Agent Carter premiered on ABC this past Tuesday. The show will have a limited run of eight episodes and the first two were shown back-to-back to ensure viewers got enough of a taste to bring them back for more. And assuming everybody saw what I did, they’ll almost certainly come crawling ABC’s way next week.
The chronicles of the capable Miss Carter are just the latest offering from the rapidly expanding Marvel-verse. With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ant-Man, Avengers 2, Guardians, probably a couple dozen more Iron Man movies, and all the others, the story of an un-enhanced character in a 1940’s government bureau could quickly get lost in the fray. It would be easy to see this show as nothing more than a Hayley Atwell vehicle or a stunt by ABC to win more of the female demographic. Their awkward ad campaigns did little to allay that concern, to be sure. However, if one were to forgo this little series for these or any other reasons, they would be missing a whirlwind of exciting, classic, and downright clever television.
The premier begins by making sure the viewer is aware that this new incarnation of Peggy Carter is an important piece of the Avengers story. Her conversation with Captain America just as he is going down for his big chill is shown to illustrate her importance to Steve Rogers, and thus to the Marvel story. It hums along quickly from there and carries a blink-and-miss-something-important pace throughout most of the first two episodes. WWII comes to an end. The Vita-Ray project is mothballed. The action slows at Peggy’s Strategic Scientific Reserve. The organization is no longer run by the best and brightest; those people likely having moved on to Dupont and General Motors. Our leading lady remains behind at the SSR, reduced to being an agent in name only by the new male nincompoops running the place (Which mostly entails sitting confusedly on their duffs). After a quick-fire opening montage of her various ass-kicking escapades, she is seen being ordered around and left out of meetings by the era appropriate sexism of the 1940’s male agents. Carter catches her break through perseverance and a learned trust of Howard Stark who is in deep trouble. Stark tasks her with clearing his name, regaining control of his crazy invention, and more or less saving the world. Papa Iron Man then jets off to wherever and leaves Carter to work with his butler Jarvis, delightfully portrayed by James D’Arcy.
Atwell and D’Arcy sparkle together. Atwell is unquestionably the star of the show, and she spends nearly as much time talking to herself as to anybody else. However, her many scenes with D’Arcy are fun and refreshing. A beautiful young action heroine with a highly capable and stuffy older home-maker is a pairing that hasn’t often been done, I would wager. It works terrifically, and not only because of the performances. The writing for these two is smart. There are subtleties shared between them that reveal intimate details of their respective stories without coming right out with it or resorting to any sort of silly tropes; well, not too many tropes, anyways. The writing is clever, but this is not an AMC drama (Nor should it be). There are the requisite plot explanations via dialogue and the comedic relief of the buffoons; typically coming from a very funny performance by Kyle Bornheimer as Agent Krzeminski. In this regard and many others, it holds very true to the comic book way of doing things. There are characters here that are so classically pulp-noir that one can’t help but enjoy them. In just these two episodes the viewer is given the teletyping assassin with no voicebox, an equally silent wayward minion, Soviet scientists, a cagey nightclub owner with a side-business of volatile weapons, Ray Wise. Throw them all around a glowy, mystery compound that breaks the laws of physics and has FALLEN INTO THE WRONG HANDS (“You think it’s magnets.”), and you’ve got a comic book story on your hands, my friend.
Despite Peggy Carter’s lack of superpowers, her character is firmly cemented as a comic book hero by these first two episodes. She is a detective and a martial arts expert in the vein of Batman. She is a patriot working with government technology like the Starks. Peggy’s villains are wily crime bosses with the right amount of oddities to set them apart from a typical crime drama. The parallels are obvious and intentional. Perhaps no parallel is drawn as clearly as Peggy’s connection to Captain America, though. Her love for him carries on despite his absence, and she doggedly holds to the work they were meant to do together. She remains a believer in the SSR to do good for the nation. She does her best to complete missions which Steve would be responsible for were he around. Despite her peers’ best efforts, she becomes the closest thing to a hero that 1946 Marvel America has; culminating in a brilliant scene that cuts between her taking out a baddie and a Captain America radio show that provides the sounds for her fight. The cheesy radio show’s effects guys breaks the bones and knocks the villain down on behalf of the propaganda machine, Captain America. But it is Peggy Carter who is living this struggle out in real life.
The scene’s effectiveness goes even further to explain Carter than just comparing her to the Cap. Throughout both episodes, the Captain America Radio Hour is played at various moments in restaurants and cars. In each scene the radio version of Peggy Carter is reduced to a damsel in distress or a sewing machine marketing ploy. The real work Peggy Carter did is diminished by the realities of an era which can not accept that a woman played a role in winning the war. She is alone in knowing the truth and cannot reveal her exploits to the world. In this, she is once again connected to the long tradition of leading characters in the superhero genre. However, Peggy Carter is different in that she remains alone in all aspects of her life. She is forced to live as the alter ego because she is a woman in 1946. She is a career woman stuck in a world 13 years before Peggy Olson would write about her “basket of kisses” for the chauvinists of Madison Avenue. Add to this situation that her only friend is murdered 30 minutes into the pilot and the viewer is given an immensely capable and likeable woman who is utterly alone. She can’t trust anybody she knows and she can’t allow herself to try to find anybody new to trust lest they be put in harm’s way. Even loveable Jarvis comes with a hint of disloyalty. Despite doing everything better than the men around her, Peggy is a woman in the wake of the boys coming home. No place is given for her to do the work she is best at. She has to make it for herself.
It is here that this show’s true potential lies. Peggy Carter is a strong leading lady. She is a woman with agency on television; a concept almost as lonely as her character. If they continue to explore this without forcing her into the place of changing herself to better fit the world around her, we could have a true female comic book hero that is so overdue on the modern screen.
Agent Carter is not a perfect show. The music is noisy and distracting. The budgetary and time constraints of developing movie-grade plots in a 45 minute TV show are evident in the show’s awkward pacing and special effects. However, these little quibbles are minor when taken with all that the show has to offer. ABC has a star in Hayley Atwell, and the writers have handled her story with smart style so far. She shines in the soft and shadowy setting they’ve crafted for her, and it looks as thought she is poised to continue to do so in the remaining six episodes. There is a lot to like here, and unless they go wildly off the rails, Agent Carter should become a must-watch piece in the broad collection of Marvel lore.