Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. began its second season by announcing it would go dark, but until "The Writing on the Wall," it wasn't clear that the Marvel drama would take that plan so far. This week's horror story of an episode began with the brutal murder of onetime S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Rebecca Stephens, whose killer marked the occasion by carving a bunch of alien symbols into her body with a knife. (According to a corpse analysis conducted by Simmons, the killer, who was obsessed with "completing the work," didn't stop slicing into his victim until "long after she was dead." Who says science isn't fun?!)
Anyone looking for a little comic relief amid the grotesqueries of a knife-wielding serial killer didn't find it in the B plot, which took Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s extended Silence of the Lambs parallels to the next level. Grant Ward has finally been unleashed upon the world, and he leads our heroes on a merry chase across America, threatening to blow up building after building full of innocent people until he arrives at a Boston bar, where he meets a few old Hydra friends for drinks. But for all the bluster of his maneuvers, Ward's motives remain as murky as ever. By the end of the episode, Ward has turned on his onetime Hydra allies, capturing high-ranking Officer Bakshi and leaving him as a gift to Coulson with the promise of more "gifts" to come.
"The Writing on the Wall" alternated, a little unevenly, between two stories that felt like two different shows. Ward's successful evasion of his former S.H.I.E.L.D. allies was an effective slice of Marvel pulp, letting the show's top agents indulge in a game of spy versus spy before Ward escaped into the shadows again. By contrast, Coulson and Skye's attempt to catch the man who murdered Rebecca Stephens was as grim as your average serial-killer drama, with a heaping dose of bizarre Marvel mythology thrown in for good measure.
Fortunately, all that bizarre Marvel mythology served a purpose. The mystery of Coulson's death and resurrection — and his subsequent obsession with carving alien symbols into the walls — have, for better or for worse, been one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s primary engines from the very beginning. But the buildup pays off in "The Writing on The Wall" as Coulson dives back into own his suppressed memories in order to discover the identity of the killer.
Coulson eventually discovers that the man he's hunting is Sebastian Derek, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned psycho killer — but the information comes at a heavy cost. As Coulson relives the past, he uncovers memories of himself subjecting six S.H.I.E.L.D. agents — including both Derek and his Rebecca Stephens — to the GH-325 formula that would go on to bring both him and Skye back to life. Though the test subjects' initial responses to the GH-325 seemed promising, they eventually devolved into total instability, from catatonia to severe aggression. The only solution? Wiping the agents' brains and giving them new civilian identities. Unfortunately, Derek has since become obsessed with recalling the alien code, and he won't stop hunting and killing his fellow retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agents until he has the rest of it.
The revelations come quickly, and it's all a little convoluted — but it's hard to argue with any story that gives Coulson the chance to go rogue. Coulson's recollections push him to the brink of a mental breakdown, and Skye insists on keeping him under close watch while she waits for May to return. But Coulson won't be swayed, and he manages to imprison Skye while he escapes to track down Sebastian before he can carve up his final victim.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has given the characters plenty of reason to doubt Coulson's judgment by now, and while the audience will never fully join them in their skepticism — Coulson is, after all, the star of the show — it's getting easier to see why they might doubt his judgment. His plan involves betraying Skye's trust, and it isn't exactly foolproof; less than an hour after he arrives at the house of Derek's would-be final victim, Coulson has been strung up and cut up by Derek himself. Add the very legitimate concerns about whether or not the GH-325 is affecting Coulson's day-to-day judgment, and it's amazing no one has tried to wrestle control of S.H.I.E.L.D. from him yet.
But terrible as his plan is, Coulson does manage to subdue Derek and discover the meaning behind the mysterious alien code. It's not quite a map, as Skye suggested several weeks ago; it's the blueprint to a city. "The pieces are coming together. The puzzle is taking shape," Coulson promises the team, by way of apology, as he unveils his findings. Though there are plenty of mysteries left to solve, Coulson's compulsive need to carve the alien symbols is finally sated — and all he needed to do was imprison one of his most loyal agents and take a few massive knife wounds to the arms and chest.
It's a nasty reminder about the cost of doing business in this newer, murkier Marvel universe. It's also another signpost indicating just how much more adult-oriented Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has become since it debuted last year. It's easy to forget now, but this is a show that openly courted families in the run-up to its premiere. Going dark has been an undeniably fruitful decision in the reinvention of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but for all the successes of "The Writing on the Wall," the show would be wise not to make this kind of no-holds-barred bloodshed a weekly occurrence. This is the only chance fans of all ages have to visit the Marvel universe every week, and there must be some middle ground between the gee-whiz missions of the show's early episodes and the grimacing corpse-defiler we saw this week.
- As pretty much everyone on Twitter immediately commented, the revelation that the mysterious "code" was actually a blueprint to a city seems a very, very large step toward a longstanding fan theory about the Inhumans and their hypothetical role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There's too much Marvel comics lore to summarize here, but in brief: The Inhumans are a hyperadvanced evolutionary offshoot of the human race engineered by a blue-skinned alien race called the Kree. In the comics, the Inhumans live in a technologically advanced city called Attilan. Assuming that the blue preserved alien is, in fact, a member of the Kree, it makes sense that those revived by the GH-325 would emerge obsessed with Attilan — and that the eventual introduction of the Inhumans' home city on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D would help to pave the way for the introduction of possible Inhumans like Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in this summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- In infinitely less convoluted Marvel lore: Ward drops a quick reference to Baron von Strucker — the Hydra leader, played by Thomas Kretschmann, who was briefly glimpsed during the stinger for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He'll play a larger role in Age of Ultron.
- I got some sinister vibes from Hank Thompson, Sebastian's would-be final victim, whose elaborate train set seemed a little too wholesome to be on the level. What are the odds he shows up as a deep-cover Hydra agent sometime down the road?
- Fitz and Mack: Too busy playing Halo to turn their heads 90 degrees to the right and see Skye in the prison-cell camera feed. Ward was right — Coulson can do better than these guys.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.