‘Agent Carter’ Post-Show Analysis, Season 2, Episode 4: ‘Smoke & Mirrors’
With Agents of SHIELD taking a much-needed winter break, Marvel’s other spy adventure series, Agent Carter, is back for a two-month engagement, with Hayley Atwell reprising her role as Peggy. Our AoS recappers Agent Ziah Grace and Agent Chris Haley are on hand to review the highs and lows as Agent Carter relocates to Los Angeles to bring down new foes.
Felonies, forced confessions, fading scientists, and flashbacks are all afoot this week! 'Smoke & Mirrors' was directed by David Platt and written by Sue Chung.
Chris: Lots to talk about this week, so let’s jump right in. This episode was our first foray into the show not focusing solely on the plot, which is normally the kind of thing we don’t like in these shows. In fact, we've repeatedly praised how focused on the season’s plot Agent Carter usually is.
However, unlike a lot of other shows, this week’s dual (or “dueling” if I want to be terribly clever) flashback sequences do more than just pad out the episode’s running time. Instead they really offer us some insight into Peggy’s backstory that is absolutely welcome, as well as detailing the tragic past of how brilliant young Agnes Cully became Whitney Frost.
Not that it hasn’t been done before, but establishing that Peggy and her nemesis had similar (yet very different) pasts, trying to prove they can be more than what some people think of them, was some powerful stuff! What about you, Ziah, do you agree?
Ziah: Oh, absolutely Chris. Setting up a villain to reflect or contrast specific experiences and personality traits is an old trick, but almost always satisfying. I didn’t care for a lot of Whitney’s backstory, since it’s fairly rote and predictable, but I really liked Peggy as someone who’s kind of continually affected by disappearing men in her life. It gives her an air of continued tragedy without letting her be completely shaped by the men in her life that have mattered: her brother, Steve Rogers, now possibly Doctor Wilkes.
That she was, if not content, then at least willing to remain a codebreaker and not a field agent until she was pushed into it, gives the audience a reminder that Peggy might have always been Peggy, but she’s evolved just the same.
Chris: Oh, that’s an interesting take on it! I don’t think it hit me quite like that, though I’m a little at a loss to really put together what my different read on it was. I think you can definitely tell the continued loss of these people that are close to her is weighing more and more and that lends further weight to FBI Guy and future 70s dad, Vernon Masters’ thinly veiled threat towards Peggy’s friends.
Also, did you say “disappearing” on purpose since Jason is literally disappearing?
Ziah: Hell yeah I did, buddy. We’re professional critics, but I can still love a good pun. And yeah exactly, that’s why she’s immediately so worried about Sousa who --- if I’m telling from context right --- basically abandoned her from last season to go to LA and be a spy-guy there.
Chris: Yeah, there’s a little more to it than that, but basically. I don’t know about you, but after this episode I am rooting for Whitney Frost! I mean, obviously I don’t want anything bad to happen to Peggy and I want her to succeed as well, but seeing all the awfulness that young Agnes had to go through to survive and make it out of Oklahoma has made me want to see her succeed if only to continue eluding the grasp of all the awful men in her life that keep dismissing her or trying to keep her down. Is there some way Whitney can team up with Peggy by the end of this and get rid of The Council of Nine together?
Ziah: I would love to see Whitney, Peggy, and the Council of Nine all working at odds with each other. Get some of that multiple villain/problem goodness that serialized storytelling like television and comics do so well.
Chris: With a lot of other shows, that kind of idea would make me nervous, but now that you bring it up, I think Agent Carter could absolutely kill it juggling several inter-weaving stories.
Speaking of The Council of Nine, on the one hand I really want to see Peggy, Jarvis, Jason, Howard, and Sousa (maybe even Jack) take them down by this season’s end, but I also want a third season, and they seem like such a good foil for Peggy that I think, maybe don’t get rid of them. What do you think?
Ziah: I guess? I don’t really love them, since they’re pretty basic for shadowy, evil organizations, but I do like how well the showrunners are fleshing out Whitney and dropping hints towards her inevitable masked costume. Unfortunately, based on the ratings, the odds of this great show getting a third season is pretty small. Fingers crossed!
Speaking of villains, how about the brute Peggy and Jarvis take down with tranquilizer darts and an amazi-bad American accent? This was easily the episode high point for me. Jarvis butchering an American accent, and Peggy’s got a gun and quips. Fun time. It’s a fun time watching this show, dude.
Chris: It is absolutely a fun time watching this show. That guy was a brute and a half for sure. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but there was something about him that really felt like they’d used a time machine to pull that dude from the 1940s and put him on the show.
And, again, this is one of those instances where they didn’t have to, but they went to the trouble of giving him some depth of character with the little bits of his backstory and his fear of the Council in the face of death. It’s not a lot, but it’s just enough that it makes him feel like a person and not just a character.
Ziah: Oh man, yeah. Just a classic hulking mercenary, but his disdain for Sousa’s soldier career and quick reflexes definitely show a fuller look at a character than we’re used to seeing.
Chris: Since I basically do nothing but sing this show’s praises, I will mention something that bothered me this episode. I hate watching/hearing people eat. That scene where Peggy is messily (and loudly) eating that sandwich proved that there are some pet peeves that even Hayley Atwell cannot overcome.
Ziah: Oooo, okay! Negativity time. I didn’t really like the acting in almost all of the Whitney flashbacks; it felt really forced and self-aware in an accidental way if that makes sense? Like high school stage actors. But that’s a pretty minor quibble. If nothing else, I appreciate how much screen time and character development they’re giving to Whitney, even if not all of it works for me.
Chris: Yeah, I think I can see where you’re coming from there, but it didn’t bother me too much. Well, now that you’ve got me thinking about it, it’s starting to a little, but still.
What they really seem to be establishing is that they are sort of the opposing co-leads of the show. There’s the hovering darkness of shadowy “bad guys”, but there’s an alternate reality where this show is called “Whitney Frost: Secret Genius Movie Star” (this is a reality where show titles are all much more complicated and less catchy) and their version of Chris and Ziah are begrudgingly respecting this Agent Carter jerk who’s trying to spoil Whitney’s plans.
Ziah: I would definitely watch WF:SGMS, yeah.
Last recap we talked about how, without the romantic role for Peggy (filled by Wilkes right now) and the partner role (filled by Jarvis), Sousa has been consigned to the boss who tells the rogue cop that they’re off the case. While Sousa gets more to do this episode, I don’t really feel like I enjoyed him any more. Jarvis, Stark, and Wilkes are much more fun to watch interact with Peggy, so even though Sousa is handsome and nice, he just seems like kind of a waste. Chris, what do you think?
Chris: Yeah, I suppose he’s being given a much less fun role to try to work with so far this season, but he’s doing his bit in support of the main focus of this show which is Peggy. So, I guess the short answer is I don’t mind enjoying him less so long as he’s there when Peggy/the story needs him. I think I’ve also still got stored goodwill for him from the first season. You’re going to be hard pressed to get me to be bothered by too much about this show, my friend.
Ziah: Haha, true! Even my complaints are just, “Well, it would be nice, but no worries.”
We’ve also got yet another fake-torture scene which is almost required in any spy/police procedural, but I really liked the fake-out of Peggy giving him just a literal cold. It was nice to see the Carter Crew get into a groove and really make some headway in figuring out what’s going on, and to get a nice build-up of suspense when they listen to Whitney use her powers. The focus on the Crew listening to Whitney murder that dude is really well shot, and it’s a great way to add a sense of danger as they investigate what’s happening.
Chris, this show is so competently made and enjoyable? I feel like I’m continually surprised by how much I enjoy it, but it’s bananas that people aren’t watching this superhero show out of all of them.
Chris: It’s a shame that “competent” seems to be such a high bar for so many of these shows, and yet many of those shows have bigger audiences. I would say this show goes far beyond the bar of just “competent” though, and I remain grateful for it.
I will say, for all the hand-wringing and doomsaying over ratings, I think part of the reason this show struggles to find a mainstream audience is because it’s just not on very long. You can word-of-mouth a thing to death, but if it’s already over by the time people start hearing how good it is, it doesn’t really matter. I think once this show winds up on Netflix (which I hope happens soon for the show’s sake), it’s really going to gain an even bigger following than the very devoted fanbase it already has.
Ziah: I can’t wait for that to happen, cause I gotta see season one! Well, that’s all my notes. Again, if you’re just skimming these recaps because you’re a Haley-head or a fan of recaps in general, you should really watch it! It’s fantastic.
Chris: Yes, I beseech all Haley-heads to watch this show! Do my dark bidding, my acolytes!
Ziah: That better not make me Fabian Cortez. Alright, we’ll see you next week!