It seems like only yesterday we waved “See you later!” to ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., after a somewhat poorly executed episode that cast aside the show’s procedural MO and ended in a cliffhanger: S.H.I.E.L.D. superhuman Mike Peterson apparently dead, and Agent Phil Coulson kidnapped by Centipede, likely for a chat with the Big Bads about his miraculous resurrection.
The series resumes a day and a half later, with S.H.I.E.L.D. on full alert mode, tracking down the nefarious multi-legged baddies. Backup arrives in the form of not-at-all-shady Agent Victoria Hand (boo! hiss!) and an army of nameless grunts. As anyone who’s read the comics will tell you, you’re not supposed to like Hand, and actress Saffron Burrows pretty much nails it in that regard. Still, while she may be stuffy, arrogant and emotionless, her first official action is to kick Skye off the Bus… so I guess she can’t be all bad.
By the way, I’m really sorry that I end up ragging on female characters so much in my reviews. It’s not intentional. It’s just that Skye is rarely not obnoxious, and Hand is so clearly signaled as having a secret agenda that she may as well give you her wi-fi password. And while some of the other characters like Fitz, Simmons and even Grant have been slightly humanized and grown on me, Agent May is increasingly acting like Wolverine, as written by Frank Miller.
Back to the actual plot: the team is frayed and on edge, Skye is out in the world having been stripped of her ability to go online, and Coulson finds himself being cattle-prodded by Centipede in what looks like a set from Fallout 3. The hunt for Coulson has brought out the resourceful dark side in Ward, Fitz and Simmons, which is a pleasure to watch. Fitz’s bloodlust was especially surprising, incongruous and enjoyable. Meanwhile, Ward got a chance to deploy his man-of-action-anti-hero shtick without it coming off as forced.
Hell, it even gave Skye her coolest moment this season, and her best episode overall. Meanwhile, Coulson’s interrogation takes an interesting turn when our straight arrow finds himself tempted to turn his back on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. While we still don’t know how exactly AC was brought back after Avengers, we know it was under Fury’s orders, and it was downright horrifying.
In many ways, I really wish that this had been the mid-season finale. It would have made a much better impression than “The Bridge”. This episode, however, gets a lot right. First of all, we know that the cast would not have been strong enough to support a show without Coulson, so it was a smart move to not have him MIA for more than a little while. That said, the episode showed the team at their best under a bit of duress. I’m still not a fan of May constantly shifting mood, from human to angry robot, but the rest of the team acquitted themselves nicely.
Raina, Centepede’s field recruiter, comes off as a more ambiguous character. In her prior appearances, she’d been a femme fatale, all purring, manipulative evil. Here, she’s still working for the bad guys, but there is a sense of deeper motivation.
Throughout the season, I’ve taken issue with the times the show went international and relied heavily on shorthand and stereotypes. With “The Magical Place” set in the US, and making use of a forgotten piece of Americana – the fake towns in the Southwest used as testing sites for the atomic bomb – it not only made for a cool, creepy backdrop, but was thematically clever given what both Centipede and S.H.I.E.L.D. have been up to.
As an aside, I really hope that part of the motivation in making S.H.I.E.L.D. and Director Fury seem increasingly more sinister is to dovetail with the storyline in the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
There were some things that didn’t thrill me. One of them is fairly major, and actually made me groan – but it’s a post-credits stinger, so I don’t want to spell it out. Suffice it to say, I’m really, really tired of having every single PoC guest star turn out villainous. Enough already. And this arguably happens not once, but four times in this episode, depending on how you count it. The one after the credits is the worst, but really, Raina, Nick Fury, and even guest star Ron Glass (Shepherd Book!) come off pretty badly.
(Or maybe I’m completely off-base and they’re bringing Deathlok to the MCU. If that happens, I take back everything I said about this show’s handling of people of color. Okay, not really, but it would certainly help their case.)
There’s also the exotization of Tahiti, which has worn thin over the past season, and when I finally saw flashbacks to Coulson on a beach getting a massage from beautiful generic Asian masseuse while being brought tiki drinks by smiling, obsequious generic Asian waiter, I had just about had it. For a false memory implanted to cover soul-crushing horror, it sure was clumsily built and a bit racist. Though I don’t know whether to lay that at the feet of the show’s writers, or S.H.I.E.L.D.’s memory implant design team. At least, with Coulson having broken through his programming, we’ll never have to see that again.
Overall, though, I want to say that “The Magical Place” delivered on the promise that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showed for a bit and then proceeded to squander during the first half of the season. The show has, so far, been fairly mediocre, and occasionally insulting, but I’m really hoping that the series will build on this episode’s momentum over the back half of the season.