Agent Phil Coulson and the gang return from the winter hiatus with a bang, as "The Magical Place" is so packed with action it was difficult to take notes while watching. It's one of the best episodes to date, a happy sight as the inaugural season begins its second half.
It doesn't let up from start to finish, pairing significant plot and character development with teamwork, fast-moving scenes and typical zingers (my favorites being Fitz's response when Ward compares applying the night-night supersoldier bracelet to riding a bull for eight seconds and the fact that Skye's and Simmons' safe word is "manscaping").
So what did we learn from "The Magical Place," and what does it mean moving forward?
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When We Last Left Our Non-Superheroes...
The mid-season finale ended with the cliffhanger of Coulson being taken by Raina and Po, Mike Peterson getting blown up trying to save him and Ward taking a bullet while sniping the scene. And in the 36 hours since those events transpired, Agent Victoria Hand has boarded The Bus with a team of agents and taken control of the rescue mission/search for Centipede.
Ward was hit in the shoulder and subsequently tore out all his stitches, but he's apparently ready to fight without detriment.
Coulson's flown to an old nuclear testing site that was never used, but is still decorated with creepy mannequins sitting around the dinner table and playing in the streets while they wait to be blown to bits in the name of science. There, he is being tortured by Po for information about his resurrection, ordered by the mysterious Clairvoyant.
Who is Vanchat?
The episode opens with a raid that captures strange object trafficker Vanchat, who is attempting to sell a Chitauri object to an unknown buyer. This is the third mention of the elusive smuggler, as he was the guy in the pilot who Ward robbed in Paris, and it was during a raid on one of his bases when Agent Ameka Amador was captured, eye bugged and forced to steal diamonds. Other than that, we don't know anything about him. And since he's now in custody and "cooperating," I don't know if we need to.
But before he starts talking, Skye attempts to hack his files to follow paper trails in an effort to find Coulson, but her tracking bracelet goes off and Hand boots her off The Bus with May's consent. ("She's of no use to us on the plane." -- clever girl.)
Tracking Coulson with Teamwork
What happens next is a prime example of maximizing everyone's individual strengths to accomplish the mission, like a game of Pikmin or The Lost Vikings (show the love in the comments if you're familiar!).
When Agent Hand's cronies can't get Vanchat to actually chat, Ward takes over, straps in and opens up the roof over the holding room until the flailing prisoner agrees to divulge the identities of his buyers.
I have to imagine there is some sort of protective plastic blocking this exit and an advanced vacuum doing the sucking, because I can't imagine what would've happened if Ward popped the sunroof and Vanchat went tumbling to his death. But either way, all's well that ends well, as Vanchat spills the beans about many of Centipede's locations.
SHIELD springs into action, mobilizing assault teams all over the world to cripple Centipede and search for Coulson. While our team members are still focused on finding their abducted leader, Agent Hand is more concerned with the big picture and doesn't understand why so much effort is being taken to locate a "typical" Level 8 agent.
Skye on the Ground
Before Skye leaves The Bus for her debrief, FitzSimmons packs her a brown-bagged "lunch" consisting of a one-time usable SatPhone that is rigged to allow a single call before her bracelet disengages it. Ward also hooks her up with intel on the arrival time of her escorts, allowing her a brief window to elude them and work on her own.
Unable to access files at an Internet cafe before the bracelet blocks her, Skye finds an article in a magazine about attorney Lloyd Rathman being investigated by the SEC over some shady business deals. She steals his SUV and tries to use the GPS, but ah, ah, ah, the bracelet intervenes. Then she notices the vehicle is equipped with OnStar, so she crashes it and asks the nice lady who responds for a tow home. No police, ambulance or construction crews necessary, despite the fact that she smashed into the water barrels on a roadway median.
She breaks into Rathman house, uses a golf club to dial his office and requests he come home immediately to fill out stolen vehicle paperwork. When he arrives, she poses as Agent May thanks to a May-like leather jacket she recently purchased and offers him immunity for information. Good thing May's name isn't more Asian-y, though I guess Skye could probably pull that off as well.
She uses the extensive knowledge she somehow acquired regarding Rathman's holdings and activities to convince him to help, and together they hack Vanchat's files and trace his deposits to the nuke site. She phones FitzSimmons, and the SHIELD team organizes despite protests from Hand, who refuses to divert forces based on Skye's "hunch."
Whew! Got all that? I know it's not very plausible, but c'mon, it's Skye! She hacks and stuff.
Picking Coulson's Brain ... Literally
Agent Coulson is back in Tahiti, but it's actually a machine that decodes the mind and unlocks secrets. Po is torturing him, but the bloodied SHIELD leader refuses to cooperate. Apparently, the Clairvoyant can see all, except what happened after Coulson died.
Raina returns and disagrees with Po's harsh techniques before finally getting her much-desired initial contact with said Clairvoyant, who prefers her approach and kills Po through the cell phone. And she yields partial results after appealing to Coulson's own curiosity over what happened.
She tells him he not only gave up his life, but also a chance at love. Presumably thanks to her all-seeing boss, she knows personal details about Coulson's life. He mentions the supersoldiers, which Raina admits can be controlled, but not brought back from the dead. So the machine can provide answers for the both of them.
Coulson goes back to Tahiti willingly, only this time the masseuse and waiter turn into a SHIELD agent and a doctor screaming, "We shouldn't be doing this!" Then we see that Coulson is lying on a table, screaming to let him die while a robot works tirelessly on his exposed brain.
A Dramatic Rescue
Skye arrives on site and is attacked by a soldier, who May hits with her SHIELD car thanks to perfect timing and a lack of freeway traffic. May and Ward do their usual ass kicking, with Ward, bum shoulder and all, taking out a supersoldier. Skye knocks out Raina, turns off the machine and wakes Coulson from his begging-for-death slumber.
The strike teams put a serious kink in Centipede's plans, particularly now that Po is dead and Raina and Vanchat are in custody. The Clairvoyant is now on SHIELD's radar as well, which further compromises things, and Coulson orders an investigation into how he could know so many personal details (since there is no record of anyone with those types of powers).
And as a reward for all her hard work, Coulson removes Skye's bracelet by speaking a simple "disengage bracelet" voice command. They share a proud father-daughter moment as she asks if Raina learned anything from him. When he says no, she asks if he himself did, and he dodges.
What Happened to Coulson?
Agent Coulson pays a visit to the doctor who spoke out against his own handiwork, ordered by Commander Fury, and learns that he was actually dead for several days. The surgeon came in on the seventh operation, during which Coulson was kept conscious to monitor brain activity. The neurological damage was catastrophic and trauma ungodly, and Coulson was in extreme pain throughout the process.
The doctors inserted the Tahiti recollection to give Coulson a pleasant memory of the experience, because as evident by his pleas for death, he had lost the will to live and they wanted to give it back so that he wouldn't be "that thing" post-recovery.
More details to come, I'm sure.
So it turns out Mike Peterson isn't dead after all, though he lost a leg and has severe burn scars. Oh, and he also has an eye bomb and an order to await further instruction. Poor guy just wanted to be a good dad and have his son think of him as a hero. Who knows what's in store for him next?
So that's it for "The Magical Place," and I'm glad to see the team fully reassembled and back at square one when it comes to missions. There could conceivably be some standalone episodes over the next few weeks, with these underlying plot points sticking around in the background since everything wrapped up nicely with a pretty post-Christmas bow. Family first.
What did you think of this epic return from the haitus? Did it satisfy the Marvel craving you had after a month of no new episodes? And what do you foresee happening next? What is the truth about Skye's parents and Coulson's resurrection?
Here's to hoping Agents of SHIELD will continue to build on this momentum, and things are looking up with the promise of more characters with special powers. Tune in to see where we're headed!
You can watch Agents of SHIELD every Tuesday at 8pm on ABC.