'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Review: "The Magical Place"

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ABC

Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ assembles its first 2014 installment in midseason premiere “The Magical Place,” as the team partners with Agent Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) to retrieve Coulson from captivity, while the agent himself finally unlocks the mystery of his mysterious resurrection.

Previous ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ episode “The Bridge” saw the team enlisting Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) to take the fight to Centipede, so how does ABC’s ‘Avengers‘-adjacent series keep us marveling at its inaugural season?

Read on for your in-depth recap of everything you need to know about ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s eleventh episode, “The Magical Place!”

A man named Vanchat attempts to move some recovered Chitauri metal to black market operatives, before the arrival of a S.H.I.E.L.D. flashbang brings Ward and May into the meeting, guns blazing, The team remotely leads Vanchat to an elevator that forces him to the roof, wherein Victoria Hand and a cadre of S.H.I.E.L.D. men take him into custody, hoping to use him to “find a friend.”

As Victoria Hand, her men and the team regroup on the plane, revealing in a briefing that Mike Peterson’s corpse was supposedly found at the scene of Coulson's abduction, the group is alerted to someone hacking their files: Skye. Skye insists she can find Coulson by tracing Centipede’s money trails, for which Hand grows tired of her insubordination and kicks her off the plane, surprisingly with May’s support. As she’s escorted from the plane however, Skye receives a one-time use phone from Fitz and Simmons, and a heads-up from Ward to ditch her escort detail.

Coulson remembers his time in Tahiti, quickly shaking himself awake to a room with Edison Po, who threatens Coulson with further use of his painful memory-unlocking machine if Coulson doesn’t explain the one detail their “Clairvoyant” can’t see: how Coulson came back to life. Elsewhere, Skye repeatedly fails to use public internet access without setting off her S.H.I.E.L.D. bracelet, but gets an idea seeing known Centipede financier Lloyd Rathman in a magazine. Skye follows Rathman to his office, posing as a valet to take his car, and crashing it so that an OnStar representative will send a tow truck to drag the car to Rathman’s home.

Back on the plane, ward relieves a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent interrogating Vanchat, accelerating matters by strapping himself in, and opening a hatch in the plane’s interrogation room until Vanchat gives up his Centipede connections. Meanwhile, Coulson manages to escape his cell for a moment, but finds Po waiting for him outside the building in an abandoned nuclear test town. Finally, Skye impersonates a police officer to call Rathman back to his home for the stolen car, confronting him thereafter in the guise of Melinda May.

Skye manages to bluff her way into forcing Rathman to go through his account records, tracing them back to Raina, and a likely location for her last expenses. Meanwhile, Po continues torturing Coulson for answers, shrugging off Raina’s suggestion of a different approach, at least until the Clairvoyant calls and asks to speak to her. Once Raina puts Po back on the phone with the figure, a mysterious sound causes Po to turn blue and drop dead. Back on the plane, Ward questions why May refused to back Skye, before May reveals that Skye does her best work without supervision.

Coulson bristles at Raina’s more friendly approach to unlocking Coulson’s memories, as she suggests they’re no worse than S.H.I.E.L.D., and only want to unlock the secret that he himself has been searching for, and protected against. Coulson insists that he trusts the system, and whatever reason S.H.I.E.L.D. might have had for keeping things from him, but when Raina triggers his “magical place” response and explains how Coulson’s cellist cried for days after his death, Coulson agrees to use her machine to unlock his memories.

Having been given the location from Skye, Ward and May persuade Victoria Hand to allow them a side mission to retrieve Coulson, while a larger strike team takes out the other Centipede facilities. Skye arrives first to the abandoned town, shortly before Ward runs over a Centipede soldier confronting her, alerting Raina to their presence. While the team fights off the soldiers, Coulson finally sees through his Tahiti memory to find Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass) disgusted with Nick Fury’s order to keep Coulson alive, and strange chemicals being injected while a spider-like machine operates on his exposed brain. Coulson begs for death both in and out of the memory, while Skye finally knocks Raina out, and May pulls the plug, reviving Coulson.

Later, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents lead Raina away in custody as Coulson bids farewell to Victoria Hand, and thanks Skye for everything she did to help him, even removing her restrictive bracelet. That night, Coulson waits for Dr. Streiten in his car, forcing Streiten to admit that he had in fact been dead for days, while Director Fury did everything in his power to have questionable scientific procedures keep him alive, implanting him with false memories so he’d retain the will to live, and forget the agony of being kept alive so unnaturally for so long. Coulson leaves the doctor be, while elsewhere a badly burned Mike Peterson awakens to find his leg missing, while an implant in his eye tells him to await further instructions.

OUR REVIEW:

We’ll be honest, we were none too fond of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s midseason finale “The Bridge,” if it could so be called as the 10th episode, given that for all its pomp and circumstance, the episode did very little to redeem the more frustrating aspects of the series, squandering any and all opportunity for any Marvel name recognition in favor of a cryptic bait and switch for Centipede’s true interest in Coulson. Even with J. August Richardson back to recall the goodwill of the pilot, very little actually emerged from the weakly-swirling threads of the series to date. By contrast, “The Magical Place” seems poised to revamp the direction of the series a bit, touting shiny black outfits and a more S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric approach as the story veers toward finally explaining its Coulson mystery, in effect giving us the series we’ve wanted to see from the very beginning.

So, did it work? Can we “embrace the change,” as Fitz so eye-rollingly delivered in meta res? Well…

Let’s start with the resurrected elephant in the room, the most notably fragile link in the story’s chain. It’s not quite so informative as a moment-to-moment explanation of Coulson’s several-day recuperation, but we at least know that Nick Fury “moved heaven and earth” for procedures that would keep Coulson alive, implanting false memories so the Agent would forget his horrific ordeal on the operating table. Effectively creepy, yes, with just enough “heaven and earth” wiggle room to suggest a more supernatural involvement than we’ve been led to believe, considering “The Clairvoyant” apparently couldn’t see through the operating room screen. No Life Model Decoy references, no Visions, just good old-fashioned super-science. As satisfying as any explanation could have been, we’re at least relieved to have Coulson’s second life become part of his character going forward, rather than a weaker central “mystery.”

Of course, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s weaknesses hardly ended with the ineffective teases of Coulson’s resurrection (notice how hints of his family history or relationship with the cellist make for far more fertile storytelling ground, and character for Clark Gregg to play), as the team itself needed work of their own. Most notably, “The Magical Place” can only go so far in proving Skye’s value to the team, given how wildly implausible each turn for allowing her hacking access becomes, but if nothing else, we got to see the core team succeed without detracting from the larger S.H.I.E.L.D.  picture. The series still struggles to establish a working relationship between the core six and the larger operations we’d naturally want to see, but the presence of localized authority figures like Victoria Hand certainly help to ground the stakes.

Far from any real re-piloting however, “The Magical Place” does offer a few glimpses into the future going forward, with the Clairvoyant still out there, Coulson likely still suspicious of his memories, Mike Peterson alive and implanted with an “eye spy” (they couldn’t have given him a leg?), and Skye’s past still lurking about. Will that prove enough to renew our interest in the narrative? It’s certainly a start, but with all respect to Mike, we’ve been burned by ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ before.

AND ANOTHER THING...

  • Never, ever hire Rob Huebel for a role if you wish the scene to be taken seriously. We've watched far too much 'Childrens Hospital' not to recognize the graceful contempt he gives each line.
  • Should we read Po's death as a one-off reference to the paralysis tech Obadiah Stane used in the first 'Iron Man,' or a clue that the "Clairvoyant" might be more connected to Stark Industries than genuinely supernatural?

Well, what say you? Did ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s latest outing “The Magical Place” finally answer the long-awaited mystery?  Will the series live up to its potential, now that we have some idea of what really happened after 'The Avengers'? Give us your thoughts in the comments, and join us again next week for another all-new recap of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s latest episode, "Seeds" on ABC!

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