Agent Darryl reporting in with this week’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” mission debrief – S2 Ep.7, codename: “The Writing On The Wall”
Warning! This debrief is fairly detailed and contains multiple spoilers for “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” For the best possible experience, it’s recommended that agents not read this review until after they have watched the MAOS episode “The Writing On The Wall.” Enjoy!
In Rhinebeck, NY, about the halfway point between Manhattan and Albany, a young woman invites the tattooed guy we’d first seen last week into her apartment while trying to figure out where she’d met him before. As she pours them drinks, still trying to figure out why he seems so familiar, he quickly scans her apartment, noting a large number of art history books on the shelf. He asks if she’s an artist, to which she says she is, as well as an art history teacher and then asks if that’s where she knows him. He simply says that he does some occasional “carving,” a phrase that we’ve become all too familiar with. Intrigued by this seeming coincidence, she suggests that it was destiny that they meet. Tattoo Guy admits they have met before, setting down his glass and beginning to unbutton his shirt. Realizing things are moving pretty quickly, she tries to slow him down, but the alien script tattooed on his chest and arms is immediately recognizable to her. She asks how he knows about it and, while opening a switchblade knife, he promises to help her remember.
As she screams in terror we cut to Coulson doing a little carving of his own on his office wall while listening to freestyle jazz loudly on a record player (I’ll bet anything we’ll learn later the player itself used to belong to Agent Carter, back in the day). Phil’s pretty sweaty and deep into the work as his own knife blade suddenly, frustratingly, breaks at the tip. As he turns to retrieve a fresh blade, Skye shuts off the record player. Reminding Coulson that he isn’t supposed to be left alone when carving, Skye then confides to him that the connections between Ward’s information about her father, who has the Obelisk (referred to here by Skye as “the alien buzz-kill device”), which is covered with the same alien hieroglyphics that Coulson is carving out as a result of the GH325 formula that had been administered to both of them is giving her trouble sleeping and frustrating her attempts to solve the riddle of it all. Phil confides that the secret will need to be uncovered soon because his carving compulsions are affecting him more and more frequently and with greater intensity each time. Skye asks when May will be back from the field and Coulson, as he returns to his perplexing task, tells her not until Ward is found and recaptured.
Meanwhile, out there on the hunt for Ward, Morse calls in to May, who’s currently circling around in the Quinjet, to advise that there’s been no sign of Ward since his escape. May knows Ward has multiple drop boxes set up in the area, though, and tells Bobbi to sit tight and keep her eyes peeled. When Bobbi asks why a nationwide manhunt isn’t underway, May confirms that Senator Christian Ward, Grant’s older brother, is keeping the knowledge of his brother’s escape under wraps. In Philadelphia, Ward enters the bus terminal and opens a storage locker. Agent Triplett spots him, but May orders him to stand down and observe. Coulson, also on the comm back at the “Playground,” advises Trip to keep him alive and bring him in. Somehow sensing he’s being watched, Ward lifts his shirt to show that he’s fully loaded with C4 explosives connected to a dead man switch. If Trip gets the urge to confront him or even tip off the police, Ward goes ka-boom and a lot of people die. He walks out and Trip has no choice but to follow.
As Skye steps into Coulson’s office, he let’s her know about Trip spotting Ward, but for once she looks like she’s got something more important on her mind. According to one of her hacker community sources going by the name “Micro” (who old school Punisher fans would probably know better as “Microchip”), an alleged crime-scene junkie (yeah, I’ll bet) passed along some photos of the tattooed man’s victim and he certainly does do a little carving . . . all over her body. Coulson immediately recognizes her a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but Skye’s intel backs up what the victim had told Tattoo Guy at the beginning of the episode: artist/art teacher. They decide to go and investigate her apartment and eventually come across her artwork in a back room – dozens of canvas paintings of the alien hieroglyphics. Connection confirmed.
They take the artwork back to the “Playground” and, like missing puzzle pieces, they connect exactly with the carvings Phil had been doing, as well as the Spanish painting from Miami. Skye checks the S.H.I.E.L.D. archives and confirms the victim WAS a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent stationed at the “Triskelion,” but that she’d died of cancer five years ago. Coulson orders an autopsy and lo and behold, Mac and Fitz just happen to show up with the body. Turns out Mac had just swung by the morgue and took it, no questions asked. His philosophy in life: “if you want something, just grab it and walk out like you own it,” an outlook on life that Simmons certainly doesn’t share and isn’t afraid to show it. Looks like there’s some lasting tension between these two after last episode’s little confrontation. I foresee a tug-of-war battle in the near future between them . . . with Fitz as the rope, most likely. Jemma’s got nerves of steel, though, because no one feels like sticking around as she conducts the autopsy. But then, who would?
Ward gets off a bus in Atlanta, Georgia and immediately notices a blonde girl reading. It’s Morse, of course and Ward, smelling S.H.I.E.L.D. nearby, offers to help a single mom and her young son board their bus to Dallas. Ah yes, pull a few innocent passersby into the mix to ensure your own safety. I loving survival-mode Ward, much more interesting to watch than most of last season’s clean-cut, straight-laced, model-agent Ward. Bobbi’s quick, though, and already on the bus, but Ward’s a specialist, and he doesn’t back down from danger. He declines single mom’s invite to sit with them and goes right for the seat next to Agent Morse, sizing her up while letting her know her cover’s been blown. He quickly gets up and debarks the bus, apologizing for not paying close enough attention and instead boards the bus to Boston. No worries though, because “cowboy” Lance Hunter is hanging out a few rows back. Turns out May knew exactly where Ward would be heading and exactly how he’d try to throw them off first. And the chess match between former lovers continues . . .
Jemma concludes the autopsy and presents her findings to Coulson. Although she’d been profusely and deeply cut, the victim died of a heart attack brought on by the pain she’d suffered. Not only that, but Tattoo Guy had continued to carve long after she’d died, in a ritualistic fashion. Simmons also connects the carvings to Garrett’s behavior late last season and after confirming that GH325 was present in the blood of both killer and victim, she immediately asks if either Skye or Coulson have had the urge to write or carve anything. Phil brazens it out easily and immediately realizes that a former T.A.H.I.T.I. patient is targeting other former patients and it’s up to them to stop him. Trouble is, the only way to start looking for answers is to hook Coulson up to Edison Po’s memory machine from last season’s episode “The Magical Place.” Looks like S.H.I.E.L.D. decided to hang onto it in case it ever came in handy.
As Skye, Simmons and Coulson debate the wisdom of using the machine, Mac expresses what appears to be just a smidge of squeamishness at the sight of Coulson being strapped into a mind torture device as they talk about bringing people back from the dead using alien blood. Yeah, and you can call me paranoid if you like, but I’m starting to think he’s working over Fitz ever so subtly. Trying to get him to WANT to leave the team eventually. The question is, to go where? Coulson’s trip in Po’s Wayback machine puts him in the interview room of the “Guest House” when he was overseeing the GH325 experiments. He experiences interview flashbacks of six different patients, including the tattooed killer, who all seem perfectly normal at first, but as Coulson’s flashbacks continue, each patient’s stability is shown to degenerate as they scream and try to continue carving out the mysterious symbols . . . all except the man who is now a tattooed killer. In each flashback concerning him, he simply asks when he’ll be allowed to leave.
During another flashback intercut with a shot of Coulson’s discovery of the “Guest House” alien last season, here referred to as the “Host,” he argues with one of the project’s scientists about shutting down the experiments and destroying the alien. The scientist defends the project’s results, reveals the “Host” alien is thousands of years old, predating even the pyramids and then, interestingly, uses the same phrase Baron Strucker does at the end of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” about having only “scratched the surface” of it’s potential benefits. When flashback-Coulson declares that he’s going to contact Fury (as we saw in the recording May had recovered from Coulson’s grave late last season), she proposes the GH325 is genetically overwriting memories in the patients and the only way to save them is to wipe all previous memories and implant false ones (which Coulson also covered in his recorded debrief to Fury). Present-Coulson struggles with the recovered regret of what he’d ordered done as Skye tries to prompt him to remember the names of the six patients, to give them a place to start their manhunt.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Ward’s off the bus and his first stop? An Irish pub by the name of “Goldbrix Tavern.” A lovely little nod to Sgt. Fury’s favorite shouted epithet to the Howling Commandos of old. Parked across the street, Hunter advises May, while inside, Ward sidles up to the bar and, given the choice between a Columbian necktie or a bullet in the head, he goes for the latter on the rocks. Yeah, I’m not a fan of getting my throat cut, either. The bartender welcomes him back as a Mercedes Benz arrives out front, under Hunter’s watchful gaze, and Mr. Bakshi steps out. Moments later at a table inside, Bakshi expresses surprise that Ward is still alive and Ward, dropping Strucker’s name, asks for a meeting with the North American head of HYDRA. Bakshi balks, but Ward promises him some time face to face with Coulson in return.
With the names of the T.A.H.I.T.I. patients finally recovered, Skye confirms that one died in the fire in Miami where the painting was found and three others had turned up dead recently leaving only two remaining, the killer and one last victim. Phil remembers the one unusually calm patient, finally losing control and being carried out of the interview room after Coulson uncovers the carvings, self-mutilated on his arms. As he’s dragged out, Coulson’s memory flashes on his own face during his own T.A.H.I.T.I. recovery and crying out that he needs to know the symbol’s secrets. Skye contacts May to let her know of Coulson’s condition after making them put him in the evil memory machine and May flips out and orders Skye to lock Coulson up until they get back to deal with it. Skye grabs an “Icer” and manages to calm Phil down and convince him to cool his heels in Vault D. Or not, because after sharing the last bit of crucial intel on the tattooed killer, named Sebastian Derek, a S.H.I.E.L.D. assassin who was also most likely really HYDRA, Phil turns the tables on Skye and locks her in Vault D, instead. Silly girl, there’s a reason he’s the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. now, you know. Shortly after, at a residence with a sign reading “Thompson Welding and Electric,” Mrs. Thompson tells her husband there’s someone at the door to see him . . .
MacFitz put in some quality “Call of Duty” time, but I don’t know, Mac’s still giving me a weird feeling in this scene, like he’s trying to get inside Fitz’s head, literally and figuratively. Jemma steps into the room looking for Skye and then notices her on the Vault D monitor, locked inside. They let her out and we cut to Coulson outside the Thompson residence, but when Thompson answers the door and Phil asks if his family is home, it’s immediately apparent that he wasn’t the first to call on the Thompsons, which Coulson figures out just too late to avoid being knocked out by the tattooed killer, Derek.
Outside Goldbrix in Boston, Agents May, Trip and Morse have caught up with Hunter. They prepare to storm Ward and the Hydra agents inside, but once they break in, there’s no Ward, only a bunch of unconscious HYDRA thugs and Mr. Bakshi, trussed up with a note to Coulson (friendly-neighbourhood-Spider-Man-style, just like Coulson had done with the Absorbing Man to General Talbot at the beginning of this season).
In Thompson’s workshop, Coulson hangs from a rope as Thompson, arms tied behind him, is forced to watch Derek torture him. The toy train on the elaborate track system he’d built for his son continues to run, as his wife and son cower, locked in the next room. As Derek continues to torture Phil, he reveals that he’d been able to recover his true memories through pain and then, in a shot lifted directly from “Red Dragon,” Derek dramatically pulls his shirt off to reveal the full alien script tattoo all over his body, asking Coulson what it means. Thompson, meanwhile, succeeds in cutting his bonds on a nail and escaping, as Coulson looks at the multi-level train track system recognizing the same familiar pattern . . . only in three dimensions instead of two and something clicks in his mind. Thompson tries to sneak off to save his family, but the door creaks and Derek throws his knife at his head. The next sequence of accurate knife catching and throwing directly into the rope suspending Coulson, thus setting him free is hard to swallow at first, but considering these are three highly trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agents slowly regaining their repressed memories, it’s at least slightly more believable. Setting them free, Thompson makes for the door with his family as Coulson grapples with Derek and leads him into the rafters of Thompson’s workshop.
As Skye and Mac drive in pursuit, she brings him up to speed on the T.A.H.I.T.I. project before finding the Thompsons at the end of the driveway waving frantically for help. They head up to the house, where Coulson has gotten the upper hand on Derek and desperately tries to get him to see the 3D construct of the carvings. As Skye and Mac confront what appears to be a Coulson gone completely mad, Derek finally recognizes the pattern in three dimensions and with that, the struggle is over. He and Phil have found the hidden meaning of the symbols . . .
Back at the “Playground,” Hank Thompson learns that he was once Cameron Klein (“One of the best,” Coulson says, but in the comics, the truth of it is Klein was first introduced as a low level S.H.I.E.L.D. technician whose grandfather was rescued by Captain America and the Howling Commandos during the Battle of the Bulge in Word War II. In the handful of appearances afterwards, he was pretty much just a background character in one of the worst Captain America storylines ever, serving as a face for Dum Dum Dugan to occasionally shout at before falling into obscurity). He’s happy enough with his life now (can’t blame him), but doesn’t seem too fazed about being blindfolded before leaving the super-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. hideout, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if the business card he gave Phil before leaving has a HYDRA tracker in it. Thompson/Klein might be a sleeper. He’s been mind-wiped once, after all, whose to say it hadn’t happened before . . . or since? HYDRA is everywhere . . . including Mr. Bakshi, down in Vault D, now. Coulson tells May that Derek will answer for his crimes, both during and after his time in S.H.I.E.L.D., but the compulsion to carve is no longer there. Same goes for Coulson, himself. He then assembles the entire “Playground” staff currently present (haven’t heard from Agent Billy Koenig who’s been out in the field for a while . . . that can’t be good) to advise them of his full recovery and to reveal the entire map of the hidden city he’d discovered in Thompson’s train set, a hidden city that looks remarkably like the Inhuman royal city of Attilan . . . but who knows? K’un L’un is another hidden city in the Marvel Universe, there’s Atlantis and Lemuria, too. But something tells me after last month’s announcement by Marvel, this has Inhumans written all over it.
Later, while rocking out to some sweet Bill Withers, a still fugitive Grant Ward reinvents himself yet again, shaving his head and beard before placing a call to Bakshi’s cellphone, which Skye just happens to be analyzing at that moment, while also rocking out to some sweet Bill Withers. Interesting. Answering, Skye is shocked to hear Ward’s voice as he promises to deliver future gifts on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s doorstep. He slams the quality of Coulson’s replacement agents since his betrayal and promises to see Skye again before hanging up. Then, packing up his trusty arson gear, he heads off to see his Senator brother . . .