In 1940s America, women were viewed as inferior and unwelcome in many “a man’s” world. We get it. Perhaps my biggest gripe with ABC’s Agent Carter is that the show can’t seem to stop trying to tell us this story, as if there is some deep moral/polical/social point they are trying to tell us. This is a common trend in this “Golden Age” of American television: starting with Mad Men, we’ve had Pan Am, Agent Carter, and the upcoming Astronaut Wives. All telling the same story, as if to help to show just how far we’ve come since those dark, terrible years. I think that even the writers of Mad Men, which is a certifiable masterpiece of TV, would admit that things would have played out better if they had established the gender dynamic more subtly, introducing us a bit at a time to the culture rather than bombarding us with one element of a culture that could fairly be defined by hundreds of different things.
Marvel’s Agent Carter, as good a show as it is, could have done well to be more subtle. We would have received the same message, and, I think, been more appreciative. Surrounded by misogynists or not, Peggy Carter is the strong, smart, and well-composed woman that we’ve come to love from her turn in Captain America: The First Avenger as well as the “Agent Carter” One-Shot. And that is, ultimately, what is most important.
I already talked about how well the Agent Carter One-Shot was. Well, the fine photography maintains itself in the television version. But what is most important is that Peggy Carter is now one of my very favorite Marvel Universe characters, without question. I’m not entirely sure why, but what I think I like most about her is that she seems so composed and level-headed while at the same time being so willing to trust and love. So often in spy shows, particularly those of the television medium, we get trained to “trust no one,” because the writers would rather catch us with a plot twist then let us love a character and have him or her be everything that we wanted him or her to be. I call that the 24 disorder.
But Kevin Feige—the main production head in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—recently said that to expect these sorts of dark turns and betrayals in the MCU is futile. They will always feature humor before melancholy. And they won’t stop giving us characters we can trust. When it comes to Peggy Carter, there isn’t a more trustworthy character in all of the Marvel world. What a worthy companion to Captain America.
Besides Peggy herself, the show’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it learned from the mistakes of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took a while to get going because it struggled to establish a worthy story that dictated its episode structure and character arcs, Agent Carter got us started right away with an interesting story that turned into quite the telling adventure, full of really cool tie-ins to the rest of the MCU. Instead of 22 episodes, the season is only 8 episodes long, allowing the story to stay focused. Sometimes, stories get lost in the length, becoming distilled as seasons get stretched out. In Agent Carter, though, we get a concise, well-plotted story that never trails off into the realms of detachment. We watch excitedly as Peggy works covertly to clear Howard Stark’s name after he is labeled Public Enemy #1 when some of his most dangerous inventions are found by foreign weapons dealers after the close of World War II. Not only do we see the Howling Commandos—significantly smaller now without Bucky or Cap—and Mr. Stark, we also get to see the “Red Room” in Russia and the very program that would give rise to the Black Widow later on. We also get to meet the hynoptist who would team with HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola to create the Winter Soldier. All these seeds are planted while Peggy shows her covert skills.
Helping her along the way is Stark’s butler, Jarvis, who is played brilliantly by a scene-stealing James D’Arcy. What starts out as an obvious throw-in (“hey, Howard’s son Tony would name his JARVIS system after this guy!”), turns out to be one of the saving graces of this show, as he provides a fun angle to the plot development. Don’t butlers tend to do this in a lot of TV shows? Hey, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
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