Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns from its Christmas break with a mighty rebound in quality. It still wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. Again.
The biggest problem with this first stretch of episodes has really been the ebb and flow of quality writing. Every time there are good moves in one direction, the next episode lurches back into clichés or just bad ideas. Even that wouldn’t be the kiss of death if the characters were diverse and the creative mind trust took more risks.
I hate to jump on this bandwagon, but look at Arrow. That first season was pretty freaking bad with only two or three episodes that were even interesting in their first dozen or so. But the melodrama was played up and no matter how bad the writing was – and it was bad – there were still crazy moments and fan service every week to keep the nerds interested along with gratuitous shirtless men working out to keep other fanbases engaged. Tickling those lizard parts of genre viewers’ brains kept them intrigued and coming back (that along with slack standards in the general viewing public).
It’s not a great model to go by, but pandering to an audience with sex appeal and nerd service almost always lays the groundwork for an energized base that will get you through the lean times (in Arrow‘s case, for example, it was a few episodes into Season Two before it actually became consistently good).
If S.H.I.E.L.D. has pandered to an audience, it’s been family viewers, and that has led to blander characterizations and situations. It’s only in the past few episodes that they’ve begun stretching the boundaries of family-friendliness, and in doing so, they’ve also started developing more interesting character relationships and increasing their viewership.
Now they just need to work on consistency.
“The Magical Place” is one of the better episodes, but it still suffers from a lack of, for a better word, ambition. The success of the episode lives or dies on the revelation of the Secret of Coulson’s Return from the Dead. They’ve been building toward this since the first episode, and fan speculation has ranged from Coulson (Clark Gregg) being a LMD (Life Model Decoy) to his mysterious girlfriend being the Scarlet Witch, who magically revived him.
Instead, the Marvel Brain Trust has decided to go with the least interesting explanation of all (if we’re to believe what was revealed). Coulson really died, and was dead for days, but Fury went above and beyond for some mysterious reason to make sure Coulson didn’t stay dead. But instead of magic or alien technology or robots, he was apparently brought back to life through dangerous and questionable surgery techniques.
And then a weird machine rewrote connections in his brain to alter his memories and repair the psychological trauma of being dead. This allowed for a gruesome scene of brain surgery being performed by a spider-like machine while a still-awake Coulson begs them to let him die (he has to be awake for the process for an unexplained reason, which is assume is so we can get the scene rather than for any actual thought-out reason).
The only way that this should have been kept secret all this time is if the real secret is why Fury made sure he was brought back from the dead. It’s a bait-and-switch that could possibly lead to something interesting, but more likely than not means that Coulson has always been an experimental LMD or something along those lines – which is interesting, but is an extremely poor use of delayed satisfaction if it turns out to be the case. Regardless, the mystery of his return has now shifted to the mystery of WHY he returned and WHY Fury authorized S.H.I.E.L.D.’s full resources on finding and rescuing him from Centipede.
But that’s going to be put on hold for a bit, as the next episode deals with the mystery of Skye’s murdered parents. I’d assume that episode 13 will wrap that up, seeing as how that was the original episode order’s finale. After that, it looks like we’re going to start getting more long-form multi-part storytelling and in what can only be regarded as geek-gasm-worthy news it was just announced that sci-fi/horror icon Bill Paxton has signed on for at least a four-episode run as Agent John Garrett. Check that name out on Wikipedia and prepare to get excited at the possibilities!
Oh yeah. I almost forgot.
Remember when they blew up Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) last episode and nobody believed he was really dead? He’s not.
But he’s truly fucked. We just have to see how far they’re willing to go with it.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.