Why is S.H.I.E.L.D. so wildly incompetent? Except for the plucky agents on The Bus, the rest of the spy organization has been portrayed as a group so obsessed with sticking to protocol that it rarely accomplishes whatever mission it’s engaged in, whether it’s obtaining the Overkill device or rescuing a captured Agent Coulson in “The Magical Place.” Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) has replaced Nick Fury and Maria Hill as the commanding S.H.I.E.L.D. officer on this series (until Cobie Smulders joins the cast after How I Met Your Mother ends), and her main role is to make sure everyone follows strict rules so that the core cast can succeed by breaking them. I understand the narrative purpose for why the writers have moved in that direction, but it also makes me wonder how the hell S.H.I.E.L.D. could become so powerful if it’s always fucking up. Maybe there’s an unseen branch that is always making smart decisions off-screen; if that’s the case, can we follow them instead?
“The Magical Place” is an improvement over the last couple episodes, but it still falls flat in a lot of ways. If I had to pick one word to describe this series, it’s “bland,” which is most definitely not the description a spy series set in a superhero universe should garner. The relationships are bland. The dialogue is bland. The action sequences are bland. The special effects are bland. (However much it cost for that one scene of The Bus changing course, it could have been used better elsewhere.) S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently the Saltine of action-adventure television, which is especially sad considering the show’s potential. It’s as if the writers are afraid of taking any chances whatsoever, which may very well be the case with a property as micromanaged as this one.
Beyond Coulson, the main cast of this show remains wholly uninteresting, with the show constantly putting plot over character so that we still have very little idea of who these people are halfway through the first season. Clark Gregg is a charismatic actor, but that’s not the only reason why Coulson is this show’s strongest character. Unlike the other agents, he has a past life that the viewers have actually seen first-hand, so they’re able to recognize that the character has gone through a significant change since his initial Iron Man appearance. We’ve learned about Fitz and Simmons’ time together at school, May’s life-changing massacre, Skye’s cyber-activist past, and Ward’s time at the bottom of a well, but those are small puzzle pieces that have yet to make a strong portrait of those individual characters.
“The Magical Place” picks up shortly after Agent Coulson’s abduction last episode, with the rest of the team scrambling for any information that can lead them to their leader. The easiest way to do that is by following the money, a trail that begins with a dealer of alien materials who provided Centipede with Chitauri metal. Victoria Hand has assumed control of The Bus in Coulson’s absence, and her first order of business is getting Skye out of there because why is she even around in the first place? I may have applauded when Hand asked May if Skye had any place on the plane and she responded with a curt “no,” but its all a ploy to get Skye off The Bus so that she can prove her worth to this series.
Skye ends up saving the day, but writers Paul Zbyszewski & Brent Fletcher take a dubious route to her win. She remains this show’s most problematic character, but her role begins to make more sense this week as she breaks out on her own to do some investigating, which translates to her tracking down the man who controls the flow of money and finding out where the funds land. Unfortunately, Sky can’t access any electronics without her S.H.I.E.L.D. bracelet locking down whatever server she’s using, so she decides to put her recent spy training to the test and lie her way to what she needs.
In a hilarious bit of product placement gone wrong, Skye steals Lloyd Rathman’s (Rob Huebel) Escalade when he leaves it unattended at valet parking and then crashes the car so that OnStar can send a tow truck to take her back to Rathman’s place. When we next see Skye, she’s signing some paperwork for the tow truck driver at Rathman’s, because apparently neither OnStar nor the tow truck company have any interest in verifying the identity of the car’s driver. I don’t know if this is a case of ABC telling the S.H.I.E.L.D. writers to spotlight this specific feature of a sponsor’s product, but if it is, all it does is make me think that Cadillac and OnStar are going to screw me over if my car ever gets stolen.
I know this series is set in a fantastic world, and I’m not supposed to apply the same logic to it as I would a “serious” TV show, but I can’t get over the ease with which Skye steals a man’s car, then gains access to his home without anyone getting in her way. There are a slew of holes in Skye’s plan when thinking about it in a real world context, and while this show definitely doesn’t take place in the real world, the writers should be able to come up with better ways to advance the plot without making the audience think about how inconceivable the events would be in a setting populated by capable human beings. It just feels lazy, like a first draft idea that no one decided to really think about and now it’s somehow made it’s way into the final product.
While on the subject of lazy storytelling, why in the world does Agent Coulson have a giant pair of tweezers in his pocket when he’s imprisoned by Centipede? It’s entirely possible he had an urgent eyebrow emergency he was going to deal with after all that Mike Petersen business, but why would his captors allow him to keep the tweezers? Did they not search his pockets? It’s not like he’s using a lockpick hidden in his nostrils, here. This is a large pair of tweezers that the NSA probably wouldn’t allow on an airplane. Why would Centipede leave them on a secret agent that they want to retrieve valuable information from? I’m overthinking this, but it’s the job of the writer to prevent the audience from overthinking things. There are so many other options available for getting a super spy out of handcuffs (breaking thumbs, nostril lock pick, watch laser, etc.), so why did the writers go with one that was so confounding in context? All it does is make the villains look like idiots. Those observations may sound like nitpicking, but I wouldn’t be nitpicking if I was more invested in the story.
This week, I finally understood what Skye’s role is on this show, and it’s more than being the person who hacks into elevator systems and looks pretty in leather. She serves as both a stand-in and fantasy for the audience; Skye is a civilian who suddenly finds herself in an extraordinary situation (stand-in), but she’s also a beautiful computer hacker who also happens to look really good in a leather spy outfit (fantasy). She’s this show’s version of Batman’s Robin or Captain America’s Bucky, a character the audience can initially identify with, but who becomes something more as the story continues. The moment that really works in Skye’s plot this week is when she’s confronted by two security guards and takes them out using her S.H.I.E.L.D. training, revealing that Chloe Bennet is more comfortable with the spy element of her character rather than the oppressed computer hacker side of Skye. It makes me wonder what the show would look like if Skye had started as a rookie S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, who perhaps had some interaction with villainous organizations as a hacker earlier in life.
The big event in “The Magical Place” is the reveal of part of what happened to Coulson after he was killed in The Avengers, and it’s not very satisfying considering all the build-up. What we learn is that Coulson wasn’t just dead for seconds like he’s been led to believe, but he was actually dead for a few days, during which Nick Fury scoured heaven and earth for a way to bring his friend back. Coulson was brought to a 1940s nuclear testing facility by Centipede so that they could unlock the mystery of his resurrection by showing him his true memories, putting him in a machine that strips away the façade of Tahiti to show him what really happened after his impalement. Coulson remembers being on a hospital bed, scream-begging for death while a machine works on his exposed brain matter, which isn’t much of an answer at all. After being rescued, Coulson confronts Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass) about what he’s learned, which leads to more non-answers as the doctor vaguely talks about how much he regrets doing what he did. It’s looking more and more like this is going to be a season-long plot line, but hopefully, the writers will dole out information a little more regularly now that Coulson knows Tahiti was a lie.
The last episode before hiatus hastily tied together the various plot threads of the first nine chapters to create some semblance of an overarching narrative, but with “The Magical Place,” there’s finally a sense that things are moving in a specific direction. Coulson knows that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been lying to him and is now eager for answers. The team has more information about Centipede, and Raina is in custody to give them even more. Skye is now firmly considered a part of the team rather than a liability, and it looks like she’s going to be more active as a field agent in the future. The plot is moving forward, but it’s still afraid of driving above the speed limit. There’s very little sense of risk, likely due to a lack of strong character relationships to make the audience care about the people living through these high stakes situations. With the Coulson reveal, the writers have the opportunity to explore the deeper character elements of the story, and hopefully, they seize it in the weeks moving forward because this show won’t succeed on plot alone.
- Victoria Hand is G.I. Joe’s Baroness in a suit instead of skin-tight leather.
- This week’s tag reveals that Mike Petersen is alive and an agent of Centipede, having lost a leg but gained one of those cybernetic eye implants that will kill him if he doesn’t follow orders. I’m happy the show didn’t kill off J. August Richards.
- For a covert peacekeeping force, S.H.I.E.L.D. sure does love announcing its presence via screensaver.
- This show really does love having people stand in straight lines, Power Rangers style.
- Next week marks the appearance of an established Marvel character as Donald “Blizzard” Gill makes his debut, but it looks like it will be in name and power set only as the Iron Man villain is being played by the 17-year-old Dylan Minnette (best known for playing Jack’s son in season 6 of Lost).
- “Is that a Roomba?”