‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ took last week off in favor of, depending on which state you live in, either a Marvel promotional special or mid-term election coverage. Given those alternatives, I’m glad to see the show return this week – especially when it comes back with a strong episode.
‘The Writing on the Wall’ finally provides us with some answers to the big mystery of the alien writing that Coulson has been obsessively carving. His compulsion to carve has gotten so strong and so frequent that he can’t turn it off anymore. It’s practically all he does now. Unfortunately, Skye has had no luck decoding it, despite her intuition that it’s a map. The markings don’t correspond to any known geographic coordinates or stellar constellations.
Brian Van Holt from ‘Cougar Town’ is back as the mystery man with that same writing tattooed all over his body. As the episode begins, he murders an art teacher who’d been painting the symbols, and carves them into her flesh. Ick. I’m sure that Dog Travis would not approve.
Later, we’ll learn that the man’s name is Sebastian Derek, and he’s a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. In fact, so was his victim, though she didn’t know it. After Fitz and Mac steal her body from a morgue to perform their own autopsy, they identify her as a Level 6 agent who supposedly died of cancer five years ago.
Desperate for answers, Coulson subjects himself to the brain scanner device confiscated from Raina. That triggers a series of painful memories of his time running the Tahiti project, during which Coulson authorized the use of the alien resurrection juice to save the lives of six agents. At first, they seemed to recover in great physical and mental health. However, in short order they went crazy and started compulsively carving the alien writing. The only way to “fix” the patients was to erase their memories. Even more so than the way Coulson had his memories selectively eliminated, they were each completely wiped clean, given new identities and dropped back into the civilian population. Sebastian, a black ops assassin, resisted the procedure and eventually recovered his memories. Now he’s tracking down the other test subjects and carving them up, hoping that doing so will unlock the answers to the writing. So far, no luck on that.
Skye attempts to lock Coulson up in the S.H.I.E.L.D. basement for his own safety, but he tricks her and locks her in the cell instead, then slips away to track down Sebastian on his own. He determines that the next victim will be a man named Hank Thompson (Joel Gretsch from the ‘V’ reboot). Although Coulson gets to him first, Sebastian isn’t far behind. The two have a big fight in a barn, where Thompson has built an elaborate model train set for his son, complete with skyscraper buildings.
Upon getting an overhead view of the diorama from the rafters, Coulson has a revelation. It’s the alien writing as a three-dimensional model. The symbols aren’t a map; they’re a blueprint. He forces Sebastian to look at it, which suddenly snaps him out of his psychosis. Getting the answer has relieved them both of their compulsion to write.
The S.H.I.E.L.D.ies soon show up and arrest Sebastian. Psychotic anymore or not, he has a lot of crimes to answer for. Hank is allowed to go about his normal life. Coulson comes clean to the whole team about everything that’s been going on and announces that, “The puzzle’s taking shape.” Skye believes that the blueprint represents a city. But where is it?
(Fan speculation has it that the city is probably Attilan, which will link the show to Marvel’s upcoming ‘Inhumans’ movie. If true, this suggests that Skye and her father are both Inhumans.)
While all this is going on, May, Trip, Bobbi and Lance are out searching for Ward, who has escaped custody. They follow him to Boston, where he meets with HYDRA’s #2 baddie Bakshi at a bar. Ward says that he can deliver a face-to-face with Coulson. By the time May and the others charge into the bar, Ward is gone and they find Bakshi bound and gagged with a note saying “For Coulson.” That’s probably not the way Bakshi expected the meeting to go down.
Later, Ward shaves his beard and cuts his hair. He calls Bakshi’s phone, which he knows Skye will have, and promises to bring more gifts in the future. Until now, this season hasn’t seemed to know what to do with Ward, who has lingered around when I felt he should have just been written out. However, I like the idea of him operating as a free agent and a little element of chaos in the S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. HYDRA dynamic.
Even though I have a hard time taking Brian Van Holt seriously when he does dramatic roles (I had this problem with ‘The Bridge’ as well), I liked this episode a lot. The season is really cooking now and is building an intriguing narrative that takes place between and around the edges of Marvel’s big blockbuster movies.