With Ward on the loose and the symbols in Coulson’s brain driving him to the brink of insanity (and death by sleep deprivation), this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues the recent wave of episodes that have hit the ground running. While not as satisfying as recent humdingers like “A Hen in the Wolf House” or “A Fractured House” (or demonstrating their penchant for the word “House”), “The Writing on the Wall” matches their relentless pace and momentum. Here, the narrative is split between May, Hunter, Trip, and Morse — all of whom are following Ward as he makes his way from Philadelphia to Boston with enough C-4 strapped to his body to level a stadium — and Coulson, Skye, and Simmons, as they probe the director’s mind for clues to a killer carving Coulson’s runes into his victim’s bodies.
The team springs to action when one of their own is found dead. Like her colleagues who took part in the Tahiti Project, Agent Stevens had her memories replaced and a new life built for her — she believed she was an art teacher named Janice Robbins, with no prior career in espionage. But the GH-325 in her blood matches that in Coulson and Skye’s, and she too was compelled to illustrate the glyphs, in her case via a series of paintings. The scenes in which Coulson goes into his past are suitably disturbing, making excellent use of a small set and high-contrast lighting, and giving him the opportunity to find the murderer, Sebastian Derrick (played by Brian Van Holt). When Coulson finally freaks out inside the mind machine, he agrees to let Skye keep him in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cell, but then tosses the rookie agent in as he takes off after Derrick. At this point I’ve lost track of the number of times the show’s required one of its protagonists to subdue their colleagues.
It’s to S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s immense credit that it’s learned how to make even the scenes of agents following Ward compelling. But the show’s writing staff knows that good stories are comprised of lots of smaller good stories. And so when Ward, for example, befriends a mother and her child in order to board a bus without incident, in just a few seconds, with scarcely any dialogue, we’re given an immediate sense of who this woman is and how much she appreciates the presence of another male in her life.
But then one of the most satisfying elements of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season is how all of its new characters feel lived in. We fully believe they’ve each had their own countless adventures. Hunter remains my favorite of the new agents, and that’s saying quite a bit given the impression Adrianne Palicki’s Mockingbird has made. Their love-hate bickering is already a welcome highlight of each mission. Here, after Ward blows her cover, Hunter’s admonishing “Subtlety is key” is met with an entirely appropriate “You were dressed like a cowboy!”
Coulson eventually chases Derrick to the home of another Tahiti agent, Hank Thompson, now a welder and family man (played by Joel Gretsch of V and The 4400). After both men are captured by the killer — who’s tattooed the symbols on his body — Thompson escapes, and there’s a satisfying grace note as his muscle memories return, racing to his aid when he catches Derrick’s knife in mid-air as it’s flying towards his head.
The episode’s resolution — and indeed that of the entire Coulson-going-crazy storyline — is somewhat abrupt, with the solution found in a three-dimensional model Thompson’s been building. It turns out the glyphs form a schematic of a city, which the alien from whose blood the GH-325 was drawn was seeking. Once this is realized, Coulson snaps back to his normal dry-witted self. Or so it seems. A relapse, or perhaps some residual side effects wouldn’t be all that surprising, especially since the agency is now tasked with finding the alien city before HYDRA. As a longtime fan, I’m happy to note the city looks like it could have been designed by Marvel Universe architect Jack Kirby. Could this be the Great Refuge of the Inhumans?
As for Ward, his trip ends in a Boston bar, where he meets with HYDRA’s Bakshi. Rather than join with the sadist, he captures him and leaves him as a gift for Coulson, reminding us of when the director gave a similar present to Talbot just a few episode ago. To the relief of those who adore Ward’s cheekbones, the episode ends with him shaving his beard and mustache as he stares ominously at a newspaper photo of his brother, Senator Christian Ward, still spearheading efforts to capture the renegade.
Next Week: Skye’s dad (Kyle MacLachlan) returns, along with HYDRA leader Daniel Whitehall’s favorite toy — the deadly Obelisk.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).