Since its first episode, Agents of SHIELD has circled around the problem of how to deal with superhumans. At times, the show has felt like a regular spy adventure — but it's always come back to the problem of extraordinary abilities. Rarely, though, has the show's take on the issue felt as fresh as it did last night.

Top image: Art by Jenny Frison, via EW

Spoilers ahead...

Actually, that focus on superpowered people (like Mike Peterson, or Skye) and how best to use them, or contain them, has been a double-edged sword. As long as Agents of SHIELD keeps its focus on powerful humans, the show will always feel like a bit of an adjunct to the Marvel movies — and in fact, a big part of the show's storyline right now feels like setup for the upcoming movie The Inhumans, about people like Skye.

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But the idea of a show about mostly non-super people, headed up by the resolutely average Phil Coulson, dealing with Deathlok and "Crusher" Creel, is kind of a neat one in itself.

And last night's episode unleashed the show's secret weapon in the battle to make this humans-and-superhumans theme interesting: the incredible acting powers of Ming-Na Wen, who plays Agent Melinda May.

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Melinda May pretty much owned this episode (which was even called "Melinda"), and in the process, she made a strong claim of ownership over the show as a whole. Considering that she seemed like a bland "badass with baggage, who doesn't play well with others" in the show's early episodes, it's amazing to see how many layers were lurking under the surface.

We finally got to see Melinda's foundational trauma, which is also the reason why she got the much-despised nickname "The Cavalry," and it did not fail to live up to the hype.

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The Bahrain Incident

A big chunk of this episode is taken up with flashbacks to an incident in Bahrain, where Melinda and Coulson are sent to deal with a superpowered Russian woman named Eva Belyakov, who seems to have super-strength.

Eva is actually one of the Inhumans, and the real threat is her young daughter, Katya — Eva defied the leader of the Inhumans, Jiaying, and exposed the unstable Katya to the Terrigen mists, unlocking some horrific mind-control powers along with an insatiable psychic vampirism that feeds off people's pain. Because Jiaying failed to keep a lid on Eva and Katya, they're out in the world, posing a huge threat to ordinary people.

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SHIELD goes to Bahrain to try and bring Eva in peacefully, but she's already taken up with a group of criminals (or maybe the criminals are under Katya's control, it's not clear.) So the mission goes horribly South, and the whole SHIELD team is taken over. To make matters worse, Melinda May is convinced that Katya is an innocent victim, and her top priority is to get the little girl out safely. Instead, Melinda is forced to shoot Katya to save everyone else.

And yeesh, that little girl is terrifically creepy.

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The surprise that the real "monster" here is Eva's daughter is kept under wraps pretty well, and gets sprung in a clever, insane way.

Melinda is partly fixated on saving the little girl not just because she's an innocent in a warzone, but also because she's been thinking about having kids herself. We see a completely different version of Melinda in the early scenes — happy, well-adjusted, and in a functional relationship with her husband Andrew. Ming-Na Wen really deserves all the awards for the transformation she pulls off over the course of this episode.

The bit where Melinda calls her husband for advice, before going into the warehouse full of compromised SHIELD agents and thugs, is especially moving and sad. His advice is all about how to protect the girl, and how to gain her trust so Melinda can get her out safely.

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When Melinda does get home, as she promised Andrew, she's a shell of her former self, traumatized by that scary little girl and the fact that Melinda had to kill her instead of saving her. Having children is off the table, and so is joining the Avengers Initiative with Phil Coulson. She takes the desk job that we saw her in, at the start of the series.

Project Theta

Meanwhile, in the present day, Melinda has apparently taken Robert Gonzales' offer to join the "Real SHIELD" and is now in charge of the base that Coulson had been using as his HQ.

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And over the course of the episode, Melinda is confronted with scads of evidence that Coulson was up to something nefarious behind everyone's back. All those months where Coulson was flying around the world trying to recruit people to join his new version of SHIELD, he was apparently instead recruiting people for a secret initiative called Project Theta — one which involves stockpiling lots of superpowered people and turning them into weapons, or something.

Coulson allegedly built a facility with loads of bunk beds, and was recruiting scientists and experts to manage his stable of superpowered folks. (Although, with all that effort, he ought to have more than just Skye and Mike Peterson to show for it, right?) And the worst betrayal? He apparently was meeting in secret with Melinda's ex-husband Andrew.

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Is any of this true? Probably not. Coulson seems as though he was confiding in May about everything, including his compulsion to draw on the walls under the influence of his Kree blood infusion. And it's hard to square any of this with the Coulson we've been seeing for the past year. At the same time, Fury's "toolbox" contains lots of weird secrets, which is what Fury was known for in general.

The real question is whether Melinda believes any of this stuff about Coulson — and there, it's hard to tell. She certainly seems open to the idea, but she's got an amazing poker face. Our last glimpse of present-day May shows her looking at some files, including the photo of Coulson and her ex-husband, and maybe noticing something wrong.

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Meanwhile, Melinda takes it seriously enough to order Simmons to open the toolbox — which is going to be tough, since Simmons has a fake, and the real toolbox is out in the wind with Fitz.

Speaking of which, the "Real SHIELD" let Fitz leave, but they've been following him ever since, hoping he'll lead them to Coulson. At the end of the episode, Fitz is in a fast-food restaurant bathroom, where he manages to activate the toolbox and contact Coulson and Lance. There, they tell him how to get rid of his tail, by some means that begins with the hot-air dryer.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Skye is once again in the Inhumans' gated community, learning about her powers and reconnecting with Jiaying — whom Skye finally realizes is her mother in this episode. The Inhumans storyline continues to be a slow boil, to say the least, and I'm still waiting for it to reach a compelling point, or hit on a strong conflict. Up till now, it's mostly been a series of fun easter eggs for fans of the Inhumans from the comics.

The good news, this time around, is that the flashbacks about Eva and Katya connects up neatly with the Inhumans storyline. And the death of Katya has a lot of emotional weight because of how horribly we see it affecting Melinda May — so it's a powerful cautionary tale about how wrong things can go if the Inhumans aren't careful.

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We still have only a vague sense of how Inhuman society actually functions — it seems kind of hippie-ish, but at the same time there are careful controls over who gets to be exposed to the Terrigen mists and develop superpowers. And there are hints that people who break that rule (as Skye inadvertently did) can be punished really severely.

In fact, the Inhumans have a certain amount in common with SHIELD — both groups try to keep superpowers from being wielded by the wrong people. The Inhumans just have a more touchy-feely façade, plus they're people with powers trying to control powers, rather than "normal" people trying to suppress or exploit them.

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What the Melinda May flashbacks show, pretty powerfully, is how difficult it can be to tell the victim from the aggressor, in a world of weird abilities. And also, a one-size-fits-all approach, like SHIELD's "index," won't always work.

In any case, Skye gets enough control over her powers to cause an avalanche, and to play music on some glasses of water — which then break, but whatever. And she opens up to Jiaying about her abandonment issues and the fact that she's never had a permanent home. Which leads to Jiaying revealing that she's Skye's mother (but this has to be their secret). And there's even a moderately non-creepy family reunion dinner with Skye and both of her parents, with Cal on his least-bad behavior.

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Meanwhile, Raina is feeling pretty bitter — and despite the fact that she didn't want to be alone and craved the presence of others like herself a few episodes ago, now she just wants to leave the Inhumans' cult compound. She's perfecting the art of self-pity, no matter how much Gordon and Lincoln try to reach her. Until Gordon finally promises to show her the world (as long as she stays hidden) and she seems moved.

Also, Raina's power is revealed — she's a clairvoyant, since her nightmare about Skye's happy dinner with her father comes true. It's sort of funny that Raina, who used to be a minion of a charlatan who called himself the Clairvoyant actually is a clairvoyant now.

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All in all, this episode not only confirmed Melinda May as one of the show's most complex and fascinating characters — it also managed to take the ongoing theme of dealing with powered people, and focus it into a real, solid gutpunch.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.

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