Caviezelized Jan 11, 2014

    Tune in next time to hear Coulson say...

    "Um, so yeah, sorry Skye but ur mom's dead and May killed her."

    Skye: *sobs*
    Me: *shrugs*

  • lardlad Jan 11, 2014

    And May IS your mom... she thinks Tahiti is a magical place...

  • MichaelCurran1 Jan 11, 2014

    Personally I thought this was the best episode so far - gives me hope for the show. Better character chemistry and more movement in the serialized plot lines.

  • johnmckenzie338658 Jan 10, 2014

    Few questions, so does this mean Shield now has the capability to bring back practically anyone? I mean Coulson was dead for days..and still don't understand what Centipede and the Clairvoyant are trying to do like what is their end game. Terrorism/make money , take over the world? Anyway best episode of the series thus far and I 'm actually beginning not to hate Skye so much she was great in this.

  • MajLorne Jan 14, 2014

    The few characters that I guess could bring a person back to life maybe someone like dr. strange or someone with mystical type powers. Maybe scarlet witch as well and using her to tie the show back to the movies? shrugs. Of course this is assuming that flashback was real and that creepy robot was operating on his brain.

  • johnmckenzie338658 Jan 11, 2014

    Also wanted to point out the whole "super soldier" thing is getting a bit meh too they literally don't pose a threat at all. It seems like every episode we see Ward and May take down these "super" soldiers almost single handedly in a fist fight even though these bad guys are meant to have super strength. Even in this episode we see Ward get punched in the face by one of these guys and he just shrugs it off and then we see them punch right through a solid wall so the consistency is pretty much not there .

  • MajLorne Jan 14, 2014

    I agree. I mean these guys are supposed to be a little tougher than Cap is with the tech, but they may as well be regular muscle lackeys and save the budget on collapsible walls, etc. I'm still waiting for a hydra or aim type rival organization threat than this 'centepede' storyline. What's the point of 'shield' if it's just going to be in name only and cameo appearances by the key sheild personel?

  • Samantha_101 Jan 10, 2014

    Why did they take such extreme measures to save Agent Coulson? What did I miss?

  • lynna12000 Jan 10, 2014

    I'd like to know WHY Coulson was brought back. He may be Fury's 'one good eye', but in reality, no one is THAT important. Makes me wonder if the Clairvoyant is someone who subcontracts to Centipede AND SHIELD.

    I think part of what makes Coulson so angry is that someTHING messed with his mind. Memories were implanted, not by a person, but a machine. Was it more than one memory? And were any memories removed?

    We only got a partial answer; And a whole lot more questions.

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