Why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s big Coulson reveal just didn't satisfy

The truth about Coulson is out (sort of), but "The Magical Place" didn't feel very magical. 


It's no secret that a great many viewers have grown disillusioned with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over the past few months. A quick look at the frequently slipping viewership will tell you that, but so will a quick browse of the Internet the morning after an episode airs. (To be fair, you can find a hater for pretty much anything on the Internet, including pepperoni pizza and puppies. But I digress.) Some of this, it has to be said, stems from unreasonable expectations. This series simply can't be The Avengers. It has to exist on its own scale, and some viewers just aren't interested in what that scale has to offer.

That's fine, because we'll always have the Marvel movies to sate our cravings for the grandiose, but there's another part of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. story that's more important to people like me, who've watched the show since day one and have no plans to leave. While some people have long since written the show off, I refuse to. Maybe it's a case of starry-eyed optimism on my part. I will freely admit that there's a part of me that's just plain happy that I get to visit this little corner of the Marvel universe on a weekly basis. Even now, months after its premiere, I'm still sort of impossibly giddy that this show exists at all. But I, and other viewers who are perhaps less optimistic about the show's future even as they keep watching it, have had to face a somewhat harsh reality about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., one that was particularly apparent in last night's episode, "The Magical Place," aka the "What Happened to Coulson" episode: Very often, this show just doesn't seem to know what it's trying to be. 

Before we go any further, I need to make a few things clear: I like this show, even in its duller moments. Sometimes I like it a lot (the pilot and the Thor: The Dark World tie-in episode, "The Well," are two particular favorites of mine), and never once have I penalized it for not being on the same scale as the films it's spun off from. I think there are truly wonderful moments of humor in it, and a few great character beats so far. I am truly fascinated by Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and can't wait to see what she does next. I think Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are adorable, entertaining and wonderfully geeky. And of course, I have eternal love for Coulson, but that doesn't mean I can't call the show on its more underwhelming moments, and last night I saw what could have been a cornerstone of the show's mythology come across as ... well, it was television, at least.

After the midseason finale, "The Bridge," Coulson (Clark Gregg) was transported by the group known as Centipede to an old nuclear testing facility, where Raina (Ruth Negga) and Po (Cullen Douglas) work to uncover what exactly brought him back from the dead after the Battle of New York. The scenes leading up to this supposedly big reveal, particularly the ones between Raina and Coulson, feature some wonderful performances. Gregg was well prepared to play this man on the brink, a man who can't decide what he'd rather have, the truth, or his continued loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D., and the emotional tautness of these moments -- particularly the ones in which Raina digs deeper into Coulson's now-lost past -- created some of the most engaging material the series has produced so far. As Raina tried to convince Coulson to let her use the mysterious machine on him, to dig deep into his head, Gregg made us care about Coulson perhaps more than we ever have. This is a man whose life was broken by what he's been through, and he finally decides he wants to really know why. So he makes the decision to dig for answers, regardless of what S.H.I.E.L.D. thinks. At this point, I was hooked.

Then the show unravels Coulson's Tahiti story until he realizes that he was lying not on a wonderful massage table on a beach, but instead in an operating room, where his brain was being rewired by a robot as he screamed over and over that he wanted to die. It's a shocking scene, and once again, I was completely committed to it. The show still had me at this point. I was still hanging on these moments, hoping for answers just as Coulson was. 

Then, after Raina is arrested and Coulson is brought back to the Bus, we get what could have been a payoff but was instead just a shuffling of the answers onto another episode somewhere down the line. Coulson gets what could have been a blockbuster closing scene, interrogating Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass) in a darkened car, and while both actors play the moment well, and give as much weight to it as they can, what we actually get from the scene is so vague that it almost can't count as a cliffhanger. We get that Coulson was dead for days instead of minutes (something we might have guessed already). We get that Fury authorized more than half a dozen operations (though we still don't know why Coulson warranted such treatment), which Streiten calls "ungodly." We get that Coulson's memory was altered so that he wouldn't know the pain that he'd endured. Then, when Coulson finally gets to ask the big question -- "What had I become, Doctor?" -- he gets a non-answer ("You'd lost your will to live"). 

What this all points to is watching Coulson chase down answers from higher up in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ranks in episodes to come, and while I truly relish the idea of man-on-a-mission Coulson out for answers, I can't help but feel underwhelmed by what transpired last night. Often in the course of this show's run we've had to wonder what exactly we're watching: A spy show? A superhero show? A science fiction show? For 10 and a half episodes, we were left hanging about what really happened to Coulson, watching teaser after teaser, waiting for the answer, and then when we seemed finally poised to get it, the can was simply kicked down the road. So, once again, we're left wondering: Is the show about Coulson chasing his past forever, or about Coulson embracing his future? Is it even about the rest of the team, or will the entire season become the What Happened to Coulson Hour? It all feels very uncertain at this point.

None of this is to say that there aren't fertile storytelling opportunities ahead as Coulson tries to chase down his true fate and discover what he really is now after all those surgeries, but I'm left wondering: Why didn't we get to this sooner? If the whole point was to make Coulson dig deeper into S.H.I.E.L.D. to figure this out himself, why couldn't he have started in episode one? The search for answers could be endlessly exciting in the weeks to come, but it could also wear thin, and after watching some of this show's more uncertain moments already, I'm worried we may end up facing the latter.

But I'll leave this on a lighter note, because I'm still trying to be optimistic about this. I don't think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is bad. I think it's growing, learning, evolving, as many freshman shows do. I think it's got quite a few kinks still to work out, and I think Coulson's eventual discovery of what really happened to him may be one of them. I also think, though, that it's a show made with sincere enthusiasm, and there's real talent at work. I think there's every chance we'll see better things to come as the rest of the season unfolds, but for now, I have to say that "The Magical Place" left me scratching my head.

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