It's a pop culture paradox. If you spend a lot of time building up the mysterious qualities of a bad ass character, does revealing the mystery ruin them? Did you really like Wolverine more after you knew his whole backstory?
That's the problem with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s latest episode, "Melinda." Two years ago when the story started, we were introduced to Melinda May as a former gunslinger of an agent who had been put out to pasture doing paperwork in a dusty subbasement. Since then, the character has grown into a fan favorite for her steely manner, but most of us probably forgot her Unforgiven-like origin in the process. Would a revelation of what happened in May's infamous mission to Bahranian weaken her tough-as-nails exterior?
As the episode gets underway, we experience the full story of May's shadowy secret in flashback as a parallel story to Skye's own revelatory arc in the present. Back then, May and Coulson are in the early days of their mission to contact or capture powered people across the world. That thread of the story synchs well with the original characterization of Coulson from the first Iron Man as the dry lead of a team of Agents investigating strange phenomenon, but otherwise this story has little excitement to offer. The incredibly strong Russian woman they've been tasked to meet goes rogue and somehow traps a dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, a handful of soldiers and one little girl (conveniently skipping through the scene just as May is considering having a little one of her own, hint hint) in a closed off building. When May goes in alone – the "cavalry" so to speak – she's confronted with the tough reality that the root of the crisis is a mentally ill child with the power to make the adults kill for her.
Let's make no bones about it: threatening the life of a child on film is the cheapest, sleaziest way to elicit emotion from an audience without working for it imaginable. Over the past few years, it's become a depressingly overused staple of genre TV shows like The Walking Dead and The Strain to repeatedly unpleasant effect. And despite the fact that ABC cuts away from the moment of truth before May pulls the trigger, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets nothing extra for their character or their storyline by making this a central piece of the episode or the May overall. The resolution to the story was sadly as clichéd and ugly as they come.
Back in the present, we follow May as she acclimates to life in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. and is put in charge of chasing down the now AWOL Coulson. While the story feels a little wheel-spinning, the smart move to remove Phil from the action of the hour puts more of a focus on nuS.H.I.E.L.D. as the heroes of their own story. Like last week's flipped script on our cast's allegiances, May's response to the news that Coulson has potentially continued to recruit super people under the secret banner of "The Theta Protocol." While we never truly believe that May won't back Coulson at a final moment of truth, enough legitimate doubt is sewn in her character to keep things interesting and also bolster up the philosophical platform of nuS.H.I.E.L.D. in the process. When our team is reunited with their fearless leader, there will be sparks to fly aplenty.
And as all of that simmers for its own eventual spotlight episode, Skye's training at a secret Inhuman stronghold continues under the tutelage of Jiaying -- the woman the audience well knows is her mother. Props to the show for revealing that fact to Skye as quickly as possible, but otherwise this storyline dipped into straight soap opera territory with scarcely a line of dialogue between mother and daughter hitting anything other than "Basil Exposition" levels of emotion. The conceit that Jiaying can't reveal the maternal bond they share to their fellow Inhumans because Skye's non-approved transformation echoes the one that made the monstrous little girl we watch May kill is at least logically sound.
But otherwise the real emotion of this plotline belongs to the always quietly compelling Ruth Negga as Raina. With a much more physically drastic transformation on her plate, the former girl in a flowered dress was always more sympathetic in her anguish than Skye, but this episode plumbed the depths of that idea strongly -- particularly in the late game reveal during Skye's dinner with mommy and daddy that Raina may have precognative abilities to go with her quills.
But all in all, the mysteries surrounding this episode should have stayed hidden. At least the final scene promises us a reunion next week of the three most likable agents on the series. Maybe they'll go clubbing. That'd be a fun change of pace.