I’ve always been leery of movies or TV shows that try to define their characters by a single past incident. Yes, stories with time and budget limitations must use broad, stylized strokes in painting portraits; and in the superhero genre — the characters of which have historically been created for children — trauma is often used as shorthand in the birth a champion. But human beings are complex animals, and a myriad of life experiences and genetic factors come into play when building one’s personality.
On this week’s S.H.I.E.L.D., however, one such an incident is used to explain how Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May came to be the agent we’ve known since meeting her in the show’s pilot. And it’s damn chilling how well it works.
“Melinda” explores how May’s nickname became “The Cavalry,” a term she uses with nothing but disdain. It turns out that, seven years ago, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most no-nonsense agent was once an upbeat optimist, deeply in love with her husband Andrew (Blair Underwood) and set on having children with him. Sadly, her life was torn apart when what seemed like a routine mission organized by Coulson to apprehend a rogue powered person (specifically an Inhuman) went south.
Eva Belyakov (guest star Winter Ave Zoli) was gifted with enhanced strength, and had once resided with her people. But she stole some Terrigen Crystals for her daughter Kayla, who was not yet ready for Terrigenesis, and the little girl went mad from her new ability to leech the emotions of others. In an attempt to rescue Kayla, May was placed in a position where she instead had to kill her in order to save the lives of the many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents the girl controlled. Traumatized beyond words, May then found she was unable even to touch her husband, and their marriage soon fell apart. She resigned from active duty and transferred to the desk job in which we found her working in S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s first episode.
May’s complete back story is long overdue, and it’s told here to help explore the theme of motherhood that arises when Sky finally learns her new mentor Jiaying is actually the mother she believed to be dead. Her mom makes her promise to keep their relationship a secret from others in their village, lest they remember what befell Eva and Katya. Skye and Jiaying then have a curiously pleasant reunion over dinner with Sky’s father, the still crazed Cal.
But May’s tragedy is also used to show how she once paid a terrible price for sharing Coulson’s faith in powered people. A memory that comes rushing back to her, when, in the present, she finds she may inadvertently be doing so again: Gonzales’ people tell her Coulson’s secretly been working with Deathlok, involved in something called the “Theta Protocol,” and has been preparing what Mack believes is a hidden base for hundreds of gifted folks.
The killing of Kayla not only helps define May (and Ming-Na Wen contributes mightily, giving what is by far her finest performance on the show), it also represents a major step in the growth of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. This isn’t The Walking Dead, after all. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Marvel TV series broadcast during prime time on a commercial television network owned by Disney, and it’s rarely presented itself as anything other than a family-friendly show. Shooting a child, even as an act of self defense, is by far the most disturbing thing the show has ever presented. But the act is portrayed in such a way as to never once cause our sympathies for May to falter. Kudos to the producers and writer DJ Doyle for treating subject matter this difficult with honesty.
On a more trivial note, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is here directly linked to Marvel’s newest show, Daredevil, via Skye’s admission that she hasn’t lived in any place for more than two years — including Saint Agnes Orphanage, where she was placed when her village in China was destroyed. As we learned on the Netflix series (which debuted last Friday), Matt Murdock was also placed in Saint Agnes when his father was murdered, and it was there that he was found by his mentor Stick.
Skye continues to share a kind of evil sister in Raina, who’s still consumed with bitterness over her monstrous new form and the new and improved Skye. Gordon (who, with his accent, increasingly sounds like Steven Van Zandt) promises to be Raina’s guide, and she agrees to be his student. There’s a note of insincerity in her voice, however, that I suspect will lead Gordon to regret his decision. Especially when, in the episode’s final moments, we learn via Lincoln that Raina may now be precognitive.
— We learn pretty boy Lincoln’s nickname is “Spark Plug” when Lincoln addresses by it while he’s speaking with Raina.
— “Would it still be ok if I came and hung out with you?” Fitz is at his most awesome this week when he opens Fury’s tool box in the men’s room of a truck stop and contacts Coulson and Hunter.
— Equally awesome is Hunter’s response when Fitz asks for his help in dealing with the bruisers threatening to burst into the restroom: “So you’re in a bathroom. Is there one of those electrical hand dryers?… Mate, you’re going to be all right.”
— Might the secret base Coulson’s been developing serve as the setting for S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s upcoming spinoff show? If so, could its focus be on a team of superheroes?
Next week: Coulson and Hunter reunite with Ward for a mission that anticipates Avengers: Age of Ultron!
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).