Skye (Chloe Bennet) dresses as May (Ming-Na Wen) in this confused and meandering episode.
The episode The Magical Place marks the return to TV for the troubled Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Since the show’s pilot episode, it has struggled to connect with audiences (as evidenced by its lower-than-expected ratings in the US and UK); transforming it from a sure-fire premise for a great genre TV show into a bad joke. It is unlikely that at this stage, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can recover its squandered potential. Perhaps the most tragic irony of all is that the last few episodes of the show have actually been marked improvements. Many of the problematic aspects of the early episodes (poor dialogue writing, confused politics and sub-par special effects) were rather suddenly rectified. These positive changes may be an example of “too little, too late”. The Magical Place probably represents the final chance the show has to gain new viewers. Marketing for the episode has touted the fact that audiences will finally discover the secret of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) miraculous resurrection; the event that kick-started the first story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Unfortunately, when the ultimate truth, the mystery that has been alluded to and teased throughout the entire season is finally revealed, the most likely response from viewers is… “That’s it?”
The episode begins with Coulson being held prisoner by the Centipede organisation, the sinister dark counterpart to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Under orders from their off-screen leader, military strategist Edison Po (Cullen Douglas) and Centipede recruiter Raina (Ruth Negga) attempt to break Coulson’s mind in order to discover how it was that he was able to come back from the dead. Meanwhile, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team are scrambling to find Coulson with the assistance of their superior, Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows, reprising her role from an earlier episode). When Skye (Chloe Bennet) is deemed to be a security risk, she is forbidden from assisting in the hunt for Coulson and so ventures out on her own in the hopes of rescuing him. Both Skye and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team ultimately converge on a 50s-era nuclear testing site (complete with mock buildings and mannequins) where they must survive attacks by Centipede-modified superhumans in order to rescue Coulson.
For every great idea that this episode introduces, it squanders several others. Interesting implications are made about the relationship between Skye and May (Ming-Na Wen); their interactions with each other remain problematic and prickly, yet when separated from each other, both women demonstrate their admiration for each other. This fascinating mother/daughter dynamic could have been the basis for an episode in and of itself. Instead it is mostly utilised as an excuse for Chloe Bennet to dress up as a “sexy badass” agent. In the episode’s first half, it appears that the writers are intending to present a darker side of Fitz (Ian De Caestecker); the usually squeamish Fitz freely talks about harming innocent people if it means getting Coulson back. However, this plot point is not really resolved or even properly addressed. It feels as if the writers of the episode became bored with the concept and dropped it. A smuggler of alien technology (technology left over from the events of The Avengers) is briefly introduced, only to disappear from the plot as soon as he’s provided the team with the info they required. This character (played by Aiden Turner) could have been a great recurring villain; a slimy opportunist who is profiting from the bizarre events of the show’s cinematic counterparts. However, it seems unlikely that this character will reappear. One could easily believe that the show’s creators had several partially-completed script ideas and that they chose to mesh them all together in order to pass the time until the dramatic reveal at the end.
Said dramatic reveal is the greatest missed opportunity of all; Coulson’s resurrection. For months, episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have dropped subtle hints that the official version of Coulson’s return from the dead, that he was successfully resuscitated and that he then recuperated in Tahiti, was a lie. The episode’s title, The Magical Place, refers to the recurring line Coulson has said in each episode when his time in Tahiti is addressed— “It’s a magical place!”
It was clear to any viewer paying attention that “Tahiti” was some kind of implanted false memory, created to prevent Coulson from remembering how he really returned from the dead. Genre television shows thrive on mystery (the extreme popularity of Lost was in no small part due to its emphasis on mystery; the fact that many of the show’s mysteries were not revealed in the series finale was considered a betrayal by many of the show’s fans) and one would expect the “Tahiti” revelation to be suitably shocking and rewarding; something that would alter the character dynamic in the show and would justify continuing to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Instead, the big reveal feels entirely irrelevant. Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced, the internet has abounded with fascinating theories about Coulson’s return from the grave. Fans have speculated everything from alien magic (something that exists in the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe) to Coulson being some kind of artificial intelligence (a robotic antagonist will be appearing in 2015’s Avengers 2). The explanation that the writers have selected is the most boring and the least sense-making; a revelation that won’t change Coulson as a character or his relationship to the other characters. The Magical Place is certainly not the worst episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but it may be the most disappointing.
Image from hollywood.com
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