So I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the parallel construction is one of my favorite things about the MCU. There are instances of it all over, some of them obviously intentional and some of them possibly accidental, but what I’ve noticed is they all provide a really great place to jump into analytical meta.
And equally interesting is what I’ve tentatively termed reverse-parallel construction, where there are details that stand in direct opposite to each other to highlight the differences between surface-similar stories. One of these I’ve been thinking about since SHIELD’s 2.17, “Melinda,” is the sharp contrast between Melinda’s (Ming-Na Wen) backstory and Jack Thompson’s (Chad Michael Murray) in Agent Carter.
So here is our chart and here is our analysis.
When we first meet Melinda May in the pilot, she’s sitting at her desk doing paperwork. She’s wearing a white button up and she looks mildly content being left alone. Coulson comes over to ask her to drive the Bus, she agrees, and later we find out this was a pre-planned exchange as far as she was concerned but that’s not the point. She’s coming out of retirement, as it were.
When we first meet Jack Thompson in the pilot, he’s in a meeting being essentially just another jackass in a room full of jackasses, only distinguished by the fact that we know that he’ll become a main character because he used to be on One Tree Hill and most of the jackasses are nobody. He’s already at home in his world.
But as both of their stories progress, we learn that both characters have dramatic heroic pasts in the line of duty. Here’s the first difference: we see Melinda both ran from hers and doesn’t want to talk about it (despite the legends built up around it), whereas Thompson has let the legends around him build.
Melinda’s known as “The Cavalry” because of a mysterious incident from her past, referred to as “Bahrain,” that caused her to quit fieldwork. It’s been sold as a legendary event, because few remember the actual mission and no one but Melinda knows what actually happened, and the rumors have become increasingly ridiculous (some involving an army, others involving a horse). When we finally learn the real story, it is neither ridiculous nor amusing: her team tried to retrieve a superpowered woman named Eva Belyakov, who took both a young girl, Katya, and the team of agents who attempted to rescue said girl hostage. Melinda went in alone and learned that the agents, who were now protecting Eva, were being mind-controlled, and that it was not Eva but Katya, her daughter, who was controlling them. Melinda tried to subdue her but eventually had no choice but to shoot the girl in self-defense, and the agents remembered nothing about their time until Katya’s control. Only Melinda knew what she had done, and it devastated her; she immediately requested a transfer to a desk job and her refusal to tell her then-husband what was hurting her led to their divorce. The episode gives it the gravity it deserves and really communicates Melinda’s agony to the audience.
Thompson’s angst-causing event, on the other hand, is revealed in a quiet moment as the characters sit around a fire. As he explains it, during a military operation in Okinawa, Japan, he was on guard duty and spotted a group of Japanese soldiers coming towards his camp and reacted without thinking, shooting them all. Only after they were all dead did he see that they were carrying a white flag, intending to surrender. He buried the white flag so that none of his fellow soldiers would see it and they treated the incident as if he had saved them. Later, he received a Navy Cross for his actions, and never told anyone the truth until his confession to Peggy and the other Commandos.
Melinda’s trauma comes from having to make a difficult choice in order to protect others and herself; Thompson’s from a mistake he made thinking he was in the right. Melinda feels shame for her actions and refuses to allow anyone to talk about it, while Thompson goes along with the assumption of his heroism because he wants to feel better about himself. Essentially, Melinda thought first, shot last, while Thompson shot first, thought last.
And then there’s the fact of how they let their respective traumas affect how they treat others. Melinda is stoic, seemingly struggling to let others in, but she repeatedly risks her life to protect her teammates, even when they barely know each other at the series’ beginning. She offers sympathy to Skye (Chloe Bennet) after the bomb about Ward is dropped and eventually takes her under her wing; she’s kind and careful with Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) at the beginning of season two when nobody else is getting through to him after his brain injury; she even goes so far as to tell Jemma (Elizabeth Henstridge) that she told Bobbi (Adrianne Palicki) and her “real SHIELD” about the fake data cube to protect her. She lets her knowledge of the world serve as a motivator for her to protect others.
Thompson, meanwhile, continues to be the jackass we saw in his first scene. He condescends to Peggy (Hayley Atwell) simply because she’s a woman; he makes fun of Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) for his disability and for his attempts at compassion toward others. The only time he shows any other side of himself is when he tells the story about his trauma, and then he’s back to the same old guy.
It’s also interesting to look at how each of them responds to the idea of being in authority over others. In addition to having to be coaxed back into the field, Melinda is extremely reluctant to assume a position of authority. She doesn’t want to lead missions; she doesn’t want to give orders. She’s content just driving the Bus and occasionally shooting or punching people when asked. She wants to follow the mission parameters she’s given. In the episode with the Berserker staff, she ends up wielding it partially under protest; it’s clear she’s uncomfortable with being in the spotlight to that degree. And when “real SHIELD” makes themselves known and Gonzales offers her a position on the board, she declines. Melinda May does not want to be in charge of anything or anyone, because she doesn’t want to risk things going horrifically wrong again.
Thompson, on the other hand, assumes authority even when he hasn’t been asked to. He operates under the assumption that the person with the greatest will to power should be in charge, which is generally him. And regardless of how the other people in the party feel about it, he will attempt to hold onto his tenuous authority at all costs.
The reverse-parallel of Melinda May and Jack Thompson is also keenly illustrated by the closing shots of them at the end of the most recent seasons. Melinda is seen heading off on a presumably tropical vacation by herself, smiling because she’s finally feeling some semblance of comfort with herself and with what she’s done. Thompson is seen being again congratulated by bureaucrats for something that he didn’t entirely do – certainly he helped in the final mission, but he’s being given credit for Peggy’s work and not dissuading those giving said credit. He too is smiling, but because of external motivations that aren’t based in truth.
Essentially, Melinda is finally starting to see herself as a potential hero, while the very act of Thompson’s being lauded as one makes him the opposite.
–your fangirl heroines.