I actually thought this was the last episode before S.H.I.E.L.D. went on hiatus. That’s how good it was. “The Writing on the Wall” delivered an engaging, fast-paced episode that bounced between an escaped Ward operating as a psychotic Jason Bourne and Coulson finally resolving the mystery of the alien writing. The episode also marks the end of the mysteries surrounding Coulson’s return from the dead, and surges forward into the new territories the long-awaited answers present.
Skye and Coulson have been trying to solve the “map to nowhere” and finally get a lead when they pick up a string of murder cases in which the victims have the same alien carvings in their skin. They’ve theorized that the alien patterns do form a map, but they don’t know if it’s a map to a physical place, or a genome map, or any number of possibilities. Coulson is scary determined to get answers, so they visit the victim’s place of residence and discover she had been painting the alien symbols, with titles like “A Magical Place.” So far, everyone who has been exposed to the GH-325 formula has exhibited similar symptoms (except Skye) and seems to vaguely recognize each other. Now with the mention of the magical place, the T.A.H.I.T.I. project seems likely to tie them all together, prompting Coulson to go back into Raina’s painful memory machine from season 1. Coulson is totally hard core, saying “You’ll have to torture it out of me.”
If we recall from season 1, Coulson was put in charge of the Tahiti project but then condemned it, claiming the research and technology was too unstable and presented many dangerous side effects. After Coulson’s death in The Avengers, he was brought back to life using the GH-325 formula from the Tahiti trials and had his memories wiped and replaced with pleasant ones. However, we never learned much more about what the project was, or what went on besides the fact that a preserved, glowing blue alien was involved. With Coulson back in the memory chamber, this episode closes the loose threads with some very cool (and disturbing) visual effects. Often, Coulson is within his memories, talking himself through them or reciting things he said in the past as he lays in the memory machine. His environment is unstable and constantly shaking and shifting while he himself remain still. We see Coulson interview a variety of patients, including the murder victim and the killer, as well as other identified users of GH-325. They were all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and all volunteered for the program meant to revive a fallen Avenger from the grips of death. When they were given the formula (bio-genetic material from the deceased alien) they suffered serious psychosis and compulsive carving of the alien symbols. Finally we find out why: the patients are experiencing the genetic memories of the alien, and his dying impulse to get to wherever the map leads is living on through them. In order to protect them from deterioration and death, Coulson orders they all have their minds wiped so that they will forget about the map and the symbols and everything that had been done to them.
Now we know why Coulson had his mind wiped as well. Fury needed to protect him from the side effects too, which did work until Coulson saw the symbols again from Garrett. That triggered the genetic memories and brought on the compulsive carving. So once Coulson remembers everything, he goes totally batshit and locks Skye in Ward’s old prison, going rogue, and finding the final Tahiti patient and holding him at gunpoint. Coulson keeps saying he needs to know what the final pieces to the map are. He needs to understand, and it starts to look a lot like Coulson might go completely off the deep end. Turns out, the killer who’s also looking for pieces of the map shows up to give Coulson his most physical role yet. During the fight, Coulson realizes the strange sculpture the final patient has been building in his house is the pattern. He had been thinking about it in two dimensions all this time. It’s not a map, it’s a blueprint. Blueprints to a city. An alien city.
Let’s be real here – it’s Attilan. It’s got to be. Attilan is the secret, secluded city of the Inhumans. Marvel recently announced the production of an Inhumans film, which falls between the first and second parts of Avengers: Infinity War. Logically, the Inhumans are going to end up playing a big role. Maybe so big of a role, that Marvel needs to explore the roots of the Inhuman story through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If this is true, it’s the biggest crossover effort we’re ever likely to see. All the pieces fit together. The blue GH-325 alien is very obviously a Kree, and in the comics it was the Kree race that created the Inhumans by experimenting on early human beings. That’s my theory anyway, but it seems very likely that we’ll see the beginnings of 2019’s “Inhumans” within Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Okay, so I’ve ignored the other half of the episode so far, because it’s fairly easy to save to the end and explain: Ward is a straight-up BAMF. May, Trip, Bobbi, and Hunter are assigned to track Ward down and bring him in, with the latter two doing most of the face to face since Ward won’t recognize him. That was the plan, anyway. Ward’s a smart guy. He spotted Trip in the airport and discreetly revealed a belt of C-4 before Trip could make a move. When he got on a bus, he passed Bobbi reading a book and then later saw her on the same bus, still on the same page. In a chilling exchange, Ward threatens to detonate the explosives and gets off the bus, onto another bus, where Hunter is waiting. So Ward is smart, but May might be smarter. At least equally smart. He meets with Hydra boss Bakshi, and in a cool exchange that acknowledges Baron von Strucker (seen at the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as the head honcho of Hydra, Ward demands a meeting with Whitehall. In exchange, he promises face-to-face time with Coulson. Unfortunately for Bakshi, Ward follows through on that promise by murdering his men, tying him up and leaving him for May’s team to collect. A “gift” for Coulson. At the end of the episode we see Ward in a hotel room, shaving his beard and buzzing his hair. He dons a neat suit and calls Skye, telling her that she hopes Coulson likes the gift and that he’ll see her soon, after he deals with some personal affairs. At that, we see Ward drop a newspaper with his brother Christian on it.
I’m very excited for the remaining episodes before the winter break. With Coulson’s condition finally healed, S.H.I.E.L.D. has a new objective: reach Attil- I mean the “alien city” before Hydra does. Meanwhile, Ward will be trying to put an old ghost to rest (probably quite literally) by facing down his older brother. There was a nice moment for Fitz too, he gets a line about how “brains never delete files” so we’ll probably see him get back to normal soon. Sadly, there hasn’t been much of Kyle MacLachlan’s character lately, but I’m sure we’ll see plenty of him soon.