It's been well over a year since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. last tackled the events that earned Melinda May the nickname "The Cavalry." In season one's "Repairs," Skye's fellow agents teased her with invented stories about the incident in Bahrain that turned May into a S.H.I.E.L.D. legend: a mission in which May saved hundreds of agents while riding around on horseback, or dispatched 20 rival agents with a single handgun. When Skye asked Coulson, he admitted that even he didn't know the full story behind "The Cavalry" — only that whatever had happened had changed her forever. Before Bahrain, May was a warm, passionate lover of pranks; after Bahrain, she was stoic and hardened, with emotional wounds so deep that neither her husband nor her fellow agents could penetrate them.
Long after laying the skeleton of May's dark past, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finally gives us the whole story in this week's "Melinda." Until now, it was safe to assume that May had singlehandedly killed dozens of enemy agents. The truth is both more complicated and more horrific: May killed Katia, an adolescent girl whose superpowers allowed her to control anyone she touched. The chain reaction spread to the people who were under Katia's control, leading to the perception that May was an agent who could take down an entire team of adversaries in a single moment.
However justified by the plot, a hero killing a child is a tricky thing for any show to depict (let alone one that airs on ABC) — and while "Melinda" spares viewers from actually seeing what happened, the episode doesn't disguise the fact that May pulled a handgun and shot a kid who was merely asking to hold her hand. It's a revelation that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably held back too long, but given the buildup, it's an appropriately dramatic answer to the longstanding questions about May's past.
It's also a revelation that introduces an unexpected connection between Skye's figurative mother, Melinda May, and her actual mother, Jiaying. After meeting Skye in last week's episode, Jiaying has formally taken her daughter under her wing, guiding her training in both raw strength (causing an avalanche on a nearby mountain) and focused control (causing the vibrations in a series of water-filled wineglasses). I still don't believe that Afterlife will turn out to be anything but sinister, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing an impressive job of showing why Skye might choose a place like Afterlife — which has made such a dramatic difference in her adjustment to life as an Inhuman — over S.H.I.E.L.D., which can't do anything to improve her difficult transition.
As Jiaying reveals in a conversation with Skye, a Russian woman named Eva Belyakov was an early subject in her care. When Eva fled, she stole Terrigen Crystals, resulting in the superpowers that led to May's traumatic fatal encounter with both Eva and her daughter. Jiaying may have pure motives, but her actions have already had far-reaching consequences for someone Skye loves, and her insistence on sticking to her own shadowy methods point to the inevitable trouble on the horizon.
Of course, all that uncomfortable moralizing gets swept under the rug with the revelation that Jiaying is Skye's mother. But happy as she is to meet her mother, Skye's lifelong hunt for a family may not be what she expected. As "Melinda" ends, she joins her mother and father for a truly strange family dinner. Cal gives Skye flowers, pours a glass of celebratory Champagne, and launches into the story of her birth. If he weren’t so insane, and Jiaying weren’t so sketchy, and Skye weren’t stuck at a mysterious base far from anyone she knows and loves, it would almost be sweet.
Skye's budding relationship with her parents will likely take up much of what's left of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second season — but whatever happens next, it will spark a permanent change in her character going forward, even as she tries to cling to her own past. At the end of season one's "Repairs," May repeated the advice she received from Coulson after the disastrous missions in Bahrain: "You can't undo what's been done. 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." In one way or another, we're watching every character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. learn that lesson.
- Agent Coulson last mentioned the mysterious "Theta Protocol" in last year's midseason finale; when he told Agent Koenig (Patton Oswalt) to use it if he didn't return safely, Koenig balked. Now Coulson is burning cash, taking secret meetings, and stocking up on bunk beds as a part of his secret plan. Based on the information we have (including the involvement of Deathlok and May's ex-husband Andrew), I'm assuming Coulson is developing some kind of top-secret base for Inhumans like Skye — but does anyone have any better guesses?
- "Melinda" is so dominated by flashbacks that the overarching plot barely inches forward, but the episode ends as Fitz cracks Fury's toolbox. When he meets up with Coulson and Hunter, we should finally get to see what's under the lid.
- Chloe Bennet's performance is still pretty shaky, but it's hard to blame her when she's saddled with lines like, "Mistrust of home is my other superpower."
- Lincoln (Luke Mitchell), who lost his job as Skye's Afterlife guide to Jiaying, barely showed up in "Melinda" — but when he did, he made sure to glower menacingly, in case we somehow missed that he's a bad guy last week.
- Melinda May's transfer order came via Maria Hill (and presumably went across the desk of Nick Fury, who was already in the midst of organizing the Avengers Initiative).
- This week in Gordon/Raina: more flirting! You can go anywhere, Gordon. Why don't you teleport yourselves to a room?
- Next week: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. celebrates Avengers: Age of Ultron with what might turn out to be its most synergistic episode ever.