And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on the 29-episode Coulson resurrection arc. “The Writing On The Wall” finally fills in the remaining blanks regarding the TAHITI program, GH-325, and those mysterious carvings Coulson has been so obsessed with all season, ending the character’s big arc with a discovery that could mean very significant things for this show’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“The Writing On The Wall” isn’t a particularly rousing episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Coulson plot has lost a lot of momentum as it’s taken various twists in turns, and at this point the show just needs to stop prolonging it, give the audience concrete answers, and move on. And that’s exactly what it does as Coulson and the rest of the team investigate a recent murder involving a woman getting symbols carved into her body, symbols that look exactly like what Coulson has been carving. In order to stop a killer, Coulson needs to tap into the rest of his memories that were wiped after his resurrection, and he goes back into the machine used by Raina last season to uncover what he’s forgotten.
This episode goes to some very dark places as Coulson delves into memories that were removed for a reason, revealing that there were six other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that underwent Project TAHITI, all of whom had complete mental breakdowns after being healed by GH-325. Under the influence of Raina’s machine, Coulson remembers his interactions with these people when he was in charge of TAHITI, and ultimately relives his own breakdown after undergoing the treatment. It’s a psychologically intense episode that allows Clark Gregg to explore the more tortured aspects of Coulson’s personality, and director Vincent Misiano uses the trip into Coulson’s memory to deliver more stylized visuals with frantic cuts and different camera lens effects to create a sense of disorientation for the S.H.I.E.L.D. director.
Because this episode offers a conclusion to the Coulson story, the script by Craig Titley gets a little heavy-handed with the exposition, making sure viewers remember all the details of this plot by having Skye break everything down in detail at the start of the episode. The good thing is that now we won’t have to listen to recaps like this anymore, because the gang finally figures out what all these strange carvings and psychotic tendings are leading to: a mysterious city that the original GH-325 alien subject was trying to reach.
The reason the Project TAHITI test subjects went crazy was because they were trying to make their way to that place like homing pigeons, but they didn’t have a way to make it there. They were instinctually drawn to this location, and the man who has been killing these memory-wiped ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying to complete the puzzle by assembling the pieces gathered by each individual person. Once all the pieces are together, the mental degradation stops. But the most important thing is the picture created by the completed puzzle.
I’ve talked about how this season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.LD. appears to be building to a plot involving the Inhumans, and the reveal of a hidden city with ties to the Kree definitely suggests Attilan is on the horizon. This is a very smart decision for this show. Having the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra racing to be the first ones to discover the Inhuman city not only gives the show more momentum in a season that has already made dramatic improvements in pacing, but it also establishes the TV series as an integral part of the MCU, serving as the starting point for a concept that will eventually be the foundation of Marvel’s final Phase 3 film.
The Inhumans are a hard sell, but a TV series has the opportunity to do the kind of extensive mythology building that is difficult to manage in a single film without relying on weighty chunks of exposition. If Marvel really is planning on making the Inhumans the MCU equivalent of mutants, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. could do the heavy lifting in terms of set-up, using the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents as audience surrogates that step into a world that is even more fantastic than the one they are used to. And think of all the fun superpowered Marvel characters that could be introduced quickly by making them Inhumans. No need to explain how they got their abilities. They’re just Inhuman.
I do have one major qualm about this development: Will this show be able to capture the splendor of Attilan and the Inhumans on a limited TV budget? Marvel Studios isn’t strapped for cash, so theoretically they could pump some extra money into this show, but I’m not sure if the show’s current ratings justify that kind of investment. It would be great if futures seasons of this show (assuming it survives past the second) had a smaller episode count and bigger budget, but I still don’t know if that means it could achieve cinema-quality visuals, and the Inhumans deserve cinema-quality, especially since they’re going to eventually make their way to the big screen.
Considering how much of this week’s story involves people being used as carving boards, I was surprised to see this episode had a TV-PG rating, but that just goes to show how misguided these rating systems are. (Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets a PG for carving symbols into a woman’s body, but Jane The Virgin gets a TV-14 for addressing sexuality. It’s an absurd double standard, but this is hardly the place to talk about American culture’s topsy-turvy relationship with sex and violence.) Yet while there’s plenty of violence, this episode is rather light on the action front. There’s no butt-kicking from May and her gang (Bobbi, Lance, and Trip) as they track down and try to capture Ward, and the big fight scene between Coulson and Sebastian is very tame compared to recent action sequences on this show.
On the Ward front, Brett Dalton continues to be far more charismatic as a bad guy, and I really hope that he’s legitimately working for Hydra again and not trying to get back into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s good graces by reentering the Hydra fold as a double agent. After evading Trip and Bobbi, Ward makes his way to a Hydra bar where he meets up with Whitehall’s right hand man, Bakshi, beating him and tying him to a chair as a nice gift-wrapped present for Coulson. It’s all part of a plan to get Bakshi close enough to Coulson for him to put a bullet in the S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and while I doubt that will happen, I’m hoping Bakshi’s capture means we’ll get more information on Hydra in the next episode.
“The Writing On The Wall” ends with Ward shaving his beard and his hair while Billy Withers’ “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)” plays in the background, setting up Grant going after his brother and suggesting that there’s still a bit of nobility lingering under the surface of the show’s most duplicitous character. Brett Dalton has become considerably sexier since embracing a bad boy persona, so I’m definitely down for some extended shirtlessness, and I love Skye’s casual “Hail Hydra” when she answers Bakshi’s phone. With Ward on the hunt for his brother and S.H.I.E.L.D. searching for a hidden alien city, this series has more forward motion than ever before, and while this episode isn’t the most thrilling installment of the season, it finishes on a note that promises major fireworks in the coming weeks.
- This episode features a passing reference to Micro, one of Skye’s tech friends who is also a crime scene junkie. Micro (a.k.a. Microchip) is a notable supporting player in Marvel’s Punisher stories, lending further credence to the rumors that Marvel will be bringing Frank Castle into the MCU sooner than later now that the rights to the character are in Marvel Studios’ hands. Will Punisher appear on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. or will Marvel wait to debut him on one of the upcoming street-level Netflix miniseries?
- As Coulson carves while listening to an improvisational jazz record at the beginning of this episode, all I can think is that he’s become the MCU version of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison.
- There’s not much in the way of Fitz developments this week, although we do get the planting of the first seeds of hope that he’ll experience a full mental recovery when he tells Mack about how each person has a mental “back-up” that they can access to repair damage done to the brain. The science sounds iffy, but this is a fantasy show in a superhero world so I don’t really care about the science.
- Steps toward the Inhumans means steps toward a live-action Lockjaw and Kamala Khan, which makes me very, very excited.
- Want to see Brett Dalton cuddle with a puppy and be generally adorable? Check out this video from People magazine.
- “May gave out specific instructions: you go on a date with a crazy wall. I get to chaperone.”
- “You two don’t have a single thing in common unless you have some Enya albums you’ve been hiding.”
- Skye: “In the history of bad ideas, this is light years ahead of everything.” Coulson: “No. Trying to bring dead agents back to life using alien blood blows everything else away.”
- Hunter: “Subtlety is key.” Bobbi: “You were dressed like a cowboy.” Man, I am really starting to enjoy the Bobbi/Hunter dynamic. I would like to spend more time with them.