Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S1 Ep11: The Magical Place

Coulson's return from the dead is explained at last

This week on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D … The team pull out all the stops to track down the missing Coulson. Skye goes off the grid. And the balance of power within Centipede shifts dramatically.

This week’s mission

While Victoria Hand and an army of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents go on the offensive against the rising Centipede threat, Phil Coulson’s remaining team work to rescue their leader from the combined efforts of Po and Raina to extract vital intelligence from him.

Skye tracks the missing Coulson down to an eerie abandoned town (Image: ABC)

Skye tracks the missing Coulson down to an eerie abandoned town (Image: ABC)

More than the sum of its parts

From the cold open in which Coulson’s team use their individual skills to full effect in trapping Vanchat as he attempts to trade some Chitauri metal, it’s apparent how far they have come from the rag-tag collection of misfits they were at the outset of the season. Ward and May are no longer the lone wolves they once were, Fitz and Simmons demonstrate they can put their skills to use in the field and Skye is an integral part of the team’s well-executed plan.

When Hand wants to throw Skye off the bus, Ward is quick to stick up for her as her supervising officer but May appears to undermine her by saying she won’t be of help on the plane. As it turns out, both are correct. Ward is right to place his trust in her, while May’s rejection of Skye is tactical rather than personal, as she realises she can be of more use working outside S.H.I.E.L.D. protocols rather than within them.

It’s also clear that the tuition between Ward and Skye hasn’t all been one-way. Frustrated by Hand’s interrogator’s lack of progress with Vanchat, Ward throws orthodoxy – and almost Vanchat – out of the window, or at least the airlock, by opening up the interrogation room ceiling to the elements to persuade him to co-operate.

Skye poses as May to coerce a corrupt financier to follow Vanchat’s money trail back to Raina and a ghost town in the desert inhabited only by mannequins. There the team again combine to good effect, as Fitz and Simmons come up with a device which Ward uses to neutralise one of Centipede’s Extremis-fuelled super-soldiers, and Skye finds Coulson.

Raina awakens Coulson’s secret

After Po’s more traditional methods of torture prove unsuccessful in breaking Coulson – a failure which costs him his own life – Raina is called in to use her persuasion-based techniques. She reveals what Centipede really wants from Coulson – the one thing that even the Clairvoyant cannot read – the secret of how S.H.I.E.L.D. brought him back from the dead. By tapping into his regret over his lost former love, she convinces him to voluntarily submit to her brain-scanning machine.

This allows Coulson to access his memories, where he realises that, having been dead for days – not seconds – he was operated on repeatedly under Nick Fury’s orders, with apparently alien technology being used to repair his catastrophic neurological damage. The entire experience was so traumatic that he lost the will to live – to overcome it a pleasant memory of Tahiti was implanted into his memory.

It’s  a magical place … I keep saying that.

So now, at last, we know: Phil Coulson is not a Life Model Decoy as had been widely conjectured within fandom. He is the original Agent Coulson, albeit one terribly damaged by his death experience.

And finally …

What of Mike Peterson, who we last saw being apparently killed in the explosion on the bridge in the mid-season finale?

Awaking in a stark concrete cell, he discovers large sections of his skin have been terribly burned, he has lost his right leg and – most horrifically of all – he now has an eye device similar to the one implanted into Akela Amador (in Eye-Spy). Like Akela, he’s now no longer in control of his own actions.

This contrasts with Skye, who Coulson rewards by removing the technology-locking bracelet which had effectively shackled her for so long.

Welcome back

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns from its mid-season hiatus with a story that suggests the writing team have worked hard to correct the shortcomings of its early episodes. Everything about this episode has a little more pace, focus and economy than previously. The action sequences are crisp. All the principal characters are rapidly reintroduced and well used throughout. And the overkill cliffhanger elements from The Bridge are rapidly dispensed with: Peterson’s fate is left until the coda and Ward being shot is glossed over with a passing reference to him breaking all the stitches on his wound.

The Coulson mystery, which had outstayed its welcome, is neatly dispatched without making too big a deal of it. And there is, at last, a proper sense of both the menace and malice that Centipede can offer and the scope of S.H.I.E.L.D’s tactical resources, as it dismantles Centipede’s operations in one fell swoop. Raina’s comment about the similarity between Centipede and S.H.I.E.L.D. is spot on, and a welcome blurring of the boundaries which allows for a greater degree of ambiguity about S.H.I.E.L.D’s motives and activities.

This was a strong return for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and while the UK’s three-month hiatus will damage the show’s ability to retain its original audience, an improvement in quality will help offset that. A good restart – but can the show maintain this uptick in quality for the rest of its run?

Best line

‘Manscaping’? Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.

Simmons reveals her and Skye’s safe word to the rest of the team.

Rating: 9/10

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviews

Preview: Can Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. work without Avengers?

1.1 Pilot

1.2 0-8-4

1.3 The Asset

1.4 Eye-Spy

1.5 Girl in the Flower Dress

1.6 FZZT

1.7 The Hub

1.8 The Well

1.9 Repairs

1.10 The Bridge

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