‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ offers answers about Coulson but frustrates anyway

When the last episode of “Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD” aired, it seemed like a natural and intriguing place to hit pause for the season, and they promised that they’d be offering answers when the show finally returned.

So… did they?

Starting with the “previously on” clips package, there is an admirable sense of urgency to the episode. It felt like they took the mid-season break into account, using the entire pre-title teaser to re-introduce the team in action. We get May and Ward breaking up a deal to sell “100% premium grade Chitauri metal,” and one guy gets away and takes off running. We get to see Fitz/Simmons and their drones head him off in one direction, we see Skye hacking the building’s security network, and when the guy finally reaches the roof, there’s a full SHIELD team waiting there with Agent Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) at the head of it.

Picking up 36 hours after Coulson’s abduction, things have definitely changed a bit. Agent Hand has taken over The Bus, which is now packed with agents, and it seems that there are two different agendas in play. Hand is looking for Centipede, and the team is worried about Coulson.

They should be, too, because it looks like things are real bad for Coulson. Even when he manages to overpower a guard and escape, it’s just a set-up so that he understands how truly stranded he is. Things aren’t any easier for Vanchat, the guy they arrested in the opening teaser, and the interrogation scene with Ward strapped into his chair is certainly a novel spin on a familiar beat.

The Vanchat stuff is just busywork, though. What really matters about this week is what happens between Edison Po (Cullen Douglas), Raina (Ruth Negga), and Coulson. When they show brief glimpses of Coulson’s memory of Tahiti, they are so obviously stylized and not real that I can imagine Coulson is particularly shocked to learn that they’re not real. Little by little, we see that facade slip over the course of the episode, and we get glimpses of Dr. Streitan (Ron Glass), who we saw in the first episode of the series.

I was surprised to see them dispatch Po completely in this episode. He seemed like someone who might hang around for a while as a character. Raina eclipses him and his place in the organization, and the Clairvoyant has obviously decided to keep Raina close. We learn in this one that she’s had no real first-hand contact with the Clairvoyant so far. She’s been climbing her way through the organization, and this week represents her last big push to get to the top.

The episode made solid use of Skye, and what looks like a cold-blooded dismissal by Agent May at the start of the episode turned out to be a vote of confidence, a nice reversal and an indication that they’re not going to keep playing the same dynamics out over and over. More than any episode so far, this one made the team look like a unified whole, all of them able to contribute something to the rescue of Coulson. Fitz/Simmons come up with a bracelet that neutralizes the Centipede device in the supersoldiers, and Ward’s the lucky guy who gets to actually try to strap one onto a guy during hand-to-hand combat. When Coulson finally removes Skye’s digital training wheels at the end of the episode, it seems to mark this as a genuine turning point, and not just for Coulson.

But does this really feel like an answer? We do finally get a long look at the procedure that brought Coulson back to life, and Ron Glass shows up to explain his part in things. But even once we see the startling image of a machine apparently knitting new brain matter directly into Coulson’s head while he repeats “Please. Please. Let me die. Please” over and over, it doesn’t seem to clarify anything. Dr. Streiten talks about how Director Fury ordered them to go to any length to bring Coulson back, but he is maddeningly vague when he describes the process. I know why… obviously, they will continue to have Coulson chip away at the conspiracy to replace his memories… but it ends up feeling very calculated. By giving us just enough information that they can honestly say they offered up an answer, it’s all about prolonging things further. I get that’s the way television works, but I don’t like it when you can see the mechanics of it.

I liked the use of Rob Huebel as Lloyd Rathman. Huebel does unctuous douche better than anyone, and the only thing I wished is that Skye had made him squirm more before he finally gave her the information and access she needed. Skye can’t help but enjoy pretending to be May, and she does seem to have a good time dressing the part. The show needed to have some lighter moments to balance the rather grim image of Coulson begging for someone to end his life, and it seemed like they made the right choice using Skye to do that.

There were other touches I liked. I thought it was a nice moment when May told Ward why she got Skye off the Bus to begin with. “You don’t have to assume the worst of me,” she says, and it’s a good point. They can’t have everyone doubt everyone else on the team every week, and the sooner they get them all on the same page, the better I think it’ll be for the series overall. I also liked that they spent some money on that great shot of The Bus as May changed direction to go look for Coulson. I know they’re dealing with a TV budget, so it becomes about picking a few moments here and there where they spend, and it’s even harder when you have a show that supposedly takes place around the world. The show feels like it’s basically straining against the constraints of budget every week.

By far, my favorite moment in the episode was when Raina uses the memory of The Cellist against Coulson. It’s the one time she actually seems to get to him, and it pays off the time we’ve spent with Coulson in the theatrical films in a nice way. We’ve seen that Coulson is a romantic, that he’s a guy with a nostalgic side, and that he’s not afraid to express himself. It is a genuinely crappy hand he was dealt, and not being able to ever re-connect with The Cellist seems like a steep price to pay. He tells Raina, “I trust the system. They keep secrets for a reason,” but it seems to be gnawing at him anyway. It’s a nice moment for Clark Gregg to play, and when she mentions Tahiti and he immediately responds with his “It’s a magical place” verbal tic, it’s clearing programming, something he does involuntarily. That would bother me more than anything else, the notion of somebody having wired me to do certain tricks on command.

The episode ends with Centipede smashed on a global scale and Raina in custody, but it can’t be that easy. After all, the tag revealed Mike, still alive, his Centipede arm gear permanently fused to him by the fire, one leg missing, and now he’s got one of those ocular implants that tells him what he has to do. He is a dangerous loose end, and I’m guessing we’ll see him again before the end of the season.

I wish I felt like tonight’s episode had really landed its punches. Something about it feels too calculated, and it’s that thing where you get an answer, but only to set up more questions. I know it’s a function of storytelling, but when it’s handled as inelegantly as this, it doesn’t sit right.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you guys felt like you got answers you wanted. Let me know… how did you feel about the return of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” tonight?