After a three week break the agents returned to action last night, kicking off the season's back 12 with a mission to retrieve Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) after his abduction by the mysterious and sinister Hungry Hungry Caterpillar... wait, no, let me check my notes... "Centipede" organization.

The winter hiatus offers the show its best chance yet to address some of its problems. Could this mean the start of a new and improved Agents of SHIELD? Or have I once again let my fannish desire for this show to be good get in the way of realistic expectations? Let's find out together!

The midseason premiere opens with an attempted black market sale of Chitauri scrap metal, rudely interrupted by a SHIELD(TM)-branded flash bomb. SHIELD, like Torchwood before it, suffers from a brand-awareness compulsion that sits slightly at odds with its status as a covert organization.

May (Ming-Na Wen) and Ward (Brett Dalton) follow the bomb into the room and fight some nameless goons. Daytime-soap-handsome arms dealer Vanchat (played by daytime soap actor Aiden Turner, not to be confused with Hobbit actor Aidan Turner) flees the scene, but his elevator is hijacked by Skye (Chloe Bennett) and he ends up on the roof with Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows).


Agents of SHIELD Agent May

It's 36 hours after Coulson was taken, and Hand has taken command of the wingycarrier and filled it with her people. Hand reveals that trainee agent Peterson (J August Richard) is believed dead, and her priority is to take down Centipede -- rather than recover Coulson. Skye gets caught trying to hack the system to trace the money trail behind Coulson's abduction, so Hand kicks her off the plane.

Meanwhile; Coulson is being held in a run-down house, strapped to a device that looks a lot like the ones used in Assassin's Creed to explore ancestral memories for hours of fun sneaky assassinating hijinx. Coulson sadly isn't being asked to re-live the rooftop adventures of a murderous Renaissance-era Coulson, but just to remember what happened to him after he was brought back from the dead.

Coulson attempts to break out, but only gets as far as the front door, where he runs into rogue Teletubby Po (Cullen Douglas) and learns he's being held on a nuclear test site in the desert; a creepy fake town full of mannequins. Remember Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, starring comics indie darling/smug rich creatively bankrupt bully Shia LaBeouf? It's like that, but without anyone climbing in a fridge to survive a nuclear explosion, and without any proximate Shia LaBeouf. So, this episode can get pretty bad and still look pretty good by comparison.


Skye Agents of SHIELD

Skye conducts an elaborate plan to track the money trail by breaking in to the home of a guy with an offshore bank account and playing the role of unconvincing badass. It is a very, very dull plot. It takes up a lot of the episode, but it's so dull that I'm only giving it this one paragraph in my recap. Blah blah blah, computer computer computer, ta-da, she finds the villains' location.

Ward interrogates Vanchat by opening the sunroof on the wingycarrier. He's sort-of praised, sort-of scowled at by Hand for his unorthodox methods. (It's hard to tell.) Hand wants to know why Coulson is so important. Lady, I'm with you.

But Coulson is important, so much so that the mysterious Clairvoyant fries Po's brain by telephone (it's an app) for his failure to get to the bottom of the Coulson mystery. Thus Raina (Ruth Negga) is promoted back to chief villain status. (Onscreen, at least. The mysterious Clairvoyant is still our Mr. or Ms. Big.) Disposing of Po just one episode after breaking him out of prison seems peculiar given that he didn't really accomplish or contribute anything, but villains killing other villains is just one of those things you have to accept in life. Villains are terrible personnel managers.

Coulson asks Raina what Centipede is up to, and she explains that they want the power to bring people back from the dead. She plays on Coulson's curiosity -- and his love for that legendary cellist who wept for days when Coulson died -- to get him to consent to the procedure to unlock his memories.

While Hand leads her team to take down a Cetipede lab, the agents follow Skye's lead to Nuke Town. Meanwhile, in Coulson's head, we discover that he was never in Tahiti, but in a medical lab with the top of his head sawn off, having his memories rewritten by a creepy spider-robot. Coulson-then and Coulson-now both beg to be allowed to die. It's a crucial scene, and thankfully a convincingly nasty one.

Skye arrives and punches out Raina. The day is saved; the villain is arrested. Hand gives the wingycarrier back to Coulson, and Coulson rewards Skye for her work by removing the bracelet that stops her accessing technology.

Coulson then tracks down Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass), one of the doctors involved in his resurrection. Streiten reveals that Coulson was dead for days; that Nick Fury went to great lengths to bring him back; and that the spider machine was used to repair catastrophic neurological damage, implant the Tahiti memories, and restore Coulson's will to live.

In the kicker we discover that Peterson is still alive, but badly burned and missing a leg -- and he has a Centipede spy camera implanted in his eye.

What did we learn in all this?

I'd hoped this episode would resolve at least one of the show's big mysteries, but it really didn't. All we've been told is that SHIELD saved Coulson's life, and we already knew that because, hey, he's on the show. All we now know about how SHIELD saved him is that it required lots of doctors, lots of surgeries, some sloppy ethical decision-making and a robot. That's not relevatory. In fact, "surgery" is the most prosaic possible answer to the Coulson mystery, even if it's surgery with a weird robot.

We also don't know why Fury moved heaven and earth to bring Coulson back. There has to be a more satisfying answer to all this than, "Fury brought Coulson back using surgery because he likes him," yet we're no closer to an answer. The Coulson mystery remains just as unresolved as the mysteries about the Clairvoyant's identity and Skye's parents. The writers ought to try to satisfy one of these itches.

In case you missed it, I wrote a piece over the holidays ranking the first ten episodes of Agents of SHIELD from best to worst. I would unfortunately rank this week's down among the lesser episodes.

ComicBookResources ran an interview with showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen this week in which they addressed some of the criticisms of the show (through the plausibly deniable medium of reader questions). Asked about the claim that Agents of SHIELD doesn't feel like a Marvel show, Whedon responded, "I think some of the negativity toward our TV show comes with the fact that it is just that -- a TV show."

I have to point out that I can name half a dozen shows currently on the air that, to my mind, have more of a Marvel feel than Agents of SHIELD.

The Blacklist exists in a world of richly drawn over-the-top villainy that's everything I want from a show set in a super hero universe. Sleepy Hollow layers on new, wild, and exciting ideas every episode. Person of Interest combines believable street-level action with a high concept premise. Scandal is fearless about telling operatic stories with extraordinary characters. Teen Wolf delivers polished superhuman angst on a low budget. And while it's hard to believe that anyone at Warner Bros even likes superheroes based on most of their output, even Arrow feels closer in tone to the Marvel movies than Marvel's own TV show.

So let's hear no more "but it's a TV show" excuses. There are plenty of current and former TV shows that create fantastic worlds that feel like believable parts of expansive fictional universes, and they're all more fun, more ambitious, more exciting than Agents of SHIELD.

With eleven episodes down, Agents of SHIELD has eleven episodes left to get it right.

Credit where it's due:

'The Magical Place' was directed by Kevin Hooks and written by Paul Zbyszewski & Brent Fletcher.

SHIELD, Nick Fury and Jasper Sitwell were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Chitauri were created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar based on the Skrulls created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Extremis was created by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov. Maria Hill was created by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch. Victoria Hand was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway.

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