“This is my call. I was put in charge of the TAHITI project, so those people are my responsibility. If going back into this machine saves even one life, then it’s worth the risk.”
Phil Coulson, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., tells his team this as he’s strapped into a torture machine designed to uncover his buried memories in this week’s episode, “The Writing on the Wall.” It’s a fairly standard “the greater good before one’s self” pep talk you wouldn’t think odd coming from Captain America.
But coming from Coulson, the consummate do-gooder that he is, represents a slow transformation we’ve seen him undergo since the beginning of this program.
Last season, then-Agent Coulson was firmly dedicated to following and enforcing the rules of S.H.I.E.L.D. His rag-tag team of agents could buck the system, he once told Skye, because there is a system in place. He trusted it – but eventually, that system blew up in his face.
This week’s episode is surprisingly light on the storyline threads we’ve been following for the past two months. Lance Hunter and Bobbi Morse’s ex-spousal bickering and Fitz and Simmons’ fractured relationship take a back seat. Raina, Dr. Whitehall and Skye’s father are absent entirely. Instead we finally get some concrete answers to the biggest mysteries we’ve been stuck with since the start of Season One.
It’s all about the alien writing that Coulson has been carving into a wall since the end of last year. Six other people, former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that had been resurrected via the TAHITI project, slowly went insane, writing the same text that John Garrett once called the Words of Creation wherever they could. The alien DNA that they injected the subjects with, taken from the blue corpse we’ve seen before, was writing its memories into the subjects. The problem is that these memories were fragmented among the subjects, so no one had the complete vision. It drove them insane, forcing Coulson to order their memories re-written. Coulson himself digs up the memories of running TAHITI courtesy of the torture machine that Raina plugged him into last season; it turns out he’s kept it in The Playground for just such an occasion, to the protests of everyone else.
TAHITI, of course, ended up happening to Coulson himself after he was killed by Loki in 2012’s The Avengers. We get another juicy look at the memory-rewriting machine, poking the other subjects’ exposed brains as they cry out in agony. It’s a lasting image that sets the dark tone that continues throughout this episode. Coulson and the team’s snarky quips are few and far between this week.
Sebastian Derek, the dude with the Words tattooed on his skin we saw earlier, was one of those subjects. He’s been tracking down the other TAHITI members, who are now living different lives with no conscious memory of their time with S.H.I.E.L.D., and murdering them by carving the symbols into their skin.
Interestingly, every former TAHITI member has been touched by the Words of Creation – the woman we see murdered by Derek incorporated it into her painting, and Cameron Klein, now a welder and father named Chuck Thompson, built part of the blueprint into his giant and awesome train set.
Once Coulson and Derek see the train set from above, the blueprint has been completed. Derek’s mind is at peace, and he’s no longer a threat. And Coulson no longer feels the compulsion to carve the symbols into the walls. He now knows what they were – a three-dimensional model of a lost city. It’s now S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission to find it, whatever or wherever it is, before HYDRA does.
In the B-plot, which interestingly doesn’t cross over with the main plot…like, at all, Agent May and the others are on the hunt for Grant Ward, who escaped last episode. Mockingbird and Hunter (the latter in an absurd and hilariously useless cowboy hat and Southern drawl) track down the turncoat, but Ward’s always one step ahead, and strapped with plastic explosives as a “he’ll totally do it” threat.
Ward meets with Bakshi in a conspicuously empty bar run by HYDRA agents, but turns the tables on our dapper consigliere by killing his goons and leaving him as a battered prize for Coulson. It’s a gift, as Skye later describes, like a cat leaving dead birds at the doorstep thanks to his weird fixation with her. Ward dresses up, agonizingly shaves off his beard and shaggy hair for the first time this season, and embarks on a quest presumably to do horrific things to his brother and senator, Christian.
“The Writing on the Wall” refocuses Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wonderfully. Everything that we’ve seen has been related, in one way or another, to this. Skye puts it together quite nicely in the opening: Ward knows Skye’s father, who knows about the obelisk, a.k.a. The Diviner, that has some connection to the map, and HYDRA is after it.
According to comic book fans with far more canon cred than me, the city in the blueprint is probably Attilan, home of the Inhumans. Considering Marvel’s five-year-long film plan centres on the Inhumans along with the Infinity Gem war, this program has reaffirmed its connection to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe – and might be even more important to the big picture than we’ve seen it before.
- – Honourable mention goes to Henry Simmons, who plays an understandably harrowed Mack. His continued incredulity at the things he’s seen since joining the crew serve as a great proxy for the viewer, and his down-to-earth personality gives some stability to his teammates – mentally with regards to Fitz and literally, as he holds down Coulson during his convulsions while being strapped into Raina’s torture device.
- – Ward has become more and more interesting this season as the turncoat without a cause, but after a while it was hard to get a handle on him because of that. Does he really want to help Coulson? Does he really believe Skye will accept him? Now that he has a mission – track down his brother – he seems to have found some direction, and it’s honestly kind of refreshing to see him as more than a giant question mark, plot-wise.
- – Other than the judicious use of vinyl players to inject some jazzy tones to the usually too-serious soundtrack, the best background props have to be the shovel and collection of gas canisters in Ward’s hotel room. He isn’t using them right now, they’re just…for later. Probably.