Having at long last concluded season 2 (and sadly it seems the final season) of the excellent Marvel’s Agent Carter, I maintain my conviction I would rather have seen this show continue than Agents of SHIELD (although I will give AoS one point of credit over the movies: there are tangible stakes to the characters). Yes, it is a prequel series, and there are a lot of inherent issues with prequel series. However, really the only two known quantities of “Agent Carter” are that Howard Stark lives long enough to settle down, get married, and produce Tony Stark, and that Agent Carter herself founds SHIELD and lives a very long, very kickass life. A guessed quantity is that Agent Carter’s brother Michael is not actually dead, and that’s because otherwise it would be really difficult for Sharon Carter to be Peggy’s great-niece. But overall, I think the show was a storytelling success.
1) Characters –
a) Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter – I liked Peggy in Captain America, but the forced economy of shared screen-time resulted in some heavy reliance on tropes and clichés that I wish weren’t necessary (such as Peggy having to punch out a guy for making sexist remarks to prove she’s tough). There is also some assumed goodwill towards Peggy in the movie in that Captain America is a good guy, so if he loves Peggy, Peggy must also be good. This is true, but I dislike the reductive characterization (and the MCU is starting to rely a bit too heavily on it, but that’s another issue).
The two seasons of the show gave Peggy room to grow into her character, although some threads had to be picked up from the movie. We have it confirmed she truly loved Steve Rogers because she keeps a photo of him, pre-super soldier serum. Yes, she’s still British and tough, but she’s also shown to be compassionate, vulnerable, awkward, guilt-ridden, stubborn, competent, nervous, and basically a full-formed human being. We get some flashbacks of her family life and find out that her parents and brother encouraged her to do what she wanted, societal expectations be damned (her brother more so). Again, while making a character seem like an actual human being seems self-evident, such a writing feat proves quite difficult. I am totally crushing on her.
b) Edwin Jarvis – Howard Stark’s faithful British butler. His character is nicely complex. On the surface, he is so properly British, but he served in WWII, so he’s seen action. It is clear to me that part of him missed that excitement and he eagerly volunteers to assist Peggy even though he clearly had only a minimum of training in the army. But all of that stiff upper lip disappears around his beloved wife Ana. He’s shown to be passionately in love with her, even if he’s still embarrassed by her open shows of affection. He can also be pushed to cold acts of vengeance. He’s often used as comic relief, and to contrast how competent Peggy is, but their interaction has a very Steed-Peel vibe to it.
c) Dottie Underwood – Basically, she’s Peggy’s evil doppelgänger and the main villain of the first season. Dottie is a Soviet spy trained in the precursor to the Black Widow program, which means she’s cold and ruthless but also a completely broken person. She’s not a generic femme fatale, either. She’s actively disdainful of men because they are so easily manipulated by feminine wiles. The only person she respects is Peggy. In fact, the more the interact, the more it seems Dottie has something of a crush on Peggy, or at least their chemistry gets progressively flirtatious.
d) Daniel Sousa – A fellow agent, veteran, and amputee. He is clearly crushing on Peggy. His character is not as well-developed as the main characters, but he’s still engaging. His disability makes him a target of contempt from his fellow agents, so he and Peggy have that in common. He’s both a good detective and competent in the basics of science and engineering. He’s brave, sweet, often frustrated, and an overall nice guy. Also he’s got a good singing voice.
e) Jack Thompson – A fellow agent and veteran. At first Jack seems like a stereotypical, privileged, sexist pretty-boy, but it turns out he’s got a dark secret that has left him guilt-ridden and feeds his ambition because he wants to redeem himself. He’s a competent agent, more ruthless than Peggy, but he’s also fundamentally a good guy. He reluctantly comes around to respect Peggy but he tends to not show it in public because even showing Peggy respect could lose him some respect in the eyes of the other agents. Still, even he ends up just doing what Peggy says and has his own nickname for her (“Marge,” which is less familiar than “Peggy” but less formal than “Margaret”).
f) Howard Stark – Millionaire genius playboy. I liked his character in Captain America, and although he is used sparingly (which is good), he’s just a lot of fun. He is shown to harbor guilt for what destruction his weapons have wrought, and engages in self-medication in the form of partying hard. He legitimately can’t remember the name Dottie gave him when she tricked him into showing her his private hangar. He flirts with every woman and it was refreshing to me to see him flirt with Rose, who is a “Hollywood plump” agent. He’s also shown to be a bit obsessive when a problem presents itself to the point another scientist describes him as, “a genius, but a menace.”
g) Whitney “Madame Masque” Frost – Secret genius movie star. Whitney is also, in a way, Peggy’s evil doppelgänger. Instead of the evil spy, Whitney is a talented woman who is told all her life that the only value she has is in her looks. She goes first to feminine wiles because she’s been told that’s all that works, despite the fact she is legitimately a physics genius. She went into acting because she was pretty, and is struggling to maintain her youth and looks. She’s ambitious but uses men to get her positions of power because she’s been told she can’t get power on her own. So she’s currently married to a CEO and senator, and one of her ex-boyfriends is a mafia boss. The tragedy is that since every man she’s known has tried to use or her betray her, she doesn’t recognize true love when she sees it. Whitney also doesn’t believe she’s a bad guy. She honestly believes that when she gets power she’ll make the world better for marginalized people. She does terrible things, but I still feel sorry for her.
h) Dr. Faustus – A Soviet agent and trained psychiatrist with a gift for hypnosis. He’s actually Dottie’s boss. He’s not as well-developed as Whitney, but even though he seems like a more straightforward villain, there’s still a very informative flashback that reminds the audience that he has faced the horrors of war.
i) Dr. Jason Wilkes – A black scientist working for Whitney’s husband’s company and Peggy’s love interest for the second season. They share the frustration of being marginalized and an interest in science. Jason is involved in a scientific accident and has to come to grips with what kind of man he is. Unlike Jarvis, although he saw action, he wanted no more of that. Instead he’s forced into a phased state that seems like torture just to exist and is forced to watch other people try to fix him and get hurt in the process. He’s also dealing with a bit of jealousy of Daniel.
j) Vernon Masters – A corrupt agent who is part of a secret cabal that’s trying to take over the world. He recruits Jack in the second season to get someone on his side in the agency. He’s kind of like the devil in his context, but despite his sexism and villainy, he also seems like he believes he’s not actually the bad guy.
k) Ana Jarvis – Jarvis’s wife, whom he saved from deportation to a concentration camp at the cost of his own commission. Howard rigged the paperwork to get them both out. Proof that opposites attract, Ana is openly affectionate, fun, optimistic, and surprisingly fashionable. She knows what Jarvis is doing, and perhaps with a better understanding of the danger than he has, but even when she suffers indirectly, she forgives and moves on.
l) Joseph Manfredi – One of Whitney’s ex-boyfriends who happens to be a mob boss. The guy is so Italian down to having his mother (who can’t or won’t speak English) live with him. He’s ruthless, temperamental, and violent. And yet even this character isn’t completely flat. For all his flaws, and Joe has many, he deeply, truly loves and respects (which may be more important) Whitney for all that she is. For a guy who won’t hesitate to shoot a minion for messing up or disrespecting him, and given the time period, it is genuinely touching and progressive how he feels about and treats Whitney. The implied tragedy is that she broke it off with him for her next boyfriend upgrade because she didn’t believe any man could possibly have any real love or respect for her.
2) Plot – the plot of season 1 is constrained a bit as it has to serve as a sequel to Captain America and tie up loose ends. The plots are more along the lines of old-school James Bond movies than strict superheroics because, of course, no one has superpowers. The plots are a bit predictable for that reason, but that’s a genre constraint. There are real stakes because even though we know Peggy and Howard won’t die, no one else is safe, and dead is dead.
3) Setting – And here is a good example of how setting informs the plot and characters. Post WWII was not kind to women or minorities. There are a lot of examples of sexism and racism and in fact a lot of what Peggy gets away with in the first season is playing on the sexism of her colleagues. The time period also affects the technology which definitely contributes to that classic James Bond movie feel. Is the setting strictly period? No, but it’s close enough.
4) Narrative structure – The actual plots are pretty straightforward as far as build-up, climax, and denouement. There are a few flashbacks but those serve the story. The characters also develop as the plot accelerates.
Overall – the series just plain works. Yes, there are weaker episodes in which some parts seem a bit superfluous, but there’s not too much of that, or it’s so much fun otherwise such lapses can be forgiven. The series is definitely character-driven and the plot often serves the character development, and that’s just fine. The writing, direction, acting, all have a consistent and clear focus – Agent Carter. I’m very sorry I won’t get to season 3 and find out what Peggy’s totally not dead brother has been up to.