After a week long respite, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns with another stellar outing.
As with most delightful things, the action starts in upstate New York, where a woman has made the very poor decision of letting the Stranger (Cougar Town‘s Brian Van Holt) into her apartment. She swear she knows him from somewhere, because they both waved at each other when making eye contact (it’s that easy folks!). It must be destiny to meet tonight, she purrs, pouring another glass of wine, leaving me wondering why I ever left the desperate women of upstate NY in the first place. The Stranger merely lurks and smirks, noting that she’s an artist. He is too; he dabbles in “carving,” a nod of course to the manic writing on the wall we’ve seen Garrett and now Director Coulson create. He removes his shirt, revealing the tattooed alien map, an alien Prison Break, and reassures her that “I’ll help you remember,” as he begins carving into her skull.
After knowing Brian Van Holt from Cougar Town, it’s hard to take him seriously, but he’s surprisingly creepy and eerie here. Clearly the writing has consumed and warped the Carver (MU Carver references), and it’s threatening to do the same to Coulson, who now feels the urge to write every day, every night. He doesn’t sleep, and that’s why he needs answers so badly. Skye’s exasperated with their dead ends (but it’s all connected, man), comparing the alien writing to the “everlasting gobstopper of fire walls.” Clever.
Agent May, Triplett, Hunter and Morse are all on the lookout for the now escaped Grant Ward. I thought his escape was entirely too easy (the ole break your thumb trick), and couldn’t believe that Coulson and company would so readily give him to the government without chaperoning him to his next cell. But apparently that’s the case, as he’s on the loose, a fact covered up by his brother, the possibly sinister Senator Ward.
Getting Ward out of his technocube prison is a boon to the show, however, so I can forgive the method in which it happens. It’s great to see Brett Dalton back in action, and for him to outwit S.H.I.E.L.D. while on the run. We think Triplett has Ward cornered, but nope: Ward has C4 attached to his body, with a deadman’s switch in his hand. Ward doesn’t miss a thing. After an entirely creepy yet apparently charming encounter with a Mom and her son, Ward refuses the Mom’s offer to sit next to them on the bus (“I like the back”), and joins Bobbi Morse instead (who wouldn’t?). He quickly realizes that she’s S.H.I.E.L.D. (because she’s on the same page in her book as the first time he saw her; maybe she’s just not into Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point?), and Ward switches buses. Hunter is on-board this one, but at this point, we can assume Ward knows that. He’s the inverse Jon Snow, he knows everything.
One of her convenient hacker sources, known as “Micro,” has alerted Skye of the recent Carver murder, that a woman (Janice Robbins) was found dead. Coulson immediately realizes she used to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. At the apartment, they discover paintings of the alien writing, titled “A Magical Place.” FitzMac recover Robbins’ body (“Carpe diem–seize the dead”), and leave a grumpy Simmons with the dirty task of the autopsy. We learn that the killer and the victim had GH-325 in their system: that they must be Tahiti patients, like Coulson. He should remember Robbins, but he doesn’t, so he forces Skye and company to throw him into the memory machine first introduced in “T.A.H.I.T.I.”
Ward finds himself an Irish bar in Boston that is apparently a Hydra hot spot, as he meets with Bakshi, Hydra’s #2, and the guy saving ABC from paying Reed Diamond for every episode. Ward mentions that because Strucker is overseas (Wolfgang von Strucker, first seen in the end credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier holding Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch captive), Bakshi must be following orders from someone else. That would be Daniel Whitehall. Ward wants a meeting, promising that he can get them close enough to kill Coulson.
Back at base, Coulson goes down the rabbit hole that is the horrific memory machine. He learns that Robbins’ real name is Agent Rebecca Stevens (Monique Gabriela Curnen, and her possible MU connections are discussed here), and that there were six Tahiti patients in total. “The Writing on the Wall” subsequently morphs into a trippy horror movie, as Coulson witnesses the denigration of the patients, the first guinea pigs of the Tahiti program, as they devolve and lose their sanity, carving the writing everywhere. We get some new information in the flashback: that “the host,” the blue alien in which the GH-325 is derived, is thousands of years old, predating the Pyramids. The only way to save the patients is to remove their memories, because the drug seemingly imbues the patients with lingering memories of the Host, creating a psychic schism. We meet Sebastian Derek, the Carver, seemingly the only one unaffected by the drug. But it’s just an act: he’s been carving into his own skin. Coulson sends him away to be erased, with Sebastian screaming, “It wants me to know! I need to know!” It’s Coulson who’s screaming those words when they shut down the machine, as he almost dies from the effort. May’s incensed when she finds out what they did, and orders Skye to lock Coulson up for the time being. Coulson agrees with the plan…not.
Mac is understandably shaken by the events of the day, wondering when he signed up for a Creature Feature. He plays therapeutic video games with Fitz, confessing that he traditionally likes his bosses to be “unjumbled.” Fitz and Mac continue to be the most delightful pairing of the new season. Their bonding distracts them from seeing the monitor: Coulson traps Skye into Ward’s former prison box, and goes to take care of the last remaining former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent personally. That would be family man and train enthusiast Hank Thompson (V‘s Joel Gretsch). Coulson’s clearly unstable, veering into Carver territory, as he pulls a gun on Thompson on the doorstep of his own home, demanding the last piece of the puzzle. Of course, the Carver is already there, and knocks Coulson out, tying them both up. He demands answers from Coulson, revealing that pain uncovered his memories, explaining why he’s delivering so much of it to his fellow patients: to help them remember, and get more pieces of the puzzle. Thanks to Thompson’s latent spy memories, they manage to escape, and Coulson stops Carver by revealing the answer, which becomes clear when he takes in the massive train set up that Thompson has created in his garage. The map is meant to be seen in 3-D; it’s a blueprint to a city. Carver’s ecstatic, flush with relief, his compulsion to kill and need for answers gone.
Similarly, Coulson’s compulsions are also removed, now that he knows that it’s a map and blueprint to the alien’s home. Because everyone except Skye and May are in the dark, Coulson reveals what they’ve been after, and that they need to find this city before Hydra. Mac especially seemed shaken by all he learned in this episode, so it’ll be interesting to see what Coulson’s lies will do to his team.
Meanwhile, instead of giving up Coulson, Ward captures Bakshi and leaves him for S.H.I.EL.D., an act compared by Skye to a cat leaving dead rats for its owners. On a phone call with Skye, Ward promises more “gifts.” He’ll be in touch, but first, he has some personal business to take care of: that means a Ward on Ward episode is in our future.
It’s amazing how quickly AOS solved the mystery of the the Stranger/Carver. He was introduced last episode, and now he’s been taken care of, and we’re all better for it, the show moving so much faster and more confidently this season. Now that Ward’s gone free, we get Bakshi in a box, because someone has to occupy the prison at all times. I’ve been fairly ambivalent over Bakshi’s character all season, so hopefully this does something to make him interesting, rather than a token second in command.
All of this is overshadowed by the reveal that the map is really a 3-D blueprint to an alien city. With an Inhumans movie confirmed for November 2, 2018, most will assume the map refers to Attilan, the capital of the Inhumans’ homeworld, but that movie is FOUR YEARS away, which would be the definition of a slow burn, and likely because of the movie, the show couldn’t do as much with that information as we would want. There are a slew of alien races in the MU, but it certainly feels like the city will involve the Kree, Skrull and Inhuman races. Or the Celestials, which seems entirely too big of a scope for a network TV show.