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The Marvel Cinematic Universe is sorely lacking in female heroes, but Agents Of S.H.I.E.LD. is the one big exception. I’ve spent much of the last week engrossed in the testosterone-driven world of Netflix’s Daredevil, and while the show has some captivating female characters, they end up as victims quite a bit, and are certainly not cast in action hero roles. Agent Carter had Peggy and Dottie kicking ass, but that show was also dominated by men, a deliberate decision reinforcing the patriarchal environment that wouldn’t allow Peggy to realize her full potential. And when it comes to relationships between women, both of those series are seriously lagging behind Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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The women of the cast are in charge in “Melinda,” an episode that specifically spotlights May and Skye. Simmons, Bobbi, and Raina also play significant supporting roles in the narrative, but most of the primary male characters sit out of the main action. Coulson appears in the flashbacks, which finally reveal the events in Bahrain that led to May leaving active S.H.I.E.L.D. duty seven years ago, but he doesn’t come into the present-day plot until the episode’s final moments, bringing Fitz and Hunter with him.

A heavy female presence is appropriate for an episode that deals with motherhood as a major theme, detailing how past trauma impacted May’s desire to be a parent while Skye gets to know the mother she never thought she’d meet. The story of how May came to be called “The Cavalry” has been a long time coming, and it’s as painful as the hints in past chapters have suggested. The episode begins seven years ago with May and her then-husband Andrew having a tender moment in the shower, establishing that the two want to start a family and are very committed to making that happen. It’s a happy version of May that we’ve seen once before when Andrew was brought in to help with Skye’s psych evaluation, and showing this cheerful, optimistic past May sets a strong point of contrast for the broken, sad woman that comes back from Bahrain.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is sent into Bahrain to retrieve a superpowered Russian woman by the name of Eva Belyakov, but their mission quickly goes south because of a third party that doesn’t land on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar. The little girl that May is so eager to save is actually the young Inhuman daughter of Eva, also an Inhuman, who had her child undergo Terrigenesis before she was ready. This drove the young girl insane, which caused even more problems when combined with a superpower that allowed her to manipulate the emotions of others after just one touch. May doesn’t know this, though, so when the back-up squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is taken out, she goes in on her own to save the little girl.

One of the best things about Daredevil is its action, and I was worried that I would be severely underwhelmed by May in Bahrain after watching Matt Murdock make his way through intricately choreographed fight sequences. But S.H.I.E.L.D.’s creative team understands that this is a big moment for May, and makes sure that the violence hits hard. May’s skills are impressive as she takes out the men standing guard, but there’s nothing flashy about the action, and her big fight with Eva focuses on brute force rather than spectacular movement. The violence isn’t glorified because the entire story is about the damaging effects of violence on mental and emotional health. May is trained to fight adult spies and soldiers and criminals, not insane children with superpowers. But in order to save the lives of all the people under Katya’s control, May has to put a bullet in the little girl that moments ago she was trying to save.

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It’s a decision that changes the course of May’s entire life, and when we see her back at home, she’s lost her former glow. She showers alone, and when Andrew tries to touch her hand, all she can think of is Katya’s hand reaching for her. We don’t learn the specifics of why their marriage falls apart, but I don’t think its wrong to assume that May wasn’t interested in starting a family anymore after killing a child, and likely pushed Andrew away because she knew she couldn’t give him what he wanted.

May’s marriage crumbled after Bahrain, but the events of that day seven years ago have a significant impact on Skye as well. After a few sessions helping her daughter get a better grip on her powers, Jiaying reveals herself as Skye’s mother, but they have to keep their true bond a secret because of what happened with Eva and Katya. The people of Jiaying’s camp already disapprove of Skye because she went through the mist without the traditional preparation, and if Skye’s relationship to Jiaying is revealed, it will bring up past memories of the mother-daughter pair that put the Inhumans at risk years ago.

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Chloe Bennet has been steadily improving as Skye, and she gets the opportunity to show a lot of different sides of her character as Skye goes on an emotional roller coaster. Bennet finally gets to express some joy after episodes of brooding when Skye unleashes her full power on the side of a mountain without fear of damage to others or herself, taps into the character’s abandonment issues with a speech detailing Skye’s bad luck with settling down, and unleashes a wave of different emotions when Jiaying reveals her true role in Skye’s life. All she wanted was to know her mother and father, and by the end of the episode, Skye is sitting down for dinner with mom and dad. Her mother may be the leader of a race of superpowered beings and her father may be a mad scientist, but Skye has her real family now, and that makes her happy.

While Jiaying trains Skye, Gordon is trying to mentor Raina, who can’t rise above her self-pity. It doesn’t help that Skye is able to walk around outside while Raina is prohibited from leaving her residence, treated like an animal even though people keep telling her that she should accept the being she’s become. How can she hold on to her humanity when she’s kept in a cage? Gordon tries to tell Raina that there are gifts hiding underneath her physical changes, but she’s too caught up in her own appearance and her nightmares to take the steps needed to regain her self-worth and discover her true power. Then again, maybe she’s already discovered her power, but just doesn’t know it yet. When Lincoln sees Skye, Cal, and Jiaying reenacting a scene from Raina’s dream, he believes it is evidence of precognitive abilities, something that could be very useful to the Inhumans as they safeguard themselves against forces that want to control them.

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With Avengers: Age Of Ultron just a few weeks away, I’m beginning to wonder just how much of the story being developed on this show is going to play into the upcoming movie. There’s all the Inhuman stuff, which could potentially play a part in the film as it deals with the rise of more superpowered individuals, and then there’s the Theta Protocol, the codeword for a heavily funded project Coulson has been organizing in secret. Present-day May spends most of this episode investigating the Theta Protocol, and the best current guess is that it’s a base where Coulson can train superpowered individuals. The real answers are in Fury’s toolbox, which Fitz unlocks at the end of this episode, but we’ll have to wait to find out the true meaning behind Coulson’s shady actions.

Stray observations:

  • Could the Theta Protocol be the first steps toward introducing Avengers Academy to the MCU? There’s currently an Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off in the works, and Avengers Academy would make a great setting for a TV show.
  • Using vibrating glasses of water to train Skye is a very smart way of exploring her powers using an easy practical effect. More of this, please!
  • “What do you know about changes?” It looks like there’s some animosity between Inhumans that experienced drastic physical changes during Terrigenesis and those that kept their former appearance while gaining superpowers. I hope that gets more attention in the future.
  • “Your gift is quite destructive, but look at the music you can make.”

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