At this point, most viewers have probably made up their minds about Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. That being said, “The Magical Place,” which marks the mid-season return of the show, is something of a make-or-break moment. Heavily touted as the episode that would finally reveal the truth behind Agent Coulson’s mysterious resurrection, fans went into this one looking for answers. Whether they were the answers they were expecting or not is another story. We’re going to get into fairly heavy SPOILER territory during this review, so read with caution.
The first few minutes of “The Magical Place” are a good indication of what fans probably expect from Agents of SHIELD in the first place. There’s a daring daylight break-in to take down shadowy criminal Vanchat (Alden Turner) as he’s trying to sell Chitauri tech to some shady folks. See? That wasn’t hard, was it? Note to the showrunners: the more time these characters spend in SHIELD jumpsuits, using flashy spy-gadgets, and beating on bad guys, the more this will feel, at least superficially, like the source material. It’s a pretty simple formula, really. Now, if only they’d feel comfortable enough to stop laying everything at the feet of the events of The Avengers, but one thing at a time…
Victoria Hand (I’ve taken to referring to her as “the rather sinister Victoria Hand” in my head) is on the Coulson rescue case, and that already cramped airplane is fairly overrun with white-coated SHIELD agents looking to get Phil back from the clutches of Centipede before they can extract any intel from him, specifically intel related to how he’s still alive. As we’ve seen, the life expectancy for those half-assed super soldiers isn’t all that great, and they figure that Phil Coulson’s mind or body may hold the secret to a lower employee turnover rate. Agent Hand (acting as a proxy for most of the show’s viewers) questions Skye’s usefulness, and has her removed from the plane (not as abruptly and permanently as some might like). Ah, but Skye’s good friends, whose trust she has earned time and time again (she has?) come to her aid with some inside info and a secret SHIELD phone.
Skye’s theory is that if you “follow the money” it will eventually lead to Coulson and she concocts a plan perfectly in keeping with her character. That is to say that it’s completely unbelievable, thoroughly irritating, and manages to grind the show to a screeching halt…the OnStar product placement doesn’t exactly help matters, either. The good news is we went an entire episode without mention of that tedious subplot involving her parents, so this is a very good thing. Nevertheless, her plan works, and we’re at least treated to another fun action sequence before the show wraps up, with Agents May and Ward having a nice dust-up with a handful of Centipede’s super-soldiers.
Alright, let’s get into the heavy spoilers. Centipede have a magic brainwave machine that does indeed get Coulson past his implanted memories of Tahiti. The key here is that Coulson must submit to this willingly, if he fights it, it’ll just cook his brain. When Phil finally lays down, he does so knowing that his search for the answers about his recent past will also endanger the entire agency. Clark Gregg, as he tends to do, underplays this difficult moment and it works wonderfully.
The truth about Coulson’s return is more horrific than genuinely surprising. Agent Coulson wasn’t dead for seconds, minutes, or even hours, but days…and it took seven serious operations to bring him back to life. We’re treated to a shot of a fully awake and aware Phil Coulson begging for death as his exposed brain is operated on by a robot surgeon that looks like the creepy, spherical, hypodermic needle droid that Darth Vader used on Princess Leia in Star Wars. Regardless of any misgivings about how Agents of SHIELD has treated the material so far, this was a genuinely disturbing, nightmarish moment, and the presence of two ambivalent (at best) SHIELD doctors looking on in horror was a nice touch, as things have often been a little too squeaky clean for a show about spies.
Now, here’s where things don’t totally add up, and why this should probably fuel enough fan speculation to take us to season two (assuming the show gets that far). For starters, there’s nothing to indicate that this can’t be yet another layer of implanted/synthesized memories. Let’s face it, the Tahiti cover story was fairly obvious, and it began to unravel for Coulson in no time. So the most logical failsafe is to have a second layer of memories that are so horrific and painful that it would discourage further digging on the part of the subject.
There’s also the larger question (which Victoria Hand raises earlier in the episode) about why Phil Coulson is so crucially important that Fury would “move heaven and earth” to save his life and not allow him to die. Agent Coulson is certainly a competent leader, cool under fire, and always on top of whatever situation he finds himself in (like babysitting an annoying supporting cast, but I digress), but what makes the character unique is his unremarkable, everyman quality. Coulson is no superhero, to be sure, nor does he have the highest security clearance available. So what is it that makes him too important to die? It might be too soon to completely debunk the two most popular fan theories (involving The Vision and/or Life Model Decoys). The mystery is no longer “how is Phil Coulson still alive after the events of The Avengers” but why. If you’ve got to kick the can down the road to be addressed later in the season (or perhaps a future Marvel movie), this is the way to do it.
There are other notable bits scattered throughout. Edison Po is dispatched in a fun, appropriately spy-story manner (although he won’t be missed), and the plane finally gets to do something cool. We also get a glimpse of Michael Peterson’s fate which implies the return of the shadowy badguy behind the “Eye-Spy” episode. That does raise the uncomfortable question of how easily an organization as advanced as SHIELD could fall for the old “fake cadaver burned beyond recognition” trick, but I’m feeling charitable, so we can let that slide.
At best, “The Magical Place” is a schizophrenic episode. While it displays tantalizing signs of the show’s promise (particularly at the beginning and end) it also foregrounds many of the elements that have gotten the show raked over the coals (the glaring absence of anything resembling a credible/interesting threat, the continued presence of Skye, the claustrophobic airplane setting). It’s time to swap the half-baked Joss Whedon-lite dialogue and canned banter for more moral ambiguity, difficult choices, and danger. This is a show about a government agency that would make the combined technological might of the CIA, FBI, and NSA look like a bunch of stoners having a LAN party…can we please raise the stakes?
If there was ever a time for Agents of SHIELD to step out from the shadow of a few awkward, early season steps, this was it. It wasn’t a wholly convincing effort. But there are still those hints (the sinister Victoria Hand, Coulson’s confrontation with his doctor, any time Ming-Na Wen gets to kick some ass) that will keep some viewers coming back. As for those who remain on the fence? I’m not sure “The Magical Place” is going to change any minds. But it might be good to remember that it’s not unheard of for a show to take an entire season to find its legs, so let’s not give up just yet.