Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Writing on the Wall Review
The Writing on the Wall is an episode that may potentially serve as a great representation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as it currently stands. Here is an episode that is split right down the middle with two largely unconnected storylines that each get to lay claim to approximately half of the shows protagonists. The A-plot focuses largely on Coulson and Skye as they rush to try and learn more about the alien carvings. Despite Skye’s earlier assertion that the carvings were a map, it turns out that neither she nor Coulson understand that statement any more than the viewer does. When the body of a woman turns up with the alien symbols carved in it, Coulson and Skye go to investigate. Coulson insists that the woman in question is a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent though he can’t remember where he encountered her before. When they find paintings in the woman’s home that contain the alien markings, Coulson concludes that his only option is to utilize Raina’s creatively named Memory Machine so that he can remember where he met the former agent. As it turns out, he had encountered her as part of the T.A.H.I.T.I. project back when he was in charge of it. She was one of the early test subjects, as was her killer, the Illustrated Man that we first observed at the end of A Fractured House. This series of events culminates in Coulson running off to confront/protect the one other remaining T.A.H.I.T.I. survivor, and, in doing so, finally discovers the truth behind the symbols… or part of the truth… a tidbit. Apparently, the alien markings are actually a blueprint of a complex, and the race is now on to find it. You’ll excuse me if I seem underwhelmed. In truth, this isn’t a bad reveal, but it is crippled by the amount of buildup and intrigue that had surrounded the alien symbols. The show spent too much time building up the significance of these diagrams, to the extent that anything less than them being the instruction manual for the Infinity Gauntlet or the course by which Galactus travels through the universe or the formula for Coca-Cola was bound to leave the audience feeling slightly cheated. I’ve complained previously that Agents seems to want to constantly build tension with these minor reveals, and this episode seems to epitomize this. By the end of it, it seems that very little has changed. We’re finally provided an answer as to what the carvings are, but, as a result, a number of new questions have arisen in that questions place. Mysteries, like good horrors, rely on a careful cycle of tension and release. Tension is built when the audience tries to piece together what has happened using the pieces provided to them, and the release occurs when the audience is given enough answers to confirm or reject their hypotheses. Agents, particularly with its alien blood storyline, has failed to provide that release, and, as a result, that story thread is starting to feel tiring and bloated.
If the A-plot serves as an example of what Agents has been doing wrong lately, then the B-plot could largely be considered a counter to those issues. While it isn’t perfect, the B-plot, which focuses on the rest of the team’s pursuit of Ward, succeeds on several levels. First of all, it would appear that the new zen-like Ward is here to stay, at least for a bit longer. I was concerned that after his escape in A Fractured House he’d reveal his new calm demeanor to just be a cover that he had tried to use to manipulate Skye (which would be rather boring), but, as of the end of this episode, it would appear that he does not have anything nefarious in mind for S.H.I.E.L.D. He even goes so far as to leave a giftwrapped present for the agents that were following him. Ultimately, Ward’s evasion of the agents and his mysterious objectives have me far more curious than anything going on with the alien equivalent of Google Maps. The ending of the episode suggests that he has something planned involving his brother, but it looks like we’ll have to wait an see what that entails.
The Writing on the Wall is a good episode, but some of the mysteries are starting to drag, and it’s hard to get excited about the alien writing. Ward’s plotline is feels a bit more fresh and has a nice energy to it, though it is rather silly how easily he can manipulate and evade Hunter, Bobbi and Triplett. Still, I find it rather telling that I find his sidestory to be more interesting and engaging than the actual primary mystery of this season.
Before I wrap up, a few Notes and Nitpicks:
- My current theory is that the complex that is mapped out by the alien writing was actually a Kree research facility used to experiment on humanity as part of the leadup to the Inhumans.
- I also suspect that I know how Mr. Bakshi will escape S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. After all, I’ve already expressed suspicions regarding a particular agent…
- Did anyone look at that trainset and NOT immediately realize that it was a representation of the alien glyphs?
- I’d love to say something about the homicidal Illustrated Man who is murdering his former fellow agents, but, in the end, he isn’t so much a character as he is a force to drive the plot.
I might have viewed The Writing on the Wall as a breath of fresh air had it come an episode or two earlier, but at this point it feels less like a big reveal and more like a tiny hint that is simply delivered with a ton of fanfare. Since so much of the episode hinges on the exploration of the glyphs, whether or not you’re still interested in the subject can kinda make or break this episode.
…At least, it’s not too badly broken.
The Writing on the Wall is a decent episode that is made less interesting by the exceedingly gradual development the alien glyphs mystery.