‘Agent Carter’ Season 1 Recap, Episodes 1 & 2: ‘Now Is Not The End’/’Bridge & Tunnel’
Agent Carter, Marvel's second live action TV show set in its cinematic shared universe, made its debut with a two-hour double-bill on ABC on Tuesday night, with Hayley Atwell reprising her role as spy Peggy Carter. Atwell's Carter debuted in the 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, based on a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and she's now the second character from the movies to spin off into her own show, following Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) in Agents of SHIELD.
Agents of SHIELD is now on its second season, and trying to recover its energy after a largely awful first season. Agent Carter will run for only eight episodes across seven weeks, rather than a standard 20+ episode season -- a format arguably closer to what Marvel plans to do with its Netflix TV shows -- so it may be the better test of Marvel's TV ambitions. In Cartergraphy, I'll be recapping the show every week using my new 'S.S.R.' method, breaking it down into Strategic Review, Scientific Analysis, and Reserved Englishness.
The first two episodes of Agent Carter broadly form one story establishing Peggy's world and challenges in 1946, after the apparent death of Captain America following the events of The First Avenger. 'Now Is Not The End,' written by the Captain America movies' scriptwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and directed by Agent Carter One-Shot director Louis D'Esposito, sets up Peggy's secret new post-war job at the Strategic Scientific Reserve in New York City, and her double-agent role tracking down the stolen tech of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), supported by Stark's butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy).
'Bridge And Tunnel,' scripted by Agent Carter One-Shot writer Eric Pearson, and directed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier co-director Joe Russo, continues and maybe wraps up the story of the first of those pieces of stolen tech (or tech based on a stolen formula, to be more precise) and steers Peggy through her reticence to rely on others.
The first episode has more to do, but is actually all the stronger for it. We see Peggy at home, mourning the death of Captain America; we see her at work, inevitably running up against the sexism of her colleagues, who treat her like a secretary despite her established proficiency as a field agent; and we see her after work, attempting to enjoy a slice of key lime pie at the Automat.
Here's where the twist comes in; lured outside by a mysterious fellow-Englander, she takes him down and flees from an approaching car, only to find that it contains Howard Stark, who really ought to be much better than this at approaching women.
Stark has been robbed of his "bad babies" -- the dangerous ideas he should never have had -- and he can only trust Peggy to track them down. Since the SSR believes Stark sold these bad babies himself, Peggy will have to act against her own orders. Her only support? Jarvis the Butler, who must be in bed by nine.
Thus we have the story engine that will propel this series, and it's a good one. Stark's inventions can lead the episodes in almost any direction, and the subterfuge forces Peggy to use her skills without magically curing or ignoring the sexism of her day. It's a great dynamic.
Sexism is essential to the show; like a kung fu master, Peggy is able to use the fact that she's constantly underestimated against the men around her. She learns that SHIELD has a lead on Stark's bomb-making formula by bringing coffee to a closed meeting, and she gets time off to secretly pursue the lead by saying she needs a sick day for "ladies' things."
Sexism and sex then collide in a scene in which Peggy dons a platinum blonde wig and a gold dress to persuade her way into the office of the nightclub owner who is believed to be trying to sell the formula. The gangster tries to kiss her, and knocks himself out on her drugged lipstick.
But Peggy gets to use brain and muscle as well on this show, thank god, and that's swiftly established in the next few scenes. Peggy finds a prototype bomb in the nightclub owner's safe and takes it home to defuse it with household chemicals, only to have a voiceless goon (James Landry Hébert) murder her roommate (we will call the goon Ralph, because he doesn't get a character name). A fantastic fight scene follows, using just about every inch of Peggy's small apartment, and Peggy throws Ralph out of the window.
In what will surely become a trope of the show, Peggy and Jarvis plan their next steps by meeting back to back in neighboring booths at the Automat. Then it's off to a Stark lab to learn more about the bomb from Dr Anton Vanko, who inspires Peggy to dig out Abraham Erskine's Vita-Ray detector from SSR storage and go investigste the Roxxon Lab where the bomb was likely made. And that is a lot of Marvel continuity squeezed into a couple of minutes of screen time -- but we'll circle back to that later.
Peggy breaks into Roxxon, where two men are building another bomb. We'll later learn that they're Van Ert (James Urbaniak) and Leet Brannis (James Frain). Peggy zaps Van Ert and chases Brannis, who turns out to have the same scar on his throat as Ralph, and can only talk with the help of a voicebox. Standing in front of a dairy truck full of bombs, Brannis warns Peggy that "Leviathan is coming", and sets off a bomb, giving her thirty seconds to flee. Peggy and Jarvis just barely drive away before Roxxon implodes, taking their rear bumper with it.
The first episode ends with another Peggy/Jarvis back-to-back Automat chat, and Peggy cheerfully threatening the life of a patron who is rude to her favorite waitress. Then Jarvis calls Howard to say, "Miss Carter's an excellent choice; I don't think she'll have any suspicions at all," but it's a bit of a hollow ending given that we know Peggy and Howard go on to form SHIELD together.
Thankfully a whole other hour immediately follows. Episode two opens with a very nice device that runs through the episode; a Captain America radio show that fictionalizes the adventures of the 'late' hero, with Peggy reimagined as a hapless nurse and perma-hostage named Betty Carver.
The plot of the second episode is rather slight; it amounts to Peggy, Ralph, and the SSR all separately tracking down the driver of the dairy truck full of bombs via separate leads, and all ending up in roughly the same place at staggered intervals, so they can trip over each other or not, as the plot requires.
Along the way, Peggy goes undercover as a health inspector and checks dairy trucks for radiation to a jazzy 1940s score, and against all expectations this is somehow entertaining and engaging. She also gets to try to pick a colleague's desk, take down Van Ert with an attache case, and beat up the truck driver while the Captain America serial plays in the radio -- giving the episode its standout moment as Peggy's competence is directly contrasted with her fictional counterpart's dependency on Captain America for help.
As Jarvis points out later in the episode, Captain America was actually dependent on Peggy, and Peggy in turn should learn to depend on others and be part of the world she wants to help -- a pep talk that convinces her to take a new apartment in the same building as her waitress friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Sure, Peggy's worried that what happened to her last roommate will happen again to Angie, but this apartment building is run like a convent for respectable young women in need of husbands, and the woman who runs the place will probably tackle any assassins before they can get to the upper floors.
The episode ends with Peggy and Ralph fighting atop the dairy truck, and the truck crashing into a lake and exploding, taking Ralph with it (probably) and leaving a massive crater behind. Brannis is also killed, but not before sketching a weird heart doodle in the mud.
Along the way we also see the SSR boys questioning Roxxon head Hugh Jones (Ray Wise), brutally interrogating Van Ert, and surveying the aftermath of the explosion, where one agent finds keys to... I think the Howard Stark apartment that Peggy was temporarily using? At the end of the episode the agents also find Howard's car bumper and numberplate in the Roxxon wreckage. All clues continue to point back to Howard, though the agents are also rightly suspicious of a mysterioys woman who seems to be one step ahead of them everywhere they go. (Shhh, it's Peggy!)
I want to avoid getting into a habit of using Agent Carter as an opportunity to trash talk Agents of SHIELD, especially when I have all those Agents of SHIELD recaps as an opportunity to trash talk Agents of SHIELD. But comparisons between the two shows are inevitable -- they're not just part of the same universe, but part of the same chronology of SHIELD itself. The good news, though, is that Agent Carter is good, so I can use it to trash talk Agents of SHIELD if I need to.
For example; there are perhaps more distinctive visual and design elements in the first ten minutes of the Agent Carter pilot than I've noticed in 30+ episodes of Agents of SHIELD. Now, to be fair, Agent Carter benefits from being a period piece; it's immediately more visually distinctive. But it's not just being period that makes Agent Carter look great. Beyond the scenes from Captain America: The First Avenger, the pilot opens with a succession of striking images, from the shorthand for Peggy's routine -- tea, ironing, stockings, Murphy bed, pistol -- to the gorgeous view of Peggy in red, white and blue walking through a sea of men in grey suits and hats.
The show also packs a punch because it's inarguably about something. It's about being a woman. Far from being coy or cute about Peggy's role as a woman in a man's world, the theme runs through every fiber of the show. Specifically, it's a show about how women took on new roles during the war and were expected to sink back into their old roles afterwards.
Peggy's roommate Colleen talks about how the girls at her factory job are being laid off as GIs return from the front; Peggy faces the same forced obsolesence at the SSR, and this show is explicitly about her fighting that system with every weapon in her arsenal. Time and again we're shown that Peggy can take care of herself, whether it's dealing with sexism in the office or opening her own doors.
Perhaps it's inevitable that Peggy had to use sex in her first adventure, dressed up as a blonde bombhsell; it's a relief that she got to move into a more mousy direction for her second episode diguise as a health inspector. Obviously Hayley Atwell still rocks a white coat and glasses -- everything looks good on her, and '40s fashion is a perfect complement to her looks -- but it's nice to see she doesn't always have to be a siren to get what she wants.
Atwell effortlessly carries the show. She's charming, smart, and most of all potent, carrying an energetic charge that keeps the action flowing and elevates all the other performers around her. She has particular chemistry with her two confidantes, Angie the waitress and Jarvis the butler. D'Arcy as Jarvis has never been stronger -- and frankly, it's always nice to see that much Englishness happening on screen at one time.
Where the show flags a little is the SSR itself, and its central trio of Shea Wigham as thuggish head honcho Dooley, Chad Michael Murray as chauvinist jock Thompson, and Enver Gjokaj as sympathetic nice guy Sousa. Murray and Gjokaj embody their roles well, but these characters feel like a distraction from the action, and they don't leave a lasting impression.
The show also falls into a few familiar Marvel holes. The villains are thinly drawn. The gizmo that drives the story is yet another glowing box of light, and not even one that might one day end up on Thanos's fist.
But the show is neck-deep in Marvel continuity, and that's pleasing to see. Not only do we have Jarvis (created by Stan Lee and Don Heck) and Stark (created by Archie Goodwin and Don Heck), but also references that reinforce the ties to Captain America, Iron Man, and the whole Marvel Universe. Anton Vanko, for example, was last seen in Iron Man 2 as an old man -- and the father of villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Even Leet Brannis, whose name may have had viewers scrambling for an anagram-solver, is named after a jewelry store robber from a 1942 Whizzer story in All-Winners #4. Even though this show is set before much of the action of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it already feels undeniably a part of that rich world.
Given the ample acreage of stiff-upper-lip on display from both Peggy and Jarvis, it seems appropriate to end the recap by expressing a few reservations, in the form of polite inquiries.
First of all, might we hope to see any signs of HYDRA in this show? Knowing as we do that HYDRA was part of SHIELD from the beginning, it seems appropriate to ask if it will be present before the beginning. That might of course mean that one of the SSI boys is a HYDRA mole. Then again, this show might never come close to the actual establishment of SHIELD, in which case the HYDRA question could plausibly go unaddressed.
Furthermore, will Leet Brannis set a precedent? Those old 1940s Timely comics must be a rich vein of truly obscure comic characters that no-one has thought about in decades. There are also some treasures buried in there, and it would be wonderful to see characters like the Blonde Phantom and the Destroyer brought to the screen.
If I might be so bold, what exactly is Leviathan? There's an answer in the comics, and it would be a spoiler to say more; but of course the show might not follow the comics. 'Leviathan' is one of those words that always sound good in a genre show.
Excuse me for asking, but were is Peggy getting her PG Tips? I was thrilled to see Peggy writing her shopping list when she was undercover at the dairy; as a fellow English expat, mine looks very similar. HP Sauce, PG Tips, horseradish, Digestives. Actually I drink Yorkshire Tea rather than PG Tips, but they didn't have that in 1946. Still, finding any decent tea in the US is a challenge, even today.
I hate to be indiscreet, but what did poor Sarah ever do wrong? Given the show's strong feminist credentials, I was a little surprised to hear Angie refer to one of the other residents of her building as a slut. Sarah is a sexually liberated woman, Angie. Shame on you for shaming her.
Aside from a few little missteps here and there, though, the first two episodes of Agent Carter were a delight, with proper explosions, palpable emotions, and Peggy Carter eating a scone. Oh, and a man slapping a ham. You couldn't ask for much more. I'm excited to see where the show goes over the next seven weeks. And let me tell you, it's so nice to feel this way about a Marvel TV show.