Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 17, "Melinda" REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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This week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Melinda,” gives us a far more detailed understanding of the origin of “The Cavalry” than we ever expected to get.  As a matter of fact, the connections between the Bahrain incident and the present-day events on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are surprisingly deep—and very much appreciated.  One of the biggest challenges I can see in an episode like this which puts the primary emphasis on filling in a character’s back story as that it can break the rhythm of the season-long plot by taking the focus off of current events.  However, the use of the flashbacks in this episode (and in the Bobbi-centric episode, “One Door Closes,” 2x15) feels very natural to the plot.  In this episode in particular the flashbacks feel like bad memories of one character dredged up by the current events she is experiencing—memories simultaneously being shared with another character by a third character.

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Appropriately, two of the three plots in this episode focus on May.  In the present, we learn that May chose to accept Gonzales’ offer of a seat on his board, and that he is going to place her in command of the Playground—a position May hopes to use to convince Coulson to turn himself in.  Weaver, Morse, and Gonzales tell May that Coulson was in the middle of a major operation called “Theta Protocol.”  This catches her off-guard, though she quickly recovers and plays it off with an “Any Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. has secrets.”  However, this is a much larger secret than May was perhaps expecting Coulson to keep from her.  This secret involves clandestine meetings all around the globe, major construction projects, and even meetings with her ex-husband Andrew Garner, who happens to be a psychologist with a history with S.H.I.E.L.D.  Any of these facts could have a logical explanation, of course—Coulson may be meeting people around the world in an attempt to recruit more former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, he could be working on a new base to expand S.H.I.E.L.D., he could be meeting with Andrew for his own benefit.  However, taken together, the members of the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” believe that Coulson has been attempting to recruit gifted individuals—a very likely scenario.  The construction project(s) (for which he bought “100 bunk beds”) is to build a new base which will house all of his superhuman recruits.  And if he’s going to be recruiting powered people, then he’s definitely going to need a talented psychologist with experience in the field to evaluate his recruits and determine their psychological fitness for duty.  All of this is extremely concerning—made all the more so by May’s previous experience with a gifted individual, the second the primary plot of the episode.

The episode begins with a flashback to seven years ago when May and Andrew were still married and even thinking about starting a family—putting the trauma of the little girl into heartbreaking perspective.  Coulson arrives with a mission and takes May to meet up with the STRIKE team which will be accompanying them.  The mission turns out to be a woman who may have super strength.  The team goes to Bahrain, Coulson approaches the target, and things almost immediately go south.  When the militia takes a little girl hostage, May takes it a little too personally.  The woman, Eva, demonstrates her superhuman strength by throwing a table across the block, using the distraction to escape into a militia compound.  When the STRIKE team is taken captive immediately upon breaching the compound, May enters to get the girl out and subdue Eva.  Everyone in the compound has a blank expression and tells her that they “want her pain.”  At this point the assumption is that Eva has super strength as well as the ability to feed on the negative emotions of those around her—I was even wondering if she became stronger the more fear she sucked out of people!  Of course, we quickly discovered the problem with this theory.

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May fights her way through the compound until she reaches Eva.  She tries negotiating with Eva at first, but when that proves fruitless she switches to plan B:  beat (kill?) Eva and free everyone from her control.  May fights Eva, who effortlessly throws her across the room a couple times.  A few of the militia thugs attack her as well, and May defeats them, though she takes a bullet in her leg for her troubles.  Finally May succeeds in impaling Eva through the chest with a lamp, killing her and supposedly freeing everyone from her spell.  However, it is only at this point that she realizes who has truly been controlling everyone:  the little girl, who is Eva’s daughter, Katya.  The mother has superhuman strength, but she was not the one feeding off of people’s fear.  The shot with the girl walking toward May with her arm outstretched, asking to hold her hand, looks like something out of a horror movie like The Ring:  You know that you really shouldn’t touch this kid, but you are thrown off-guard by the fact that it’s just a scared little kid who is confused and sad and who just lost her mother.  May backs away from the girl until her hand touches the gun, and she finally shoots the girl when she won’t back away.  The sheer devastation in May’s face when she’s sitting on the floor cradling the girl is very impressive acting, especially since we see so little expression from May most of the time.

The last couple scenes from the flashback sequence show the impact that this event had on May.  She starts withdrawing from Andrew.  She puts in for a transfer from operations to administration, and we see her settling in to the same cubicle doing the same sort of paperwork she was doing when Coulson approached her in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot episode last season.

I really liked the flashbacks and how well connected they were to the other plots going on in this episode.  We see a couple of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents comment that “The Cavalry really did arrive” and that it was her because she took down a room full of guys.  We see her progress from a tender woman before this mission into the detached, cool operator we know her as in this show.  We also know now why Fury expected Coulson to approach May for his team and why she is so fiercely loyal to him:  He was her handler, she was his specialist, so they worked together very closely—essentially their relationship is about as close as that of Ward and Garrett from season 1.  In all of these things they did a very good job of showing how May became the agent that we know and love.  However, one aspect of her character pre-Bahrain which this episode really did not explore was her sense of humor.  In the episode “Repairs” (1x09), Coulson tells Skye that before Bahrain—“before ‘the Cavalry’”—May actually had a very good sense of humor and would pull pranks on people all the time.  We don’t really see that—or even a hint of it—in this episode.  I realize that they couldn’t include everything, but if they had more time it would have been nice to see how she had a sense of humor before this incident.
The third plot in this episode is largely unconnected to the May plots—at least until the end, when all of the little connections that we present all along became suddenly clear.  This plot focuses on Skye and her experimentation with her powers under Jiaying’s tutelage.  They start off at the overlook where Jiaying explains that she believes that Skye can hear and amplify the vibrations within different objects.  As an example, Jiaying gives her a rock and instructs her to try to hear the rock’s vibration.  Instead, Skye hears the mountain, and uses her powers to amplify the mountain’s vibration, causing an avalanche (sadly, she didn’t turn the entire mountain to rubble!).  Next, Jiaying had Skye use her powers to play cups of water, one of the more beautiful uses of Skye’s power that we’ve seen so far.  Along the way, Lincoln pops in and lets Skye know just how rare it is for Jiaying to be someone’s Guide:  she is in charge of Lai Shi, and since he’s been there she hasn’t taken anyone to Guide and train.

As Skye was playing the cups, she must have turned the vibrations up too far, because the cups all shattered.  The ensuing exchange between Skye and Jiaying was absolutely fascinating for the insight it gave into both of their characters—possibly one of the best scenes this season.  Skye was terrified that she would be cast out by the Inhumans since she’s been cast out every other place she’s thought of as home—even S.H.I.E.L.D. seemingly turned on her after her powers manifested.  Jiaying’s expression through the entire conversation is a mixture between anger at those people who would throw away her daughter, horror at everything Skye had endured, and perhaps even guilt that she had not tried harder to find Skye, all covered over as she tried to maintain a level of detachment.  I loved the acting all through that scene, especially Jiaying’s response to Skye’s admissions, and then Skye’s shock at discovering that Jiaying is her mother.

Jiaying’s reveal to Skye of the Inhumans’ strict policies regarding those who skip the vetting process before transformation dovetails very nicely with the shocking reveal in the flashback plot.  Jiaying tells Skye that they have to keep their relationship a secret because if it were discovered then the Inhuman leadership may think that Jiaying is playing favorites by not having Skye dealt with according to the strict rules that she herself laid down after the Bahrain incident seven years ago.  Yes, Jiaying just said that May fought a pair of Inhumans.  The mother, Eva, was an Inhuman gifted with incredible strength.  However, she wanted her daughter Katya to go through the Mist despite Jiaying’s rejection of her as both too young and possessing a degree of darkness within her which made it inadvisable.  Eva stole a batch of Terrigen Crystals, used it on Katya, and fell in with the militia in Bahrain.  In telling the story, Jiaying betrays an enormous sense of guilt for not having dealt with Eva and Katya herself:  Because of her inaction May had to go in and stop Katya, traumatizing her (May) in the process.  Consequently, Jiaying instituted strict protocols for dealing with an Inhuman who transforms outside of the norm—protocols which she is now breaking (to an unrevealed extent) in the cases of Skye and Raina.  And if the Inhuman Elders find out that one of those involved is Jiaying’s daughter, they will put an end to it:  “Our people know too well what a woman will do for her daughter.”  This is an absolutely fascinating look into the Inhuman culture—I can’t wait for them to explore it more!  Knowing that S.H.I.E.L.D. has dealt with an Inhuman before does make me wonder how many of the gifted individuals on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s List are Inhumans.  I would suspect that very few are; the Inhumans appear to do a good job of maintaining their secrecy.

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We also see the next stage in Raina’s journey:  Gordon has decided to become her Guide to help her understand her gift and learn to see her beauty.  Their journeys seem to be very much in parallel:  both of their transformations involved physical changes (no eyes, thorns).  Both of them had a very difficult time adjusting to the isolation imposed by their gifts.  And yet, as we discover at the end of the episode, both of them have gifts beneath the surface that are incredibly useful and beautiful.  Gordon can teleport anywhere at will.  Raina can actually see the future:  she sees a vision of Skye and Cal having dinner, laughing, and happy, with a bouquet of daisies (appropriately) on the table.  Wow!  I love how they are really playing Skye and Raina off of each other through this whole story arc:  at first we see some parallels, but then they both go through Terrigenesis together, and now they are both trying to deal with the consequences and understand their gifts, even though neither of them is very accepting of the change at first.  I love that Raina’s gift is revealed to be clairvoyance, especially after she was working for Garrett out of hope that he would be a true Clairvoyant last season.

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That dinner scene shows real personal growth for Skye:  even though the last time they spoke she and Cal did not get along in any way, shape, or form, she was willing to sit with him and have dinner.  Cal himself is far less insane in that scene—I wonder if this is a hint at what he was like before losing his family and before becoming the proto-Mr.-Hyde.  Kyle MacLachlan’s Cal is suddenly a very sympathetic character after losing his family, piecing his wife together, experimenting on himself to give himself super strength to protect his family, and spending close to 24 years searching for his daughter.

The post-credits scene for this episode is a fun bit that sets up the next episode:  Fitz manages to open Fury’s Toolbox in a public restroom and uses it to contact Coulson and Hunter via Coulson’s tablet.  Fitz knows that he is being followed, and asks Coulson and Hunter to walk him through losing a tail so they can meet up.  Presumably the next episode will follow Fitz losing the tail and joining up with Coulson and his team.  I’m very curious how this will connect with May’s and Simmons’ mistrust of Coulson and his Theta Protocol, especially after how suspicious May is of him now that she knows he was lying.

Overall, this was an awesome episode.  I loved the pieces that they filled in with May’s back story, and how closely it is tied with the Inhumans and the Avengers Initiative.  I didn’t have any complaints with the acting or special effects anywhere in the episode.  I can’t wait to see where this thing is going from here, and how the S.H.I.E.L.D.-vs.-S.H.I.E.L.D. and Inhumans plots are going to tie-in with Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What were your favorite parts of this episode?  What are you looking forward to next week?

 This Friday I'm going to go through what we know of the MCU timeline, and specifically what we've been able to fill in from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and in particular this episode.  Before that, however, I'm going to look at the heroes in the MCU, how they have been "depowered" from their comic book counterparts, and why that might be.

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  1. Actually, what everyone tells May is not that they want her fear, but that they want her pain.