Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 7, "The Writing on the Wall" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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After the previous episode took a detour to examine the effect of international politics (and family) on Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. team, this episode marks a return to the major plot of the half-season as Coulson makes a major discovery, setting up the mad dash in the final two episodes of the half-season.  Along the way, the episode also answers some burning questions about T.A.H.I.T.I. and starts to set up the minor plot thread which grows and turns into the major conflict of the second half of the season.  There are also some interesting looks into Coulson’s character in this episode.  Oh, and Ward finally gets to do something more exciting that suffocate (aside from the whole killing a bunch of F.B.I. guys at the end of the last episode, that is… (uh… spoilers?)).

Reminder:  Retro-Reviews contain potential spoilers for everything to-date.

The episode begins by setting up the major conflict:  the man from the end of the previous episode goes home with a woman who thinks they know each other.  Though she doesn’t know exactly how they are connected, he fills her in that they are connected by the alien writing that he has tattooed all over his body.  She herself has also been drawing the alien markings on all her artwork.  Unfortunately (for her), his method of drawing is to do it in his own flesh, and he carves it into her body as well, killing her in the process.  This grisly murder comes to Coulson’s attention when a hacker friend of Skye, Micro (Frank Castle’s assistant in the comics—hello, Daredevil Easter egg!), sends her the news article.  Coulson recognizes the woman as a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and he and Skye investigate her apartment, where they find that all her paintings include the alien writing.  Checking through S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel files, Skye learns that the woman was stationed at the Triskelion but had presumably died of cancer 5 years prior (which would date the T.A.H.I.T.I. experimentation to 2009, the year between Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, about a year after Coulson and Fury started working on the Avengers Initiative).

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All of this drives Coulson to place himself in Raina’s Memory Machine to unlock the memories of T.A.H.I.T.I. which had been buried when his memories were replaced.  Skye and Simmons are both uneasy about using the device—Mack is extremely displeased with everything he learns about Coulson in this episode—but they allow Coulson to use the machine.  He discovers that there were six initial test subjects, and that the tests initially succeeded, but over time the patients all began to exhibit dangerous symptoms:  hypergraphia, mania, gibberish, and catatonia were the most-shown.  The doctor responsible for the tests recommended wiping their memories and implanting false memories in an effort to combat the genetic memories carried by the GH-325 serum (“genetic memories”?  The Kree are weird.).  In the end, Coulson is left to watch one of the subjects undergo memory replacement and scream in agony the whole time.

Coulson does manage to unlock the new names given to the six test subjects.  One was found in the wreckage of the church fire from “Face My Enemy” (2x04), another was the murder victim, and two more were also killed within a few weeks of the episode.  Only two remain, Hank Thompson and Sebastian Derik, the latter of whom Coulson suspects of being the murderer.  However, this whole ordeal leaves Coulson in a frenzy, desperate to find the answer to what the alien writing means.  He tricks Skye, locks her in the containment room, and goes to Hank Thompson’s house himself.  There he confronts Derik, and in the course of their confrontation he realizes that the alien writing is not 2-dimensional, but 3-dimensional.  Thompson, a welder, had subconsciously worked the alien writing into his son’s train set, and seeing the train set and realizing what it meant gave both Coulson and Derik closure for their alien writing compulsion.  Now Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. have a blueprint of an alien city, putting them a step ahead of Hydra, which is also trying to solve this alien mystery.

I liked how well this episode gave closure to the question of what the alien writing is as well as to the T.A.H.I.T.I. protocol.  This has been such a major issue ever since Garrett started carving the alien writing into a glass door with a nail at the end of season 1, so it definitely felt like it needed a major reveal.  And at the same time we also learn more about the experimentation which had been done to test the various components of the T.A.H.I.T.I. protocol before Fury used it on Coulson.  Though they were only in the episode for a very short time, both Thompson and Derik felt necessary for different reasons.  Derik offers us an alternate take on Coulson and Garrett:  he is obsessed with unlocking the meaning of the alien writing, but instead of carving on walls, he carves on bodies.  He realizes that the writing is more than just 2D, but he can’t make the final leap to it being 3D.  Thompson, on the other hand (whose “real name,” Cameron Klein, is actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. tech in the comics), is the other side of this.  As a welder accustomed to working in three dimensions, he alone of all the test subjects is able to understand the alien writing perfectly and construct it into a diagram.  Of all the T.A.H.I.T.I. patients we met on the series, he is clearly the most well-adjusted because he is the one who pieced together that it was 3-dimensional.

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The other important plot in this episode revolves around Ward and his efforts to escape from S.H.I.E.L.D.  At the end of the previous episode, “A Fractured House” (2x06), Ward succeeded in escaping from F.B.I. custody.  Now, May is leading a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to reacquire him.  Unfortunately, he spots Trip at the bus terminal where he’s visiting one of his “hot boxes.”  Then he spots Bobbi and ditches her on a bus to Dallas, switching buses at the last minute to go to Boston, tailed by Hunter.  Hunter follows him to a bar which turns out to be a major Hydra hideout, as the bartender knows him and he and Sunil Bakshi are able to talk openly about Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. in front of him.  Ward offers to give Bakshi a face-to-face meeting with Coulson in exchange for himself getting a face-to-face meeting with Whitehall.  However, Ward arranges this by killing Bakshi’s guards, tying him up, and leaving him in the storage closet for May’s team to find when they storm the bar.  Following this little mission Ward changes his appearance before leaving to go after his brother.

Ward has easily been one of the most fascinating characters on the series ever since he revealed himself as a Hydra mole in “Turn, Turn, Turn” (1x17).  His loyalty to Garrett at the end of season 1 was unquestioning—and we now know that to be because Garrett believed in him and gave him an opportunity when it looked like his life was essentially over.  His ability to infiltrate Coulson’s team, gain their trust, and neutralize any potential threats (May and Skye) was very impressive.  In fact, he may even be better than Romanoff at undercover work, considering that practically his whole life was an undercover assignment for Hydra.  However, the first part of this half-season did not give him much to do beyond providing helpful pieces of exposition in exchange for face-time with Skye.  This episode starts to amend that by letting Ward show off his spy skills.  In rewatching the episode, I think it’s clear that Ward knew full well that Hunter was following him to the bar, and that Ward wanted him to do so just so S.H.I.E.L.D. would be in place to find Bakshi.

Now what is Ward actually trying to do here?  That’s the biggest question we need to be asking.  From “A Fractured House,” it seems as though Ward wants to be a member of Coulson’s team, even after everything that had happened between them.  However, Coulson flat-out rejected his claim of being a member of the team, instead electing to hand him over to his (possibly abusive depending on which Ward brother you believe) brother, who planned to put him on trial and most likely have him executed for treason in order to get a boost in the upcoming election.  After this it would be easy for us to assume that Ward will return to Hydra wholeheartedly since they at least won’t turn him over to Christian.  And at the beginning of the episode this seems to be his plan:  he is trying to get away from S.H.I.E.L.D. and make his way to a Hydra rallying point (meaning the bar).  At the bar, he even offers Bakshi the extremely tempting opportunity to kill Coulson and eliminate S.H.I.E.L.D. as a threat to Hydra’s ultimate victory.  And then Ward turned around and captured Bakshi to leave him as a present for S.H.I.E.L.D., giving them a new source for information on Hydra.  I think at this point Ward’s goal is to prove himself to Coulson and Skye so that they will trust him again and restore his place on the team.  Yeah, good luck with that, guy…

Overall I like how this episode sets things in motion for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s eventual discovery of the hidden alien city, resolves the alien writing and T.A.H.I.T.I. plots, and sets Ward loose on the world.  There are a few things I didn’t like so much (like Skye getting punk’d so badly by Coulson), but overall I enjoyed the episode.  Next time around, we get more on the villains!

What was your favorite part of this episode?  Do you think that Hank Thompson/Cameron Klein will make a reappearance at some point down the road?

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