Okay. First things first. Spoilers.
Unlike the show, I won’t keep you waiting for the stuff you really want to know: Agent Coulson is back, and now he (and we) know the truth of his post-Avengers existence. He’s not an LMD (at least not by the “rules” of LMDs from the comics), he’s not a clone, he’s not a zombie, he’s not a secret Asgardian and he’s not (as of yet, anyway) The Vision.
So… what is he? A dead person who was brought back to life, just like he’d believed all along; but with two unnerving extra details. 1: He wasn’t “flatlined-for-a-minute-during-surgery” dead… he was DEAD dead. “bagged-tagged-and-rotting-in-the-morgue-for-multiple-days-dead, mad-science’d back to life through extra-scary S.H.I.E.L.D super-technology on Nick Fury’s orders. 2: He didn’t want to come back – in fact, he spent his first hours of (second) “life” begging to be allowed to die; a desire the false memories about recuperating on a beach in Tahiti were implanted to help nudge him back toward a semblance of his old self. In other words, he’s Nick Fury’s personal Frankenstein’s Monster. So, there’s your answer…
…which, since this is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, leads to an entirely new mystery: Why would Fury etc. go to such extreme/unpleasant lengths to keep this particular guy around? I have a thought or two, but now that that’s out of the way let’s get to the actual episode:
The Magical Place opens an unspecified amount of time after the events of The Bridge, which ended with Raina (“The Girl in The Flower Dress”) and Edison Po (“P-o-i-s-o-n-E-d?” Huh…), the recruiter and liaison for the evil outfit CENTIPEDE and its mysterious (maybe?) leader “The Clairvoyant” abducting Agent Coulson and killing bad-turned-good superhuman Mike Peterson in an explosion. All caught up? Okay.
As tends to be the case with Agends of S.H.I.E.L.D, we open with the implication that something more exciting (or interesting) was happening offscreen… except this time it’s unseen status-quo realignment rather than a theatrical Marvel movie. The Agents break up an arms dealer’s illegal sale of some Chitauri armor scraps, now working like a well-oiled, brutally efficient spy team (Fitz/Simmons have even weaponized their fleet of pet mini-drones, and Fitz is wearing black and more-than-ready to kill CENTIPEDE goons if necessary) backed up by S.H.I.E.L.D gunmen and overseen by the returning Saffron Burrows as Agent Victoria Hand. They want the dealer to lead them to the heavies, since CENTIPEDE’S “thing” is using a combination of Iron Man 3‘s Extremis serum and Chitauri metal left-over from The Avengers‘ Battle of New York to make bootleg Captain Americas.
The Agency, we’re told, has been tearing up the globe looking for the bad guys, but there’s some friction: Coulson’s team (plus Director Fury and Commander Hill), is dead-focused on rescuing their leader, while Hand is annoyed and confused as to why this operative is getting special-attention when they should be focused on CENTIPEDE. She’s also not happy to find that Skye is still being allowed to hang around during official business, ordering her restriction-bracelet powered-up and tossing her from The Bus as a useless asset – and Agent May agrees. Ouch. The other teammates are still on her side, gifting her with a one-time phone-home cell and a head start to go and try tracking Coulson on her own terms.
Coulson, meanwhile, is being held captive and tortured via a brain-scanning machine by Raina, Po and a handful of CENTIPEDE mercs in an abandoned H-Bomb testing site – which we discover when he makes a bold but unsuccessful Jack Bauer-esque escape bid. He’s adamant that he won’t give up any S.H.I.E.L.D secrets, but that’s not what they want from him. The Clairvoyant (speaking through Raina and Po via cellphone) claims to already know everything about The Agency, along with the rest of the Government (maybe all governments) up to and including “What the President dreams about.” For some reason, the only thing in the past present or future this mystery mastermind can’t see is what happened between Coulson’s death and resurrection, and that interests him – plus, CENTIPEDE thinks “not dying” would be a useful superpower to add to its super-soldier cocktail.
Surprising nobody except her secret booty-call Ward, really, May turns out to also be rooting for Skye and voting her off The Bus was a bid to give her an out to go find Coulson with her super hacker-powers. (The Agents’ faith in Skye’s ability to do something meaningful is more believable when you consider that in their universe there’s no Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in which to watch her do the opposite of that week after week.) Unfortunately for Skye, Agent Hand’s orders have made her internet-blocking bracelet thingee so sensitive she can’t so much as Google anything Agency-related without S.H.I.E.L.D. shutting down an entire internet café. Which means Skye will now have to find a way to hack… real life.
No, seriously – that’s her big “fight or flight” development this time: Doing Nancy Drew detective work to run down leads about Coulson, but while muttering “hacker-speak” terminology sort-of related to what she’s doing; i.e. “C’mon Skye, find an exploit!” = “C’mon, Skye, find a way to break into a rich guy’s house and make him log into his Swiss Bank account so you can talk him through cracking open CENTIPEDE’s financials from there.” This is just on the razor’s edge of too dumb to still be endearing, but for some reason Skye decides to cosplay as Agent May while doing all this and Chloe Bennett’s Ming Na-Wen impression is so goofy I couldn’t not smile.
Since Po’s torture-method is getting nowhere fast with Coulson, The Clairvoyant offs him with some kind of remote-delivered poison (that looks suspiciously similar to Obadiah Stane’s paralytic from the first Iron Man) and puts Raina in charge. She’s got a softer touch (because girl, y’see) and hits Coulson with moral quandary: Since The Clairvoyant already knows everything else about S.H.I.E.L.D and the only thing he wants to know is something Coulson also wants to know, what’s the harm? Especially since S.H.I.E.L.D has been lying to him about it. That makes… complete sense, actually, so Coulson takes a ride on the brain-box and discovers all that nifty stuff I mentioned at the beginning. Maybe more importantly, we find out that Raina works for The Clairvoyant because the machine helped her recover a missing memory.
Elsewhere, Skye’s life-hacking pays off and she locates the plot of land where Coulson is likely being held. Hand and the heavily-armed, useful-looking S.H.I.E.L.D guys go off to raid other CENTIPEDE outposts, while the series regulars reunite to get into a not-great fistfight with some mooks and an Extremis merc (CENTIPEDE apparently always travels with exactly not-enough of these guys) to ultimately capture Raina and rescue Coulson. Back up on The Bus, Hand takes her leave, everybody makes nice and Coulson deactivates Skye’s restriction-bracelet. Oh, and in a detail that encapsulates Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s TV-budget woes in an amusing nutshell, we’re told that while the low-tech rescue op was going down, S.H.I.E.L.D-proper has effectively crushed CENTIPEDE’s (visible) operations worldwide. Tidy!
For a modicum of closure, Coulson drops in on the head surgeon from the final wave of his rebirthing process (wherein we saw a machine that appeared to be manually re-shuffling his exposed brain – great image!) and learns that yes, it was Nick Fury who ordered the whole thing… and everybody else involved was pretty squicked-out about it. In our final tease (spoiled by the opening credits’ cast-roll), we learn that Mike Peterson survived the explosion… sort of. He’s badly burned, missing a leg, stuck in a dungeon-like recovery room and he’s been implanted with one of those instruction-delivery eyeball devices. So… so much for CENTIPEDE being done for.
- It’s hard not to call this an anticlimax. In a world of gods and aliens the big reveal of Coulson’s resurrection is “We put you back together with lots of science.”? I get that it’s a nested-mystery/fakeout thing, because this is television – the “how” question gives way to “why” and “who;” but I won’t pretend that I wasn’t hoping for something more… cool, I guess?
- It’s also hard not to question how much of my lukewarm response to much of the series – while still basically enjoying it – is a matter of letting marketing-hype get the best of me: The show is essentially “NCIS: Marvel Universe,” and it’s not really any worse than most other largely-disposable occupants of the “Quirky Ensemble Solves Mysteries” genre that rules network drama at the moment. On its own modest merits, it more or less succeeds. As the “street-level spine of the Marvel Cinematic Universe” that it was hyped as? Not so much. But how much of that was marketing versus fan-projection? I can’t really say.
- New information learned: Coulson’s parents are both dead, his father having passed when he was very young. Not the most original angle for a steely hardass, but I like the dimension it gives to his hero-worship of Captain America; who is after all the ultimate surrogate dad to the entire Marvel Universe.
- Also: “The Cellist” comes up again, something else The Clairvoyant already knows about. Evidently, not Coulson hasn’t even been allowed to tell her that he’s alive.
- Skye deciding that emulating May will help her “work” as a field agent is a fun bit, but I really hope that it’s not meant as a nod in the direction of May being Skye’s mystery-mom. Teases for the next episode indicate that she (Skye) will be getting the not-good news about that from a newly secrecy-averse Coulson next episode, so we’ll see.
- Part of Coulson’s flashback includes a classic near-death experience “go into the light” vision.
- Okay. So Nick Fury was really sad that Coulson died, and “moved heaven and earth” to restore his friend to life. That makes sense. But to do it he has to put this guy he likes so much through days of awful torture, scramble his brain and (literally) deny his dying wish (to die?) That’s messed up. I know this is mostly re-upping “S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury are going to the dark side” in advance of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but this feels a little beyond just “Fury is sneaky.” Unless…
- …if Winter Soldier really is going to be about S.H.I.E.L.D.-proper being corrupted into something evil, maybe yoinking Coulson back from limbo and letting him set up a breakaway mini-S.H.I.E.L.D. of his own is some kind of long-game action against that. That would make sense, and fit with Fury always being one step ahead of everything else.
CRAZY FANBOY THEORY OF THE WEEK:
Who’s The Clairvoyant? Last column I said I really wanted it to be M.O.D.O.K. Still do, but after this episode I’m feeling like it’s going to be more of an internal fake-out: Raina is The Clairvoyant, always has been, and this is misdirection to get her even closer to S.H.I.E.L.D than before.
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.