ByTom Bacon, writer at Creators.co
I'm a film-and-TV fan who grew up with a deep love of superhero comics! Follow me on Twitter @TomABacon or on Facebook @tombaconsuperheroes!
Tom Bacon

Pretty much since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched in 2013, two will-they-won't-they relationships have fascinated fans. On the one hand, you have FitzSimmons: so set up for shipping that the series even gave you the name to go by. On the other, you have Philinda: a prospective relationship between Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson and Ming-Na Wen's Agent May.

As the years have passed, the show has enjoyed teasing viewers with hints and red herrings (never more so than with the introduction of May's ex-husband). But Season 4 has made the nods explicit, and in the latest episode — "The Man Behind The Shield" — we finally got to understand the complicated relationship between the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

The Early Years

"The Man Behind The Shield" takes us back to 's early days; he's earnest as ever, but a lot more inept. One of Coulson's missions is going a little awry — Coulson is too trusting in his glib tongue — but fortunately he has unexpected help; he may not have asked for a Specialist, but Agent May decided to volunteer to come along. So we get to experience a series of flashbacks that explore the early relationship between Coulson and May.

In those early days, there are clear sparks between the two, undoubtedly not helped by the fact that their first mission together involved pretending to be husband and wife. Apparently Coulson's gentlemanly ways weren't to May's taste; she mocks that he took two minutes to unhook her bra! Still, the banter between Coulson and May is highly flirtatious, and Coulson makes his interest very visible indeed.

Unfortunately for Coulson, May has always preferred to date civilians. In fact, she's just started dating a shrink, but she assures him that when that fails, her & Coulson can go get a drink...

The Andrew Garner Years

May and Andrew Garner. [Credit: ABC]
May and Andrew Garner. [Credit: ABC]

The 'shrink' in question, of course, is Blair Underwood's Andrew Garner — and, for a time, things worked out. Unusually, it seems that May chose to open up about her real career to Garner, trusting him with her life in a way few spies do; as a result, years later, he'd be one of the few people Phil Coulson would trust to run psyche-evaluations on new Inhumans.

For a time, May was happy; she and Andrew even considered starting a family. Then, in 2008, a mission to Bahrain went badly wrong. May was forced to kill a child, the young Inhuman Katya Belyakov, and she was left emotionally devastated. She reported in to Coulson that the girl died in crossfire, and she only told Andrew the truth; that she had been left no choice but to kill a child.

Over the next five years, May's name slipped into legend. Her actions in Bahrain were viewed as heroism, as she'd single-handedly rescued an entire S.H.I.E.L.D. task-force; she became known as the Cavalry. Meanwhile, though, May withdrew emotionally from the rest of the world, settling for a desk job while her relationship with Doctor Garner crumbled. The two ultimately divorced.

'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Season 1

The cast of Season 1! [Credit: ABC]
The cast of Season 1! [Credit: ABC]

All of this adds a new element to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, where we initially see Coulson seek out May and request her as his pilot. It's an attempt to reach out, to connect to someone he still truly cares about — not least because the world believes him to be dead, so he doesn't have many people he can connect with left. At the same time, though, it's an unparalleled act of compassion; an attempt to use his new role as a team-leader to reach out to a person he can see is emotionally scarred.

Ironically, of course, at this stage the relationship between Coulson and May was based on lies. Nick Fury himself had tasked May with monitoring Coulson, and she had guided his hand to shape the team. Her goal? To ensure the right people were on board to put Coulson down, should it ever become necessary.

"Someone who could repair your body, a technician who could reprogram your brain, and a specialist to help me put you down if it had to be done. But I didn't do it for Fury. I did it for you, to protect you! I - You mean a lot to me. A lot. To hear you were dead... you may not believe me, but that's the truth."

Naturally, all secrets will eventually be brought into the light, and this devastated Coulson — to the point he even shot her with an ICER. From that moment on, though, the relationship between Coulson and May became a lot more complicated.

Andrew Garner's Return

Exhausted and near-broken by the events of Season 2, May decided to take a chance; she returned to her ex-husband, Andrew Garner, and the two attempted reconciliation. To May's heartbreak, though, Garner abandoned her; what she didn't know was that he'd been exposed to Terrigen, and had become the monstrous Lash.

Season 3 was a tragic one for Melinda May. When she learned the truth, May did everything she could to save Andrew; but ultimately the monster took control, and she lost him to Lash's animal instincts. Season 4's hints of romance between Coulson and May need to be set against this backdrop; wisely, Coulson stepped back and allowed her time to grieve, then tentatively suggested they finally get that drink. Of course, what Coulson didn't know was that he was chatting up an LMD...

See also:

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a smart series; the writers have a deep understanding of their core characters, and often they'll circle back to add fresh detail to the stories we've already seen. "The Man Behind The Shield" is one of those tremendously intelligent episodes, forcing us to re-evaluate the relationship we've seen between Coulson and May since as far back as 2013. But will these two agents overcome the odds and wind up together after all?

Only time — and the rest of Season 4 — will tell...

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