*Update: My full recap of “The Writing on the Wall” is now live. Read it here!
After a week off, Agents of SHIELD is back! Last week gave us an episode that helped to position the pieces for bigger things going forward, and tonight we took our first step down the path that episode laid out. Tonight saw the biggest movement yet this season on the Coulson/alien writing mystery, along with a big chunk of information about the Guest House/T.A.H.I.T.I. project, along with a parallel plot about what Ward is up to following his escape. There were surprises, revelations, and even a few jokes. Here are my quick reactions and thoughts about tonight’s episode, “The Writing on the Wall,” look for my full recap sometime tomorrow.
- Starting at the end of the episode, it looks like Coulson’s situation is finally out in the open for the rest of the team. To which I say: thank god! I get that Coulson was trying to project an image of composure, and I know that he was trying to compartmentalize, but I was definitely tired of him keeping this a secret from people he supposedly trusts. The truth started leaking out when Simmons found the GH-325 serum in the blood of the victim and her attacker, and started to wonder if there was a connection between the symbols and the serum, but by the time Coulson was strapped into Raina’s memory machine the cat was completely out of the bag. I like that Coulson explicitly acknowledged and confirmed what’s been going on to the team, but even more he used the mystery and the new piece of the puzzle to bring the team together and give them an objective to focus on. I want to see everyone’s best efforts in solving the mystery before HYDRA does. It can help bring the team back together in a way that’s intentionally been missing this season.
- Speaking of the team, what is Ward up to? His story was a bit of a roller coaster ride tonight. First I thought we’d get an epic Trip/Ward showdown, until Ward pulled out the suicide bomber vest. Do you think he really would have blown up himself and the bus if SHIELD forced his hand? He certainly seems unstable enough to do it, but that would definitely hurt his “all I want to do is help” mantra. The next twist came with his confrontation with Bobbi, but I loved that they’d planned ahead and had Hunter (and his cowboy outfit) waiting for him. Then he met with Bakshi, and I had an internal debate over whether he was really joining HYDRA or just using them for information, only for him to take out the HYDRA agents and leave Bakshi for Coulson. Twist after twist after twist. And then came that final phone call, where it seemed pretty clear that he’s going after his brother (as we knew he would), but he menacingly promised Skye that he’d see her again. Ward is definitely more interesting outside of his cage than he ever could be as a prisoner.
- Favorite Quote: Fitz: “Corpse-ay diem: seize the dead.”
- So let’s look at Coulson’s revelations, first with what we learned about T.A.H.I.T.I.. It seems that SHIELD not only developed the Guest House program, but also put it through a round of human testing to ensure that it would work on an Avenger should the need arise. There were six subjects, all SHIELD agents who were dying and volunteered for the program (except for Coulson, of course). GH-325 worked and they all physically recovered, but then started to devolve into madness, drawing and carving the alien symbols anywhere they could, and either pulling their hair out from the overwhelming impulse or turning into a drooling vegetable. A doctor proposed wiping their memories and building new ones as a way to remove the knowledge of the alien writing and whatever effects it had on the patients, and Coulson went along with it “for their own good.” Most of them resisted, wanting to find answers rather than to forget, but it seems like it was mostly successful. One became an artist in her new life, while another had a happy setup as a welder with his wife and son. Of course, another became obsessed and murdered people, so it wasn’t a complete success. But none of them completely escaped the call of the writing.
- We also learned a bit more about the alien body that supplied the GH-325. The doctor who talked Coulson out of destroying it said that it was thousands of years old (“older than the pyramids” in fact, which could mean lots of different ages depending on which pyramids she’s talking about). That, of course, brings up the question of how SHIELD came by the body, and how it had survived in any sort of condition to be of use to them. Was it sealed in some sort of alien capsule/cryosleep where it could be preserved? Does the body just not deteriorate as we would expect a 5,000 year old human to? Perhaps it lived that long, and SHIELD killed it or was involved in its death somehow, and persevered it afterwards. Maybe it was mummified? Any other theories?
- And then there’s the alien writing itself. The doctor suggested that it might be genetic memory from the alien that was transferred with the serum (she also mentioned a “psychic schism”). And while all of the patients eventually developed this obsession with the writing, none of them had the complete set in their heads. After the memory wipe, they still retained the images and they made their way out in paintings or model train layouts (“Thank god for model trains!” was all I could think of during the final act of the episode), and it was all very Close Encounters of the Third Kind, if only someone had carved them out of mashed potatoes. The key to deciphering the writing came when crazy Sebastian mentioned having to “dig deep” and Coulson realized that the writing was part of a three-dimensional blueprint (I win!) rather than a map. It’s not the most original solution to the alien writing, but that’s ok because what’s more important is the significance of the city the blueprints show. I’ll go into my thoughts on that a bit more at the end of my recap tomorrow.
- Favorite Quote: Skye, answering Bakshi’s phone: “Hail HYDRA!”
- We got to see a different side of Mack tonight, who was not only distrustful of Coulson after learning a bit more about his situation, but distrustful of SHIELD’s work as a whole. I like that Fitz didn’t back him up when he tried to doubt Coulson, particularly as Fitz can relate to what Coulson is going through with his mind a little out of whack. We also got some hostility between Mack and Simmons, when Mack said that theft and confidence were the way to get what you want (in this case a body), while Simmons countered that she thought the answer was hard work. They may have had a moment of honesty last week, but it seems like things have gotten a little frosty between the two. Maybe Simmons is jealous that Mack has bonded so well with Fitz, or that he’s able to be around Fitz without causing him further problems. Either way, it seems like there’s a lot of emotions to work through in the coming weeks. Still, I’m glad Fitz has Mack as a friend an ally, someone who will push him to improve and support him along the way. (Not that Simmons wouldn’t, but it seems like Mack is what Fitz needs at the moment.)
- I have to give some credit to Brett Dalton, who I feel like I’ve unfairly ignored this season among all of the actors. I’ve talked a lot about Ward but while I’ve praised the other actors on the show he’s somehow gotten left off. I think he’s had perhaps the hardest job this season, having to play a character with such ambiguous motives, making him seem both menacing and potentially open for redemption. He’s easily alternated between 100% creepy and occasionally pitiable, and he’s done it all while confined to a tiny room and behind a scruffy beard. It’s a pretty thankless task, and it’s a role and a situation that are tough to keep interesting, so kudos to Dalton for really selling it this season. Still, I’m thrilled that he’s on the loose, as it gives Dalton some variety, and it promises some big confrontations between brothers and between Ward and SHIELD. Dalton may have been outshone by De Caestecker and others, but his performance has been every bit as crucial to the season as the rest of the team/cast.
- Lastly, I have to say that as excited as I am about Agent Carter, I’m getting really tired of the “sometimes the best man for the job… is a woman” tagline. It’s really stupid and groan worthy, and in today’s society it’s laughably sexist. I get that they’re trying to drive home the sexual politics of a woman doing a “man’s job” in the 1940’s, but I feel like there’s got to be a better way to show it. Surely there’s a great line of dialogue from the show that makes the same point that they could put in there instead? Regardless, I’m still stoked for the show, and I love the style it looks to be bringing. I’m somewhat dubious about it being advertised as “an eight-part television event,” as I’m not entirely sure what that indicates. It’s probably meant to hedge their bets, in case it’s not a success they can claim it was never meant to be more than eight episodes. But I hope they’re not already writing it off as a one-time deal. If it’s good (as I hope it will be), I’d love to see it return next year either as a full season series or in a similar capacity to this year. Whatever happens, I just want it to get a fair chance.
What do you think? Did you enjoy “The Writing on the Wall”? What do you think of the new revelations about T.A.H.I.T.I. and the Guest House? How did SHIELD come to possess the alien after thousands of years? What is the purpose behind the genetic memories passed on to those who got the serum? Where is the city, and what will SHIELD/HYDRA find there? (Someone give me a theory to talk about in my recap!) Is Ward really trying to help SHIELD, is he trying to earn brownie points, or is he playing some other game? Do you think we’ve seen the last of Sebastian, the man with all the tattoos? Let me know in the comments!