S.H.I.E.L.D. is back! And now so is Coulson, after what might generously be described as a harrowing captivity. The team is saddled up for the back half of their inaugural season. But the question is: are we glad about it?
First, the plot. After trading himself to save Mike Peterson’s son, Coulson awakens from memories of Tahiti into the hospitality of Project: Centipede. As Mister Po explains, Centipede wants to know the secret of Coulson’s second chance. They know S.H.I.E.L.D. is lying to him about the length of his supposed dirt nap, and they want to know what brought him back so they can apply the same not-dying to their own super-soldiers. Unfortunately for Po, and for us, his scare tactics and magic memory machine—which plays like a bad future reboot of 24—isn’t enough to weasel the memories out of Coulson. It isn’t until Raina returns, flower dress and all, to coax the memory out of Coulson with some brutal honesty…and a magic memory machine.
The nuke town was a creepy setting for Coulson’s interrogation, but to be honest, Mister Po never landed for me as a villain. That’s why I didn’t shed any tears when the Clairvoyant terminated his services in favor of Raina’s approach. The scenes where Raina dug into Coulson’s personality and his past were among the best in the episode. She played coy with Scorch, but here we see the true depth of her abilities as she pierces Coulson’s charmingly bland exterior to let us see a glimpse of who he really is. That’s the kind of villain I want to see more of: the one who, in a world of super-strong gods and freaks, can undo a man with nothing more than the truth. Coulson knew all along that S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t telling him the whole truth, and watching his faith in the organization crumble bit by bit with a light touch from Raina was a treat. For a career spy like Coulson, it isn’t some super-villain that’ll hurt him the worst, but the truth he doesn’t want to discover.
And wow. I’ve joked in past reviews about what happened to Coulson, but now we know at least that part of the story. He’s no robot, not a clone, or a time duplicate, or anything comic-booky like that. Coulson’s running around in his original meat suit because Fury assembled a team of scientists and doctors to yank him back from the dead. And those great minds crossed a few lines to do it, as Coulson’s flashback shows us. I’ll say this for Agents: when they take a chance and go dark, they REALLY go dark. Seeing Coulson lying on that table, brain exposed and at the mercy of some machine that will surely haunt my nightmares, and listening to him plead to be allow to die, might be the most compelling thing the show has done to date.
But while Coulson rides the Theta waves down memory lane, that leaves his team adrift and looking for him. Agent Hand makes her return from “The Hub” to lead in Coulson’s absence, and she doesn’t really get the vibe of the Bus, which is why the first thing she does is kick Skye off the plane. Anyone who actually believed May was selling out her teammate has clearly never seen a TV show before, particularly a Whedon production, where the team is all. While Skye strikes out on her own, the rest of the Agents lean on Vanchat, Centipede’s Chitauri scrap dealer, for new leads on their boss’s location. We get some cute stuff with Ward and Fitz-Simmons taking over Hand’s interrogation, but the stuff on the Bus is largely inconsequential, making room instead for Skye to stretch her wings and fly.
And for the first time in a long time, Skye approaches something akin to an interesting character. The bracelet, which she’s been whining about for a quarter-season, finally forces her to think outside the box and get creative. She takes all of Ward’s training in order to reinvent herself as a faux-Melinda May who bluffs sensitive account information out of Vanchat’s sleazy banker. I’m sure this is the kind of growth the writers envisioned for Skye all along, but that goddamn bracelet felt like it slowed her storyline to a crawl, keeping her from doing the job Coulson brought her aboard the Bus to do and turning her into one big weepy anchor that dragged down the show. This episode has her kicking ass, and while I love it, I also wish it had happened much, much sooner.
That’s been my opinion as a whole of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s return to television: why didn’t we get this sooner? Centipede gets some development, Coulson gets more of a past (and some daddy issues, so watch out for that later on), and Skye gets closer to becoming a capital-A Agent. This is stuff we should have seen in episode four…maybe minus some of Coulson’s reveal. But that character growth? That plot development? I hope the back half of Season 1 steps up the metaplot, because Agents needs a strong thread to drag me all the way to the finale and keep my interest.
Speaking of threads, one of the ones we thought was clipped makes its return in the episode stinger: Mike Peterson is alive, missing a leg but gaining an ocular implant a la Amador from “Eye Spy.” J. August Richards gets to stick around instead of getting the cheap death we saw at the midseason break, so it’s a step in the right direction. Keep it up, Agents, and keep moving forward. No more standalones, please.
- “Is that a Roomba?”
- Fitz-Simmons brings their seven dwarves into the field for some tactical suppression. Imagine what they could do with those little devils and a little real mischief in mind.
- For way too much of the episode, I couldn’t remember Agent Hand’s name, so I kept referring to her as “Bitchface.” Not because she’s cold and distant, but out of respect for another underrated authority figure.
- “You made me a sandwich?” “Yes. It is that.”
- Coulson lost his dad at a young age? Holy shit, background info! If this keeps up, he’ll be a real person in no time.
- Fitz has new and dangerous opinions about how to handle enemy combatants. Saving Simmons might have made him a hero, but seeing Coulson taken is making him realize the cost of being a hero.
- Fitz-Simmons and Ward invent an aggressive new interrogation technique that would doubtlessly be adopted by Guantanamo as soon as they figure out how to make the prison fly.
- “The Fridge?” “It’s worse than it sounds.”
- Agent Hand likes it when Ward breaks the rules, but doesn’t like it when Skye does? That kind of inconsistent authority figuring might fly in Sleepy Hollow, but not here, Hand! Not. Here.
- Huh. The Clairvoyant doesn’t take delays very well. Poor Mister Po.
- That kind of sudden super-turn can’t be good for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plane. Or physics.
- “The people you work for are just as capable of using cruel means to reach a justified end.” And with that, Agents skirts the genuinely interesting issue lurking just beneath the surface, then immediately ignores it.
- Little does Raina know, Coulson lacks the Theta brain wave thanks to a chronological mishap resulting in his being his own grandfather.
- How much would we have to Kickstart to get Ron Glass hired on as a regular on the show? He could stay in a little room off of the cargo hold and dispense wisdom to the crew. I’m just saying, it’s worked before.
- Thank god Vanchat’s banker was within driving distance of the nuke test site where Centipede had Coulson.
- “Disengage bracelet.”
- “They were just messing with my head.” Truer, more literal words were never spoken. But Coulson wasn’t speaking in reference to Centipede, now was he?