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.
– 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"?