Agents of SHIELD took a week off and returned with an exciting episode that took a big step forward for some of the big story arcs of the season. The last episode moved some of the key pieces around but this week gave us some big forward momentum along with a healthy dose of revelations, with presumably more to come. We learned some new information about the Guest House, the alien, and TAHITI, not to mention a solution to the alien writing puzzle. Ward got to stretch his wings, setting out on a plan that kept me guessing throughout the whole episode. In all, it was a fast-paced episode that set the ball rolling for the second half of the first half of season two (the second quarter?) going into the winter. So let’s jump into “The Writing on the Wall,” written by Craig Titley and directed by Vincent Misiano.
We open in an apartment in Rhinebeck, NY, to which a woman has invited a man she met in a bar. She asks whether they met at Burning Man two years ago, stuck in the desert on a glow-in-the-dark bus. The man doesn’t even know what Burning Man is, so she thinks maybe she knows him from back home in Iowa. We see the man as he says that he was born and raised in Baltimore, and it’s our friend the tattooed man, covered in alien writing. It seems that the two of them saw each other from across the bar and just waved at each other like they were long lost friends. The woman is sure she knows him from somewhere, but just can’t figure it out. “To remembering,” he says, as they share a drink. He notices the books on painting on her bookshelf and asks her about her art. She paints some and teaches some art classes, but when she asks if he’s an artist he says he just does some carving. She supposes that destiny brought them together tonight, but he confesses that he hasn’t been completely honest and that they have met before. “And I’ve travelled a long way to be with you,” he says, starting to unbutton his shirt. She tells him to slow things down, but as he removes his shirt and reveals the tattoos covering his body she has a moment of recognition and she asks how he knows about the writing. He says that they share so much, so many memories and so much pain. “I’ll help you remember,” he says, pulling out a knife as she screams.
Coulson’s also using his knife, but instead of carving the writing into flesh he’s back at work on his wall, listening to a record to help keep him calm (anyone catch the song?). He’s sweating, his hands are shaking, and it looks like he’s having a hard time controlling himself even if he is giving in to the carving impulse. His knife breaks, he swears, and as he goes to find another Skye turns off the music. He asks her how long she’s been standing there, and she says long enough. May left her with orders: “if you go on a date with the crazy, I have to chaperone.” Coulson says that he didn’t want to wake her, but she replies, “Do I look like I’ve been sleeping?” She’s been hard at work trying to figure out this writing, but all she knows is that it seems like everything’s connected: Ward, her father, the Diviner, the writing, the Guest House, and whatever’s in their blood. She says it’s a hacker’s worst nightmare, the “Everlasting Gobstopper of firewalls.” Coulson insists that the writing wants them to know the answer, but Skye says that it should just tell them. Based on her map theory she’s tried matching it to all kinds of things, from constellations to navigational charts to the human genome, but nothing fits. Coulson tells her to keep at it, and confesses that the writing is coming more frequently. It used to be monthly but now it’s every day and every night and he can’t turn it off. When Skye asks how he can sleep with all that, he just stares at her. He tells her they need answers, and when she asks what happens if they can’t find them she gets another stare. She asks when May gets back, but he says not until they find Ward, before he starts to carve again, looking more panicked and desperate than ever.
Speaking of Ward, it seems like SHIELD has committed a sizeable chunk of their resources to finding him, including agents at multiple locations just waiting for him to show up. May thinks that there’s been no worldwide manhunt because Christian Ward is covering up Grant’s escape. In Philadelphia, in a bus station, Trip calls May to say that he’s spotted Ward. He says he has a clear shot and “a trigger finger that needs some love,” but May tells him to stand by. Ward goes to a locker, opens in and removes a bag containing money, a phone, and a passport. Trip still wants to take Ward out, but Coulson reminds them that Christian wants Grant alive, and he orders Trip to bring Ward in by any means necessary. Just as you think we’re about to get an awesome Trip v Ward battle in the bus station, Ward emerges wearing a vest of C4 and holding a dead man’s switch, which he covertly reveals to Trip as he walks out. He knows they’re watching him, and Coulson orders them not to engage, because Ward isn’t bluffing. Bobbi and Hunter are ordered ahead of Ward to his next stop, so they can at least keep an eye on him even if they can’t stop him.
One of Skye’s sources has come across something in morgue records. It seems that a dead woman turned up with some familiar writing carved into her body just last night. Skye identifies her as Janice Robbins, and Coulson immediately recognizes her picture as a SHIELD agent, although he can’t quite remember her. Skye insists that she’s just an art teacher from Iowa, but Coulson’s sure he’s seen her before, and that means a field trip for Coulson and Skye. At the crime scene, Skye reminds him that they’re breaking about 14 laws by snooping around. “One of the perks of being outlaws,” Coulson says. “This had to happen on my shift,” Skye complains, “it couldn’t wait until May got back?” Coulson says that May has her hands full, and besides, they are the only ones who know what they’re looking for. Skye’s unimpressed with the apartment, which doesn’t seem at all like the home of a SHIELD agent. “You two don’t have a single thing in common unless you have some Enya albums you’ve been hiding,” Skye tells him, as he searches the other rooms. “No, nothing in common at all,” he says sarcastically, as she joins him in a room full of paintings, all of which are filled with the alien writing. “I take that back,” Skye replies, as the camera pans down and we see that she’s titled one of her paintings “A Magical Place.”
Back at the Playground, Coulson is laying pictures out on the floor, including some they snapped of Janice’s paintings, the carved back of the “miracle painting,” and some that were taken of Coulson’s carvings. He tells Skye that there’s a lot of overlap in his work and Janice’s, so they’re both definitely working on the same design but she had some pieces he was missing. He tells her that whoever did the miracle painting carving was also on their same wavelength. He thinks there are just a few missing pieces. Skye’s discovered that Janice Robbins actually was a SHIELD agent named Rebekah Stevens, who was Level 6 and stationed at the Triskelion. However, she supposedly died five years ago from cancer. They’re not sure how that’s possible, but they won’t know until they do an autopsy, and for that they’ll need her body.
Cut to Mack and Fitz lifting her body onto an examining table in the lab. When asked how they got it, Fitz says, “Corpse-ay die: sieze the dead,” and I come thisclose to having my drink come out my nose. Mack adds, “Like I told my man here, if you want something in life you’ve got to grab it and walk out like you own it.”
“Is that all it takes? Really?” asks Simmons. “Because I always thought if you want something in life you have to work hard and earn it.” Damn, it’s cold in the Playground today. She opens the body bag and we see that Stevens has an alien symbol carved on her forehead. Before starting the autopsy Simmons wants to know if she had any family, but Coulson tells her she had no relatives and no kids. “She didn’t deserve this,” Coulson says sadly. He says she was Level 6 and he should remember her but he doesn’t. He asks Simmons for a full analysis, and she says, “Would anyone like to leave before I get started?” Fitz, Mack, and Skye all raise their hands and Coulson says they’ll leave Simmons to it.
Ward has taken a Bus to Atlanta, where he walks past Bobbi sitting on a bench and reading a book. He walks up to a woman with a young son and two big suitcases and offers her some help. He introduces himself as Zach and promises he doesn’t bite, but the lady is still skeptical. However, she lets him help, and he’s pretty good with the kid, and he helps them onto a bus. She offers him a seat with them, but he says he prefers the back, and as he walks down the aisle he spots Bobbi again and asks if the seat beside her is taken. He makes some small talk about flying versus travelling by bus, and she says that you get to see things on a bus that you miss with your head in the clouds. Ward points out that she’ll miss them if she buries her nose in a book, too, and advises that she skip to the end so she can finish it. She says that then she’d miss all the good parts, but he says that the book can’t be that interesting because she was on page 117 when he passed her earlier and she’s still on page 117 now. “You’re either a really slow reader or you’re working for Coulson,” he says calmly. He says that she’s good and he almost missed her, but that if she tries to call out or do anything to stop him then he’ll blow up himself and the bus. As the door closes he calls out to the driver saying he’s on the wrong bus and needs to pay closer attention. He disembarks as Bobbi watches, helpless and angry, and boards another headed for Boston. Bobbi radios May, who tells Hunter to get in position, and as the camera moves behind Ward we see Hunter, complete with a cowboy hat, answer, “Copy that, darlin’, happy to oblige.”