Agents of SHIELD: 207 “The Writing on the Wall” Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
Well, that was unexpected.
Just seven episodes into the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we get the kind of revelatory arc-heavy episode that would have been saved for at least the midseason finale of another show, or even of the first season of this show. But the new, tighter dynamic and more focused approach of this season seems to be paying dividends already, and “The Writing on the Wall” not only provides some interesting answers to this season’s big questions, but also to those left over from last season.
So the strange man covered in tattoos of the alien writing from the end of the last episode seems to be more obsessed with the symbols than Coulson or even Garrett, to the point that he has been carving them into other people’s bodies, with the shock of the injuries causing death. Closer to home, Coulson’s compulsion to carve the symbols has become even worse, keeping him awake and recurring more and more frequently: naturally this concerns Skye as well after the information she was given in the previous episode. Having been unable to decipher what the symbols are a map to, they enlist the rest of the team to uncover the secret once and for all.
After recovering the body of Tattoo Man’s latest victim and examining it, they discover that she is a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who, like Coulson, received life-saving treatment for terminal cancer at the Guest House as part of Project T.A.H.I.T.I. Coulson then realises that he needs to remember what happened with that whole situation once and for all, and voluntarily enters the strange memory-restoring machine that Raina tortured him with last season. The team advise strongly against this course of action, but Coulson pulls rank as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (although to me his first name will always be ‘Agent’, not ‘Director’) and gets himself put in the memory machine to figure out what really happened at the Guest House.
With what seems to be considerable discomfort, Coulson pieces together that he was not the only patient of the Guest House, but there were several others, all of whom were treated with the GH 325 drug to treat various illnesses and injuries. It’s a pretty sinister set-up, and one made even more sinister when you remember that T.A.H.I.T.I. was set up with the main purpose of resurrecting a dead Avenger, meaning that all of these people were essentially guinea pigs for treatment meant for someone bigger and more important than them.
Anyway, Coulson realises that, while the formula did in fact heal these people and in some cases bring them back from the brink of death, it also drove them crazy and gave all of them the same compulsion to draw and carve the alien symbols. It turns out that Tattoo Man was a former S.H.I.E.L.D. assassin who went double-crazy with the symbols and carved them into his own skin, forcing Coulson to order Project T.A.H.I.T.I to be shut down, and the ‘host’, the blue alien seen in the Guest House last season, to be destroyed: however, he is informed that the host is ancient, pre-dating the Pyramids, and will not be destroyed. He is also informed that the only way to save the agents affected is to rewrite their memories and give them new lives, in much the same way that Coulson’s memories were altered after his death.
All of this is not only a really dark and interesting revelation, and a look into the shadier corners of S.H.I.E.L.D. pre-Winter Soldier; but it is also an intriguing extra level to the first season-long mystery of what happened to Coulson after the Battle of New York. Similarly, all of this is proof that season two of Agents is still going from strength to strength, and looking to only continue getting better.
Anyway, Coulson tells Skye that he needs to be locked up to stop him from doing anything bad, but tricks her and locks her in Ward’s laser-cell, then goes after the remaining Guest House patients. However, he is too late to the party and gets knocked out by Tattoo Man, who tells him that it was pain that kick-started his memories, and he needs to inflict pain on others in order to find out what is happened. After a brief scuffle, both Coulson and Tattoo Man finally realise what the symbols really are: thanks to a model built by one of the other patients, they see that what they have been drawing is not a map, but a blueprint for a 3-dimensional model of a city.
Since this realisation seemingly stops Coulson’s compulsion to carve the symbols, he is able to infer that the alien whose DNA they were injected with was compelled to reach this city, and that compulsion was passed on to those who were treated with GH 325. So now, as well as rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. and stopping Hydra, the team have a brand new mission: find the city, and do it before Hydra can get there.
Now, there is considerable speculation about the nature of the city, but current evidence points it to being Attilan, the hidden city of the Inhumans: considering this particular group have a film in the works, and they are inherently connected to the Kree, the race led by Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy and which the Guest House alien was almost definitely a part of, Team Coulson seem to be heading to Attilan.
Elsewhere, May and some of the newbies track Ward down, but he proves a far more difficult target than they were expecting: he gives them the slip at a bus station, and meets with Bakshi and some other Hydra agents at a bar. However, when May and her team bust into the bar to find out what happened, they find the agents dead and Bakshi tied to a chair with a message taped over his mouth: For Coulson. Then Ward gives Skye a call and tells her that he is still willing to help, but that he needs to stop by and see his brother first. Presumably, bad things are going to go down at this meeting, but we have to wait until next week to see what those bad things might be.
An incredibly strong outing for Agents, “The Writing on the Wall” once again shows that the showrunners have learned from the mistakes of the past and really stepped up to make season two even better than the first. A lot of answers and intriguing new questions are delivered, and it’s looking like things are about to start getting a little out of this world.