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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1.11 "The Magical Place" Review: Peeking Behind the Curtain.

    Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “The Magical Place,” was written by Paul Zbyszewski and Brent Fletcher and directed by Kevin Hooks. Zbysezewski previously brought us “F.Z.Z.T” one of my favorite episodes and Fletcher penned “The Girl in the Flower Dress.” Both episodes touched on the myth-arc of Centipede and what happened to Coulson (Clark Gregg) in “Tahiti,” so both writers were able to bring a number of threads seamlessly together here. It was a nice touch when Coulson asked Raina (Ruth Negga), “What’s with the flowers?” and she replied, “Who doesn’t like flowers. I’m glad you noticed.” Hooks, of course, has a long history as actor, producer, and director, directing such action-focused shows as Detroit 1-8-7, Prison Break, 24, and Alias.

    The episode features yet another outstanding performance by Clark Gregg as Coulson. The episode actually begins 36 hours after Coulson has been kidnapped, and it appears that all of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been mobilized to find him. Agent Hand (Saffron Burrows) returns to lead the hunt and remarks that it is unprecedented that S.H.I.E.L.D. would devote this kind of effort for one man. This highlights two things. First, Coulson is no ordinary man, and I think this applies even without whatever was done to him after New York. It’s important to remember that Fury went to a lot of trouble to bring Coulson back, and there’s been no indication that there was anything special about Coulson before New York. The only way to account for Fury’s efforts have to stem from some other reason, a bond formed between the two of them. We’ve had ample evidence throughout the series so far of the loyalty that Coulson engenders from those around him. Secondly, this highlights that we are dealing with the “ordinary” agents behind S.H.I.E.L.D., not the superheroes of the movies. And that was what was always supposed to set this series apart from the movies.

    The episode demonstrates how the team has come to work together. The plan to get Vanchat (Aiden Turner) nicely utilizes all of the team’s strengths: Ward (Brett Dalton) and May (Ming-Na Wen) take care of the physical aspects, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) take care of the gadgets, and Skye (Chloe Bennet) handles the computer part of the plan. It’s a telling moment when Fitz tells Simmons to embrace the change into becoming field agents as he was the reluctant one up to this point.

    The team then proceeds to do what their individual specialties tells them to do, but not necessarily in the way Agent Hand approves of. Skye tries to hack into the S.H.I.E.L.D. system to sift through Vanchat’s financial records. When she’s caught, Hand wants to throw her off the plane. Ward comes to her defence, but when Hand asks May if she “will be of help on this plane,” May says no. May’s reputation as an emotionless rule follower comes in handy here.

    A quick shout out for Ming-Na Wen who is simply fantastic in this episode. She plays May very tightly controlled, so the tiny indications of emotion are very subtle. When Ward later asks how she could allow Hand to toss Skye, May is clearly hurt when after pointing out to him that Skye works best outside the system, she says to him, “You don’t have to assume the worst of me.” Even though Ward and May are in a relationship, even he doesn’t truly understand her, as it’s obvious Coulson does. Perhaps my favorite May scene in this final episode is her final exchange with Hand. When the team come to Hand to suggest splitting up to follow Skye’s lead, Hand points out to May that she supported kicking Skye off the plane. May replies, “Seems like it worked out.” Hand responds, “Seems like you played me.” May outright smirks at Hand. It also seems like May is learning how to be comfortable working outside the system – something she’s learning from Skye.

    Meanwhile, it’s hilarious watching Skye demonstrate her appreciation for May by impersonating her as her cover to break into Rathman’s (Rob Huebel) financial records. Underneath the humor, of course, is the fact that Skye respects and looks up to May because of the respect that May commands from everyone around her. Is this another clue that the relationship between Skye and May is closer than we yet know? I also loved when May says she loves Skye's new jacket! Once again the humor is blended seamlessly into the action. We also get to see Skye put her training to good use when she disarms the private security that Rathman alerts by silent alarm.

    Meanwhile, back on the now very crowded bus, Ward, Fitz, and Simmons grow impatient with Hand’s interrogation of Vanchat. I loved Fitz and Simmons using Roshambo to decide who got to flip the switch to open the plane so Vanchat would talk or be sucked out! And of course Fitz would be predictable and always pick scissors! (For Supernatural fans this totally reminded me of Dean Winchester doing the same to let his brother win...)

    Henstridge is hilarious as Simmons trying so unsuccessfully to use subterfuge in front of an audience. I loved that their safe word was manscaping! One of the things that impresses me about the show is that it can be this ridiculous without quite jumping the shark into becoming completely unbelievable. My only concern is that if they go any broader with some of the humor it will be too far.

    Much of the most interesting action takes place with Coulson. The scene in which the Clairvoyant asks to speak to Raina and then disposes of Po was great. I wasn’t sorry to see Po (Cullen Douglas) meet an untimely demise. I did like the dynamic set up between Raina and Po, however, and their interrogation styles. Her flowered dresses are very appropriate when you consider her motto is “you catch more flies with honey.” Raina gets along in life by giving people what they want, by making them like her, by putting them at ease. That is exactly how she manages to convince Coulson to turn on the machine. Negga is doing a fabulous job adding layer after layer to this character. I loved how she looked completely turned on when telling Coulson she’d talked to the Clairvoyant. It was also a nice moment when she revealed that the machine had worked on her – what is her secret? I’m excited to see what made Raina what she is.

    Raina also acts a terrific foil to S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, and some of the reasons Coulson and his entire team work outside of it. She points out that while Centipede, and especially Po, may do questionable things, S.H.I.E.L.D. is just as capable of doing whatever it takes to get things done. Coulson himself is a case in point. Why they did what they did to him is still a mystery, but they clearly used questionable means to bring him back and this is confirmed by Coulson’s discussion with Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass). Raina convinces Coulson that she only wants what he wants. She uses family to get to him. She knows that he views S.H.I.E.L.D. as the only family he has and stresses that after he sacrificed his chance at love and a normal life, they betrayed him. Not only did they betray him, they also shattered the heart of the woman he loved. Gregg’s performance here is simply magnificent – Coulson is shattered.

    I think the show brilliantly left us clues all the way along as to what was coming, and I loved the way the machine pulled the curtain back from Coulson’s memories. The seemingly innocent “Can you feel that” from his Tahitian masseuse became the surgeon’s questions. The “Who ordered this?” from the waiter became Dr. Streiten’s outraged questions. We also got a lot more clues going forward – what was that green liquid? What was the blue liquid in the intravenous bag? Was that alien technology? Why were we seeing into space? Can’t wait to see how the show weaves these questions back in.

    Coulson’s rescue features another great fight sequence. It was nice that Skye and May rescue him together, but it’s Skye’s voice that really helps to ground Coulson. Back on the bus, Hand gives control back to Coulson and tells him “it’s not my style.” The bus works best just on the outskirts of S.H.I.E.L.D., something that I believe Fury intended. I also suspect that Fury knew Coulson would eventually be ready to know the truth and won’t be surprised to find out he has learned it. Coulson doesn’t actually smile until he greets his team – his real family – and thanks them for saving him. Fittingly he also releases Skye from her bracelet and her re-integration within the team – her new family – is complete. I like that they didn’t make it easy for her – remembering that even as recently as the last episode, Simmons mentioned forgiving her for her transgression, but it was clear that the rift still hadn’t completely healed.

    The last two scenes of the episode were both terrific. I love Ron Glass, so finally having him return after the Pilot was a nice treat. I’m hoping we may yet see more of him in the future – or maybe he will link in to one of the movies. Clearly, what happened to Coulson is not over – there are still a lot of unanswered questions, like exactly what had he become. Saying he’s simply lost his will to live seems a bit simplistic and now that he knows, will he lose it again?

    The final reveal was that Mike Peterson (J August Richards) is alive! Horribly burned, missing a leg, and with an eye implant but at least alive. With any luck the extemis in his bloodstream will be able to heal him – otherwise poor Richards is going to spend a lot of time in the make-up chair from here on out!

    I thought this was a really strong return for the show, bringing together a lot of the threads spun out over the fall. The team has had a chance to grow and become a unit in a reasonably organic and natural way. I like that we’re focusing on this team that is just on the fringe of S.H.I.E.L.D. as it opens up a lot of possibilities for stories going forward. Did you like the episode? Were you satisfied with the answer for what happened in Tahiti? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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