A funny thing happened on the way to fulfilling particular seasonal plot points on this week’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The showrunners decided to wedge in the backstory of its (arguably) most interesting character. A baffling decision, to be sure, and, worse, it juxtaposed poorly with the episode’s larger story obligations. …Wait, that’s not funny. That’s very, very annoying.
Agent Melinda “The Cavalry” May is, theoretically, meant to be the focus of the episode entitled—go figure—“Melinda.” So, it’s more than a little confusing that the merry band of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most reliably competent character feels marginalized (if not swallowed up entirely) by the continuing, banal journey of Skye’s “Who am I?” storyline. From the series’ very beginning, it has made continued, awe-hushed whispers in regard to May’s nickname. This week’s episode ostensibly addresses that via flashbacks from seven years prior: While on assignment in Bahrain, Coulson and May attempt to apprehend a super-powered Russian woman, Eva (perhaps a previously unknown Black Widow agent?), only to seemingly have the mysterious woman provoke the kidnapping of a young girl, and send a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike force after her. Before the “hostage” scenario has the potential to become more volatile, Coulson agrees to send May in after the girl.
Meanwhile, Agents couldn’t seem to stop itself from competing with what it (presumably) meant to spotlight tonight, by picking up Skye’s crushingly dull “learn about yourself and your powers” thread, tossing in some clichés standing in for progress (Seriously, guys? Shattering fancy stemware?) and learning to control her abilities, then having her Inhuman teacher turn out to be… GASP… her mother! Not only was this “revelation” fairly obvious, it was clearly meant to have substantial emotional heft, if the swelling score and Chloe Bennet’s perpetual half-gape were any indicator. It… did not. At least Kyle MacLachlan made it back, acting a little less nuts.
As such, May’s left with very little time to establish her “Cavalry” creds as she’s set loose to save the little girl. Instead of showing how her smarts and instinct make her a seriously killer agent, less than half of 42 minutes becomes a race for Ming-Na Wen to simply beat her way through brainwashed special forces to reach Eva, get shot in the leg, then skewer the Super Russian before discovering the little girl’s the one controlling everyone there. One dead kid later, and we arrive at the Agent May we saw at the beginning of Season One.
Honestly, though, it wasn’t a bad way, backstory-wise, to address May’s history leading directly into the series, but it suffered terribly from debilitating shoehornopathy. The fact that it didn’t really inform much else happening in the episode was enough slight on its own, but it wasn’t allowed the space it needed to really play to its potential. (I’m, frankly, pretty tired of Coulson and May’s distrust dance. Whatever Coulson’s “Theta Protocol” really is, it shouldn’t be yet another confidence-breaching issue for May until she can prove it’s some kind of sinister.) The character is appealing enough to justify a bigger story and all the time it needs to do it in, and—again—the implied background always suggested there was something much bigger than what was actually revealed this week.
Next week seems set up to deliver more of Gregg and Olmos’s battle for the soul of S.H.I.E.L.D., at least. But if that seasonal arc needed a pause for the sake of additional character development, “Melinda” most certainly failed. If this is the most Agents is willing to afford regarding the secrets behind a character who deserves respect, then I daresay we were always better off being teased.
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.