While ratings have always been important in television, in the last decade and a half or so, how ratings have been used to determine the success of a series has changed fairly dramatically. Most of us, for example, are familiar with the story of how Firefly was killed, in 2001 after failing to find a large enough audience after 11 of its 14 completed episodes aired. But the pressure has gotten more and more extreme with some series cancelled for lack of viewership after only one or two episodes (like 2010’s Lone Star). As a result, most television shows, even ones that feel fairly established, now act like they are on the verge of cancellation from a storytelling perspective, with showrunners and writers working together to turn seasons into decidedly discrete entities, so that, should the series be lucky enough to have the axe fall once the season is over, at least the creators and audience are left with the feeling that the story has had an end of sorts. The pressure is so bad that even shows in no danger of cancellation, like ABC’s Once Upon a Time, have shrunk these storytelling windows to half-seasons, largely tying up major storylines twice a year. This ratings-sensitive adversity to risk has also meant that not only are network executives quicker to cancel a show, but it’s harder for anything but a reality series to get green-lit for a traditional season—especially if the show in any way exists outside the safe-zone of police-procedural/courtroom-drama/family-safe-sitcom. Witness the short seasons given the critically acclaimed Hannibal and Vikings, the ambitious-but-ultimately-unwatchable Dracula, and yes, Agent Carter. While these short seasons may not have been generated by the best of motivations, that doesn’t mean that they are bad for the viewers, however. After all, since these shows operate under the dual pressures of having to tell an entire standalone story each season and have a very limited amount of time to do it in, it means that shows have had to cut away the fat and get right to the meat (Dracula being, ironically, the exception to that bodily metaphor). And thus it is that, almost as soon, it feels, as we have started with Agent Carter, we have reached, in this week’s “Life of the Party” and “Monsters,” the pivotal change of fortune trope common to action-adventures: at what looks like the moment of triumph for the good guys, the bad guys instead manage to turn the tables on them. After last week’s “Atomic Job,” our heroes definitely had one in the win column, having made off with the bombs before Whitney could get her hands on them. Unfortunately, while the returning team celebrated, Wilkes was in trouble. His corporeality was again in danger, and as they discovered the last time this happened, the solution was more Zero Matter. Unfortunately, without setting off another atomic bomb, Whitney Frost is the only known source of the substance, and thus starts another caper: this time the infiltration of a party to steal some of Frost’s Zero-Matter-laden blood. This caper, with one glaring problem, is a vast improvement over last week’s, if only because it takes better advantage of the opportunities. But first, the problem—Dottie. The inclusion of Dottie is, on every level, ridiculous, and not something that Peggy should entertain for a moment, especially considering that “The Atomic Job” already provided us with an acceptable substitute for Carter in the shape of Rose (and I’m trying hard not to read Rose’s shape as the reason she wasn’t considered suitable). The very idea that Peggy would even contemplate breaking out someone she knows to be as dangerous and difficult to catch as Dottie really goes against Carter’s character: she takes chances herself, but she doesn’t unnecessarily endanger others. At least the writers had the decency to acknowledge that they were doing something they shouldn’t by having Peggy introduce it with: “I have a terrible idea.” On the other hand, while it makes no narrative sense, it’s a wonderful idea when it comes to those opportunities I was referring to. Dottie adds a delicious element not only of additionally unpredictable danger to the outing, but humor. And this episode, despite the dark doings of Whitney, is rife with comedy, much of it at Dottie’s hands. From the set-up, where the hair dryer is used to keep her from hearing the conversation between Jarvis and Carter (while the two do an excellent bit of physical shtick) and her eyelash fluttering at Wilkes (and discovering the secret she will later be forced to impart to Frost) to the party scene itself, where she ambles up to Thompson, only to be literally swept off her feet and away by Jarvis, Dottie helps to bring the funny, something that will pay off later. But the party provides more than comedy. We also get a rather intense conversation between Thompson and Jarvis that shows that Jack’s bigotry isn’t limited to sexism; he’s classist as well. He tries to put Jarvis in his place, completely missing out on the fact that the butler he’s insulting is actually attempting to warn him of the terrible trap his ambition has placed him in. And Jarvis is a man who knows a little about speaking truth to the power of ambitious young men. While Jack appears to be having none of it, by the end of the double episode, he’s certainly seen more than enough that, if any of what Jarvis said got through, he may very well break in Carter’s direction rather than Vernon’s before all is said and done. The romantic element really kicks in at this point in the narrative, with Sousa admitting to Peggy that Violet has broken off their engagement because she’s realized he’s in love with Carter. Their conversation (including an aborted kiss) are overheard by Jarvis who also witnessed Peggy and Jason kissing, and he expresses his concern for her dilemma. I have to admit that he’s not the only one feeling uncomfortable, though for a different reason. It’s fairly clear that Sousa and Carter are going to be a thing, and I’m left wondering why Jason and Violet had to be a part of Peggy’s romantic body count. Wilkes makes a touch more sense, though there were other ways to work him into the storyline without sex (and which would have made more sense along contemporary racial lines), but Violet seems a completely needless casualty. There’s even a touching moment between Jarvis and Ana after Wilkes is insensitive enough to let slip to the wife the danger her husband is really walking into. Lotte Verbeek has been a delight to watch, although having her be a lab assistant has made little sense, all things considered, but we haven’t seen her interact much with Jarvis since Ana was first introduced, which is too bad. That first episode with her in it was priceless. Here, we get a very different view of the relationship—less teasing but still quite indulgent—as she refuses to tell him not to go, but insists on being allowed to worry about him nonetheless. The lack of Hollywood cliché here somehow makes the overindulgence of it around Carter’s love life a bit more palatable. But all of this is really the build-up to the turn in fortunes. Dottie’s humor early on (including when Vernon is torturing her) is juxtaposed to her terror once Frost uses the Zero Matter on her. Little else could make it clear to us just how horrific an experience that is. Jarvis’s warning to Jack takes on more and more meaning as Vernon slowly closes the trap around Thompson in order to turn him into a weapon against Peggy and we are left wondering if Jack’s warning to her is real, or the last attempt of a man with no morals trying to have it all by simply scaring her into submission. Carter’s romantic waffling may reach a crisis now that Wilkes is in the hands of one enemy and Sousa has been beaten and dispossessed by another. And Jarvis, who has, until now, been involved in Carter’s undertakings largely out of a sense of adventure now has a very personal stake in what’s happening. We know, of course, that the good guys will win. But this is that darkest-before-the-dawn moment that makes us worry, at least a little, that they might not. That’s part of what makes such a show enjoyable. But Agent Carter is more than that. The show’s style, along with the talent of its actors and writers, is firmly established at this point. But like a few other shows with similar claims, the compressed schedule of a shorter season means that nothing is wasted in Agent Carter: every conversation and look means something–if not now, then soon. And the discrete seasonal storylines mean that everything will be wrapped up in the next three episodes—so very soon. And as with the set-up and payoff in “Life of the Party” and “Monsters,” we’ve gotten a great deal of groundwork so far this season for the final conflict between Carter and Frost. Now it looks as though Underwood and Thompson will be wild cards in that fight, Jarvis and Sousa will be battling out of more than loyalty for a friend, and Wilkes may be a power to be reckoned with. Bring the popcorn, folks, because despite a slightly shaky start, this season’s conclusion is looking even better than the last. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response Shawn EH February 24, 2016 I guess Dottie doesn’t make much sense, but the promise of having her impact earlier in the season certainly has added to the fun towards the end! She’s got that “anti-Peggy” supervillain thing that can always be so much fun! Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.