‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Review: May Takes Center Stage in Powerful ‘Melinda’
Recap and review of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 2 Episode 17 – Melinda:
Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) has long been one of the most fascinating characters on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., since she’s someone diametrically opposed to showing vulnerable, but who finds that certain challenges tease that vulnerability out into the open. “Melinda” offers insight into just what made May the tough-shelled warrior she’s become, and why she’s desperate to keep history from repeating itself.
To be honest, the mystery of why May was called “The Cavalry” was never a mystery I was particularly invested in the show solving. But “Melinda” finds a way to tie it into the overall story of the episode, drawing a poignant parallel between the two mother figures in the life of Skye (Chloe Bennet). In the flashback story, May heads off to Bahrain with Coulson (Clark Gregg) to track down a woman named Eva Belyakov (Winter Ave Zoli), a candidate for The Index who’s been on the radar of Russian intelligence for some time now. It seems like a fairly routine tracking mission until a little girl is apparently taken hostage by hostiles. It’s at this point that it becomes somewhat clear that the girl has to die to complete this tragic origin story, since there has to be a reason why May is so staunchly against “The Cavalry” nickname. That said, I was surprised with the route we took to get there, since it involved a twist that revealed the threat to be someone other than we might have expected it to be. This is significant not only for what it means to the evolution of May’s character, but for the evolution of the relationship between Skye and Jiaying (Dichen Lachman).
One of my favorite scenes in the episode is when Jiaying reveals she’s Skye’s mother, recalling the warmth in the air in her village, and the bargain Cal (Kyle MacLachlan) had to make with a neighbor to borrow the only car in town. Both Lachman and Bennet play this scene with all the magnitude it deserves, as we sense that Jiaying never stopped thinking about Skye, and that Skye should have been her responsibility, not S.H.I.E.L.D.’s. It’s a sentiment that carries over into the May story, as Jiaying recounts another instance where S.H.I.E.L.D. covered up for something that should have been her responsibility: she explains to Skye that Eva was once a trainee at Afterlife who wanted her daughter, Katya, to go through terrigenesis. Jiaying, however, didn’t think the child was ready, since she didn’t go through any of the necessary training. Moreover, Jiaying sensed an underlying darkness in the child that troubled her. Long story short, Eva stole a bunch of terrigenesis crystals and fled to Bahrain to force the change in her daughter. It led to disaster, as Katya developed the ability to feed on others’ pain and emotion, while also being able to place them under her control with little more than a touch. And this is exactly what happens to May’s entire squadron, as she essentially has to fight her way through her fellow agents to get to Eva.
May kills Eva in one of the more intense, hard-hitting, outright violent fight scenes of the season, only to come to the horrific discovery that Katya was the threat all along. Faced with being turned into a mindless husk, and allowing the rest of the world to fall with her, May takes the only option she has left to her: she shoots the little girl. It’s one of the darkest moments in the history of the show, but it’s given gravitas by Ming-Na Wen’s performance. Yes, May’s decision was pragmatic, and for the greater good of the world. But that doesn’t dull the fact that she just put a bullet in a child. She weeps in Coulson’s arms, letting out all her grief for this child she was unable to save. It got me a bit choked up, honestly, and it gets into why May has tried so hard to save Skye, as if in recompense for failing to prevent the tragedy of what happened to Katya. It’s all powerful stuff, and it also offers up the explanation why May didn’t want to be seen as a hero for her actions. Her fellow agents dub her “The Cavalry,” but only because they don’t realize what she had to do to save them, since the effects of Katya’s powers leave them with no memory of what happened. May becomes a legend, but at the expense of her marriage, her faith in the job, and her psychological well-being, as she pretty much falls to pieces afterwards. It’s an origin story that’s as elegant as it is complex, tackling various stories of motherhood (Eva/Katya, Skye/Jiaying, and later, Katya’s attempts to have May become her new mother) in the process. I thought it was one of the show’s best bits of storytelling across its two seasons so far.
However, the rest of the episode felt a bit thin on plot, considering that very little of the non-Skye present day material got much screentime. Mack (Henry Simmons) explains that part of the reason Gonzales’s group distrust Coulson is because they feel he’s taking advantage of people with powers and using them for revenge. Case in point, Deathlok (J. August Richards), who is still on the run with Coulson and Hunter (Nick Blood) as a one-man cavalry unit. But it’s more than that, as Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki) is intent on discovering the meaning of a Coulson project called “Theta Protocol”. Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) has no loving idea what Bobbi is talking about, and that seems to suggest that Coulson is keeping things from everybody. And can you really trust a leader who doesn’t share secrets of this magnitude? The narrative seems to be turning against Coulson, or at the very least, it’s painting him as a man driven by his own paranoia and superstitions. Then again, I’m not sure if anyone else on this team can match-up with the things he’s seen. It makes sense Coulson would be a bit unhinged, considering the events of The Avengers, and his resurrection from the dead. I feel like the season is building up to a climax in which Coulson is proven right. And that could be a really interesting narrative through-line, although it wouldn’t be exclusive to Coulson, necessarily. Lincoln (Luke Mitchell) walks in on Jiaying, Cal and Skye sharing an awkward but strangely touching family dinner. But in the process, he discovers that this matches up with a dream Raina (Ruth Negga) had. Stunned, Lincoln mouths, “It wasn’t a dream.” Turns out, Raina just might be clairvoyant. And if so, maybe she can reveal to everyone at Afterlife the extent of Nick Fury’s toolbox, since it’s still seeming a bit unclear. Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) manages to get it open, revealing holographic images of what looks to be Stark technology, but I hesitate to put all my money on it just yet. Fitz gets in touch with Coulson and Hunter, who arrange to have him meet up with them, and if there’s a positive in getting so little of Fitz this week (seriously, I love that guy), it’s that it appears his storyline is about to pick a whole hell of a lot of momentum.
“Melinda” is one of the best episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this season. Ming-Na Wen was on-point tonight, and I thought her origin story proved to be one of the most poignant in the show. This is the kind of character work I always wished the show had indulged, and I’m hoping this won’t be the last of such character-centric stories. I’d love to get a similar episode with FitzSimmons or Hunter, or even more of Bobbi and Mack’s pasts. There’s a lot to explore here, and that’s what I like so much about this ensemble. And it’s what I loved about this episode.
Let me know what you thought of the episode in the comments, and feel free to follow me on Twitter at @NickRomanTV.