I’ve written before about how feminist Agent Carter is. But the show also helped me to overcome a more personal prejudice. You see, I used to hate Captain America. Even as someone who thinks of herself as a Marvel girl, I just loathed Cap. Probably had something to do with the fact that I have a kneejerk reaction to patriotism and every Avengers comic I ever picked up showed me a priss of a superhero. I mean, I never liked guys (or girls) like that. Give me a morally complicated boy like Wolverine or Tony Stark or Batman. Superman, Cap, Cyclops, even Daredevil were just a little too straight, a little too goody-goody, for me. And then I got my hands on the Frank Miller/Bill Sienkiewicz Elektra: Assassin. Not that I think the attractions of Elektra: Assassin need any explanation to anyone who picked it up, but right off the bat, it is the style of the thing that strikes you first. Sienkiewicz’s talent for eye-stopping pastiche and composition screams out from page after page of the mini-series, and I still remember picking up that first book, opening it, and sinking into the amazing world of images. To find beneath that a story that was almost as disturbing and stimulating was a revelation. And more to my particular point here, it was so good, it led me in an unexpected direction: from there, I was pulled, despite my usual resistance, into Daredevil: Love and War, and then into Frank Miller’s run of Daredevil. Elektra made me re-examine her boyfriend, and I had to admit: he wasn’t so bad (or good, rather). Agent Carter had a similar effect on me. Someone recommended it to me as a Marvel show, but I only vaguely knew the connection to the rest of the Marvel universe. But I began watching it. Several things hit me all at once. Like Elektra, it had a distinctive look, albeit a more familiar one. Its shadowy (even during the day) 1940’s New York, down to its skulking characters, has more than a touch of Dark City to it, complete with auto-mat. The clothing and details of the sets were unlike anything we’re used to seeing on television outside of a Masterpiece or BBC period piece (unless you count the very hit-and-miss style of Cole Haddon’s awful Dracula (2013)) in terms of capturing a historical moment and its flair. And then there was Agent Carter herself: strong, smart, a woman much ahead of her time but deft at maneuvering an age as yet unready for her. Agent Carter, Hayley Atwell, is not what we have come to expect of women in the superhero milieu and that makes her wonderfully refreshing. She is not an ingénue; the actress is solidly in her thirties and looks it: gorgeous, but a classical beauty not based almost exclusively in youth. Nor is she such a wisp of a thing that you wonder how she doesn’t break a leg every time she lands a kick during a fight scene. She’s built—oddly enough—like the ideal of the 1940’s woman: she’s solid, busty, with hips and shoulders to carry off the menswear style and still look every inch a femme. We were only halfway through the first episode when I turned the television off. By that time, we had met the agents who worked with (but did not appreciate) Carter, had a sense of the bad guys, got re-acquainted with Howard Stark—who called her to action—and, best of all, met Jarvis, the wonderful character who would later, in another form, become such a fixture in the life of Howard’s son Tony. And I knew I was watching something special. Which meant that I felt it was unfair to watch even another moment without a better appreciation for Peggy Carter’s backstory. So despite my dislike of Cap, I cued up the first Captain America film and watched it all the way through. I may be the only straight woman to do so with my eyes glued to Hayley Atwell and not Chris Evans. (shrug) What started as an instant infatuation only became a deeper love as I returned to the series and watched all of season one in less than 24 hours. And haven’t shut up about it since. So, of course, when season two rolled around with a two-part premiere—“The Lady in the Lake” and “A View in the Dark”—I was eager to see how they’d follow up such a great start. Thus far, I am of a mixed mind. Several of the elements that so drew me to the series are there, but they just aren’t done in as compelling a manner. One of the things that I thought made season one so successful was that despite the fact that we were essentially given a mystery that would only be solved over the course of the season, the impetus—the definition of that mystery—was very clearly drawn and done in such a way that, from the beginning, we don’t just want Agent Carter to succeed, we know she must: Howard Stark has been accused of treason and he needs her help clearing himself of the charge of selling his weapons to very bad guys. It’s a very straightforward premise that keeps the complex threads of the mystery from turning into a confusing mess. This season, on the other hand, is far less cut-and-dried. Agent Carter and newly minted Chief Sousa (of the Los Angeles office of the SSR) are investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in a frozen lake in the middle of the city—in sweltering heat. Their search for clues leads them to Isodyne Energy where everyone except the handsome scientist Jason Wilkes stonewalls them. After some convincing, Wilkes shares the company’s work on something called “Zero Matter,” a substance as potentially powerful as what was unleashed by the Manhattan Project. The victim was involved in research on this substance when she was killed—on the orders of her lover and the company owner Calvin Chadwick. Chadwick, in turn takes orders from both his wife, fading movie star Whitney Frost, and the shadowy Council of Nine. Those orders seem to be in conflict as the attention brought by the murder of Chadwick’s lover causes the Council of Nine to insist that all work on the “Zero Matter” be scrapped, while Frost appears ready to risk much to save it. At the end of the second episode, everyone converges on the scientific anomaly, some to steal it, others to destroy it, and Wilkes ends up missing (presumed dead) while Frost seems infected by the substance. While it does appear that season two has a fair amount of mystery to it, we’re already, really, a fifth of the way through without having a distinct goal for either our heroes or the villains. And if the writers make this storyline as complicated the one from the first season, not having that unifying purpose may cause some viewers to lose track of the pieces…and their interest. Also a bit less captivating this season is the sense of style that was so striking the first time out. New York’s grit has been replaced with Los Angeles’ sunshine, and it may be that the suspension of disbelief necessary for a period piece on television may not hold up under that much direct light. It’s difficult to say for several reasons. First, both Peggy Carter and Edwin Jarvis are very much meant to be fish out of water—transplants not only from England but then again from a Big Apple they clearly find at least passable when compared to LA. So part of the feeling that the series just doesn’t fit as well in this location may just be that. Or it may be that all the new sets and costuming look uncomfortably close to what we saw in L. A. Confidential, which would happen only six years later on the same streets (and using many of the same landmarks). Most likely it’s a matter of overdoing it just a touch. Whereas the clothes and sets, for instance, went unremarked upon in the first season, only occasionally pulling our gaze specifically, as when Carter ventured out in a swath of gold glamour meant to knock everyone’s socks off, this season has spent a lot of time drawing attention to those sorts of details, from Jarvis’ unnecessary defense of his workout clothes to the fact that Mrs. Jarvis—a delight in her own right—is consciously appointed wardrobe mistress for Peggy who, until now, seems to have been perfectly able to dress herself without assistance. There’s more discussion of clothes in ten minutes of this season than in all of last season put together. It comes off as trying too hard, when style, especially the cool style they are trying to capture, is all about looking like you’re not trying at all. But Mrs. Jarvis herself is a winner, probably because after a season of wondering exactly what kind of woman would earn such devotion from a man like Stark’s dapper valet, not only does she not disappoint on first glance, but she seems a well of possibility. One of the challenges for a series like this, where you have a man and woman working together who obviously have great affection for one another, is the will-they-or-won’t-they trap. In this case, of course, they won’t because we already know a bit about Peggy Carter’s fate. So how do you keep them in close proximity while keeping romance at bay? You pull a Sherlock. You introduce a romantic partner/spouse who is so amazing in her own right that the very idea of any other relationship becomes almost unthinkable. And Lotte Verbeek as Ana Jarvis does this beautifully. She’s vivacious, mischievous, sexy, and confident as sin itself. “An embarrassing creature” Jarvis says of his wife with an adoration that belies his words. In fact, she works so well, it’s clear that her walking in on her husband and Peggy in compromising situations and reacting in the least jealous way possible–“He does his best work on his back,” she assures Carter with a verbal wink—is going to be a running joke. Which is good because the more we see of Jarvis and Carter together, the less likely we are to remember what we’ve lost in the move to the West Coast. The men that made up Agent Carter’s team at the SSR are gone except for Souza and a few moments with Thompson. And Angie has stayed behind in New York, which is a real disappointment. One of the things that I adored about the first season was its very sharp commentary on sexism both in 1946 and now. And one of the ways that that played out was in Peggy Carter’s relationships with both the men and women closest to her. With the men, one of the things that the writers were able to depict was a (not so wide) range of attitudes of men towards women, especially at the end of the war. The rank-and-file seemed to take their gender cues from Agent Thompson who, when the series starts, sees Agent Carter as little more than an over-promoted secretary. Chief Dooley, on the other hand, knows she’s capable of a great deal more but still feels as though he has to protect her (even though she could take down any man in his office without so much as showing a hint of slip). And Agent Souza becomes the perfect example of how even a very good and enlightened man can still have his perceptions affected by systemic sexism. Angie is the other side of that coin. If the gender divide was wider in those days, there were opportunities for greater comradery among the ranks, and the relationship between Peggy and Angie was one that not only allowed the writers to actively express, in their dialogue, the struggles women faced at the time but showed how women supported each other in more tangible ways. It was nice to see a relationship between women that was devoid of jealousy, manipulation, or any of the other negative elements so common in media depictions of female “friendship.” Not to mention, she was a real character. She’s supposed to appear in a single episode this season, but that’s just not enough. And if losing that feminist critique weren’t bad enough, it’s been replaced by a very weak one on race. It’s made clear, fairly early, that Jason Wilkes is to be at a love interest this season. And he’s African American. For most of the two episodes, Wilkes and Carter interact in a way that, both from a distance and on closer inspection (depending on the scene), would be construed by most people as intimate—they even dance together publicly. But in 1947 in California, such a public display of affection between an African American man and a white woman would not have been acceptable. While California was the first state to overturn anti-miscegenation laws this had not yet happened in 1947, and would not be based on public opinion but on a California Supreme Court decision, and a close one at that. Even that case was decided on the argument that laws restricting marriage could not being based solely on prejudice—the Court’s opinion was running a couple of decades or more ahead of popular opinion on the subject. The couple in question won the right to a marriage license but struggled to find a church willing to perform the ceremony. So the fact that the writers who handled sexism so skillfully in the first season limit discussion on this other prejudice in the second season to a single encounter with what is obviously supposed to be a mouth-breathing minimum-wage-earner is disappointing. The strength of their previous critique rested on showing how pervasive sexism was/is and how it creeps in unnoticed. To largely ignore the affect that racism would have had on a man like Wilkes save for a quick discussion on how he is loyal to Iosdyne because they are the only company willing to hire a black man as a research and instead showing him playfully grabbing a white woman he doesn’t know, pulling her into a room alone, and offering her a drink seems unbelievably tone-deaf, racially speaking. I expected better. Some of this, of course, can be corrected, although I do not expect the series to suddenly become more socioculturally relevant as the season wears on. But there is the chance that the main plot will eventually be defined, and clothing and sets can fade from dialogue points back into the background where they belong. The one undeniable thing that the series still has going for it is the characters. Carter, Jarvis, and now Ana are unbelievable fun to watch every time any combination of them is on screen together. Souza and his new girl Violet add a bit of heart, though it’s a sad to lose Souza as a possible love interest for Peggy. Dottie is back and as bad as ever. Or the returning characters, only Jack Thompson is a disappointment, evidently forgetting everything he learned from the Howling Commandos and his own experience about Carter’s worth and now getting her as far away from him as he can. Still, it is looking as though this season may rise or fall based primarily on characters this season, and if that’s true there’s at least some hope here. While Jack Thompson might not appreciate her company or her skillset, one of the things Agent Carter is best at is surrounding herself with good people and bringing out the best in them. Hell, she even got me to give Cap a second chance. And that’s no mean feat. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.