Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, from the long winter of the soul. I mean, the period between mid-December and the second week of January when nothing bothers to air a new episode. I know. I’m really impatient for more Steven Universe as well. But this post is about Agents of SHIELD, so lets get started.
For our opener, the SHIELD team works like a well-oiled machine to apprehend a guy selling Chitauri technology who they know has ties to Centipede. He has a name, but lets just call him, hmm, Baltar. They chase him up to a roof where an entire SHIELD strike team is waiting with Victoria Hand. No explanation is offered for why the strike time was just chillin’ on the roof instead of engaging in an armed confrontation inside the building, but who cares, Victoria Hand is deadpanning secret agent lines.
As we sink into some exposition we find out that it’s been 36 hours since Coulson was kidnapped and Michael Peterson was blown up; Ward is basically still bleeding from being peppered with bullets from the retreating Centipede ‘copter. The Bus has been commandeered by Hand and dozens of her agents, crowding our regular crew. She has her own men interrogating Baltar, and says they won’t rest until they take down Centipede. “You mean ‘rescue Coulson’,” the team says. “Ugh, whatever,” she responds.
Hand also wants Skye off the plane, and while Ward stands up for her, May throws her under the bus (GET IT) and Hand orders her debriefed. But just before she leaves, Fitz and Simmons hand her a brown paper bag with a “sandwich” in it that will allow her to skip out on her SHIELD debriefers long enough to go rogue and start hacking the planet for Coulson on her own.
Speaking of, we can’t leave SHIELD Dad out of the exposition party. Coulson wakes up from a Tahiti dream inside what is clearly doing at least part time duty as a torture chamber. Po (the guy with the lead on the Clairvoyant, because it’s been a long time since the last SHIELD ep, and we all need a reminder) is there, trying to use a super science machine to see Coulson’s memories, because Coulson is special and the Clairvoyant can’t see them like he does with other people. Just like Bella and Edward oh my god guys COULSON/CLAIRVOYANT 4EVA!!!
The machine only works if Coulson cooperates, however, and if he keeps holding out it’ll boil his brain. So in-between sessions with the machine, Po is torturing Coulson for compliance, and needling him about Peterson. He compares his untimely death in front of his young son to Coulson’s own childhood without a father.
After a long day or torture Coulson attempts to make a break for it with the help of one of the creepy mannequins that are everywhere. But since this is the very beginning of the episode, so we all know he’s not going to make it, and he doesn’t. He gets just far enough so that Po to give him the “muahaha there’s no use escaping” villain talk about how they’re in an abandoned nuclear testing site (hence all the mannequins) hundreds of miles from civilization.
He says all this while eating an ice cream cone, so I invite you to enjoy, as I did, imagining some burly Centipede dude buying some Häagen-Dazs and a box of cones at a rest stop, throwing it into… a specially bought minifreezer in the back of a van, I guess, driving it more than 100 miles to this secret base, and then throwing it into an onsite freezer for his evil boss. Henchman 21 would be proud of your devotion, Centipede dude.
Skye attempts to hack Coulson’s whereabouts from an internet cafe, but her SHIELD issue no-hacky bracelet shuts down every computer in the place. She comes up with a different plan: find somebody she can intimidate into hacking a company connected with Centipede for her. She targets under-investigation-businessman Lloyd Rathman. (I don’t have a funny name for him.) In order to do this, she first buys a cute black leather jacket. Then she steals his car and crashes it so that the onboard roadside assistance will call her up and tow it back to his house. This works, because I guess tow truck drivers don’t check to see if your ID matches the insurance info or anything, and also already know your home address? I mean, I’ve never been towed, but I guess Skye is pretty good at improvising.
Inside Rathman’s house, Skye calls his office (using a golf club to press phone buttons so that her bracelet doesn’t interfere with it) and pretends to be police, asking him to come home to answer some questions about a stolen vehicle of his that they recovered. When he arrives, she’s decked out in her new jacket and some shades, and introduces herself as SHIELD Agent Melinda May, badass motherfucker here to throw him in a deep dark hole for collaborating with Centipede… or offer him immunity if he helps her out. But Rathman isn’t a complete idiot, and he trips his house’s silent alarm when she’s not looking.
On the Bus, Ward is frustrated with how slowly the interrogation of Baltar is going, so he lies to get the other agent out of the room and then sits down and straps himself in. Fitz and Simmons press a button that opens a hatch in the roof of the hex room. Faced with the threat of being air-locked, Baltar tells them everything he knows about the locations of Centipede’s international operations.
Hand briefs agents for a massive international assault on all the now known Centipede bases. They don’t have any particular evidence that Coulson is at any of them, and she doesn’t really care. Massive manpower is being readied. Fury and Hill are breathing down her neck about recovering him. She can’t understand how one single agent could be so important to the agency, and her point is really well supported. It’s clear to the audience that Coulson’s probably considered important because of how SHIELD brought him back to life. Why he was brought back to life in the first place is another important mystery.
But then some SHIELD person tracks down the Centipede helicopter that kidnapped Coulson to the Mojave desert, and the Bus turns around, just as May tells Ward that she had Skye kicked out on purpose because she would be able to work better with out Hand’s agents looking over her shoulder demanding that she adhere to protocol. “You do’t have to assume the worst of me,” she tells him, one episode after she was a pretty big jerk to Skye, I mean, come on May. But telling people things they need to hear, regardless of their feelings, is kind of a thing with May, and I respect that.
And it’s true, Skye is doing things very much not by the SHIELD book. Like impersonating a fellow agent, capturing the two rentacops who are summoned by Rathman’s silent alarm, and forcing them to work the computer for her so her bracelet doesn’t ruin everything. She finds transactions that give her a lead on Raina’s location (in the desert with Po), steals one of Rathman’s cars that she hasn’t wrecked, and calls the lead into the SHIELD team.
Speaking of Raina, she interrupts Po’s torture session with Coulson, fresh from “tending to our other subject,” so that’s our first hint that Peterson is still alive, though how they got his body off that bridge without SHIELD knowing is a mystery that will probably never be solved. Maybe in superhero universes, near-dead bodies all teleport to another location known only by villains, and only teleport back when they actually die. This would explain a lot of “we never found a body” villain returns.
Anyway, Raina and Po argue over methods, and he insists that the Clairvoyant wants him to be bad cop. Right on queue, the Clairvoyant calls him up, throws shade all over his lack of progress, and then he asks *gasp* to talk to Raina, whereupon he puts Coulson’s interrogation over to her capable hands. Then he KILLS PO SOMEHOW THROUGH THE PHONE? Agents of SHIELD you may be a mediocre show in a lot of ways but I love your villains and their craziness.
Raina then plays good cop for Coulson, trying to erode his trust in SHIELD. The brain machine won’t just show Centipede what happened to him after he died, it’ll also show him. Doesn’t he want to know what SHIELD did to him? This makes sense, as this is basically a conversation Raina has been having all season with various POC guest stars. Convincing them they are owed more than they have gotten in life, and that they should take it now with the resources Centipede is offering. She and Coulson also talk about her recent promotion. She admits that her heart is still excitedly racing from talking to the Clairvoyant for the first time, and can I just say that I pretty much love Raina? She’s so excited about making it one step closer to being a villain instead of a henchwoman and she’s also very effective at her job. I can’t help but root for her.
Raina keeps hammering in all the ways SHIELD has betrayed his trust when they’re supposed to be the family that he lost (it seems his mother also died early), to replace the potential for a future family he sacrificed in order to do the job. But it’s when she starts in on how they ruined his relationship with and hurt his ‘cellist girlfriend that he really starts to crack. “Do you miss hearing her play?” STOP, MY MUSICIAN FEELS. “She cried for days after SHIELD told her you died.” COULSON, DON’T CRY BBY. Finally, she mentioned Tahiti and Coulson gets half way through the phrase that it’s clear he’s been conditioned to respond with before he stops himself. Then he tells her to turn on the machine.
On the Bus, Hand refuses to send her strike team out to the middle of nowhere on a rogue hacker’s hunch, so May and Ward say they’re going to take their team anyway, regardless of whether they have backup. Hand is all
to May, and May is all
Raina shares some Details That May Be Important Later, like that she knows the machine works because she’s used it herself to recover memories, before she walks him through meditating his memory back. The details in his Tahiti dream crack quickly, with Ron Glass (Dr. Stretian) appearing in scrubs, demanding to know who ordered this operation, and being told that it was Director Fury himself. Tahiti morphs into an operating room, and Coulson lies to Raina about what he’s seeing, still determined to keep Centipede in the dark. He sees a body bag close over his head, flashes of surgical instruments, a “going toward the cosmic light” hallucination, and then the clearest scene of all: Dr. Stretian insists that what they are doing is wrong, as a horrible robot with tiny twitching limbs introduces electrical impulses to Coulson’s exposed brain. While this is happening, Coulson, apparently conscious on the surgical table, begs to die over and over and over again.
Meanwhile, Skye pulls up to the Town the Nukes Forgot and nearly gets taken out by a Centipede soldier before the rest of the team arrives and creams him with their Black SUV. Then everybody stands in a dramatic line, because that’s how they make their best decisions, and then split up to search the place and fight Centipede guys. Ward takes out one with the new nite device that Fitz and Simmons have been working on all episode and I didn’t mention because it barely has any effect on the plot.
Eventually, Skye hears Coulson’s screams, punches Raina out, and the team powers down the machine and wakes him up.
And it’s all over but for the wrapping up of the plot threads. Raina is taken away by SHIELD. Hand has been successful at managing a worldwide strike on Centipede locations, but the Clairvoyant is still at large. Coulson wants to know how Raina knew so much about him and how SHIELD was dealing with him, but Hand has no answers, and leaves him to his Bus, which is not her style.
Coulson removes Skye’s no-hacky device, and lies to her when she asks him if he learned anything about his death. Then he hunts down Dr. Stretian and confronts him with his newly recovered memories, confirming many hint from the first half of the season: “You weren’t dead for seconds, you were dead for days.” Director Fury ordered many procedures that were against medical ethics. He was kept conscious in extreme pain. The machine from his recovered memory was an attempt to restore the man he’d once been by giving him a pleasant memory to replace his actual experience.
“We didn’t want you to be that thing,” Stretian says, but when Coulson asks what he means by that, Stretain just says that he “lost his will to live” which is not, I think, how someone would normally describe someone who has become suicidal or accepted death as a release from pain. Stretain apologizes multiple times, and eventually Coulson leaves him alone.
Stinger: Michael Peterson wakes up somewhere, covered in burns, missing a leg, and he totally has that Centipede eye implant that forces people to do bad things if they don’t want their brain to explode. So great, the show didn’t kill it’s first recurring POC guest star in his second appearance, it just mutilated him, traumatized him, separated him from his son, and forced him into the employ of the bad guys. Seriously, somebody give this character a break already.
In coming back from its winter hiatus, SHIELD has thickened the already thick plot of Coulson’s death, and given us an interesting, possibly psychic Big Bad Villain to replace a worldwide network of evil scientists. It also introduced a magical brain machine that SHIELD has probably already confiscated because humanity isn’t ready for that jelly. Or maybe brain machines are fine, but gravity ones aren’t. I’m probably just going to have to accept that SHIELD’s international jurisdiction is going to remain as nebulous as its stance on emerging technology and the supersciences.
I hope the show comes back to Michael Peterson quite soon. He is one character who has gotten nothing but pain for trying to do the right thing, and it doesn’t help that he’s one of the show’s most clearly and purposefully presented elements of diversity both in race and class. Speaking of recurring actors of color, I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of Raina, but I hope she returns sooner rather than later. A female character who maintains a calm exterior but freely admits how internally happy and excited she was when receiving a promotion within her evil organization is one that I look forward to seeing more of.
And much like Raina, I find myself very much liking the unsympathetic Hand. Or, at least, Hand fills a role that we are usually supposed to find unsympathetic: the bureaucrat who outranks the main characters and dismisses the feely feels that make them want to break rules as unimportant. Hand is perfectly right to be confused as to why SHIELD values Coulson so much: Now that we know that he wasn’t just brought back with some Chitauri or Asgardian artifact, and that his resurrection was in actuality very difficult and controversial among the people who managed it, the questions of why it was considered so important to bring him back looms large. Nick Fury, you have got some explaining to do. But given that there are still eleven episodes left in this season, I don’t see you being called on the carpet any time soon.