What at first seemed like the premier network television show in the Marvel Cinematic Universe failed to deliver in its second—and apparently last—season. And so, here in the bottom quadrant of this countdown we find the first of the new additions to the MCU landscape.
The first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter took itself up where the Marvel One-Shot with the same name left off: Peggy Carter, played congenially by Hailey Atwell, is now working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, predecessor of S.H.I.E.L.D., in the United States. Her British origin and her gender set her apart from a world of brutally stereotyped American male figures, and this dynamic of personality provides the predominant context for all that goes on.
While at times overly blunt and lacking in subtlety, the first season actually benefited from this gross disparity, much in the same way that film noir benefited from pigeonholed gender roles and a strikingly keen moral dynamo. It provided walls, if you will; a context whereby the action could play out. These parameters of morality created a distinct world both visually and socially, and that allowed the story to drive itself forward at a respectable pace—a pace that the writers and producers of the show obviously respected, because they limited the length of season one to only eight episodes.
Season two, however, was not so well-construed. The incorporation of the villainous Whitney Frost may have been a good move, but not here. (Whitney Frost, by the way, is a villain and occasional love interest of Iron Man in the comic books of the late 60s, who is trained as a lethal assassin by the Mafia and goes by the name Madame Masque. In the MCU, however, she is portrayed as a scientific genius-turned-actress from the Dust Bowl who absorbs “Zero Matter” to become all-powerful.) Where the true conflict confronting Agent Carter was a social one in Season One, that conflict seems cheapened by its basic alleviation in Season Two: fighting a woman equally objectified and underestimated by her male peers does not provide any opportunity for the conflict to be overcome. The characters are wallowing in an impermeable status quo.
What results is not a plot device, but rather an annoyance, a preachy throw-in that otherwise distracts us from the real conflict. This is only further exemplified by casting Reggie Austin as Jason Wilkes, who does little more than complicate Agent Carter’s love life and, you guessed it, provide the writers an ability to mention how racist everybody is. While his performance, I thought, was very good, it almost felt “token.”
But there was a lot about the season that felt “token.” The conflict itself was token. When we all know that the world isn’t going to be destroyed, because it’s still around when Tony Stark first builds his suit, then we aren’t too worried about it being destroyed. When we all know that Peggy Carter isn’t going to die, because she’s still around in Winter Soldier, then we aren’t too worried about her dying. The conflict has to provide something other than the potential for some terrible thing that isn’t going to happen. Rather, it has to create something in the characters that is worth viewing. And, in classic MCU style, it should probably lay out some clues as to how the world we know and love has come to be. For example, the first season of Agent Carter showed us some of Howard Stark’s and Jarvis’ origin. It also showed us some of the Red Room program in Russia that gave birth to the Black Widow. There were no such treasures in season two.
Even the romance, which could have given real life to the season, seemed token. Love triangles are tricky things. They can, really, make or break a melodrama. In Agent Carter, the drama was broken by it.
ABC recently announced that Agent Carter will not be returning for a third season. This is unfortunate, because I would have liked to see the show redeem itself. It left on a great cliffhanger, one that maybe could have breathed the life of the first season back into this franchise. I guess we’ll never know….or will we?