Amid the comics-inspired shenanigans that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has fostered over its five seasons lurks an underlying thread of threats which spur from motherhood, particularly the relationship between mothers and daughters. A prime example is Daisy Johnson’s search for identity after growing up as an orphan. She discovers a mother figure in Melinda May and ultimately bears witness to her own birth mother’s death after almost getting killed by her.
While the show views motherhood as an inevitable milestone in a woman’s existence, it’s certainly not a positive one. Motherhood in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. equals a tremendous level of sacrifice, and most of the mothers in the show suffer because of it.
Introduced in Season 3, Polly, a non-superpowered civilian, is the most traditional of the mothers featured on the show. Her daughter, Robin, is an Inhuman with the ability to see the future, but she has difficulty describing her future visions. Instead, she chronicles them in a series of drawings. Robin is bombarded with images of the past, present, and future, and every picture she draws is a puzzle that’s begging to be solved. Polly must not only still act as a mother to her young daughter, but she takes on the burden of the interpreter for Robin’s pictures.
Polly considers herself as Robin’s anchor to reality, since the little girl doesn’t perceive time in the same way as everyone else. She understands that her daughter’s gift might save the world someday and she’s determined to protect her. Robin’s ability has taught Polly to view her life through a lens of resignation. Inevitably, Polly understands that Robin will one day call someone else “Mom.” She is explicitly aware of her impending death. Someone else will take over as Robin’s mother in the future, and all Polly can do is offer her daughter kindness and support until that day comes. She must continue being a mother, knowing that her daughter, humanity’s sage, will be protected even after she’s gone.
Daisy’s birth mother, the leader of a small group of Inhumans in the isolated city of Afterlife, is the purported mother of that village, and was, years before she gave birth to Daisy. Jiaying ushers every single Inhuman through the frightening and often painful aftereffects of Terrigenesis, and as each Inhuman awakens to their new power, she’s there to lead them through that suffering. Since Jiaying also chooses who would go through Terrigenesis, she figuratively gives birth to new Inhumans. When her daughter Daisy awakes to her power, Jiaying helps her understand and control her power as well.
Daisy’s relationship with her birth mother is more tumultuous than her relationship with Melinda May. Jiaying gives Daisy an identity, as well as a heritage, but Jiaying’s isolationist ways clash with Daisy’s belief that Inhumans can work with regular humanity for the benefit of the entire world. When Jiaying can’t convince her daughter to come to her side, she tries to kill Daisy. “I always believed the reason I endured all the torture and pain was for you, that you were my true gift. But you’re not. This is,” she says as she uses her power to nearly murder her daughter. Jiaying rejects her motherhood for the sake of her beliefs, and it destroys her family. In the aftermath, Daisy decides to focus on the positive aspects of her mother’s legacy. She continues her mother’s work, protecting Inhumans, but without as much bloodshed.
Jemma catches a glimpse of her impending motherhood during Season 5’s time travel story arc. Deke Shaw, a scavenger who aids our time traveling heroes, is Jemma and Fitz’s future grandson. Although Jemma isn’t a mother yet, this revelation substantially changes the way she views her life. Using Deke’s existence as her version of the Back to the Future McFly family photo, Jemma feels assured that she and Fitz can’t die. Jemma views her motherhood as a scientific experiment, and she takes insanely dangerous risks because she buys into her immortality.
But where does that invincibility go when Jemma finally gives birth? Jemma's sudden vomiting fit might be a clue that she's already pregnant, and when she becomes a mother, all bets are off. Her immortality will dissipate as soon as she has her child. Also, the timeline that Jemma is in now might not be a closed loop of cause and effect, but entirely new. Deke's existence might occur independently of the loop. Jemma views her immortality scientifically, but a massive dollop of faith comes with it as well. And believing in something doesn't make it real.
In the episode “The Honeymoon,” HYDRA wunderkind Ruby confesses to her mother that “You’re my one weakness, Mom!” Their subsequent hug is intense, tremulous, and ultimately just for show. The camera focuses on Ruby’s tear-stained face as it subtly switches from abject fear to sudden resolve. “And I’m yours,” she whispers, just before slamming her mother to the ground and escaping.
The show covers Hale’s HYDRA history in a lengthy flashback sequence. She’s the top of her class at HYDRA Academy, which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. depicts as a kind of all-Slytherin version of Hogwarts. She’s the only female student in her class, and her grades and conduct are exemplary. When she’s called in to meet with HYDRA top brass, Hale believes she’s getting tapped for a something which makes use of her unique talents, but the HYDRA commander says that she will be the birth mother of the future leader of HYDRA. The plan is to create a genetically enhanced human who will become the organization’s best leader since Red Skull. Despite Hale's perfect record and her loyalty to the cause, HYDRA only wants her for her uterus. She knows the price of insubordination, so she continues to follow HYDRA’s orders. On the outset, she’s well-rewarded for that loyalty. She finds a spot within the US military, and she’s in so thick that not even the colossal HYDRA reveal in the finale of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was enough to ferret her out. She raises Ruby harshly, more like a drill sergeant than a mother, and Ruby comes out of the ordeal just as planned: the perfect HYDRA soldier. And yet Ruby betrays her mother, because what’s HYDRA except for a big ol’ betrayal factory?
Hale sacrifices much of her life for HYDRA and ends up with nothing by the end. When Ruby is killed, Hale gets her motherhood stripped away as well. One might see this situation as inevitable. HYDRA has had a long history of exploiting its people for the sake of furthering the organization’s agenda (big ol' betrayal factory, remember?), and it’s hard to muster up a lot of sympathy for Hale because she chose to side herself with Marvel’s Science Nazis.
No discussion of the mothers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is complete without Momma May. May is protective and stoic, an agent whose practical nature balances out Coulson at his most heroic and self-sacrificing. Coulson, however, says that “May used to be different. She was always quiet. She was just...she was warm.” In flashbacks, May is shown as happily married and looking forward to her future. She and her husband Andrew plan on having kids, but as they’re both so career-driven, starting a family is difficult. May’s Bahrain mission, where she kills a young Inhuman child to protect the lives of her fellow agents, fundamentally changes her. Her yearning for motherhood breaks after this, and while S.H.I.E.L.D. lauds her as a hero (Bahrain is where she earned her nickname “The Cavalry”), she views this mission as a fundamental failure. Her marriage collapses. She grows outwardly cold. All aspects of her traditional femininity are stripped away, and all that’s left is a by-the-book badass who, despite her kindness, refuses to get close to anyone.
May's demeanor begins to change as she trains Daisy to become a field agent. Daisy goes from a hacktivist slacker to competent fighter within a year, and when Daisy anguishes over her identity as an Inhuman, May sets her straight. “I don't give a damn about your powers. They're not what made you an agent. I did." May gives Daisy the kind of tough love she needs. Daisy believed she found purpose in the hacking community, only to face egotistical dudes who only cared about their reputation and skills and not much about making a real difference. Momma May provides her an identity, and Daisy gives May a purpose.
And Daisy’s not the only one who has benefited from having May as a surrogate mom. Robin does too. In one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most innovative plot twists, the central team is thrust some 70 years into the future, where the Earth has been destroyed, and the remnants of humanity populate a refugee space colony run by the Kree. May meets an elderly Robin and discovers that she will become Robin’s mom. Through this relationship, May is finally allowed to be soft. She is finally permitted to display her kind heart publicly. She is given guardianship of a young Inhuman girl the way she couldn’t do all those years ago in Bahrain. She embarks on a path to redemption, becoming the mother she always wished she were.
Momma May for Best Mom.