Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season wrapped up a couple weeks ago, and despite all its very numerous problems, I am still in love with the show. And it’s thanks to characters like Skye that I can say that. She’s resourceful, smart, and after gaining the ability to control the vibrations in everything around her, she is now both an earthbender and a waterbender.
And if her character keeps going the way she is, like her comic counterpart, she’ll be the director of S.H.I.E.L.D someday. But while Skye is hardly the only good thing about S.H.I.E.L.D., I feel completely different about her parents. Cal’s and Jiaying’s storylines were interesting and fun to watch at first, but by the time the season ended, S.H.I.E.L.D. did such a poor job with them that I wonder what was going through the writers’ heads.
Spoilers for all of the current S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes after the jump.
When we first meet Skye’s parents, we are tricked into believing that her mother, Jiaying, is dead, and that her father, Cal, was driven mad as a result and started murdering people. After all, Jiaying was cut up into pieces by Whitehall, and her mangled, mutilated body was left for Cal to find. While this was annoying to watch, because the narrative pretty much fridged Jiaying for Cal’s manpain, it was hardly the end of their storyline. We eventually discover that with Cal’s help, Jiaying survived the torture Whitehall put her through, and now she runs a sanctuary dedicated to helping all the other Inhumans and keeping them safe. The story then attempts to trick us again: Jiaying is presented as a kind, caring motherly figure who wants to do what’s right for her people, while Cal is presented as an emotionally destructive and unstable force whose only redeeming quality is his devotion to Jiaying and Skye.
As our story continues unraveling, Jiaying is revealed to be evil and manipulative. Her experience with Whitehall left her cold and distrustful of all humans. Eventually, when S.H.I.E.L.D. extends a peace offering and meets with Jiaying, she turns on them and starts a war. And, as she continues on this path, Jiaying eventually turns on Skye as well and tries to kill her. Cal saves Skye by killing Jiaying instead.
This entire arc gave Cal a redemption his character didn’t really deserve, and I am a firm believer that any redemption storyline should have gone to Raina instead. During the finale, in a conversation with Coulson, we learn that Cal didn’t really want to kill people, and that he only did it because Jiaying made him. Except for, you know, all those people he killed on his own throughout the entire damn season, without Jiaying coaching him to do it. Meanwhile, Jiaying is turned into a flat, uninteresting villain.
Jiaying being evil wasn’t that shocking, and it was certainly something I could get behind. In the first season we have hearsay that tells us both of Skye’s parents are monsters, and while the reveal behind Jiaying’s actions could have been set up a bit better, it was something that I liked seeing. I especially liked what was going on because it pitted Jiaying and Raina against each other. Raina, who figured out what Jiaying was up to before it happened, ended up turning on her and trying to help Skye. This gave us a potential redemption for Raina and an interesting turn of events for Jiaying.
We also get a few really good moments with Jiaying’s character. When speaking to Gonzales about an alliance between the Inhumans and S.H.I.E.L.D., he makes a comment that Hydra has damaged and scarred them both. This sets her off, and she kills him while saying:
How dare you compare your scars to mine? You’re nothing like me, like us. Whitehall cut me to pieces. He ripped out my organs and stuffed them in jars! I will never let that happen to my daughter. To any of my people.
So we do learn about Jiaying’s motivations, and for a moment, she is an awesome villain with valid reasons. I, like other members of this blog, was actually on Jiaying’s side when she said that to Gonzales (except for the whole violence, death, and destruction part). Their pain is not the same, or even remotely close to each other. Gonzales trivialized the horror she had gone through by comparing it to his limp. In this moment Jiaying loses control over her own emotions, and this is the first time we really see her angry. So Jiaying is a complex character. She has a motherly connection with Skye and a pain-filled past fueling her protective nature of the Inhumans and her distrust for humanity. S.H.I.E.L.D. had a lot of good opportunities with her character. And even Cal’s redemption wasn’t too abhorrent. Redemption storylines are not bad. They present us with another alternative to solving problems and a way for characters to reconcile their differences peacefully with each other. The problem with Cal and Jiaying is that Cal’s redemption comes at Jiaying’s expense.
We never see why Cal deserves to be redeemed. His love for his daughter doesn’t change the things he’s done, and we’re only told by Coulson that Jiaying forced him to be a murderer. At no point through Cal’s actions or his own words before that point is it even hinted at that he might not want to do bad things. Instead, we see him as a violent individual with clear psychiatric problems that are potentially driving his volatile nature—even though most psychiatric issues do not make people any more or less violent than they already are. Cal is still aware of what he’s doing, and he does it anyway. He even seems to revel in it.
Meanwhile, to help drive his redemption home, all of Jiaying’s development goes out the window. The story turns her into a boring, cliché villain who’s evil for evilness sake. Despite her love for Skye, Jiaying tries to kill her. Despite her love and devotion to the Inhumans, she leads them into a war and murders Raina, who’s also Inhuman. Jiaying’s progression into villainy is also rather half-assed. Despite one scene that’s all of two minutes long in which we see her comfort Gordon after his transformation, we never really get to see Jiaying before her torture. We hear from Cal that in order for her to stay alive forever, elder Inhumans would sacrifice their life forces for her, which used to cause her great emotional stress. Now she kills people indiscriminately. Because we only hear about what she was like from Cal and are not shown any of it, her development becomes less about her and more about driving Cal’s character through his redemption arc.
This is horrible writing on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s part, and it is part of a larger problem. All too often female characters are reduced to being props in male characters’ storylines, and that same thing happens here. Jiaying is a great character, but the story was so focused on Cal that it forgot to treat her as a person in her own right. This resulted in both Jiaying and Cal doing things that made no sense and didn’t fit their characterizations. The issue is made only worse by the fact that Cal is white while Jiaying is a woman of color. Though, S.H.I.E.L.D. has done a pretty decent job with its women of color—Skye, Melinda, and, to an extent, Raina—the intersection of race and misogyny doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Jiaying’s character could still have been evil and killed off, and Cal’s character could still have been redeemed, without the show giving into racist and misogynistic storytelling tropes. S.H.I.E.L.D. should have done better.