Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, and boy, is it back. The show does not waste any time getting down to business (which is good, because it doesn't have a lot more time to waste). The S.H.I.E.L.D. gang knows they need to rescue Agent Coulson, and they do it within the span of an episode. The absence of Agent Coulson solidifies the working chemistry between everyone else, but also makes the show's remaining flaws that much more obvious.
Without Coulson, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team finally seems to be working together well and staying on top of things. It's refreshing to see Skye take charge instead of moping about the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane, and it's good to see the rest of the team helping each other without Coulson's prodding. There's real stakes involved with Agent Coulson's kidnapping, but it also makes it apparent that he's still the heart of this show — it's hard to invested in any of the other agents.
It's inevitable that this show will get compared to other Joss Whedon shows. (Hell, I'm already guilty of comparing it to Buffy.) This episode really solidifies its similarities to Angel. That show also had an crime procedural structure for the better half of the first season (also to its detriment) and followed an already-developed character who had a team that would do anything for him. The difference is that Angel also used other fully developed characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, thus giving audiences a way to connect with characters who weren't Angel and get invested. That's the biggest remaining hurdle for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: getting its audience to care about everyone who isn't Agent Coulson.
Because boy, this is a very Coulson-centric episode. Raina and the Centipede gang have a memory machine that reveals that Coulson's memories of Tahiti are manufactured. Apparently, they want his powers of resurrection to create indestructible super soldiers (what for, though, is not really clear). After Coulson is rescued, he goes back to question the doctor who was in his operation, who says that he went through multiple, painful procedures and they should've let him die. We don't get answers about how he's alive right now (although we do get to see the creepy robot arms reconstructing his brain), but the answers we have now are miles away from where we were just two episodes ago.
And if you stuck around for the final five minutes, you know the answer to the question posed in this headline: Mike Peterson is indeed alive. It's not pretty: He's badly burned, his leg is amputated, and he's been turned into a Centipede drone. But having him back makes it feel like this show finally is sure of where it's heading.