I wonder when the creative team behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. realized they were badly in need of a course correction. After a pilot that glowed with promise, the series stumbled with a series of strangely discordant episodes. There was maddeningly generic "0-8-4," which felt like a lost episode of Burn Notice. There was the pulpy "The Asset," which introduced a comic-book supervillain who hasn't reared his electrified head since the episode's stinger. There was "Girl in the Flower Dress," which failed to make Skye's betrayal have any real emotional resonance, and failed to make Project Centipede an actual threat. Reviews were bad, ratings were dropping, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was looking like it would go down in history as a missed opportunity — an oddity that tried on a different hat every week because it could never figure out which hat suited it best.
And then things turned around with "FZZT," the Simmons-centric episode that kicked off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new (and far more effective) storytelling model: Use a case-of-the-week format to offer a deep dive into one of the show's characters. In rapid succession, we've seen relatively strong episodes that have brought Fitz, Simmons, and Ward to the forefront of the episode's narrative — and last night's "Repairs" offers the same kind of welcome insight into everyone's favorite stoic badass, Melinda "The Cavalry" May.
Of course, she'd prefer it if you didn't call her "The Cavalry," for reasons that are slightly clearer by the end of "Repairs." The episode opens by introducing Hannah Hutchins, a young woman left reeling after a laboratory accident killed four of her colleagues in Batesville, Utah. This is God's country, and that means that the distinctly un-saintly things that happen around Hannah — items flying off shelves, cars driving by themselves, gas stations exploding — are more than enough reason for both Hannah and the greater Batesville area to blame her for the "demons" that seem to follow her around. The marginally more rational agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. suspect that it's telekinesis, and take Hannah up in the jet in an attempt to figure out the details.
As it turns out, everyone is wrong; Hannah is being followed by Tobias Ford, a seemingly deceased colleague who was "caught between two worlds" after the events of the accident. (In layman's terms, he's basically a ghost, and ghosts tend to have unfinished business.) Ford's antagonism isn't really intended to antagonize anybody: He's just following his longtime crush Hannah around, attacking anyone who seems to be attacking her, in a jump-scare style that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's seen a Halloween movie.
Ford's story doesn't exactly make sense — what's with the Rube Goldberg–style method of retaliation, which he drops as soon as he gets onto the S.H.I.E.L.D. plane? But "Repairs" proves that it's easier to overlook a story's flaws when it's doing other things so well. Ford is one of the best villains Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has introduced so far, offering both a memorable presence and a genuine threat. And the decision to use him as the antagonist in a X-Files style thriller (with the downed S.H.I.E.L.D. plane serving as a kind of haunted house) was a savvy one.
But for all those episodic strengths, the real highlight of "Repairs" came in the heavy lifting it did with Melinda May. In its early weeks, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to have been consciously engineered for the kind of 'shipping that fuels lengthy debates on the IMDb message boards. The names of the show's likeliest couples even blend together: Fitzsimmons was name-checked in the show's pilot, and SkyeWard felt like the product of a particularly lazy day in the writer's room.
But the May-Ward hookup suggested at the end of last week's "The Well" was made explicit at the beginning of "Repairs" — and to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s great credit, the episode didn't make a particularly big deal about it. Ward's reminders about the rules of their hookup make it clear that the duo has done this before, and their interactions in the rest of "Repairs" make it equally clear that neither of them will let it get in the way of their work. One of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s biggest flaws so far has been the agency's lack of professionalism, but the show's straightforward presentation of a low-stakes hookup is nothing if not professional in the face of far greater concerns.
In retrospect, Ming-Na Wen deserves an extra heaping of praise for ensuring that Melinda May wasn't totally boring in the eight episodes that preceded "Repairs." Other than her nickname and her fighting prowess, we've known very little about her character. As it turns out, most of the characters are just as in the dark as we are: Fitz and Simmons are lying when they tell Skye about May saving hundreds of agents on horseback, with a gun in each hand, but they also don't know the real story. Even Ward is off-target, telling Skye about a time when May killed twenty adversaries with a single pistol.
It's Coulson who finally tells Skye the real story about what happened in Bahrain (or as much as he knows about it). While on an assignment that "went south," an unarmed May stepped up and dispatched a room full of adversaries. Before that, Coulson intimates, she used to be like Skye: "Warm. Fearless in a different way. Pulling pranks."
We get the harder, darker Melinda May at the end of "Repairs," when she talks Tobias Ford into giving up on Earth in favor of whatever mysterious realm he's being drawn towards. "You can't undo what's been done," she says. "That will be with you forever. But trying to hold onto this life, clinging to the person you thought you could be… That's hell, and you're dragging her down with you." May later reveals that it's the same speech Coulson gave her after her dark, traumatic moment in Bahrain — a speech he believed she needed to hear.
The strength of this central narrative boosted the entire episode, making the stakes higher, the characters deeper, and the comic relief funnier. Even Skye, who has reliably been Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most problematic character, came off better. The show didn't really need another tech expert — Fitz and Simmons have that more than covered — but Skye's empathy for Hannah provided a nice contrast to her stoic colleagues, and gave her something to do besides stumble over half-baked pop-cultural references.
If you were looking for a template for a top-tier Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, "Repairs" would be a good place to start. With Fitz, Simmons, Ward, and May down, there are just two characters left to explore in detail — and surprise, surprise, it's Coulson and Skye, who lie at the center of the series' two biggest mysteries. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is about to take a two-week break, so it's nice to see the show ending its first act on a strong note. It's also a good time for a breather, and for viewers to reflect on all the clues we've been given as we look forward. The S.H.I.E.L.D. jet will be back in the air on December 10 — and despite a few bumpy patches, I'll be excited to get back on it again.
Let's hit this week's S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- So while we're on the subject of May and Skye: Skye totally has to be May's daughter, right? It would explain the S.H.I.E.L.D.-mandated secrecy about her parentage — and "you're dragging her down with you" certainly sounds like something Coulson might say to a troubled fellow agent who was neglecting her infant daughter. Major kudos to the commenter who guessed that a few weeks ago (and who I assume rides a horse to work every day, with a gun in each hand).
- How long has it been since an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode didn't have a single reference to Agent Coulson's mysterious death and resurrection? Looks like it's time to change the rules of the drinking game.
- I understand Marvel's need to appeal to an all-ages viewership, but I still wish the show had pushed the threat posed by Tobias Ford a little further. The story at the heart of "Repairs" is essentially a small-screen horror movie, and a darker, more menacing version of the ghost-like character could have been truly scary.
- Even with a triple word score, "aglet" would be worth just eighteen points in a standard game of Scrabble. I'll play you anytime, Agent Simmons.
- Loved the wacky stinger at the end of "Repairs," which proved that May hasn't totally abandoned her prankster spirit. Maybe she can trade notes with Loki sometime.
- Don't forget to check back in for our next recap on December 10, when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. resumes after a brief midseason break with "The Bridge" (which will not, unfortunately, be a crossover with the FX series of the same name).
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.