I caught up with the premiere two episodes of Agent Carter on Wednesday via Hulu, watching them back-to-back.
The pilot was engaging, especially in the charisma of Haley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter. She’s a naturally dynamic character, and I can see how she scored her own show/movie before, say, Black Widow, who is interesting, but mysterious, guarded, and aloof. Peggy Carter is more open and vulnerable, and the opening scene, which flashes back to her loss of Captain America at the end of the film of the same name, shows her emotional damage from that loss. It is a loss she feels partly to blame for, and that emotional baggage carries through the episode and into the second as a through-line for her character’s struggles.
The show has done well to put Carter at multiple disadvantages. Besides dealing with the emotional fallout of the loss of the man she loved, she’s no longer central to a top-secret military pet project. Now she’s just another Agent in the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) office full of male Agents, most of whom see her only uses as coffee-fetching, filing, and stepping in when a female suspect needs a body sweep. She suffers sexist remarks regularly. Seeing the late 1940’s office and her struggles against sexism feels a little like Mad Men, though admittedly it’s a different decade. Only one of her colleagues offers her much respect, and that’s Enver Gjokaj’s Daniel Sousa, who is similarly underestimated and underutilized due to the loss of one leg in the war.
Early on in the pilot, Carter is approached by Howard Stark to help clear his name after a handful of his most dangerous weapons start appearing in enemy hands. Stark claims these were stolen from him and now he’s being framed. He only trusts Carter and his butler Jarvis, whom he instructs to assist Carter. Thus she becomes a double-agent, working within her organization to secretly clear Stark’s name while they are attempting to apprehend Stark. By using their sexism and underestimation of her against them, she picks up clues from the office and elsewhere and manages to stay one or two steps ahead of her male colleagues. Her lack of assistance and resources makes her “missions” all the more tense and exciting. She’s like Clarice Starling attempting to find Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs–she’s often alone and almost always out-gunned, but she’s confident, intelligent, and ingenious, and that’s what makes her so much fun to watch.
The second episode improves on the first by adding in a repeating structural element: a radio show about Captain America’s exploits fighting the Nazis. The radio show offers an over-simplified, cheesy version of the Captain America story and features a Peggy-analogy who is a nurse constantly getting herself captured and needing rescue by the Captain. Not only does hearing the radio show remind her of her lost love, but it also smacks of the same sexist stereotypes she deals with at the office. It, in fact, offers a direct contrast to the story we get in the show, and the depth and nuances of the show are highlighted through that juxtaposition.
Overall, I got a distinctly film noir vibe (though Marvel marketed it more as detective pulp, see image). First, it’s setting of 1946 places it squarely in the era of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, so the clothing, props, and music all evoke that same feeling. Additionally, like Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade in those films, she must do her sleuthing mostly at night and mostly at odds with or in avoidance of the authoritative law agency. Finally, what she uncovers is many levels of threat and corruption under an otherwise calm, post-war NYC.
Plus there’s lots of action, intrigue, and humor, especially through the clashing of Carter and Jarvis. I look forward to the upcoming episodes, but I hope, in those coming installments, there are fewer women with bullets in their heads.