Agent Carter is a new miniseries broadcast on ABC, starring Hayley Atwell as Captain America’s associate and S.H.I.E.L.D co-founder Peggy Carter, a spy in the World War II era. The show joins Peggy after the events of the first Captain America movie, when Steve “dies” and the war ends. She’s feeling a bit lost when we first meet her — working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) but being treated like a secretary and subjected to sexist jokes by everyone else who works there except the sassy broads that man the fake phones by the secret entrance.
Sexism is a major part of the world-building of Agent Carter. In their efforts to summon up Spice Girls levels of girl power, the show’s writers have packed in so much misogyny that it begins to feel a little obnoxious. Every man in this universe (save Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark, and his butler Jarvis, more on them in a minute) treats Peggy like she’s a pair of boobs and a butt that can do alphabetizing — actually, scratch that — every man in this universe treats every woman, loudly, like they are a sex object/idiot/baby.
It gives Carter a lot of opportunities to do badass stuff like trip people and whatever, and it certainly gives Atwell the opportunity to use some wry British-ness to snark them away, but it becomes kind of expected and boring after the third “hey legs make me a cuppa coffee” or similarly worded 1940’s sexist phrase. It becomes predictable so fast that it starts to feel lazy, like the only way they could empower a female character would be to have her stand up in the face of the man-o-centric maleocracy. Don’t get me wrong — I love a scene where a lady kicks a guy in the balls, proverbial or otherwise. But Peggy Carter doesn’t need that sort of handholding when it comes to establishing that she’s a badass.
Anyway. Peggy’s living her life, ho-hum, when she goes to visit her friend Angie, who works at the local automat (an oldey-timey word for “diner” — sort of, they aren’t actually supposed to have waitstaff). I say friend, but Peggy seems to have no real interest in a friendship with this sassy waitress, and is constantly rebuffing her offers to hang out. While she’s willing to threaten a swift murder to a diner regular who harasses Angie, she’s not okay with Angie’s offers to help her find an apartment. There’s a slight, minorly irksome male perception of how women interact present in this friendship: Peggy seems to consider herself better than Angie, or maybe is overly concerned with endangering Angie with her friendship (after her former roommate is murdered by baddies), which means that this relationship is falling short of a positive female bond.
Anyway, Peggy is sitting there at the diner all mopey about being bored when, conveniently, a secret note is left for her!! She goes outside, meets up with Papa Stark (an even more debauched hedonist than his son, it seems) and his butler, the IRL Jarvis. A note on Jarvis: they really hotted him up for TV. Comics Jarvis was, like, a fat bald guy who I always imagine carrying an umbrella (maybe I am just thinking of The Penguin, though) and on Agent Carter he’s a skinny, young-ish guy who is maybe a little uptight but otherwise seems to be a peer of Stark and Carter, not a butler. James D’Arcy does a great job and is immediately likeable, and I forsee Jarvis being the fan-favorite of this show. Tumblr’s going to be photoshopping flower crowns onto him and calling him their “precious baby” any moment now.
Stark’s on the run, we learn through a well-executed black and white 1940’s “Movietone” style newsreel, because his “bad babies,” (Stark’s word) a.k.a unstable, potentially dangerous weapons, have been stolen, and the US Government thinks he’s selling to the enemy. Stark thinks that he can’t confess that they were really stolen because they’ll think he…got them stolen on purpose, or something. Remember, this is post-WWII America, the earliest stages of McCarthyism, and any form of anti-US spying or fraternizing is a major crime. Anyway, Stark’s about to peace out to try and track a few down and he needs Carter to take care of things with Jarvis while he’s away. Peggy, of course, jumps at the offer, because it would give her an opportunity to do anything other than be scolded for being a woman. It does mean, though, that she will be working against her peers at the SSR.
Agent Carter’s worst scenes are the ones that take place at the SSR, where the sexist dudebros are trying to track down Stark and his weapons so he can be tried as a traitor, only to be bested by some MYSTERIOUS DAME (Carter, obviously) at every turn. The team searching for Stark and the Bad Babies (new band name?!) is headed up by none other than ol’ Tiger Beat standby Chad Michael Murray and his enormous, gigantic shoulders. Seriously, my notes from watching the show read:
- Chad Michael Murray– gigantic shoulders?
- Maybe tiny head?
- Is it the high waisted pants?
- WHY ARE THEY SO BIG
The SSR guys (which includes Victor from Dollhouse!) are kind of hapless and so often blinded by their own sexism that they can’t see what Carter can, and so are just sort of handed solutions by way of Peggy. Chad “MegaShoulders” Michael Murray tracks the missing device dujour — the “bad babies” will make for an excellent “monster of the week” style format for the show, you can already tell — to Roxxon, which is owned by freakin’ Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks. I’m sorry, but once you appear in a David Lynch project, you’re doomed to be that weird guy forever. Peggy had already figured out Roxxon, though, and had been investigating the company, spying on its shady employees, having badass fights with mysterious one-sentence endings, and pretending to be a health inspector to track down milk trucks that might be delivering the creepy implosion bombs that Stark designed.
This first episode was a great example of what a pilot should be. Great world-building, establishing characters and narrative style, enticing the viewer with its particular aesthetic — and aesthetic is a huge part of Agent Carter, from the Sirkian lighting, to the classic costumes, to the jazzy big band music that accompanies the action and espionage scenes. There’s enough Marvel self-referentia to keep longtime fans interested, but it’s explained enough that a newbie wouldn’t be lost. It’s a tight show, compactly put together, and overall, it is good.
Where I might hypothesize some change, in an ideal world, though: what if there were no dudes in this series? I don’t mean to set it in some post-Beyonce feminist utopia where all men are eunuch servants, I mean: do we really even need the SSR guys when it seems like their only role is to say misogynist junk and be bumbling oafs at their jobs? After this first, two-part episode, I haven’t found a single reason to care about any of them (not even CMM and his earthshaking shoulders). Jarvis is a little cutiepie, but why can’t Angie be recruited as Peg’s left hand? The main male characters seem to only be there to make Peggy look better, and like I said before, she doesn’t need any help. Atwell is playing the hell out of this character and clearly having a great time doing so.
Overall, Agent Carter is a great addition to a primetime lineup where women don’t often get to be the badasses, or even deliver the witty one-liners. A first look leaves the viewer wanting more, curious about Howard Stark’s inventions (and his sexual deviancy, which apparently has destroyed the zippers on his pants, according to Jarvis), and totally enamoured with Carter herself as she busts baddies while rocking an on-point matte red lip.