Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. climax can be very uncomfortable.
The year is 2014 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is BACK and ready to answer the question that’s been on everyone’s mind:
Why am I so tired. What really happened to Coulson after he got stabbed in the heart by Loki? Are you ready for the answer? Because I guarantee that you are, and yet, the show doesn’t seem to believe me.
When we last left our ragtag team of jet-fuel-guzzling agents (Do they ever land in between missions? Even if just to do some laundry?) they had just finished doing a really poor job at preventing their leader from getting kidnapped by Centipede. They also watched their new super-agent get super blown to super bits while his son looked on, but hey, this show isn’t called “Various Pieces of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” so we’re sorry J. August Richards but we’ll have to get to you in the post-credits scene. We’re here for Coulson’s story!
Centipede wants to know how S.H.I.E.L.D. brings its agents back to life because they’re having the hardest time just keeping their handful of super-soldiers alive at all and they figure that the secret to that is probably locked away in Coulson’s mind, just past the room screening James Bond films 24 hours a day but before the one containing his dissertation on the parallels between The Avengers and the Avengers. (Who do you think convinced Fury to name them that in the first place?)
Towards that end, Creepy Joe from the previous episode (I don’t remember his name and I refuse to look it up) hooks him up to a theta-wave generating machine so that Coulson will go to sleep...and then wake up...and then Creepy Joe will ask Coulson about his dreams?...except he’s not...he’s just beating the crap out of Coulson and...actually none of this makes sense.
Favorite Thing #1: Raina then shows up and says as much, at which point the Clairvoyant calls Creepy Joe, kills him via the phone (what did you THINK emoji were for?!?), and puts Raina in charge.
Because Raina knows all she has to do is level with Coulson with some Real Talk which Favorite Thing #2: THANK YOU. Someday I’m going to be at some event where I’m forced to speak for more than one minute and whomever is there is going to have to endure a lengthy tirade about how incredibly tedious torture/interrogation scenes are in visual media. Yes, even Game of Thrones season 3. Yes, even The Princess Bride.
Raina immediately keys into the fact that, kidnapping aside, they’re still essentially helping Coulson, and this is how she plays it. So S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to keep secrets for the greater good? We’ll accept that premise, she says, mostly with her eyebrows. But how do you think the cellist in Portland felt when they told her you were dead? And how would she feel if you showed up again? You’re alive now, but it doesn’t seem like you get to be happy about that. Look at all the pain S.H.I.E.L.D. is causing you and they won’t even tell you why! Is this is a worthwhile organization that does this? Listen, Coulson, you and Centipede both want to know what happened after the Battle of New York. This is a win-win situation here.
Coulson is swayed by my summary of Raina and Coulson’s scene and Coulson gets to work telling us about his dreams.
In the meantime, everyone is looking for Coulson! And not just our plucky agents but a lot of other S.H.I.E.L.D. The Bus is swarming with agents that the show regulars get to boss around, all of them now marshaled under Agent Hand’s command.
Favorite Thing #3: Having Agent Hand lead Coulson’s team changes the team dynamic in an instant, which is good because the show has had trouble establishing that there is a team dynamic in the first place. Hand’s management style is effective but suitably different enough to cause real tension. She does some things that certainly seem smart from her perspective—like giving Skye the boot, no, don’t pack, get out of here now—but which we and the team know aren’t. And even though you see May’s “we don’t need her on the plane” shenanigans coming from a mile away, it’s still nice to see that May is picking up leadership pointers from Coulson.
The show also manages to have Hand be antagonistic without dumbing her down. Well, not dumbing her down too much. Her line about how she didn’t “understand why a level 8 agent is so important.” was particularly headsmacking. (BECAUSE AVENGERS.) It was also nice to see Hand taking point on wiping out Centipede. Out of the various people trying to recreate superpowers, Centipede seems to have gotten farther along the reverse-engineering-superpowers path than any other organization, and it’s about time S.H.I.E.L.D. put some muscle behind shutting them down.
Once Skye is sent off to the unemployment line she launches an investigation of her own and manages to be the first to track down where Centipede is hiding Coulson. There’s some weird bits with an internet cafe and OnStar and cute leather coats and tracking funds involved and honestly aside from her amusingly mimicking Agent May I kind of tuned out of that portion because, ha ha!, what the fuck is Rob Huebel doing on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and not down at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater? I spent a lot of Skye’s screentime wondering if they were going to let Huebel be funny, because he is extremely funny.
(The skit in that link got into my head immediately and never, ever left. Dear friends, if I’ve ever told you that we should “take this to the corn maze” or really just whispered the words “corn maze” now you know what I meant. CORN MAAAZE.)
It turns out that Coulson is being kept somewhere just as cool and just as ominous as a corn maze: a nuclear test town! Essentially, a mocked-up town built and staffed with creepy mannequins so that we could test the effects of nuclear weapons on populated areas back in the Good Ol' Days. Creepy enough for you? It’s a pretty good location idea for a secret base. There’s enough infrastructure there to allow you to cart in smaller infrastructure, like generators, toilets, water, lights, that can be hidden in the buildings already there. Nuclear test towns are also far enough away from civilization that you won’t be spotted coming to and from the base. If you’ve got the money (and patience) you could probably get up to all kinds of nefarious deeds in a nuclear test town. Like making meth!
But that’s another show. On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the only nefariousness we’re getting up to is watching Raina listen to Coulson describe his first memories after his death. He’s getting a massage on a beach in Tahiti, relaxing...no, really relaxing because who’s drinking all those piña coladas, Coulson?
As Coulson digs deeper, Tahiti begins to flash in an out. Ron Glass (the doctor from the pilot episode) reappears, horrified by what’s happening, Nick Fury appears, deeply focused on Coulson, and another woman stands by in scrubs. As Tahiti falls away we see that Coulson is being operated on. And “It’s a magical place” isn’t what he’s actually saying.
Coulson’s team is mere feet away from springing into the room where Coulson is digging up memories he’s not even supposed to have. Can they wait just another minutes? Just one more? We really want to see this. We’re about to get...
Actually, we’re about to get the visual of a terrifying spider robot picking at Coulson’s exposed brain while he begs “Please let me die.” over and over.
While it’s an evocative scene that is certain to add to the ceaseless scream of our collective unconscious, what it ultimately amounts to is the “revelation” that Coulson had a bunch of operations, some of them seriously messed up. It still doesn’t really answer how Coulson was able to survive, or why S.H.I.E.L.D. would keep this a secret from him. The reveal only barely affects Coulson as a character. It’s not going to raise his level of suspicion of S.H.I.E.L.D. much higher than it already is, and it’s not going to make him refuse to accept how he was revived, is it? So what does Coulson do with this information?
I wonder if the showrunners knew this reveal was going to be anti-climactic, because the episode is pretty entertaining otherwise. The three plotlines whip between each other at a frenetic pace, so when one of them sags the other is there to pick up the slack. This episode the team was so effective I was actually worried they would rescue Coulson before he could show us what really happened. And seeing what really happened is still well-staged enough to be shocking, even though it doesn’t end up amounting to anything.
I know it’s pretty par for the course for television shows to dole out answers in a piecemeal fashion like this, but the mystery of Coulson’s death isn’t quite strong enough to sustain that kind of taffy-pull. And honestly, I’m not so excited for the details behind Coulson’s resurrection as I am for the implications that this kind of information would have on S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel universe, the characters, and Coulson. Can S.H.I.E.L.D. really cure death? That’s one hell of a brave new world coming our way! Are there unseen moral implications to the technology in use? Was that spider robot perfected on prisoners by Hydra during World War 2, for example? We just weren’t given enough information to know.
- Mike Peterson is alive! And not well. He’s burned a good percentage of his skin, is back on Extremis, got a cybernetic eye implanted, and lost half of his right leg, all thanks to Centipede. It seems likely that Centipede will figure out a way to fit him with a cybernetic leg, in exchange for their “care.” And considering that Richards has a son that he’s trying to be a hero for, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing Deathlok in the making.
- I wonder how the phone killed Creepy Joe. Was he frozen? That might explain the veins and blue skin. Or maybe...massive, immediate silver poisoning? (Probably not.)
- Next week’s episode features someone with ice powers. If they manage to squeeze in a “What keeled the dinosoahs?” joke I will be so happy.
- While Coulson is recapping his death, we see a brief glimpse of him drawing away from a white light surrounded by stars. Asgard? Valhalla? Eru Ilúvatar sending him back Gandalf-style? Considering Ron Glass’ character’s insisting that they moved “heaven and Earth” to bring Coulson back it makes me wonder if Asgard played a role.
- There's also some weird black goo in his IV. (The X-Files!) Three notchmarks and...inanimate carbon rods?
- I’m going to have my next birthday party at a nuclear test town. (I’ll rent a moon bounce.)
Chris Lough is the resident Tor.com Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recapper and is curious. Brain? What is brain?