T.A.H.I.T.I. is the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow on directly from the last, becoming something akin to the second episode of a “two-parter”. At the end of the previous episode, Skye (Chloe Bennet) was left mortally injured by the villainous Ian Quinn (David Conrad). As a result, this episode hits the ground running with a metaphorical ticking clock; the members of Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team must find a way of treating Skye’s terrible injuries before she dies. Since the show is set within the same universe as the Marvel superhero movies, travelling the world to find a cure for death is not a particularly bizarre plot. Indeed, Coulson believes that he knows of a way of keeping Skye alive… because he himself was brought back from the dead. Whilst Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains a disappointing show (considering its potential as a classic of sci-fi procedural TV drama), this episode is certainly a massive improvement over the last few. Finally, the creators of the show have been able to instil a degree of drama and tension into the proceedings. The steaks are far larger than just Skye’s life. As he searches into his own recent past, Coulson is portrayed as a haunted and vulnerable figure. If T.A.H.I.T.I. had been the quality of an average episode of this show, its reputation as a disappointing mess would be unfounded.
Perhaps the greatest favour that this episode does to the series is that it essentially “retcons” the disappointing revelation from The Magical Place (a previous episode). Coulson’s mysterious return from the dead had been the subject of much speculation since the show premiered in September 2013. Fans of the Marvel movies debated across the internet, arguing interesting ways in which Coulson may have been resurrected. The Magical Place revealed that Coulson was brought back through what amounted to “really fancy surgery”. It seems likely that the show’s writers incorrectly believed that their viewers would just assume that Coulson had never died, and that the revelation that he was brought back to life by mechanical surgery would be a shocking surprise. Instead, fans readily accepted the notion that the character had been killed and they wanted a satisfying explanation as to how he returned from the grave. Almost every popular fan theory was more interesting than what the creators chose. It seems that the powers behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now agree, since they’ve reworked the events of Coulson’s death and rebirth to be far more mysterious and interesting than they originally appeared. T.A.H.I.T.I. reveals that Coulson’s resurrection was in part due to a very mysterious chemical hidden in a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker, the source of which serves as the episode’s final reveal (it seems very probable that the chemical’s source is an attempt to tie the show into Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film).
Aside from fixing previously broken plot-lines, the episode is also good in its own right. The characters’ emotional investment in Skye feels much more genuine now that they have had time to get to know each other. In earlier episodes, the team seemed to become far too close and familial far too quickly; going from strangers to a close-knit team at a ridiculous speed. However, now that these characters have had a dozen or so adventures together, it is easier to buy their emotional investment in Skye’s wellbeing. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) even mentions that she and Skye have only known each other for a short time, but that she cannot imagine her life without Skye in it. A viewer watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that this is the result of a long character progression, rather than an attempt to conceal the lazy writing of previous episodes. Another positive is the inclusion of Bill Paxton as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent John Garrett; a gruff yet comedic soldier whose “tough guy” attitude contrasts well with the more stoic and debonair Coulson. The Garrett character does not seem to serve much purpose (yet) but Bill Paxton is always entertaining to watch, especially when he’s playing a soldier running around in dark subterranean laboratories (a pity that he gets no excuse to say his iconic “game over, man” line from Aliens).
However, it seems that no episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be without its major faults. T.A.H.I.T.I. features some truly bizarre moments that only serve to confuse a viewers’ understanding of the tone and of the characters. When he is taken aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane for interrogation, Quinn is brutally treated. Whilst he is a villainous character who has just shot someone, the torture he endures at the hands of the supposedly heroic characters feels unbelievably out of place. When he is finally escorted from the interrogation room at the end of the episode, he appears terrified. Garrett rather bizarrely tells him that his torture-induced confessions will be used against him in court (a court that apparently accepts confessions acquired under torture?). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always displayed an unusually Conservative political viewpoint; unusual because the target audience for the show and the film universe in which the film is set tends to steer more towards a politically Liberal mindset. Previous episodes have cast “Hacktivists” as misguided idealists or two-faced criminals. The monolithically powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation, a paramilitary organisation not beholden to any international laws whatsoever, is presented as humanity’s kindly caretaker. It is not unfair to say that a Right Wing-leaning viewer is probably more likely to agree with these concepts. There is certainly nothing wrong with adopting these political viewpoints; one might even condone the show for presenting an uncommon worldview in science fiction television. But many would likely see the celebrating of torture as a form of righteous vengeance as overstepping a boundary. Torture remains a very political subject in the US, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s peculiar endorsement of it seems irresponsible.
Despite this rather mystifying political angle, T.A.H.I.T.I. remains one of the best episodes of the show so far that works hard to undo much of the damage wrought by poorly-made past episodes. It is perhaps too late to save this show’s credibility… but we shall see.
Image from sciencefiction.com
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