I finally got the chance to watch Marvel’s new show Agent Carter. I didn’t really plan on covering the show, just figured I’d take a bit of a break until Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes back its time slot, but after watching the two-hour premiere I’ve just got to talk about it.
The show takes place after Captain America: The First Avenger in the wake of Hydra’s defeat and Steve Roger’s “death”, following Peggy Carter as she adjusts to the new role her pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the S.S.R. serves in post-war America. Immediately noticeable is the impeccable retro aesthetic. The show dazzles with big band scores, dapper attire, and charming G.I. Generation lingo. The snark and pizzazz in everyone’s smooth radio voices could come off as rather cheesy if not for all the smart dialogue they deliver. I mean it, every character on this show so far brims with cheeky confidence and split-second quips that there’s no fighting the instinct to relax and enjoy.
I think the best part about this show’s character building is that it’s very honest. Peggy is a highly skilled and intelligent woman operating within a man’s world. She’s blatantly the only female in the office, once you pass the agency’s fake telephone company front. Her femininity is so isolated to the point where her male peers are convinced she must have slept her way into the position, despite her no-doubt notorious war record. The show is quick to introduce this era’s trademark sexism when male agents Jack Thompson and Ray Krzeminski openly mock her. Agent Daniel Sousa however, is quick to challenge Krzeminski and force him to apologize. When Krzeminski declines to take Sousa seriously, we learn that Sousa lost his leg in the war and gets around with a crutch. Interestingly, Peggy does not necessarily thank Sousa for standing up for her. She actually asks him not to do that again, clarifying that she’s more than capable of handling whatever these adolescents throw at her. She very subtly points out how Sousa’s chivalry is condescending. Sticking up for her surely would have been something Steve Rogers would have done, but Steve was also plainly aware of Peggy’s strength from the get-go. (Remember in The First Avenger when Peggy punched a cadet straight in the nose, and Steve smirked?) If Peggy isn’t being confrontational in the workplace, it’s for a reason. She’s a professional. She doesn’t hesitate to call out her peers on their sexism, but she isn’t going to make enemies out of her allies. She’ll put the men in her place, but she won’t antagonize them out of spite. Sousa hotheadedly challenged Krzeminski out of slightly misplaced nobility, and Peggy didn’t shy away from correcting him and then relating to him in the same stroke.
Honesty is key here, again. The male characters aren’t there just to function as blockhead cretins. Oh yes, they treat Peggy horribly, but the show makes sure we know they’re quite good at their jobs. Chief Dooley and Jack Thompson make a very good detective duo, and while Peggy’s undercover investigations are always ahead of the pack, they’re not far behind. An interrogation scene in the second episode is especially memorable. Dooley likens the perp’s situation to “fishing with buddies” and offers him a free pass if he helps him track down the bigger fish. When that doesn’t work, he leaves the room to let Thompson have his fists do the persuading. Dooley dismisses Peggy because this ain’t something a woman should see. Again, this is an honest portrayal of the cultural sexism of this era. It’s not malicious, it’s kind of a misplaced nobility where the guys truly believe this kind of gritty business is something to keep away from pretty ladies. Peggy simply says “You boys play nice.” But anyways, the fact that the boys aren’t dumb is bound to keep things buzzing in the show, because Peggy’s secret investigations on behalf of Howard Stark would crucify her professional career if they were discovered by any of her male cohorts. Yes, even Daniel Sousa I believe. Peggy is especially concerned with recovering some potential photographs from Sousa, of her undercover working a case she shouldn’t be. Because, is Sousa really the kind of guy who would put himself on the line for Peggy? We don’t know yet. Maybe if we ever get some back story into how exactly he lost his leg, we’ll get to know more about any potential self-sacrificing nature.
The story is simple and straightforward, but with plenty of twists and turns. The pacing is excellent, and has strong links to Marvel’s established universe. Howard Stark is under fire from the government for rumors that implicate him of selling weapons of mass destruction to the United States’ enemies. Howard eventually comes out of hiding to explain that his weapons were stolen, and enlists his old friend Peggy in a mission to clear his name. Howard gives her whatever information he can that will help her track down his missing weapons and then leaves his butler Edwin Jarvis to look after her and help however he can, while Howard himself travels to Europe to track down the bad gadgets that escaped overseas.
Jarvis though. Gosh, I love Jarvis. He’s the perfect counterpart for Peggy, staunchly proper, politely reserved, and of course incredibly English. Throughout the two episodes, Jarvis struggles adapting from the quiet home life with his lovely wife to the outrageous lifestyle of a secret agent, as well as convincing Agent Carter to employ his assistance. We learn Peggy is afraid to get close to anyone because when people do, they seem to die. Clearly Steve’s death has impacted her in a large way, but not just that. Peggy has a sweet roommate named Colleen, and though introduced as an innocent character Peggy would have to hide her double life from, she ends up being a casualty when an assassin searching for Stark’s stolen weapons breaks into Peggy’s home. The show doesn’t pull any punches. Colleen is just a string of dead bodies the deadly assassin leaves behind him. But Colleen’s death was totally unexpected and plenty heartbreaking, as after Peggy literally throws the killer out of a window, she sits and cries next to her friend’s body. So while Jarvis is very clearly a useful asset, (as a getaway driver, a shoulder to lean on, and as an expert saboteur) Peggy is hesitant to involve him because of her own paranoia. It might be a good thing too, because apparently Jarvis has his own secret agenda with Stark, noting that she’s a “good choice” because she’ll have no suspicions. This further establishes the variety of dangers and comforts for a woman in a man’s world. The rude men are skilled allies, but also credible threats should you cross them; the nice men are kind but clever and manipulative.
So thank goodness for Angie. I think the scene where she discreetly but genuinely threatened a rude customer’s life with a fork really sums up Carter’s character well. From that point on, Angie and Peggy are set up to be friends, but Peggy’s insistence on distancing herself from the world she tries to save (something Jarvis rightly criticizes her for) keeps her from allowing the friendship to blossom at first. By the end of the second episode, Peggy agrees to move into the same apartment complex as Angie, which is meant for “proper young women” and employs many strict rules. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of antics Peggy’s double life leads to for her and Angie. (As long as it doesn’t end up with a bullet in Angie’s head like Colleen.)
Lastly let’s talk about Agent Carter herself. Not Peggy Carter, but Agent Carter. At one point, when being mistaken for a secretary and asked for her first name, she simply says “Agent.” Badass levels through the damn roof. Not only is Carter a bonafide war hero, she could put James Bond in a choke hold before he could tell her how he prefers his martinis. As a mistress of disguise, she’s positively vexing. This is also a testament to Hayley Atwell’s acting prowess, how easily she’s able to melt into a completely different persona. Carter can transform herself into anyone between a sultry jazz bombshell and a harsh dairy inspector, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her undercover sorcery. Her ploys are complemented by tricky gadgets like sleep lipstick, safe-decoding wrist watches, and lock-picking brooches. Should those fail to avoid a fight, Carter will simply smash your bones to a pulp. The hand-to-hand choreography in Agent Carter is even better than in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s not exhibitionist or particularly acrobatic, it’s brutal and vicious. It’s full of sharp jabs, lots of elbows, and devastating finishers like throwing you out a window.
I guess I just wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the show so quickly. I’m sad to see James Frain’s character go, as well as the similarly mute assassin character. The vocalizer was a neat touch that gave the villains a classic 1940s mystique. But since they’re both involved with the new threat “Leviathan” we might see more of that, as well as the eerie ghost-typewriter. This is going to be one of those shows where the hero works within a flawed system by wrapping herself deeper and deeper in a web of conspiracy, and I can’t wait to see how it all unravels.