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Early December in the U.S. is the time of “Winter Finales,” the point where network TV shows that aren’t coming back for a full season say goodbye while shows that are going to make it to (at least) a full season try to give you a reason to look forward to their return to the air in January… and me a reason to not be too resentful toward them for giving me one less distraction from the holiday “cheer.”

In any case, that means it’s time for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s answer to those several weeks of nourishing but just not that tasty salad-centric meals in between big bloat-out carb-heavy dinner parties – to end on a mid-season cliffhanger (hence the meta-cute episode title.) Presumably based around one of the series’ approximately 616,000 mysterious loose-end story threads. SPOILER ALERT: It appears we will finally find out… how much longer it will take to find out what happened to Agent Philip Coulson.

Sidenote: This series had an initial order of 13 episodes – pretty standard for a network hourlong – and this is only number 10, meaning that we’re still three episodes away from seeing what this show looks like now that it knows it has a full season (and, given the ratings, a pretty likely second one) to work with.

But I digress: We open this week with a brief montage recapping the series’ near-handful of “mythology” episodes thus far: i.e. all the stuff concerning “CENTIPEDE;” the mysterious evil(?) organization that’s grabbing up every scrap of super-science the Marvel movies have left lying around (most notably the Extremis formula from Iron Man 3) to make strength-augmented super-soldiers. This leads to our cold-open, wherein a whole team of said soldiers bust into a federal prison to liberate one Edison Po (Cullen Douglas), the mystery prisoner whom sexy CENTIPEDE-recruiter Raina (aka “The Girl in The Flower Dress”) swung by to talk to about “The Clairvoyant” at the end of her episode.

This, naturally, is Team Coulson’s job – good thing, because things are getting uncomfortable on The Bus. Skye is having a good time busying herself trying to suss out who her biological mom might be from a roster of former female S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents, blissfully unaware that Coulson has lied to her about wanting to help with the search – he and Agent May have already solved the mystery, and have elected to keep the truth from Skye because it’s (apparently) not good news. Things are also looking uneasy in the clandestine Teammates-With-Benefits relationship between May and Agent Ward, mainly because he’s not being cautious enough about keeping things clandestine: When he slips-up and vaguely acknowledges that a hot n’ heavy sparring session is something like foreplay for the team’s resident badasses, she reacts as though he’d just registered them for engagement gifts at Macy’s.

Going up against three (or more?) CENTIPEDE super-soldiers is, of course, going to take more muscle than this team typically employs, so S.H.I.E.L.D. authorizes the use of a more formidable asset: Mike Petersen, the early-stage CENTIPEDE-augmented superhuman from the pilot episode, has had his conditioned stabilized while under observation (“Have I broken Captain America’s record?” he asks, after shoving around a tackling-dummy attached to a bulldozer), and will be coming aboard The Bus to help the team should anything need super-punching. Some lip-service is given to May and Ward still not trusting the onetime public-menace (and to how much that ship has sailed since Skye is still on the team,) but the episode is more interested in Agent Adorkable Simmons developing an instant-crush on him.

Coulson and Ward go off on a mission to hunt down the sister of a guy they think might be one of the CENTIPEDE soldiers. The whole thing seems kind of needlessly elaborate, but it’s mostly a setup for the two men to have an expository back-and-forth about women. Short version: Coulson is still pining for “The Cellist,” the maybe-The-One girlfriend mentioned in The Avengers, whom he has been unable to inform of his non-deadness because of S.H.I.E.L.D. security protocols… which for whatever reason don’t have anything to say about him constantly walking around in public, in his company uniform, without an alias.

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Meanwhile, Skye finds security footage of Po talking about “The Clairvoyant” so that we can be reminded that psychic phenomena are not among the extra-human abilities S.H.I.E.L.D. has documented to exist. I wish they’d mine more humor from the “practical absurdity” of this concept – the idea that this is a world that now accepts things like extraterrestrial life not only existing but having also been the real inspiration for certain religions… but still rolls its eyes at mind-reading because no one has actually seen it yet. Speaking of “The Clairvoyant,” Po (whose exclusive function in CENTIPEDE seems to be as the public-face of this person) informs Raina that his master(?) is having trouble keeping ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D because there’s a person involved whose future he can’t see. Gee. I wonder who could that be, and for what possible reason he’d be invisible to some kind of super-foresight?

What this boils down to is Coulson, Mike (tricked out in a vitals-monitoring superhero-suit via Fitz/Simmons), Ward, and May getting into a superhuman slugfest with the CENTIPEDE thugs in an arena born of marriage between the two laziest settings for a perfunctory action sequence: An abandoned warehouse… filled with shipping containers! Mike gets wounded, and the one soldier they’d come looking for dies via one of those remote-detonating eyeball implants from Eye-Spy; confirming that CENTIPEDE was behind that whole thing, too. Said implant also lets Raina and Po in on Mike Petersen still being alive – something they didn’t know and might be useful for their “making our super-soldiers not explode” target goal.

The more important fallout: May is now ticked-off at Ward for jumping in front of a punch meant for her in the fight, a move that she took as him A) treating her like a girlfriend instead the very compartmentalized sex-only relationship she apparently insists upon and B) letting that affection color his actions in the field. He throws it back at her, insisting that he was making a tactical sacrifice to keep the superior fighter on her feet and implying that her assumption otherwise might be a bit of wishful-thinking on her part. This actually seems to wound May a bit, so when Skye turns up a moment later and mentions the search for her mother the older Agent snaps at her – stopping short of giving up the truth but effectively telling her to stop wasting everyone’s time with her issues.

Skye goes off to have a cry, overheard by Coulson who takes it as cue to have a chat with Mike. He thinks the would-be Agent needs to understand that being an Agent and having a normal, happy family relationship with his young son Ace are more or less an “either/or” proposition, and consider which of the two he would rather live without. Mike gives the kid a call… and learns that he’s in the custody of CENTIPEDE! They’re looking to make a trade: Either S.H.I.E.L.D hands Mike over to them, or the boy dies.

The handoff is set up on a nondescript urban bridge, with the Agents hanging back (save for Ward manning a sniper rifle nearby) so Coulson can make the trade. Unfortunately, Raina and Po have pulled a fast one (with which Mike has had no choice to comply): They don’t want him back, they want Coulson!

Coulson goes along with this, unsurprisingly, but once his son is securely with Skye Mike runs over to the CENTIPEDE limo to try and pull off a double-cross of his own for the rescue… but instead that section of the bridge and (presumably) also Mike himself are engulfed in a fiery remote-detonated explosion while the bad guys (and their prisoner) escape in a previously-hidden helicopter. For good measure, they strafe Ward with a machine gun (he was wearing a vest, so he’s probably alive.)

In our post-credits stinger, Raina tells Coulson what the audience already figured out when they were going on about “The Clairvoyant” not being able to see “somebody” – they want to know how he came back from the dead.

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PARTING OBSERVATIONS

  • The teaser for the show’s return in January shows both Coulson and Ward up and about, so there’s that. Is Mike also alive? That probably depends more on whether or not people were genuinely glad to have him back this time, but Pepper Potts survived a much worse would-be death while goosed-up on a much less advanced version of Extremis, so…
  • Sure, I feel bad for Ace, Mike’s (potentially) orphaned son. Yes, becoming a foster-parent herself would be a sensible segue for Skye and her issues. That said… please do not let this be a way to get The Agents also carting a precocious kid sidekick around with them.
  • For awhile now, it’s seemed like a big thing the show might be building toward (apart from the CENTIPEDE storyline) could be the breaking-up of Coulson’s team with an increasingly corrupt/shady main S.H.I.E.L.D. Agency, which would make sense both within the series itself and as a build-up to the “S.H.I.E.L.D.-going-wrong” stuff in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If Coulson is going to stay gone from the team for at least a few “we’re on our own now” episodes, look for more of that – probably in the form of Saffron Burrows’ returning Victoria Hand character.
  • It’s probably too much to hope for, but wouldn’t it just be great if, in the course of answering “What happened to Coulson?,” the January return also just up and told us who CENTIPEDE is, what they’re actually up to and who The Clairvoyant is? They all seem to be connected, and it’d be nice to get that particular mystery settled (with CENTIPEDE now onhand as a recurring bad guy sans the question-marks, of course) so the show can put its mystery-focus squarely onto the more main-cast-centered “Who is Skye’s mother?” angle.

CRAZY FANBOY THEORY OF THE WEEK

The Clairvoyant doesn’t show himself and possesses abilities that supposedly appear psychic even though psychic phenomena are on S.H.I.E.L.D’s “doesn’t exist” list. (Hm. Remember how the “mystery thing” what we now know to have been CENTIPEDE was trying to steal in Eye-Spy turned out to be a math equation?) One possibility: A mind that computes and calculates so precisely that its predictive abilities might as well be clairvoyant. A kind of human supercomputer, in other words.

Y’know who fits that bill rather nicely, along with traditionally having been the slave-turned-master of a renegade super-science outfit? George Tarleton, better known as MODOK.

I’d have mixed feelings if this actually turned out to be true. On the one hand, MODOK is pretty ridiculous looking even by the standards of the rather ridiculous-friendly Marvel live-action fare so far; and additionally he’d be really expensive to execute as an effect on a TV budget for anything more than a brief appearance. MODOK is nominally interesting as a character, but if he’s not going to be a giant deformed human head floating around with stubby little arms and legs sticking out largely without purpose I just don’t see the point.

On the other hand… no matter what he looks like, I really want to see various actors have to explain, with a straight face, that this creature’s name is an acronym for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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