Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 11, "The Magical Place" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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You know how I said that the midseason finale was when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really started hitting its stride?  Well, “The Magical Place” (1x11) is when that really starts to pay dividends.  Skye on her own doing what she does best for most of the episode.  Coulson finally learning the answers he’s been seeking all season.  The actors more comfortable with their characters.  We see big, bad S.H.I.E.L.D. bringing all its resources to bear on Centipede, the main villain of the season.  And just when it looks like things are all wrapped up, we get a twist ending that might not have been so much of a twist.  In all, I think this is when S.H.I.E.L.D. started its streak of each episode (for the most part) getting progressively better than the last.

Note:  Retro-Reviews include potential spoilers for all of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. through season 2.

The episode picks up a day and a half after the midseason finale ended, with Coulson still in Centipede’s hands.  S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ—meaning Director Fury and Commander Hill—brought in Agent Victoria Hand to coordinate the search effort.  This begins with Vanchat, a dealer who sells Chitauri metal.  S.H.I.E.L.D. crashes a meet between Vanchat and one of his buyers, with Ward and May taking out most of the bodyguards at the meet.  Vanchat escapes, but Fitz and Simmons use the Dwarves to force him into the elevator, which Skye directs to the roof, where an entire S.H.I.E.L.D. tactical team is waiting for him.  S.H.I.E.L.D. takes Vanchat into custody to interrogate him and get the names of his buyers.

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Hand has taken command of the Bus and brought in a large number of her own people to assist with the manhunt.  However, she decides to kick Skye off the Bus because she perceives her as a distraction.  When Ward defends Skye, May tells Hand that Skye will not be any use to them on the plane.  Hand orders Skye’s restriction level increased and for her to be taken into custody for debriefing.  Before she can be taken into custody, however, Ward, Fitz, and Simmons help her to evade S.H.I.E.L.D. and set her loose with a sat phone.  Skye attempts to track down Vanchat’s financials online, using a corrupt business executive to work the computer for her.  The scene when Skye pretends to be May, uses the S.H.I.E.L.D. warning shutting down Lloyd’s phone as her badge, and takes out the two private security officers without breaking a sweat is definitely her best yet, and one of her best in the first season, showing her resourcefulness and new close-quarters combat abilities.  Plus it’s funny.

On the Bus, Ward “interrogates” Vanchat by casually having Fitz and Simmons open the interrogation room’s roof and nearly letting Vanchat fly out.  This gives S.H.I.E.L.D. the information it needs to send STRIKE teams to raid his buyers all around the world.  Meanwhile Fitz and Simmons develop a new delivery system for the dendrotoxin they use in the Night-Night Gun, one specially designed to inject the toxin into the soldiers’ Centipedes to knock them out.  The most interesting part of the subplot with the team on the plane is when Ward goes to talk to May and demands to know why she let Hand kick Skye off the plane.  May responds that “All I did was tell Hand the truth.  Skye’s no use to us on this plane…  Not with all these agents here.  Over her shoulder, monitoring her every move.”  In other words, May knew that Skye wouldn’t be able to work her best under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D.; she needed to be on her own, away from S.H.I.E.L.D., to be able to find Coulson.  In just a couple lines, May’s character—and specifically her relationship with Skye—changed dramatically.  Up until now it has appeared as though May had little care for Skye and her unorthodox methods.  She didn’t think Skye was devoted enough to the mission, the team and the organization.  Now, however, it is clear that May appreciates Skye and her abilities.  With this new perspective, May’s previous interactions with Skye appear as attempts to push her to be better and more focused.  When Skye calls in for reinforcements after finding Coulson’s location, May is the one who convinces Hand to let her and Ward take their team to investigate Skye’s lead.  I really like how this develops May’s character beyond being strong, silent, not playing well with others, and having a bad history.  Now we see that she does care about her team, and she also knows how best to use them.

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The majority of the episode is devoted to Coulson and Tahiti.  At the beginning of the episode, Mr. Po is using a brain wave machine to stir up hidden memories, but Coulson is resisting it.  When Coulson refuses to cooperate, Po has one of his men hit Coulson repeatedly with a cattle prod to “encourage” cooperation.  However, the moment Raina arrives, she argues with him and tells him that he needs to stop torturing Coulson and instead use gentler means of persuasion.  While the two of them are arguing, the Clairvoyant himself calls Po and chews him out before speaking to Raina.  As soon as Raina hands the phone back to him and he identifies himself, the phone activates something that shocks Po and kills him, leaving Raina as the Clairvoyant’s new contact.  Raina persuades Coulson to get on the machine because he wants the answers that it can provide.  Raina did not receive the power of persuasion as part of her transformation; that is something she was born with.  Raina is able to tell Coulson very private details:  the cellist cried for days after S.H.I.E.L.D. told her about Coulson’s death, they went to dinners at the Richmond… how could Raina know these things?  That is a question that haunts Coulson at the end of the episode, and it is something that he continues to struggle with until it is finally revealed later in the season in “End of the Beginning” (1x16).  However Raina learned her information, it was enough to convince Coulson to get on the machine again, and this time he allowed the machine to dredge up the memories from when he was revived.  Under the machine’s influence, Coulson learned that his memory of Tahiti was actually implanted in a procedure which rewrote entire portions of his brain.  Instead of a masseuse and a waiter, he sees 2 surgeons (1 of whom, Dr. Streiten, was his friend before all of this) watching as a large machine sends electrical pulses into his exposed brain.  This may have been one of the creepiest and most graphic scenes in this entire series—and that includes the scene from the season 2 premiere when Hunter cuts off Hartley’s arm in the back of a moving SUV.

At this point one of the mysteries surrounding Coulson’s miraculous recovery has been solved:  his Tahiti memories were implanted into his brain to cover up his previous memories of being a miserable shell of himself which lacked the will to live.  However, this does not explain how exactly Fury succeeded in bringing Coulson back from the dead in the first place.  What were the first six procedures, if the memory machine was the seventh one?  What power is there that could have the ability to bring a dead body back to life?  This question would come to consume Coulson moving forward, and especially in “T.A.H.I.T.I.” (1x14), when that very procedure would be called on again to save Skye.  Given that Coulson was killed in The Avengers and his death was the glue that brought Captain America and Iron Man together to fight Loki, I remember being a little disappointed when they announced that Coulson was going to come back as the leader of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  After all, if he comes back to life, is his death still meaningful?  At this point I think it is safe to say that Coulson’s death was meaningful.  It brought the Avengers together to “Avenge” him in the movie.  And then when he was brought back to life, the question of how it happened grew to consume him in the first half season.  When the Tahiti mystery is solved, the question turns from Tahiti to how he actually came back to life, and that question drives him until “T.A.H.I.T.I.”, at which point the question turns to who the blue alien was.  We do not get that mystery—or the related mystery surrounding the writing—solved until “The Writing on the Wall” (2x07), but the writing leads us to the Kree temple and the Diviner, and from there to the Inhumans.  I think it would be safe to say that Coulson’s resurrection is the thread that has connected together all of the overarching season-long plots in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to this point.  I do not think we would have found out about the Inhumans if Coulson had not been resurrected.  We can talk about death starting to lose its meaning when characters are brought back to life, and to a certain extent that is a valid concern.  However, I do not think that Coulson’s resurrection makes his death meaningless; I think that his resurrection gives it continued meaning.

The final scene of the episode shows the sad truth about Mike Peterson:  he did in fact survive the explosion; the burnt remains that Hand’s team discovered were not his.  Mike survived, and he was given an ocular implant, placing him under Centipede’s control.  This sets up all of his future appearances, in which he is a “good agent being forced to do bad things.”  I really like Mike and his character arc, especially since in the end he finds redemption.

This was a very good episode in how it expanded on several of the characters and moved the plot forward.  The action scenes weren’t mind-blowing, but in my opinion the lack of heavy action allowed the story to take center stage.

What did you think of “The Magical Place”?  When did you decide that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had “righted the ship” (if you ever thought it was off)?

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