Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 11 review: The Magical Place

Review James Hunt 13 Jan 2014 - 06:33

Why does Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. treat its audience as if this is the first time they've ever seen a TV show? Here's James' review...

This review contains spoilers.

1.11 The Magical Place

A TV show's hiatus period can be a unique opportunity for the people running it to take a step back, look at what might be going wrong and give it a little course correction. With a few weeks to breathe in which episodes don't need to be produced, one might seriously consider doing a retool of the format, reshuffling the regular cast, or exploding the premise and replacing it with a new one. Anything to get rid of the bad while keeping the good.

Alternatively, one could kick back, sip a glass of Christmas port and congratulate one's self in getting everything right first time. This is what those responsible for Agents of SHIELD have evidently elected to do, because episode 1.11 is, if anything, just as minimally competent as what's come before. Only this time it's a little groggier in the telling. Well, that port wasn't going to drink itself, I suppose.

If you've seen the episode, you know that we did finally get the mystery of Agent Coulson's resurrection explained, albeit in some weirdly vague terms. But if you've seen the episode, you'll probably also agree that literally anything would've been better than what they came up with. To wit, in between each of the following paragraphs, you'll find an idea that could have worked better:

The real Agent Coulson's body is lying in a coma on life support and this one's a remote-controlled LMD. 

First, we'll discuss the good things about this episode. Victoria Hand's return was completely welcome. As a character she's intriguing and sympathetic in wanting to help the team but placing greater importance on her duty as a SHIELD agent. It's not an especially rare archetype, but it is rare to see this type of character also succeeding in what they do. SHIELD needs that contrast given that the rest of the cast are all mavericks who play by their own rules.

They fished Tony Stark's old Arc Reactor heart out of the sea and put it in Agent Coulson, even though that makes no sense on a technical or chronological level.

Similarly, the idea of Skye going back to basics as a hacker and actually getting stuff done was good to see, not least because it gives her a purpose other than being the clueless rookie. Her impersonation of a SHIELD agent wasn't too competent (by design) though it does stretch credibility that no-one within SHIELD is as good a hacker as she is. Aren't these guys supposed to be the best?

Agent Coulson is an Eternal who mystically returns to life every time he dies, only he's cursed to forget.

This highlights an ongoing problem with SHIELD as an organisation: they're constantly made to look incompetent by a team of newbies and borderline psychopaths. I completely get why we need to root for Coulson's team (since they're the stars of the show) but why make the conflict with their command structure so simplistic? They're already outsmarting the bad guys, why not give them a different relationship to the good guys? Why not let them come up with righteous solutions where the rigidly-structured SHIELD can only deliver practical ones with a moral cost? Anything other than "everyone's against us!" would be fun. As it is, it's just monotonous.

Nick Fury gets Steve Rogers, Thor and Tony Stark into a room, they all hold hands and wish really hard for Agent Coulson to come back to life, and he does.

The reason SHIELD seems to go for the easy route at all costs is probably because doing otherwise would require a show that could do subtlety, and if Agents of SHIELD has proven anything, it's that it doesn't do subtlety. After spending the entire previous episode bludgeoning us with the idea that The Clairvoyant was a psychic in a failed attempt at misdirection, this week it spent the entire episode bludgeoning us with the idea that Mike Richardson was dead in what was ultimately another failed attempt at misdirection.

Agent Coulson wasn't actually dead, the blade missed his heart and he really did go to Tahiti to recover. 

Admittedly Richardson turned up later than I thought, and in worse shape than I thought, but he did turn up. Because we didn't see a body, it was always obvious that he'd be back. Painfully, depressingly obvious. See, one of the great things previous Whedon-helmed shows used to do was play with audience expectations by subverting the genre conventions. The entirety of Buffy was based on one: that the blonde teenage girl is the one who kills vampires, rather than vice versa. Agents of SHIELD, by comparison, plays like a show that doesn't realise it's a genre show. It actually seems to think, bless it, that if it says often enough that a character died offscreen, we'll believe it. Like this is the first TV show we've ever watched.

Agent Coulson is still lying on the Helicarrier with a sucking chest wound and all of Agents of SHIELD is the last, flickering flashes of consciousness firing across his neurons in the moments before death. 

As usual, it's a waste of good potential. There's so much that this TV show could do. Instead it's going for the most obvious, basic, uninteresting ideas it's got. The one glimmer of hope is that Coulson's new understanding of his past will give Clark Gregg some actual material to work with, because if anyone in this cast can carry off emotional arcs a bit more weighty than they currently get, it's him. The scene where he's being reminded of his previous (though barely-mentioned) beau is proof of this.

Agent Phil Coulson is dead and this is his twin brother, Bill Coulson, who has been brainwashed into thinking he's Phil. Okay, that one would've been dumber than what we got. But only just.

Read James' review of the previous episode, The Bridge, here.

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Disagree with all the critics. Some of the episode was standard Agents of Shield fare but the scenes with Coulson were incredible, thanks to Gregg Clark's acting. The scene with the robot repairing/rebuilding his brain while he screamed, "Please let me die!" was chilling. Skye's teary concern for Coulson was touching, but everyone hates Skye so Chloe Bennett doesn't get the praise she deserves when its warranted.

I think perhaps Joss needs to pop back in and write one or two eps. Seems like he gave them a really great head start and when he left the writers to their own devices they sort of stumbled at the first hurdle.

This episode left me conflicted, all it really told us was the Coulson died and was resurrected. I mean that was essentially known from episode 1, at least to me (the idea that he survived the stabbing and was just declared dead was an option but it was pretty far down the list). Again to me the "how" is the important part of the equation (still thinking the initial phase of the operations was use of the Infinity Formula). So in that sense the episode felt underwhelming or more of a catch-up episode for the characters to be on the same page as the audience. Certain scenes as mentioned were done very well, Coulson on the operating table, Skye pretending (badly) to be May, Coulson and Skye's reunion but they didn't help the whole episode feeling a little hollow.

I think the biggest problem with MAoSHIELD is that it is so closely tied to the MCU.
In the MCU movies large events, lifechanging events happen. The fact that all this happens off-screen in MAoSHIELD is only detracting from the experience of danger, scale and importance in the actual show. Events like "New York" and "Londen" make for better storytelling, even when the actual story is not about those events.

It also takes away the opportunity to do some world buidling in MAoSHIELD. The world is established, as are the major players. None of them are in the show...
Unfortunately this leaves the whole show to not only be about the "mundane" in the MCU, it also feels mundane.

The only thing that this show had as a trump card, was the true story of agent Coulson. I understand that they need to phase in that revelation. But the way they handled it so far makes for poor TV. I am unfortunately completely underwhelmed by the plotpoints. So far it's only a big lot of interesting idea's with sub-par execution.

So dear Whedon and co, please allow MAoSHIELD to grow out from under the shadow of its MCU movie counterparts. We've seen evidence that those can give us self-contained stories, without impacting the whole MCU (e.g. Iron Man 3). Allow the show to be more of a driving force behind all of the connected things in the MCU. Allow the show to display the links between IM, Thor, Cap America and whatever else is going on.

Show us the events around the missions we saw the Black Widow in at the start of Avengers. It's not about the world-threatening plots, it's about the writing and essence of danger.

Thank you!

Agent Coulson is really Vision and the Clairvoyant is really the Leader and by the time anyone cares NO ONE WILL CARE.

The big problem with this review is that it hinges entirely on the fact that you think the resolution to the Coulson mystery was rubbish and you could come up with loads of better solutions. You then proceed to come up with a list of significantly more rubbish solutions.

What was wrong with the solution in the show, other than the fact that it was a little unspectacular?

Unspectacular. Unoriginal. Uninteresting. And more than a little goofy. Basically he was brought back to life by hand-waving technobabble. Which is fine, if you haven't made it the underlying mystery of the previous 10 episodes.

You know what, Mr. Hunt? I'm done with your "reviews". It's obvious you've been completely against the show from day 1, and I have no idea why the DoG staff keep letting you write these. You evidently look for things to nitpick, and in an episode as good as this one (the open brain surgery was almost Cronenbergian levels of body horror, and very dark for this type of show), you actively rubbish the the best moment of the season by coming up with frankly terrible alternatives as to why Coulson is alive. In my view, it's unprofessional, and whenever your name comes up in future reviews, I'll simply laugh and close the tab, because you've got nothing worthwhile to say.

", this week it spent the entire episode bludgeoning us with the idea that Mike Richardson was dead in what was ultimately another failed attempt at misdirection."

The problem I have is that the episodes are so brain squashingly boring that I couldn't remember if Mike was supposed to be dead or not, as by that point in the previous show, I'd lost the will to care.

It's dull.

It reminds me of the A-Team or Knight Rider from the 80s. It's simplistic balderdash mostly acted and directed by people who either don't care or are not being allowed to do their jobs properly.

I'd like to have just one of the younger team members become a sympathetic character. I keep rooting for Skye to die each week. Maybe next week eh?

After a big mystery, a similar anticlimax to Doctor Who and Sherlock then?

Lost has lots to answer for.

I didn't see what he went thru as any different (morally) to a heart bypass or dialysis.

Is he Amish?!

I didn't get why he wanted to die.

Was it the pain?

Some sort of Moral outrage?

The thought of being in a boring TV series with people who can't act?

Heck I have that kind of reaction every time I have a tooth filled.

Well from what the doctor said he was put through operations way beyond even the harshest of "normal" operations, he was dead for day. He was at the point of not wanting to be alive (presumably being in so much pain) and still they persisted, I think morally that's on the darker side of things.

I actually thought Colsoun's resurrection was fine in itself, my main question now would be why it is that Fury wanted to revive him in the first place?
Also regarding the Mike Peterson 'death' no matter whether he lived or died the writers would've been attacked for going the obvious route, if he died and it was obvious he was dead all the reviewers and commentators would have started talking about what a cliche it is that Whedon kills off every character after making you start to love them.
Not killing him off also has its problems, as you have pointed out, because it is also cliched to have the apparent death in the explosion before revealing he survives.
Personally I think they went with one of the better routes by making it obvious so early on that he wasn't dead, the point now isn't whether he survived or not, the point is SHIELD thinks he is dead but we now know he is being controlled by The Clarevoyent, which was a slight twist a will create further drama later on in the series.

But that fact is that this show is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and they decided to go with horrifying surgery over the myriad of possible options (Life Model Decoy, Infinity Formula, Clone, Eternal, Asgardian/Alien energy) all of which could have had as much of a psychological impact on Coulson as surgery and furthered the universe at the same time. All in all their chosen option just seems a little dull.

A complete letdown for me, I expected more. I'm gonna watch the rest of the season, if it get picked for a second season Im gonna need some convincing to watch it.

I wouldn't have a problem with the solution being unspectacular if the show hadnt go out of their way to make me believe that it was something worth it. It not only was not worth it, it was pretty rubbish for a scifi show set in a world with superheroes.


That's another interesting question.... Why revive him? I dont believe is standard procedure for any dead agent... It is Coulson that important? The show its making me believe more and more that is just another agent that happened to be in the right place at the right time (Iron Man 1), other than that, I find him bland, not specially resolutive and I start to believe that the series could have been done without him without any problem.

Haha, I loved the alternative ideas between paragraphs thing. :D Personally I thought this was a lot better than some episodes that have come before, especially in terms of plot format and character use (see Skye and Hand). However, the Clark mystery 'resolution' was ridiculously underdramatic and a complete flop. Hopefully this was just another case of misdirection and they've got something else up their sleeves instead, but I doubt it...

Gotta love how everybody on here goes apeshit, as soon as a reviewer dares to disagree with them. I especially love how people are accusing James of deliberately nit-picking. because it is obviously impossible for him to disagree with them otherwise. I for one agree with him, this show is mediocre and not engaging on any level, but even if I didn't agree with him, I would not call him a hack, just because he dislikes a show that I like.

I actually liked the episode - we learned new things about Coulson, Clark Gregg got some decent material, Skye had a purpose and the team worked well together - certainly Fitz and Simmons showed some collective balls when ordering around the science guys, and if any of the newcomers has really shone in recent episodes, it's Fitz.

Personally I'm enjoying it. I hope we haven't seen the last of Raina, she's gorgeous...

You think you're in a boring TV series with people who can't act every time you have a tooth filled? I've heard of phobia's causing strange reactions but that's a new one.

Personally I am still waiting for the "twist" or "reveal" of how Coulson survived. Because the version we saw was apparently that he had some experimental surgery and then had his memory wiped. Wow real out of the box thinking there.

I liked the last 2 alternative explanations, one being Jacobs Ladder and the other being Heroes.

ok, I'm a big fan of the Bill Coulson explanation and I think you're putting yourself down if you think that's dumber than what we got.

Phobia's what?

Instead they went with a more realistic, human means that shows how terrifying, how horrible, how primitive, and how powerful our technology can be? I liked that. It grounded the show a bit more in the human side.

Come on James, you should just stop watching and stop writing. You obviously has an extreme bias against this show, and your review are petty and unprofessional. I wonder what you hated so much about Coulson's fascinating resurrection.

For one we don't truly know the details, except that he was operated on for days with open-brain memory-manipulation involved whilst he was conscious. It was brutal, it was horrifying, it was grim, but it was powerful. It showed how powerful the technology was to bring him back days after death, and to add to that, it was human. Not Asgardian, not fancy Stark stuff, it was brutal primitive human technology. Now the mystery to me is what about Coulson meant Fury did everything to bring him back.

We don't know the full story yet. Wait until Coulson confronts Fury later in the season. My theory is that Coulson was an android all along. Maybe based on an old buddy from his younger days who died protecting him. Why else would Fury go to so much trouble for one agent?

Let's face it though, SHIELD has always been about "hand-waving technobabble", so this is no surprise at all.

If it leaves the patient good as new, I don't see that it's particularly dark or worth keeping a secret. The reason we don't generally resurrect people who have been dead for days is not that it would be tough on them but that we just can't do it. Chemotherapy is pretty brutal and much more protracted. Patients recovering from gall bladder surgery sometimes suffer so much pain that they wish they could die. There is a consent issue, true, with treatment persisting on a patient who says he doesn't want it, however "Please let me die, I'm in so much pain right now I'm not capable of understanding that I'll be absolutely fine soon," is different from "I, in sound mind, sign this living will that I do not want to be kept alive if all hope of recovering a good quality of life is gone."

I didn't expect the solution to the mystery of Coulson's survival to be "SHIELD has really good doctors, but surgery hurts."

(And why on earth are they hiding it from the Avengers and Coulson's girlfriend? The only reason I can see is they don't want to share their lifesaving capacities with everyone else, which IS dark, but also stupid.)

I feels as if no one listened to Ron Glass' explanation at the end, He wasn't dead for a day, he was dead for __days__. They kept him conscious and presumably without any medication to dull the pain the entire time during up to 7 consecutive surgeries, if not more, he was in extreme pain and wanted to die, Presumably the surgeries weren't just "painful" but they went against moral and ethical boundaries that no good doctor would allow and described as "ungodly".

He wasn't left good as new, he had mentally given up on life by the end of it, not just during but afterwards he was a mentally broken person, he was not getting better "soon". The memory of Tahiti they implanted was to cover up all of that and give back his will to live.

Minor correction, he was dead for days not just one. It sounds like he had also lost his will to live after the surgeries not just during.

so close..

I am under the impression that the Coulson mystery hasn't be resolved yet. All we're told is that he WAS dead for days and he was brought back. We haven't been told why (although that could just be because they wanted to) or, MORE IMPORTANTLY, HOW. We saw what I assume is post-resurrection surgery, but not the actual one. I don't think (and I really hope) that this isn't the last of the mystery (remember how the reviewer thought Coulson's bit about 'he feels like a different person post-stabbing' being the resolution to the arc when it clearly wasn't)

I don't think what we saw was HOW he survived, because Shepherd Book said that there were multiple surgeries going on for days (which he could have easily been lying about). All we were given detail about was the final surgery where his memories were changed, not anything before that.

As well as the fact that all we have been shown is the post-resurrection memory alteration, not the actual resurrection. That part is still a mystery.

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