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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