"Agents of SHIELD" comes back for the second half of its first season. There's a reveal here finally, and it's the one you've been waiting for. Spoiler alert, they nailed. it.
In a fancy hotel, an arms dealer named Vanchat is selling a Chitauri armor plate. A disc slides in under the door and blows a flashbang. Agents Ward and May run in and attack, but Vanchat seller runs out, Fitz/Simmons and Skye uses tech to get him to the roof, where many other agents await him. Victoria Hand pops out and asks for help finding Coulson.
While Coulson has been missing, Hand has taken over command on the Bus, filling it with agents as the search, ordered by Fury and Maria Hill, has gone worldwide. Skye tries hacking into SHIELD while gives a briefing, prompting Hand to decide she's off the plane. Ward vouches for her, but May supports tossing her off. Thusly is she sent away, her bracelet set to lock down any tech she tries to use. Fitz/Simmons give her a "sandwich bag” containing a satellite phone. The team tells her to go use her resources to find Coulson.
Skye tries hacking SHIELD from a coffee shop, managing to get the entire place’s wifi shut down. Picking up a magazine randomly, she sees a local hotshot banker named Rathman is under investigation. Skye tracks him down, steals his car and deliberately crashes it to get OnStar to tow her "home." Sneaking into the house for a quick change, Rathman arrives back at home just as Skye AKA “Melinda May of SHIELD” appears. She says they've caught him for siphoning profits offshore, and offers immunity offered, if he cooperates.
Elsewhere, Coulson gets a massage, but he wakes up in a torture room strapped to a device that replays memories. It turns out their Clairvoyant can see a bunch of details about Coulson, but not why he's alive. They resolve to torture him until he cooperates. After one session and worse for the wear, Coulson pulls out some tweezers from his sleeve and starts picking his cuffs. He hides under the bed and manages to put a sleeper on a guard. Running out of what turns out to be a cabin, it turns out he’s at an old A-bomb test “town” in the middle of the desert. A Centipede soldier grabs him, and he’s chained back up. Raina arrives after a bit, and they argue about breaking Coulson. The Clairvoyant calls, and wants to speak to Raina. Poe gets the phone back after they talk, and it promptly causes blue-death-veins in his face and the phone is dropped.
Back on the Bus' cockpit, Ward asks May why she didn’t back Skye up. She says she wanted her off the plane so she could work solo, without observation. Skye and the Rathman start digging through Vanchat’s financials, and they get the info she wants. She takes off in his very fancy car, calling the team.
Raina knows facts about Coulson she shouldn’t, including that he was never able to tell the Cellist he was alive again. He agrees to go back in.
Raina gives an unrestrained Coulson some water, and they chat. Centipede has been working as a counter to SHIELD's super soldier efforts, and they want to know how Coulson was resurrected so they add it to their soldiers. Reminding him SHIELD is keeping a secret from him she wants to use the machine to unlock buried memories; if he stops resisting, it’ll stop hurting. She reveals the machine worked on her, and that she knows he was never able to tell the Cellist mentioned in "The Avengers" he wasn't dead anymore. Coulson is finally convinced, and straps in. His first memory after he died is the beach, and as he focuses, Ron Glass (The Doctor from Ep1) appears in scrubs, and the massage therapist says Fury Himself ordered the procedure he's apparently undergoing.
Skye arrives at the facility, and the soldiers give chase. The team arrives, having begrudgingly gotten approval from Hand, and they take out the super-soldiers.
In Coulson’s memory, he wakes up in the operating table, his brain fully exposed and being worked on while he begs for his death. Raina asks him to continue, but Skye busts in and unplugs him while he continues begging "please let me die!" He comes around, and they leave.
Back on the Bus, Raina is arrested, and Hand promises to find the Clairvoyant. Coulson thanks her and reunites with his team, even removing Skye’s bracelet. Coulson tells her they didn’t learn anything, but says what he saw wasn't real anyway.
Meanwhile, Dr. Glass gets into his car, and Coulson is there. He reveals Coulson was dead for days, not seconds. Fury brought him on the seventh operation to restore him, where he woke up. They erased his memory of the operation to give him his reason to live back.
Post-credits, a figure wakes up in a cell bed; Mike is alive, horribly burned and missing one leg from the knee down. He looks in a mirror, and we see from his view text scroll along the bottom "Good Morning Mike."
I was fully ready for this episode to be boring. I was dreading it. But they focused on Agent Coulson, the most fleshed out and interesting person on the show. It even made the obligatory "Avengers" reference not terrible, because it added (say it with me now) PATHOS. Coulson was straight up crying because he had to let someone he cared about think he's dead, apparently to this day. I like that they left the reveal of how he's still alive somewhat undefined. Basically he underwent a series of super-science surgeries that brought him back, complete with a shocking scene of the top of his skull removed and brain cells being rebuilt by a robot. There's no dramatic "he's a robot" or "Asgardian magic" moment that could've fallen flat, depending on which you were rooting for. He's open on the table, being operated on against his will, begging to die. Most powerful moment on the show.
What makes it even better is that it doesn't change the tone of the show going forward. There was always a secret layer of mistrust to Coulson regarding his superiors, and that doesn't go away now that he knows. It plays into the overall theme of the show that SHIELD is trusted, but that trust may not be deserved. Skye's story will be helped by this too, as Coulson is enabling her to snoop around for her own answers. That can lead to conflict with the team, especially May, who isn't opposed to Skye personally, but trusts the system.
Apparently the producers wanted to leave the characters blank slates going into the early episodes of the show, and use the first season to build pathos and relationships. That should pay off if they get a second season, but right now it leaves episodes hit-or-miss. This one was a hit, thankfully, so hopefully the next one is too.