After a four week break, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. picks up the second half of the season, looking to answer a few questions about Coulson – not only where he’s being held by Centipede, but what happened to him when he died. The title of the episode, “The Magical Place,” promises much. But where, exactly, is Tahiti?
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S01E11 – “The Magical Place” – will discuss major plot points and events in the episode; read at your own risk!>>
The episode opens up with a series of scenes detailing the entire Centipede story line up to this point; it’s interesting to see this in retrospect, as it shows that the writers have been working in small details from the very beginning. The thought that there is more going on behind the scenes that is noticed at first glance bodes well, as I think longer story-arcs are just the sort of thing that might help to build audience loyalty.
The opening splash takes us into an office, where a man is trying to sell a piece of Chitauri metal. Ward and May storm in, but the dealer’s thugs stall them long enough for him to make his exit. Ward radios Fitz and Simmons, who then use drones to herd the dealer into an elevator, which they promptly reroute to the rooftop, where there is a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents training their guns on the exit. Agent Hand is there with them, making her second appearance (her first was in Episode 107, “The Hub”). She looks him in the eye and says, “We were hoping you could help us find a friend.” So, Hand is on the team trying to get Coulson back. How do they hope to use a Chitauri metal dealer to get to him?
On the Bus, Ward is being patched up in the lab. The first thing we see is that the place is literally crawling with agents. Ward even quips about how many they can fit on board. He’s always been played as the strong loner type, so seeing him discomfited by the larger group taking over his territory makes sense character-wise. We head with him up to the briefing room, where Agent Hand is talking. She is interrupted in the midst of speaking – someone is trying to hack the on-board computer system. She goes straight to Skye’s cubby, and finds her on her computer. Skye tells her she’s trying to follow the money – see who is paying for the Chitauri metal, through which banks, and you find Centipede. Hand is having none of it, and tells her she wants her off the plane. Ward steps up, trying to convince Hand that Skye is a valuable asset to the team. Hand turns to May, and asks her opinion: “Will this girl be of any use to us on this plane?” May looks to consider this for a moment, weighing the question, then states, “No.” Skye gives her a nasty look as she is escorted off the Bus. Ward also gives May a look of barely disguised shock. Has May been listening to viewer concerns over Skye? As it turns out, no – she is simply taking Hand’s question as absolutely literal, as we find out a little later. As Skye is leaving, Simmons hands her a sandwich down in the hanger. Unlike the sandwich she gave to Fitz in “The Hub,” this one is not to be eaten – rather, it is a satellite phone which can be used a single time to contact Simmons on the Bus.
We cut to Coulson, lying on the massage table in Tahiti we’ve seen in several episodes. This time, the memory goes on a bit longer, and a man approaches carrying several tropical drinks on a tray, laughing. Suddenly, Coulson is jarred out of his memory; he’s in a dark room, lying on a table with a glowing contraption at it’s head, and Po is talking to him, a thug waiting silently in the background. Po tells Coulson to stop fighting the machine, that it will kill him if he fights it. Coulson mentions Mike Peterson, and questions how Centipede treats people that they offer to help – he saw Peterson on the bridge before it blew up. Po tells him that coming back onto the bridge was Peterson’s choice, that they gave him his life and his son, no strings. He tries a different angle with Coulson, suggesting that his loss of his father at an early age helped form him in such a way that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been able to take advantage of him – Centipede is not any worse than them, as far as he’s concerned. Coulson maintains his calm, telling Po that the Clairvoyant is a fraud – if he’s truly psychic, why does he need Coulson to give him information? Po admits that there is a dark place the Clairvoyant can’t see into, and then threatens Coulson with a cattle prod – time for the interrogation to continue.
We go to Skye, who is trying to use the free wifi at a coffee shop to continue her hacking – but the moment S.H.I.E.L.D. defenses detect her intrusion, it shuts down the server – every device in the shop displays the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo. Following the one lead she has, she tracks a banker involved in the chain and steals the SUV he’s conveniently left outside for valet parking, but only after acquiring some very fashionable leather duds – she looks calm, cool, and professional, all of which help her simply slide into the SUV as though she belongs there. Unable to utilize the banker’s GPS to find his house – S.H.I.E.L.D. lockdown again; gotta love her security bracelet! – she decides instead to crash the vehicle and use OnStar to get towed “home.”
Back on the Bus, Ward, Fitz, and Simmons are watching the interrogation of the metal agent. Things are going too slow for Ward, so he decides to go do something about it. He tells the agent running the interrogation that Hand wants him, and he takes over. The man smugly tells Ward he won’t talk, so Ward sits down and puts on a seat-belt. At his signal, Fitz and Simmons Roshambo* for the right to open up a ceiling door in the interrogation room. Simmons wins (rock beats scissors), and she gleefully opens the lock. The salesman holds onto the table for dear life, and gladly agrees to reveal everything he knows.
*I wanted to spell it Rochambeau, after the French General, but Wikipedia insists that Roshambo is the appropriate spelling for the alternate Rock-Paper-Scissors name
Back to Coulson, just in time to see him getting the crap beaten out of him by two goons. So much for my theory that he was secretly some kind of super-soldier. He is, however, super-smart in his own way, and manages to palm a pair of tweezers – I shudder to think why they’d have a pair of tweezers in the room. Coulson, however, puts them to good use, picking the lock on his handcuffs and freeing himself. He exits the room, surprising one of his guards and choking him into unconsciousness. He heads outside, where Po is sitting on the porch, waiting for him. A second thug stands nearby. Po tells him that they’re in a town built for nuclear testing, that there isn’t anything around for hundreds of miles. They head back inside to continue the interrogation.
Skye arrives at the banker’s house, and lets herself inside. She uses a golf club to press auto-dial to call Rathman (the banker), carefully avoiding any proximity from her bracelet – she’s finally beginning to show some learning here. He comes home, and she introduces herself as Agent Melinda May of S.H.I.E.L.D., and accuses him of funding Centipede (which, of course, he denies). Interesting that she would go this route. It’s not like Rathman would have heard of either her or May, so the deception doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. Perhaps she’s worried that if things go sideways, the blame won’t fall directly on her? Or perhaps she wants to steal a modicum of the confidence that May always seems to have in spades. Either way, she chooses to play the role, and bluffs her way into the house. As he takes her into his office, he sets of a silent alarm, which Skye fails to notice. She makes Rathman do the work on the computer – the bracelet, again – but he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. Two security guards show up, one pointing a gun at her. She disarms him with apparent ease – guess she has been listening to Ward, after all – and we next see the guards tied up to chairs in the office, although she ends up using one of them – who happens to be more computer savvy than Rathman – to do the work on the computer.
Meanwhile, back on the Bus, Hand has redirected the plane to head to Sydney, where they now know Centipede has an operation. This, thanks largely to Ward’s work in the interrogation. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. teams are moving on dozens of suspected Centipede locations simultaneously, trying to take down the entire operation in one fell swoop. Hand keeps Ward back after the briefing, and asks him point-blank, “Do we have a problem?” She is angry that he went behind her back, but at the same time pleased with his results. She is not, however, entirely happy with the sheer volume of resources being thrown at finding Coulson. She doesn’t express any dislike for Coulson, but logistically it makes no sense to her. After all, he’s just one agent, no matter how much Director Fury likes him. To my thinking, there’s something more than meets the eye here. Hand herself has a history with S.H.I.E.L.D., at least in the comics, that is not entirely a positive one; but here, she’s spot on. Why would S.H.I.E.L.D. go to such lengths for one man? Fury is obviously hiding something, and I’m not convinced that it is simply the knowledge of how he was resurrected, which we learn later in the episode. I believe something more is going on here.
Coulson is back in the interrogation room, being electrocuted by Po and his man. Raina arrives, and questions Po’s methods – she suggests that her methods might be more effective. Po is quite clear – the Clairvoyant trusts him, and has faith in his choices. Just as he says this, his phone rings. It’s the Clairvoyant, and he asks to speak to Raina. Po is surprised, but hands the phone over. She speaks briefly, and smiles, handing the phone back. The moment Po places it to his ear, a high pitched tone emits, and his skin suddenly turns a pallid grey, veins creasing his face – it looks as though he is freezing from the inside out. He falls to the floor, apparently dead.
Back on the Bus, we get a beauty shot of the front, zooming in on the cockpit where we see Ward sitting down beside May. Ward starts to lay into her about her treatment of Skye, and she clarifies for him – how is Skye supposed to be any good on the Bus, constrained by Hand’s omnipresence? She’s much more effective off the grid, and off the Bus. She asks Ward to not be so quick to judge her, and to his credit, he looks moderately chagrined. Hand’s voice comes over the com – the have new information, and they need to abort the trip to Sydney, heading instead to the Mojave desert. May uses the plane’s thrusters to stop their forward momentum, turn in place, and jet off back towards the States – but why? Sure, it’s kind of cool to see the jet’s capabilities, but honestly, a simple turn would have been just as effective, and likely faster. Sometimes directors can’t help themselves if they have a cool effect in mind.
With Po dead, Raina indeed tries her techniques with Coulson. Definitely a good-cop act, as she flirts with him, and appeals to his humanity. She tries to find common ground, and points out to Coulson that S.H.I.E.L.D. and Centipede aren’t really all that different, only that Centipede is unable to bring its agents back to life – and why can’t we all be friends? After all, they both use people, they both ruin lives, and they both kill their agents indiscriminately with murderous eye implants. Oh wait, that last one’s just Centipede – she fails to mention this, but you have to think that Coulson would. Oddly, he doesn’t, instead seeming to cave into Raina’s act. There could be a couple of different reasons for this – it could be that Coulson is genuinely falling for her faux camaraderie; it could be that, beaten and hurting, he doesn’t see the situation clearly; or, and this is my preferred choice, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and is in fact playing Raina for what she can get him. He’s already experienced the Centipede memory machine, and knows that it does have a way of digging into hidden memories. We already know that Coulson is very interested in any information about his death and resurrection – this may be his best chance to find out. And there is Raina’s demeanor. Whether she is any less deadly than Po (I’m thinking not – she’s even deadlier, I believe), he seems to be lulled by her presence. Perhaps its a sense that he could take her on physically if need be. In any case, he seems at this point to be wavering in his resolve.
Back at Rathman’s, the security guard and Rathman help Skye set up a dummy bank account, which she then uses to trace the Centipede money. She finds something that gets her attention, and borrows Rathman’s Lamborghini to get her to the desert. He gives this to her willingly – she’s convinced him she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and that he’ll get immunity from prosecution if he aids her. She drives off at speed.
Raina continues to use her psychological hoodoo on Coulson, only aided by inside knowledge provided to her by the Clairvoyant. She tells him that S.H.I.E.L.D. is his “family – your only family,” and he replies, “I trust the system.” She brings up his lost love, the cellist that he told Ward about a few weeks ago. She tells him that she cried for days when S.H.I.E.L.D. told her Coulson was dead; she’s trying to manipulate him into turning on S.H.I.E.L.D., and he’s obviously getting close to agreeing with her. The final straw – she asks him about Tahiti, and he says, “It’s a magical pla…. I keep saying that.” “Don’t you want to know why?” she asks, and she has him, at least to the point that he’s going to get back into the machine – whether he is actively betraying S.H.I.E.L.D. is debatable. Certainly, any information revealed about his resurrection would necessarily be highly important S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets, but this is also his life – he has a right to know who and what he is. He has to be aware of these two opposing sides to the situation, and my guess is that, in his weakened state, he’s willing to chance Centipede finding out something just so that his own curiosity can be satisfied.
On the Bus, Fitz and Simmons are explaining a new device to Ward – an injector that will use Centipede’s own appliances to inject the subject with their nighty-night serum. While they’re doing so, they get an incoming communication – it’s Skye using her single-use satellite sandwich. May takes over, as though she’d been waiting for Skye’s report (and we know that she, in fact, was – although Skye presumably doesn’t yet). She says, “What have you found,” and we cut to the hanger downstairs, where Agent Hand is her usual charming (angry) self. She’s sending her team to a known Centipede warehouse complex, but Ward and May are insistent that their team needs to follow-up on Skye’s lead in the Mojave. She doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t try to stop them, either.
Back at Centipede central, Coulson is lying with his head in the machine, Raina encouraging him and asking what he sees. He goes back to Tahiti again, seeing the masseuse standing over him, and the happy man bringing drinks. Suddenly, the man fades in and out, and becomes Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass), whom we haven’t seen since Episode 101. He’s not taking a drink order; he says, “Listen to him! Who ordered this?” The masseuse looks at him, and replies, “Director Fury himself.” We’re beginning to see the man behind the curtain, and Tahiti isn’t looking so magical after all.
Outside, Skye arrives in the Lamborghini, and she is immediately chased by one of the Centipede thugs. Just as she’s about to be caught, the S.H.I.E.L.D. SUV driven by May knocks him down. They get out to give battle.
Inside,Tahiti flickers out of existence in Coulson’s memory, and becomes an Operating Room. Raina hears the commotion outside, and sends out the thug in the room to help deal with the arriving S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Before he gets there, Ward and May are busy double-teaming on of the thugs – turns out he’s a Centipede super-soldier – and they’re just barely holding their own, primarily dodging blows that would easily crush them. The second super-soldier from inside arrives – they need to deal with them before they can save Coulson. Ward is knocked to the ground, but just barely manages to use Fitz/Simmons new injector, taking the thug out. We jump back into Coulson’s mind – things are starting to unravel more rapidly. He sees a vision of a very concerned looking Nick Fury, and the camera pans around Coulson’s hospital bed. The top of his skull is removed, several robotic hands moving rapidly over the exposed brain, zapping short jolts of electricity into it, rebuilding damaged structures. Dr. Streiten is also there, and the masseuse is now an OR nurse. Hauntingly, Coulson is repeating the same phrase over and over: “Please. Let me die. Please. Let me die.” Skye bursts into the room, knocking out Raina with one punch – again, Ward’s training proving effective. Coulson is crying, and Skye helps him into a sitting position. He recognizes her, and she holds him upright, supporting him while he is weak.
The denouement back on the Bus, we see Raina being led away in cuffs by some agents. Agent Hand is there, and tells them that Director Fury is very relieved that Coulson is safe. There’s no word on the Clairvoyant, however, which means that despite their utter decimation at the hands of S.H.I.E.L.D., Centipede is not yet dead. Coulson thanks Hand for leading the rescue effort. She tells him that the Bus just isn’t for her, and she takes her leave. Coulson addresses his team, saying, “I just want to say…thank you.” The whole team – hard-as-nails May included – look like they’re about to get all misty-eyed, but they fight it back. “Now get back to work,” he says, ending the moment. Coulson waits behind with Skye, and tells her she’s done well, and that it’s time for her bracelet to come off. “Disengage bracelet,” he says, and Skye looks dumbfounded. “Are you kidding me?” she asks. “I thought you’d like that,” he says. She tries to get him to open up about his experiences with the Centipede mind machine, but he brushes off any discussion. He tells her, “It wasn’t real. They were just messing with my head.” Double-entendres, anyone? He isn’t talking about Centipede here, as Skye believes; no, he’s talking about S.H.I.E.L.D., and what he saw the robotic surgeon doing to him.
An indeterminate time later, we see Dr. Streiten getting into his car. A shadow and a voice from the back – Coulson has been waiting for him. He seems almost relieved that Coulson is confronting him. He says, “I was afraid this day would come,” and Coulson asks, “Because of what I would do?” “Because of what I have done,” Streiten replies. “You weren’t dead for eight seconds or forty seconds, or whatever it is they have in your file. You were dead for…days.” “That’s impossible,” Coulson says. Streiten goes on to explain that Fury assembled a team of doctors and scientists, that there were numerous surgeries, that he moved “Heaven and Earth” to save Coulson’s life. The surgery Coulson is remembering was his seventh. He’d given up the will to live – they’d had to keep him awake during many of the procedures, to insure that things were going well – and he kept asking them to let him die. He asks, “Why was that machine…messing with my brain.” Streiten explains that is work was to try to remove the despair from Coulson’s mind, to return to him his will to live, hence Tahiti and the false memories he has of his recovery.
The stinger at the end holds one last surprise. Mike Peterson isn’t dead – he’s in a bed, heavily bandaged and burned. He looks down, and sees that his right leg is amputated just above the knee. He looks down the foot of his bed, and sees a mirror. Text appears – he’s received an eye implant. Yes, Centipede is not only alive and well, but now they have Peterson in their power. This story-arc has yet to run its course – expect to see more of Peterson and Centipede until Coulson et al are able to finally flush out the Clairvoyant.
This episode had a lot going for it going in, what with the strong finish in Episode 1010 leading to this conclusion. I was disappointed that a big part of the focus was on Skye – again, she was key to actually finding Coulson, thus saving the day once again. The saving grace in this aspect of the episode was that it wasn’t done entirely alone. She found Coulson, yes, but without Ward and May’s fighting ability, and Fitz and Simmons’ night-night serum, there’s no way Coulson gets saved. Coulson appears on the verge of betraying S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s certainly taken one step beyond merely questioning what happened to him; now, he’s questioning motive. And he knows that the orders to bring him back came from the very top, from Fury himself. How loyal will he be going forward, knowing that Fury treated his own feelings and wishes with apparent disdain? Or will he feel that the end justifies the means, as it appears Fury himself has done?
It does seem to answer the over-riding question we’ve had since the pilot: Coulson is not a Life Model Decoy. Being an LMD would have been the pat answer, and represents a familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. technology. We can also assume that there was no Asgardian, or other, magic involved – the use of doctors, scientists, and robotic surgeons obviates that course of thought. I find this choice to be an odd one, to be fair. With so many palatable (to audiences of superhero movies and books) options, why choose to go with “science?” Especially when said science is far beyond anything remotely possible? I know that LMDs ask for a suspension of disbelief, but they’re a known technology in the Marvel-verse, so have already been accepted by most fans.
Coulson’s apparent betrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D. – agreeing to let Raina probe his brain further – does not read as a true betrayal to me. Coulson is damaged. Throughout the early run of the show, people have been commenting about him not being himself, and he himself has noticed that he responds differently to situations than he used to. Most of the time he seems at peace with this new kinder, gentler Coulson, but it still bothers him. Given the opportunity to find out what really happened, he didn’t exactly leap at the chance, fighting Po every step of the way. Only once beaten down, once he’d been forced to endure physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, did he agree to probe his memories willingly. Coulson isn’t a fool – he recognizes that Raina is just as dangerous as Po, if not more so; but where she sees his weakness as something she can manipulate, I feel that he is using his apparent weakness to lull her into a false sense of security. He’s going to find out what happened, but it is for himself, not for Raina or for Centipede.
The team fared well in this episode. Each one played a role, and despite Skye’s central position, each of them had at least one key moment where without their contribution, the day would have been lost (the Fitz/Simmons nighty-night injector; Ward’s physicality overcoming super-soldiers; May’s manipulation of Hand to get Skye off the Bus, along with her physical abilities). They showed solidarity in the face of opposition, both external – Centipede – and internal – Agent Hand. For the first time in the series, I actually felt that they were acting as a team, that they were showing trust and reliance on each other, and that they were no longer questioning each other at every turn – with one exception. Ward failing to read May’s motivation in getting Skye off of the Bus was interesting, and may spell the beginning of the end of their surreptitious tryst.
I’m very happy that Coulson’s resurrection has now been dealt with, but it does open up a new can of worms: how did they develop the technology that saved Coulson, and rebuilt his brain? Why is Coulson so important to Fury that he was willing to “move Heaven and Earth” to save his life? And how long before Hand’s questions of the Director’s motivations lead to open opposition? I don’t imagine any of these questions will be answered in the next couple of weeks, as I expect the writers to ramp back from the high-pace of the mid-season two-parter. Hopefully they’ll continue with the team building, which I feel was the strongest part of this episode.
Steve’s Grade: B+
A slight let-down after the mid-season finale’s frenetic pace, but some good examples of the team finally beginning to gel. Skye again saves the day, but her annoying quotient was noticeably lower than earlier in the season, as each team member had a role to play.