Last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came back with something to prove. The show left off with a disastrous mid-season finale in December, which attempted to raise the stakes with the kidnapping of Coulson and the "death" of Mike Peterson. (More on that later.) The idea was fine, but the execution was laughable — and the idea of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without Coulson, its only truly interesting character, didn't exactly herald a strong back half to the season.
So how did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. confront this narrative challenge? By bringing Coulson right back into the fold as soon as possible. I don't want to overpraise last night's "The Magical Place," which was basically just the episode the midseason finale should have been in the first place. The dialogue is still clunky at times, the Marvel Universe is still being underutilized, and it's obvious that the show still has no idea what to do with the vast majority of its characters. But as frustrating as those problems continue to be, "The Magical Place" also showed how much more interesting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets when it stops playing coy and starts dropping some real answers.
"The Magical Place" picks up 36 hours after Coulson was kidnapped by Centipede, as our usual S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attempt to track him down alongside their temporary Coulson replacement, Agent Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, returning from "The Hub"). Hand, like any rational Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers, is no fan of Skye — and despite the complaints of Ward, Fitz, and Simmons, she sends Skye away.
Meanwhile, we catch up with a bedraggled Agent Coulson, who's being held captive in the creepiest abandoned bomb-testing area since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Raina and Edison Poe, our old friends from Project Centipede, have been tasked with uncovering the mysterious explanation behind Coulson's death and resurrection — and while we're clearly supposed to be on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side, it's hard not to be a little relieved.
The high jinks in "The Magical Place" are a little livelier than usual, thanks largely to a clever twist that sees Skye pretend to be Melinda May in order to get a key piece of information. (Another winking nod to the possibility that May is Skye's mother? I say yes, but you be the judge.) Victoria Hand deems Skye's lead a waste of time, but our heroes are always right, so they go rogue and manage to save Coulson before he gives up the secret that S.H.I.E.L.D. is so jealously guarding — a secret that Coulson himself can't readily recall.
It's here that "The Magical Place" reaches its apex, as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s trip into Coulson's buried memories. This is as dark and graphic as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever gotten, and the show is much better for it, offering a brief glimpse of what a truly adult-oriented version of this story could have been like.
As it turns out (and as pretty much all of us guessed), Coulson's memory of "Tahiti" was fake. After Coulson was fatally stabbed by Loki in The Avengers, Nick Fury ordered an around-the-clock team of doctors and scientists to perform at least seven emergency surgeries on Coulson. The reality of the operation is ugly (and surprisingly graphic): Coulson, strapped to a table and begging to die, while a strange machine pokes and probes at his open brain through a massive wound at the top of his skull. Assuming that Coulson's memory of the event is accurate, the revelation leaves a number of other questions left to be answered. What kind of technology, brain-stabbing or otherwise, could keep Coulson alive for days? How does S.H.I.E.L.D.'s extremely invasive surgery account for his dramatic change in personality? And why was Nick Fury so bent on keeping Agent Coulson alive, anyway?
These are good questions — far more interesting, at the very least, than "What happened to Agent Coulson?" This is my plea, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Set up all the mysteries you like, but don't leave them unresolved for the sake of leaving them unresolved; as it turns out, even hinting at the answer to Coulson's solution led to about eight other questions anyway. When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actively pushes its story forward, its other problems become a lot less glaring. Let's hope "The Magical Place" is the new template. What happened in Melinda May's past? What's the deal with Skye's parents? Who is the Clairvoyant, and what is his plan? We're going to be taking an even deeper dive in the weeks ahead — and like Coulson, I'm ready for some real answers.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
"So we have to do this the hard way." Oh, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., are there any overused screenwriting clichés you can resist?
Hard as I tried, I couldn't think of a Marvel Comics character who could be the Clairvoyant, so I asked you guys to make your best guesses. Kudos to commenter SpencerXYZ, who put forth the most plausible theory I've seen anywhere: "The Clairvoyant" is Samuel Sterns, who's better known to Marvel fans as The Leader. Sterns, who was played by Tim Blake Nelson in 2008's The Incredible Hulk, was last seen when the Hulk's blood fell into a cut on his forehead — a moment, by supervillain logic, that implied he would acquire the vast array of mental superpowers he's known for in the comics. If SpencerXYZ turns out to be right, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has found a way to tie up The Incredible Hulk's long-dangling plot thread and make the TV series feel like it has a legitimate foothold in Marvel's cinematic universe. Pretty slick.
I wonder if Coulson's still-unseen cellist girlfriend — who Raina says "cried for days" when S.H.I.E.L.D. told her Coulson was dead — was always supposed to be such a big deal. It feels like the kind of throwaway detail fans latched onto before the writers actually planned to flesh it out — but hey, they've made it work.
Edison Poe, we hardly knew ye. (Unfortunately, I mean that literally.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really needs some good villains, and the reemergence of Mike Peterson — who did not die in "The Bridge" — is a hopeful step in the right direction. Like Akela Amador in "Eye Spy," Peterson's eye has been replaced by a communications device/bomb that will allow Centipede to order him around from afar. He'll be an unwilling pawn, but a pawn nonetheless, and it'll be interesting to see how our heroes respond when he confronts them once again.
Lloyd Rathman was played by Rob Huebel, a reliably hilarious comedian who was given absolutely nothing interesting to do.
Don't forget to check back in next week, when our reunited heroes save a bunch of dumb teenagers from a superstorm they somehow created.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.