The majority of reviews for Melinda have been pretty glowing, but there are a handful out there throwing a fit that a) Bahrain was underwhelming and utilized the “worst/most clichéd trope on television” - a character having to kill a child - and b) Melinda’s backstory was revealed at all, because she should have stayed ~mysterious. (My favourites are the comments on the reviews going on and on about how Iain is the best actor on the show and how Fitz should get so much more based on the thirty seconds he was on screen, in spite of the incredible emotional range Ming Na and Chloe and Dichen and Ruth delivered to us for a solid forty minutes, not to mention all season.)
And those reviews miss the point completely, because I think a lot of shows would have taken a route where Melinda’s trauma boiled down to violence committed to her in Bahrain, where May takes down all of those men after being tortured or raped or sexually assaulted in the warehouse, or a route where Melinda suffers a miscarriage in the process of fighting her way out, showing her robbed of her agency either by force or by trauma committed on her body. Those reviewers would rather a world where that happened, where that was taken away from her as long as we got some massive epic kickass fight scene at the end.
But what Agents of SHIELD did with Melinda was pretty rare, in that Bahrain is a trauma that comes not from violence committed on her but by her, in impossible circumstances. She did the worst thing imaginable in her mind, and it wasn’t taking down thirty men with her bare hands, it was having to take out the child who was doing so. And while the impact of this choice was distinctly gendered by her desire to be a mother and have children of her own, the show also managed to avoid essentializing her down to this mother-that-could-be. Agent Melinda May made that call and Melinda decided in the aftermath that she could no longer have faith in herself to be a mother. Melinda wasn’t robbed of motherhood by biology - the oft-used missing your age window to have a child trope - or by force, her choice to not be a mother afterwards instead hinged directly on a choice she herself had made on that fateful day.
As betweentwoceremonials has pointed out before, the point is that Bahrain wasn’t this big, earth shattering affair. It wasn’t the stuff of legends. It was a difficult choice, a personal tragedy, a quiet end to a life that was pretty damn perfect. The agents with her – men, mostly – spun it into a legend that they could make sense of, and it is this version of the story that circulated in SHIELD. Easier, perhaps, to be in awe - and distance of - a legend than to empathize with the woman who made the hardest of choices.
The Cavalry legend - a ridiculous tale of guns and horseback and impossible badassery - is what those reviewers were expecting. What we got instead was the story of Melinda, the story of Katya, and one quiet, devastating choice in a warehouse in Bahrain. And it was one hell of a lot more poignant than any fantasy they had about what happened could have ever been.