Agent Carter Has Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe

Illustration for article titled iAgent Carter /iHas Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe

Agent Carter is a show all about sexism, and particularly all about the notion that after World War II, women who had made a material contribution to the war effort were told to go back to their old subordinate roles. But whereas the show’s first season was a fairly simple story, season two is delving into a lot more complexity.

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Spoilers ahead...

In season one of Agent Carter, the kick-in-the-guts intensity comes from seeing Peggy, who we know is ultra-capable and a total badass, being understimated and mistreated by her colleagues at the SSR. All of the men believe she’s just there to fetch coffee and answer the phones. And meanwhile, Peggy has been forced to betray her colleagues in order to clear Howard Stark’s name—so she actually is behaving in a manner unworthy of an SSR agent. It’s a pretty wrenching storyline, in which Peggy is simultaneously dealing with guilt and unfair discrimination.

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Illustration for article titled iAgent Carter /iHas Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe

But season one also felt, at times, kind of too one-dimensional in its depiction of Peggy’s circumstances. Even if it was arguably pretty realistic, the first season’s oppressiveness started to feel a little one-note after a while, and maybe even kind of cartoony. It made sense: The show was borrowing heavily from a DVD-only short film in which Peggy Carter’s underestimated by the SSR agents for a few over-the-top minutes, before she kicks some ass and then becomes the head of SHIELD. All in like 15 minutes. Boom.

I enjoyed season one of Agent Carter a lot, but thus far season two seems to be doing something a bit more interesting. This time around, Peggy isn’t just up against the lazy, unthinking sexism of a bunch of veteran agents, but instead an “old boy’s club,” which has its fingers in every part of American society. And we know that even if Peggy wins this battle, she’ll lose the war, since Hydra will end up infiltrating and ruining SHIELD for the next several decades, no matter what happens in this individual story.

Illustration for article titled iAgent Carter /iHas Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe
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Peggy is up against the Council, an organization of super-powerful white men in finance, industry, and other stuff. They have cool lapel pins and they seem to be some kind of precursor of Hydra, or possibly just an avatar of 1950s patriarchy in the making.

But a lot of the most fascinating scenes in this season involve Jack Thompson, one of the biggest thorns in Peggy’s side, getting sucked into the Council’s orbit, becoming a stooge for the cheesy Vernon Masters, in exchange for vague promises that he’ll become an important guy in the New World Order. These scenes are fascinatingly gross, with Thompson—who’s smart enough to know better—getting sucked into playing along with this bullshit. (And we’re reminded of how, at the end of season one, he took all the credit for Peggy’s victory and let them label him a hero, which is what started him down this path.)

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Illustration for article titled iAgent Carter /iHas Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe

And meanwhile, Daniel Sousa, who’s been Jack’s foil since the very beginning, is also getting pressured by Vernon Masters to play ball with the Council. And because he resists, he gets the crap beaten out of him by masked men (one of whom might be Jack, I couldn’t tell for sure) and then has Vernon Masters himself replace him as L.A. section chief of the SSR.

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But instead of just leaving the Council as the unshakable monolith of white male power and authority, last night’s Agent Carter set up a pretty surprising reversal. A big arc in last night’s two episodes involved Whitney Frost, the Hollywood starlet who also happens to be a genius physicist, demonstrating her weird flesh-melting powers (gained from an exposure to “Zero Matter”) to the Council—who immediately conclude that she’s dangerous and try to dispose of her. Whitney’s husband, the craven Senatorial candidate Calvin Chadwick, has set her up, claiming that he’s going to help her gain the Council’s support when he’s actually asked the Council to help him get rid of her.

But Whitney turns the tables, melting most of the Council members including her husband. And the remaining Council members, including Ray Wise’s Hugh Jones, swear fealty to Whitney. Soon Vernon, the uber-sexist, is working for the scheming Hollywood starlet, which seems like a weird turn of events. And when Whitney comes to kidnap Jason Wilkes, the Isodyne scientist who’s also been affected by Zero Matter, she tries to appeal to a shared sense of oppression because Dr. Wilkes is African American. It’s like Zero Matter, this mysterious black goop from another dimension, is actually a kind of equalizer that helps the oppressed people of the post-World War II to turn the tables on their oppressors.

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You sense that somehow, Whitney Frost is going to fail in her attempt to turn the machinery of the post-war patriarchy to her own advantage—you just don’t know how, yet. Maybe Peggy will be the tool that the Man uses to take Whitney down and restore the natural order. Or maybe the establishment will reassert itself some other way. In any case, it’s sort of hilariously fascinating that the first thing Whitney does when she takes power is elevate her old beau, Joseph Manfredi (Ken Marino!) to become her lieutenant, annoying the heck out of Vernon.

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There are a few reasons why this year’s gender politics seem more unpredictable and fascinating than last year’s—even if they’re perhaps not quite as grounded in reality. One is the aforementioned presence of actual scumbags like Vernon Masters, who represent the actual power structure that put old white dudes on top in the 1950s.

Another, though, is the presence of a number of fairly vivid female characters this time around—the Russian spy Dottie Underwood is back, and she’s pleasingly psychotic with her hilarious resistance to torture and her penchant for killing everyone who gets in her way. But then there’s also Sousa’s fiancee, Violet, a sweet nurse who absolutely will not have any truck with her boyfriend’s lingering infatuation for Peggy. And Ana, Jarvis’ wife, who’s sort of a kooky “free spirit” who worries about Jarvis rushing into danger for the thrill of it—only to get herself shot by Whitney Frost, trying to be a hero. And Rose, the cute SSR switchboard operator who gets to take part in a covert operation and turns out to be a natural.

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Illustration for article titled iAgent Carter /iHas Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe

Whitney Frost, though, is the main reason why this is shaping up to be such a memorable chapter in Peggy’s saga. You can’t help sympathizing with Whitney, who had real scientific genius but learned the hard way that men only valued her for her beauty. And then, because she meddled with forces that yadda yadda, that beauty was turned weird and revolting by the Zero Matter infection. The scenes where her husband tricks her into thinking he’s really on her side, and he’s cashing in all his chips to help her, are actually pretty heartbreaking, because of the hope on her face. And now, she’s trying to turn the tables on the whole damn world that tried to push her down. She’s actually sort of a tragic figure, but with blind spots the size of Australia.

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But the most interesting thing, honestly, is seeing so many people warn Peggy that if she goes up against the Council, she’s going to lose. It feels like foreshadowing of something really dark and interesting—even though we already know that in the long run, Peggy is fine, she dies in bed of old age after decades of being the boss of everything. (But she also totally misses that the organization she’s helping to run is secretly evil. Oh well.)

Oh, and I really like that Peggy gets horribly injured in one episode and then isn’t just running around jumping off buildings and kicking people in the face in the very next episode, the way she would be on most TV shows. (It takes two episodes instead!)

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Illustration for article titled iAgent Carter /iHas Become One of the Most Unique Stories in the Marvel Universe

The parallel that this show keeps playing with, of Peggy and Whitney both struggling against the same massive block of male privilege and dealing with it in very different ways, opens up a more complicated view of the show’s late-40s gender politics. The best part? Neither Peggy nor Whitney is handling the problem of the Council particularly well, or shrewdly. They’re both making mistakes that will cost them in the long term. They’re just different types of mistakes, probably leading to different sorts of suffering.

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Anyway, if you watched season one of Agent Carter and haven’t come back from season two, it’s definitely time to catch up—this show has never been better.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.

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DISCUSSION

Cool_Breeze
Cool_Breeze

Why you gotta do me like that, Marvel? That was a brutal way to send us on our week.

I really liked this batch of episodes because they shifted gears from the last few. It wasn’t a heist; it was more of a thriller, and the focus was on the villains. Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of development for Peggy and Sousa and Jarvis and ANA and Wilkes, but the focus was the baddies: Frost. Dottie. Red. Thompson? And boy was it a fun ride.

Marvel television has some of the best villains, and as good as Frost is (Really good), Dottie is just on another level of creepy. This was the first real episode of the series that focused on her (you know, besides the Red Room backstory and her creepy obsession with becoming Peggy Carter last season), and she sure did shine.

Besides Black Widow, the only other real threat to come out of the Red Room is Dottie Underwood. Dottie was in the Red Room a good 50 years before Black Widow, and after watching this show, feel that Dottie would give Black Widow a real run for her money. Maybe I’m just desensitized because Black Widow is dealing with robots and gods and Dottie is just mowing over the competition in the early 40's (there isn’t even SHIELD yet) with no real challenge besides Peggy.

From the movies, Black Widow is very good a spy craft, and very good at extracting information and manipulating targets. Don’t get me wrong, she can hold her own, but she feels like a reluctant fighter, only doing so because she has to. Dottie gets excited by the danger, and its unnerving. Red was trying to put her in line likeForman, and she was just eating it up. Truth serum? Just like mother’s milk. Dude. Red threatening to use his favorite tool to get information from her? “I’ve pulled out my own teeth. My. own fingernails. Pulled out my hair. Burned my flesh with a blow torch.” WHAT.

And not only that, but she’s freaky smart. When Peggy snuck in and gave her those awesome magnets to escape, Dottie said that it would take “more than six walls to keep me in.” I felt like a dumbass for not even considering the ceiling and floor as potential exits of her cell. She’s thinking in portals and we’re all here, trying to keep up.

And not only THAT, but Dottie is having a blast through all this. She kept her calm with just about everyone (I’ll get to that) and is just as quick as Peggy and Jarvis with the quips. When Peggy broke her out, and told her not to go window shopping, and when Dottie found the guard incapacitated (in the best way) with no gun? “Oh Peggy you’re no fun at all!” NO WINDOW SHOPPING DOTTIE. Introducing the first Yo Mamma joke? DURING A TORTURE. The way she promised to return the favor with a choker of her own one day? She’s dangerously funny.

All of that, and she’s scared shitless of Whitney Frost. One of the problems with movie villains is that we only get a short time to learn about them, about their motivations, and why they’re so bad. Take for instance, Malekith from Thor: The Dark World. That movie was less than two hours long, and we didn’t really get enough focus on why Malekith was such a danger to Asgard. People have the same concerns about Thanos: We’ve only seen glimpses of him, and he really hasn’t done anything. Why is he so bad? Why is he feared?

Loki is the exception, because he’s been developed over three movies, so we know what makes him tick and what makes him dangerous. On the television side of things, they have longer to flesh out the villains, so we have a reason to fear them. Kilgrave can fuck right off. SquidWard is a magnificent bastard. Fisk was amazing. We had time to learn what made them so dangerous. With Whitney Frost, even though this season is only 10 episodes long, we are getting that same chance to learn about her, and Dottie got a front row seat to the shit show.

Red couldn’t even break the surface with Dottie, but Frost walked in the room and she immediately changed. Frost is a professional actress, and saw right through Dottie, and Dottie knew it. She was shook. The only other person to earn her respect like that was Peggy, and even then, Dottie was never afraid. We’ve only ever seen Frost completely absorb people, and have only seen a partial absorption once: when she grabbed Peggy’s arm before Peggy fell on the rebar (pro tip: don’t do that.) Peggy said it was one of the worst pains of her life. We’ve never seen Frost take anyone to the edge and back like that. It changed Dottie a little bit. She immediately started talking. Frost is turning out to be a fantastic Marvel villain.

And Thompson. Is he a villain, or just misguided? Thompson’s whole career has been built on the efforts and successes of others. He got medals for something he didn’t do; he got a job at the SSR because Red put in a good word; he got promoted because of Peggy’s success in bringing in Dottie. And so on. I think Thompson wantsto do the right thing, but he’s so deep and so invested in the system that all he knows how to do is put his head down, follow orders, and wait for praise and rewards to be bestowed upon him.

I don’t think Thompson is a villain. I think the seed of doubt in Red was planted in his head when he saw the newspaper for the next day at the Arena Club, just like Peggy said. And then Red ordered him not to kill Peggy, but to destroy the very idea of her. Thompson isn’t going to go through with it, and him going to her and offering her a way out was his deranged way of warning her of the coming tidal wave. When shit hits the fan, he’ll come back to his senses and see that Whitney Frost and Red and the Arena Club don’t have America’s best interests at heart, and will fight with Peggy and Sousa. Even then, his bridges will have been burned, and he won’t be invited to SHIELD.

1. (WOW THIS IS FAR DOWN I MUST LIKE TO SEE MYSELF TYPE!) As always, this episode was funny as shit. All of Dottie’s quips were completely awesome. Sousa using the taser net on Dottie was glorious, and his extra juice while she was on the ground was perfect. Thompson getting the sudden urge to secure the perimeter was hilarious. I think my favorite part was when Wilkes said he had never had Hungarian food, and asked Jarvis if it was good. Jarvis (after waiting for Ana to leave the room): “Eh” Jarvis may be brave out in the field, but Ana is in charge. I love it.

And the Jitterbug. Howard Stark is certifiable. It’s perfect that the different settings would be based on the figures of different actresses: Barbara Stanwyck with the delayed reaction and Carol Lombard for the immediate ignition. Freaking Stark.

When Frost had the press conference to confirm that Chadwick and some acquaintances died in a boating accident near Catalina, all I could think was “fucking Catalina wine mixer.” I am a horrible person.

2. Speaking of the villains, I’m glad that the Devil still remembered Peggy even after the memory eraser from last week. Instead of just completely forgetting about that whole ordeal, the show took it head on: Peggy openly broke into Roxxon and stole some rods. The Devil who never forgets a faceactually didn’t forget. That’s the sign of good (and not lazy) storytelling.

3. There were a few references to the later MCU, including Frost recognizing the plans for a Palladium Core, Isometric Heat Waste Regulators, Kinetic Force Stabilization, and Mobile Solar Energy Collectors. The Kinetic force stabilizers have to be the basis for Lola, right? Or at least a younger Tony had seen those plans, and used them as the basis for his Mark II and beyond suits.

My favorite, however, was the line about Howard making considerable donations to all candidates, so he would be in good graces with whoever wins. In Age of Ultron, when Ultron paid Klawe, he said “Make you friends rich and your enemies rich and wait to find out which is which,” and Klawe recognized it as something Tony Stark always said. It cost him an arm, but it makes sense.

4. Bond Jarvis is an awesome Jarvis, even if he does talk to his glasses.

5. I noticed something last night: Frost cannot hurt Wilkes with her absorption powers. Instead, Wilkes just absorbs it from her, making himself stronger. Last week I opined that Wilkes would be used to draw the Zero Matter from Frost. I stand by that assessment. Wilkes has more power over Frost than either of them know.

6. But know who she can hurt? ANA FUCKING JARVIS. I swear, if Ana dies, we riot, Daryl style. The whole episode almost telegraphed that something would happen to Jarvis, given how Ana’s worries came to the surface because he wasn’t hiding his adventures any more. She missed the lies. I was worried for Jarvis on that rescue mission, but the tables were turned, and Ana was shot. I maintain hope, though, because she was shot in roughly the same area Peggy was skewered, so there is precedent in her surviving. I have a feeling that this may be Jarvis’ last rodeo, though. Before he was a side kick, completely safe under the wing of Peggy. Now, his Ana was shot, and everything just got completely real. It isn’t a game or an adventure any more for Jarvis. This is dangerous work.

7. My only gripe with this episode was the way they handled discrimination and minorities in the workforce. When Frost kidnapped Wilkes, she told him the only reason he was hired was because he was black, just like Jane Scott was only hired because she was a woman. Throughout the series so far, we’ve seen glimpses of racism towards Wilkes here and there (the motel manager, Joseph the gangster “a colored scientist, now I’ve seen everything!” etc.) I’d think of the entire cast, Wilkes would be aware of the realities that are 1940's America. He wouldn’t need Frost to spell it out for him like that.

Other than that, though, its refreshing to see these issues being addressed head on. Whitney Frost had to rely on her looks to make it because she is just a girl. Wilkes is a brilliant scientist, but no one would give him a chance because of the color of his skin.

8. The Zero Matter is changing Wilkes, and even though I think he will use his ability to absorb Zero Matter to drain Frost at the end, I fear that the darkness that is calling to him is changing him for the worse. I know Wilkes saw a little spark between Peggy and Sousa, but he completely overreacted when Peggy was focused on catching Dottie. Don’t get me wrong, his idea was probably right (just off her and be done with it) but his delivery was stressed and anxious. He’s getting desperate, and I’m not sure if it’s him just scared or the darkness taking over. He keeps mentioning that it’d be so easy to let himself go to the darkness that shows up from time to time.

I have a feeling that Frost, the master manipulator that she is, will try to and be somewhat successful in convincing Wilkes to help her out. At the end, though, he’ll pull a Thompson and come to his senses, but the damage will have been done.

Don’t you dare kill Ana, Marvel.