Warning: Spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. up to episode 7 of season 1.
In the Marvel film The Avengers we see Agent Phillip "Phil" Coulson die at the hands of Loki during the attack on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. His death was a pivotal point in the movie and it served as the motivation for all of the movie's heroes to come together at the end.
Fast forward a few months and Agent Coulson is alive and well. We get to follow his ongoing adventures on the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. From the very beginning we realize that there is some sort of secret surrounding Coulson's return, one that Coulson can never be made aware of...
What's Going On?
While there are hints of "something" it's never addressed directly until the sixth episode of season one when Coulson gets some medical results back and he tells Agent May that although the tests say he's fine, he doesn't feel fine. Coulson is looking for something that explains why he feels different since the events of The Avengers and May addresses what seems obvious to her: "You died. There's no way you can go through a trauma like that and not come out of it changed."
From the start of the show I thought we would learn that Coulson was upgraded somehow and we would see him possess abilities he never had before. (Something like The Six Million Dollar Man.) Then in episode 6 we see something unexpected: physical and psychological scars. We see the scar left by Loki's scepter in his chest. a wound that has healed over and apparently doesn't seem to cause any physical problems for him.
The psychological trauma is what's bothering him. He's not sure what it is. He can't describe it. He just feels different. He knows that he died. Then, he woke up in Tahiti. Tahiti?
Everybody acts weird on the show when they talk about Tahiti. "It's a magical place" says Coulson. "He can never know" says Maria Hill. It turns out that Tahiti really was magical, in a way: Tahiti never happened. So what actually happened to Coulson?
Coulson not only died, he was dead for days. Nick Fury decided to bring him back from the dead and used every S.H.I.E.L.D. resource at his disposal. For Coulson that meant at least 7 different operations during which he endured unbelievable pain. So much pain that he begged for death repeatedly.
The only one of those operations we get to see is one in which his head is sliced open - brain exposed - and a spider-like machine is rebuilding his brain. This is happening while Coulson is screaming "please let me die!" This sounds like torture and it definitely looked like torture.
The physical, emotional, and psychological pain was so great that S.H.I.E.L.D. decided to remove these operations from his memory with a sort of brain washing that replaced all of the traumatic events with memories of a well-earned, magical vacation in Tahiti.
They Didn't Ignore the Trauma
I applaud the showrunners for taking this route. This is the outcome I least expected and yet it seems the most obvious. It is not the most obvious for a comic book / superhero story but it is the most obvious for a more realistic story.
If you knew someone who went through a severely traumatic event (like getting stabbed in the heart by Loki in the middle of a huge battle on a sinking Helicarrier), and you found out he survived, you would probably think to ask "How is he doing?" I can't believe that I never thought that. When the series started I wanted to know how he survived and if he got some sort of upgrade or superpower.
I am actually disappointed in myself for never thinking about how Coulson was affected by the events in The Avengers. Iron Man 3 dealt with how those events affected Tony Stark so why didn't I think about this when it came to Coulson? Maybe I was so happy that Coulson was alive that I didn't bother to worry about him.
Welcome Back Coulson
Resurrections are commonplace in comic books and Coulson's is the first in the cinematic universe. I can't recall reading any comics that deal with the effect of a resurrection on a character although I'm sure they must exist. (If you can think of any, please comment.)
While it surprised me that the show dealt with the effects of Coulson's death, it really shouldn't have since we are talking about a show created by Joss Whedon. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy dies and is resurrected unwillingly. She is deeply affected by having been pulled back to the world of the living. In fact, she looks devastated when she's brought back and she seems depressed for the first half of that season. But Buffy lived with the feeling of wishing she was still dead while Coulson was affected by it subconsciously.
Now that Coulson has abruptly learned what happened to him, there exists a serious risk of retraumatization. I doubt the show will address this in much depth or that they'll show him working with a S.H.I.E.L.D. therapist but again, I'm glad that trauma is not being ignored.
Trauma Can Change You
I believe that this arc of Coulson's story can serve as a conversation starter about trauma. Maybe it can get people to think about how a traumatic event - whatever it may be - can have significant and long term effects on a person. Trauma effects can be unpredictable and identifying exactly what the effects are can be very complicated.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has addressed the issue of trauma directly and demonstrated that it can be very difficult to understand. As the show progresses we'll see the ongoing effects of trauma on Coulson and my guess is that he'll learn to cope with them, overcome them, and end up a stronger and more resilient person.
Regardless of how it turns out, Coulson is a different person now. I think it's great to see a human character in a world full of superheroes who can be super in a realistic and believable way. This may not be the upgrade I was expecting but it is definitely one we can more easily relate to.