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SO, AoS has finally done it… they have charged head first into a mystery that they have been building up since mid-season 1 and solved it in a satisfying way, confidently assuming their audience has been paying attention the way a real show would. All the secrets of the “Carvings” Coulson has had the compulsions to do ever since he was exposed to GH 325 have been revealed! The writing team decided to go to horror in this episode, a welcome change of pace that was done well, which seems to be a running theme this season. Clark Gregg was especially convincing in his unrelenting search for answers, going to lengths he never has before, but his portrayal was completely convincing.
The episode begins with a scene showing a woman brining a guy home from a bar, knowing she knows the guy from somewhere. As she is trying to figure it out, asking if she knows him from the art classes she does, he decides he has had enough pretending and shows her how he really knows her, pulling a knife and causing her to release a blood-curdling scream. We then go to Coulson hard at work carving the titular writing into the spackle wall listening to smooth jazz, when Skye stops him. They haven’t been able to come up with absolutely anything about the carvings, but unfortunately the compulsion to carve has only been getting worse for Coulson, coming every day and night, not letting him sleep (the implications of what would happen to him if they can’t figure it out are left unspoken, it probably won’t be good.) They find out someone has been murdered that they might be interested in, turns out it was the woman from before, except she has had the glyphs carved into her body by the man. Coulson recognizes the woman as a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and they decide they need to investigate the scene. As Skye and Coulson get there, they figure out the woman has had the same compulsions Coulson has, instead choosing to paint the glyphs instead of carving, with one even having “A Magical Place” carved into it (the trademark of the TAHITI project that we know brought Coulson back from the dead and replaced his memories). After laying all the pictures out, he finds she has pieces even he hadn’t carved, and the woman really is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who died of cancer 5 years prior, Rebecca Stevens.
To fully understand what happened, they bring her body to Simmons for an autopsy, leading her to start connecting the dots between TAHITI and GH 325 that Coulson still can’t answer. Coulson being subjected to GH 325 to raise him from the dead and the TAHITI project to deal with the psychological trauma has locked the memories of his running the project, and they need to get them out. The only way to go so would be to go back into the memory machine Raina tried to use to rip the memories out last year, this time hopefully not nearly killing him in the process. They tie him down and begin the process, setting him back with the previous GH 325 subjects, who were all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who were revived after death or had terminal diseases. Coulson remembers the names of all of them as they all seem perfectly fine, until they don’t, and the psychological breakdown symptoms associated with GH 325 exposure begin in earnest. They all give in to the hypergraphic compulsions and going psychotic, except for one which turns out to be the murder from before, and it seems the glyphs were coming directly from the blue alien from Season 1, which they are calling the “Host”. They keep getting worse, in a incredibly dark and intense progression until S.H.I.E.L.D. decided to subject them to the TAHITI project before they kill themselves or someone else, completely against Coulson’s wishes. He knows the memory wiping process is incredibly traumatic and doesn’t think they deserve it, but S.H.I.E.L.D. would rather preserve their lives then let them go insane. It seems to work well, giving them new leases on life, except for the murderer, Sebastian Derrick. Turns out his symptoms concerned obsession with learning about the glyphs more than insanity, and he has been hunting down the previous subjects in their new identities, hoping to learn more. There is only one previous subject left, Hank Thompson, who we are shown is now a welder who we see building an elaborate model train set with his child.
The mind machine has devastated Coulson’s psyche, knocking Simmons back to in a rage, before Skye threatens him with a gun to snap him out of it. May orders Skye to lock Coulson up until she gets back, and as they go down to Ward’s cell Coulson decides to push Skye into the cell and lock her up before she can react. He races down to get to Hank Thompson before Derrick does, threatening him with a gun when he gets there, demanding answers. Thompson thinks Coulson is just a crazy guy, and he doesn’t know anything about the glyphs when the other guy asked either. Coulson realizes this other guy must be Derrick, right before he knocks him out with a wrench. As Coulson wakes up, both the men are tied up, with Derrick spouting rhetoric about trying to find answers about the glyphs and the pain of cutting himself over-rode the TAHTI programming. He has been tattooing the glyphs on himself to get over the compulsions, and begins cutting Coulson to try and get more answers. Thompson figures out there is a nail he can use to cut his ropes, and finishes right before Derrick gets serious attacking Coulson, catching the knife Derrick throws at him like a ninja, his former S.H.I.E.L.D. training coming back up, and throws it with pinpoint accuracy to free Coulson. A knockdown, drag out fight ensues between Coulson and Derrick happens, one of the most intense for the show, but ends abruptly. The team gets there and threatens Coulson to let Derrick go in his chokehold before he kills him, but Coulson insists it will be alright, they have figured out the mystery. Turns out Thompson’s model train city was actually his interpretations of the glyphs, but he has figured out the missing piece of the puzzle, he has modeled the glyphs in 3D, finally revealing what they have been trying to figure out this whole time. As they return to the Playhouse, Coulson apologizes about the incredibly frustrating and terrible ride he has taken them on trying to understand the glyphs, but now they know the truth; it’s a three-dimensional map of a hidden city, leading to the next mystery, what is this place?
The B-Story concerned following Agents Trip, May, Hunter, and Morse hunting for Ward after he escaped custody. It was a really well done spy vs. spy story, following him across the country as he hops from safe house to safe house in Philadelphia, Boston, and Dallas. Ward is already one step ahead of all of them, constantly outsmarting them and even strapping himself with C4 to keep them off of his trail. It seems they have figured out Ward’s niche, its impressive how well he plays the suave spy, almost Jason Bourne like (lets not get too carried away, but I felt that vibe from Brett Dalton’s performance). Ward ends up at a bar in Dallas, and alerts HYDRA to his position, which immediately arrives to take him into custody. Ward is ready to strike a deal, getting Whitehall’s right hand man to Coulson as a sign of good faith. Ward is infers Whitehall is in charge because Strucker is in Europe (Baron von Strucker, the HYDRA higher up who was holding Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) Turns out he is not really interested in helping him, and by the time S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives, Ward has taken the entire HYDRA crew out (especially brutally), leaving Whitehall’s right hand man in rough condition with tape with “FOR COULSON” over his mouth. In the stinger, we see Ward shave his lumberjack beard, cleans up, and wears a suit. He calls Skye, threatens the new agents and tells her he will see her soon, and is now ready to confront his brother.
Man, AoS has really figured out a great formula so far for branching out into different genres every episode, mostly succeeding in each. This episode’s horror vibes were deep, dark and intense; really leading you to Coulson was ready to go to any lengths to find answers to the glyphs. His willingness to go back into his subconscious and wake those terrible memories up was rough, especially knowing he was begging to die last time it happened. Derrick’s tattooing the glyphs onto himself and wanting to murder others to simply find the answers to his questions was incredibly dark, somewhere the show has never been willing to go before. As for the giant hidden city, the major theory describes it as the city of Attilan, the home of the Inhumans (though it could be Atlantis, or the Eternals city, or lots of other secret Marvel comics cities…) With the recent reveal of The Inhumans film in 2018, and the previous clues of the Inhuman’s involvement in AoS and the bigger MCU, this reveal of S.H.I.E.L.D. discovering their hidden city would make perfect sense. If the glyphs were a blueprint for this city, maybe the Kree “Guest” the GH325 was extracted from came to build it (they say he is “older than the pyramids”), or maybe it already exists. Setting up the introduction of the Inhumans and a showdown between HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be imminent, which seems like an apt replacement for the glyph mystery. Ward’s evolution from mostly bland character to really conniving, smart spy was interesting, saving his character from obscurity. His jealously of the new agents and his obsession with Skye is believable, adding layers to his character and making his rouge spy shtick more believable. Overall, I really think AoS has hit its groove now, answering questions like the Glyph mystery before we get tired of wondering about it, something a series as long as 22 episodes should get a hold of. With no real clunkers in sight, I am really excited to see what happens next on Aos, maybe it will actually end u influencing the bigger MCU after all.
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