Agents of SHIELD – Season 2 Episode 17
Agents of SHIELD finally details the events that lead to May becoming known as “The Cavalry” as Skye finally learns about her family.
Season 2 of Agents of SHIELD is unmistakably a step up from the mediocrity that was the first season and episodes like this are a big part of the reason why. There was a lot of nicely constructed character beats within this story that really worked on a number of levels.
The central theme here was motherhood and all of the main character stories explored this concept in different and interesting ways. I’ll come to the title character a bit later but firstly I’ll talk a bit about Skye since this season is using her as the overall avatar for the audience to come to understand the Inhumans and their way of life.
Skye is at a crossroads currently after having realised her true heritage and she’s starting to get an idea of what the implications of that really are. Throughout her life Skye identified herself as an orphan who never belonged anywhere. She wants to belong somewhere but is afraid of getting her hopes up as it never ends well. As she said she has never been in one place for long enough to lay down roots or forge any meaningful relationships. There’s a sense of melancholy to the way she describes it and it’s very evident that it’s not something she lets herself feel very often. She buries it behind a cloak of sarcasm and awkward humour instead of really dealing with her issues. It’s interesting that she chooses to open up to Jiaying so quickly and suggests that she feels the connection to her mother -and by extension her people- without knowing who she really was.
The scenes between Skye and Jiaying were excellent with both actresses turning in really strong performances. It was a nice touch that Jiaying was unable to hold her composure after hearing Skye’s sad story about her formative years and told her the truth. As a mother she saw her daughter was hurting and her maternal instincts kicked in to do something about it. She could make her daughter feel better and didn’t hesitate despite the fact that it was against the rules of the Inhuman society.
That in itself adds an interesting dimension to this whole thing. Jiaying is in charge of this society and makes a point of leading by example which makes not showing favouritism. It’s a big part of why she chose to hide the truth from Skye because if everyone else knew then they might see it as holding her daughter above everyone else. Lincoln sort of sees through it as Jiaying has never been known for training anyone in the whole time he’s been there.
It’s a basic “blood is thicker than water” message but it feels sincere. Jiaying has to be careful in case she loses the support and respect of the other Inhumans but she also doesn’t want her daughter to feel alone. I dare say she will face some significant challenges to her authority once word starts to spread.
For Skye this is an important episode as she finds most of her questions answered. She finds out her birthday, the fact that she’s a year older than she thought she was and even gets to hear about the day she was born while sharing a meal with both of her parents. It’s a really nice family moment that probably serves as the calm before a very large storm on the horizon.
Seeing Skye learn more about her powers was really cool. I like that she managed to tap into them in both subtle and profound ways. The scene where she causes an avalanche intentionally was a cool effect and showed a little bit of the scale of her abilities. I liked the contrasting scene where she simply tried to hold a note created by a glass full of water. She did it for a while before smashing them all. It was an understated practical effect that gave an effective demonstration of her powers and shows that you don’t have to have large scale destruction to show powers in creative ways.
As an aside to that Raina’s contrasting experience to Skye was nicely handled. I found Gordon’s statements about Raina’s change being beautiful and how acceptance of it would let her discover the truth about her ability to be slightly hypocritical considering she’s not allowed to leave her room. It’s difficult to feel free when you’re isolated from others. Her emotional state is a fragile one so it’s understandable that letting her interact with others would fill people with trepidation but it’s not helping her trust others. Seeing the different side to Gordon when he got angry with Lincoln for being ignorant to the psychological implications of physical changes. He’s normally so sedate and calm so seeing that he still remembers that pain and it makes him angry is a nice touch.
May’s part of the story was equally compelling and was an effective use of flashbacks. Seeing how May acted around her husband in the beginning was a welcome sight echoing the scenes in “One of Us” where she seemed to be more relaxed and personable. It’s a good side of the character and gives Ming-Na Wen a little more depth to play with as an actress. The early discussions about wanting a family were perhaps a little heavy handed given what is to come but it really worked for me. it’s nice to see that May is a well rounded person who at one time in her life had those sorts of hopes and dreams.
It was also really cool to see a pre Iron Man Coulson who seemed very wide eyed and enthusiastic. He’s still like that now but has been bittered by his recent experiences. It’s easy to forget that he used to be this naive seeming agent type who would surprise with his competence so it was good to revisit that.
Coulson’s role was very much a sideline to the real story here. The show has made a lot of the fact that May was given the nickname “The Cavalry” after a mission in Bahrain that changed her so much that she moved completely away from field work to willingly take a desk job. The question of what happened has lingered over the show since the very first episode so it was only a matter of time before it was revealed.
We recently learned that in Bahrain May took out someone with powers and the episode plays to those expectations of it being as simple as that until pretty much the last minute. Coulson briefs his team on a mission involving tracking down someone with super strength to use as an asset. He even references Fury’s idea to bring together the Avengers and suggests that this could be part of that.
Naturally the plan quickly goes haywire and a young girl is kidnapped. May feeling all paternal after talking about starting a family really has to save her so angrily storms in to confront the metahuman. The action from May taking on lots of henchmen to fighting a metahuman with super strength is incredibly well done. May is outmatched by a woman with super strength but fights on through sheer determination and manages to win in the end.
The twist comes when the woman’s daughter turns out to have the power of feeding on the emotions of others by simply touching them. It has the added effect of making them obedient to her so May quickly finds herself completely overwhelmed. Jiaying’s story about the previous time that someone underwent Terrigenesis without authorisation being told as May discovers this really well done. The binary revelation of the darkness within the girl as May found out the truth was an impressive piece of editing.
May’s only option was to shoot her to put an end to it and that’s the thing that changes her. She finds it difficult to live with herself after killing someone so young. Coulson’s assurances that she’s done good and is a hero fall on deaf ears as the impact of what May has done really settles in. It’s plain to see why this would change her and I can fill in the blanks about how this caused her marriage to fall apart. The scene where her husband tried to reassuringly take her hand dredging up the memory of what she’d done was effective and tragic.
I did think that “The Cavalry” nickname was a bit shoehorned in. It wasn’t really obvious why the other agents would choose that term to describe what she did and it feels like it was only used to fill in that gap. It’s such a minor niggle given the strength of the storytelling surrounding that.
Taking a bit of a back seat in this episode is Coulson’s feud with the “real S.H.I.E.L.D.” and rightly so given the focus on other aspects this week. It is still present though and does a good job of raising some interesting questions. The most burning of these questions is what the mysterious Theta protocol is. Coulson is doing this project -as far as we know- on his own and it’s a massive undertaking involving shell companies and other clandestine stuff. I have a few theories as to what this could turn out to be but I won’t share them quite yet. I’m fairly sure it won’t be anything nefarious because I still think that Coulson is fundamentally a good person but I am discouraged by him being so incredibly secretive to those he claims to trust. I’m sure it won’t take long to get to the truth and I wonder if this will tie into the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.