This week's episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked off with an encounter between two people experiencing a bit of deja vu that soon turned horrific. It's an appropriate start for an installment that frequently felt like something from the drama's shaky first season.
The couple, a man and a woman we learn are former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the other side of a brainwipe, were each exposed to the same GH-317 alien blood that resurrected Phil Coulson. While the Director continues to carve strange symbols into the walls of S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ as a result, the male ex-agent has taken to digging them into the flesh of victims he believes can help him complete the puzzle the symbols represent. From there, it's a race for Coulson and Skye to find the killer and crack the secret.
Meanwhile in a plotline more suited to this season, Agent May and the field operatives are on the heels of the escaped turncoat Ward. As he floats along to various collections of weapons, burner phones and finely pressed suits he's had in layaway, Ward is tracked by the agents he doesn't know like Mockingbird and Hunter. Still, the former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative is one step ahead of them at every turn, with a bomb strapped to his chest and occasionally an innocent bystander close by just in case. The storyline doesn't hold a huge amount of stakes, but watching Ward competency-porn after the character spent so much time in lockup has its simple pleasures.
But the majority of the hour is the "Coulson has hooked himself up to a brain scanner" show, and it's the worse for it. The secrets of the T.A.H.I.T.I. project that brought him back from his death in The Avengers provided some surprisingly flat moments last year for a story fans thought they wanted. And as Phil subjects himself to a process that revives some of his own lost memories in an attempt to identify the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents exposed to GH-317, we become less and less interested in scenes drenched in TV production and weak screaming.
Things have picked up on some fronts. With the weight of the Director's crown on his head, Coulson is becoming more desperate to unlock the secrets of the alien writing, and Clark Gregg shows the stress well in a fine performance. On the other side of the base, we get more insight into the minds of our new favorite buddy team as Mac fully exercises the "I'm the regular Joe here" aspect of his character in fearing the alien high jinks. Meanwhile, Fitz seems a little too interested in the deadly machine that's working to reconnect his boss' broken brain.
After a parade of flashback agents tortured by T.A.H.I.T.I. swipes by, things pick back up as Skye locates the one former lab rat who hasn't been attacked by his carving compatriot. May radios in from a more interesting show to say that Coulson should be locked up until the situation is resolved, but the wily Director pulls a fast one to dump Skye in the cell and chase out after the affected agents himself.
The episode resolves as so many S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes have this season – all agents collide in a tight space with the villain, but luckily some sci-fi mumbo-jumbo revelations are dolled out before anyone too important is killed. With the help of the last sane agent to have been infected with GH-317 (who, for those keeping score, comes from a few Dan Jurgens issues of Captain America), Coulson sees a 3D pattern in the writing that was never there before ("It's a city," he declares to anyone still interested in being strung along), and the season hopefully turns back toward the spy-versus-spy tension that's made it much stronger up to this point.
That's certainly where Ward's storyline seems to be pointing us as he leans on his old Hydra contacts to deliver Whitehall's major domo back into Coulson's hands (with a number of dead bodies left in his wake). Next up, the disgraced agent is zeroing in on his smooth-talking Senator brother. Let's hope his adventures hit Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s sweet spot of revenge and intrigue rather than vast conspiracy.