Episode: 101 & 102
Airdate: January 6, 2015
Directed by: Louis D’Esposito (Ep. 101) & Joe Russo (Ep. 102)
Showrunner: Tara Butters, Chris Dingess, Michele Fazekas
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (Ep. 101); Eric Pearson (Ep. 102)
Agent Carter [Hayley Atwell], a relatively minor character in Marvel comics (where she was first and foremost a love-interest for Captain America), emerged from Captain America: The First Avenger as a strong female role-model working within a society of institutionalized misogyny (even more so than today), taking on a job typically reserved at that time for men, and kicking a fair bit of ass along the way. Carter is a natural for the small screen treatment, with her strong characterization, witty dialogue, and always popular period-drama opportunities. Marvel and ABC have committed to an 8-episode mini-season, with the first two airing tonight. So, how goes it so far?
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss events from Marvel’s Agent Carter S01E01 and 02, “Now is Not the End” and “Bridge and Tunnel” – read on at your peril!>>
In a word? Fantastic. None of the stumbling out of the gate that hurt Marvel’s Agents of Shield early on in its first season; instead, Marvel’s Agent Carter starts at a sprint and never lets up. Hayley Atwell simply rocks her part, relishing every line and action sequence, playing a character that is easily as complex as Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson. She isn’t just about the action, either. Faced with a male-dominated world, working in a male-dominated field, she’s constantly having to fight just to have her voice heard.
At times, she uses this to her advantage, telling her boss at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) that she needs a day off for “women’s issues” – which may come across as manipulative, but is simply a case of Carter playing the hand she’s been dealt and knowing exactly how to get what she wants with the least trouble. There are also several occasions when she is able to use her status as a member of the “weaker sex” to appear inoffensive and innocuous, gaining information not only from her colleagues, but getting the drop on various badguys along the way.
The main storyline, which carries through both hours of the episodes aired tonight, involves Howard Stark [Dominic Cooper, reprising his film role] and his secret weapons – weapons that he refers to as his “babies.” Apparently, he has a stockpile of inventions too dangerous to give even to his friends, and they’ve been stolen; now, they’re showing up on the black market, and the government is on a witch-hunt, accusing Stark of treason. Of course, Stark isn’t behind the sales, but he still feels the need to go into hiding, co-opting Carter to his side and offering her the services of his butler, Jarvis [James D’Arcy].
She runs a parallel investigation to her boss, Roger Dooley [Shea Whigham] who, along with most of the other men in the office, see Carter as little more than a glorified secretary. This view of women as background is emphasized in an early conversation Carter has with her roommate, who tells her that ten more women were let go at her job that day. When Carter asks why, she’s told that it’s because ten more men have left the army for civilian jobs. This inherent over-valuation of men is endemic throughout Carter’s 1940s era America, and although she uses it to her advantage as I’ve mentioned above, it is still frustrating to see her and the other women treated with such callous disregard. There is an interesting moment, however, when one of Carter’s colleagues comes to her defense – she tells him that he isn’t helping, and that she can look after herself. She’s fully aware of her situation, and is finding ways to cope.
This theme, of looking after herself, almost gets her in trouble a few times, with Jarvis the unlikely hero. Even when he – rightly – points out that he was helpful, she rolls her eyes at him, saying, “Oh yes, however did I survive before you came along?” The banter between the two of them gives the audience some nice moments of comic relief to counter the intense action and occasional gory sequences, and their English accents can almost fool you into thinking you’re watching a British period drama rather than an American comicbook tie-in. What with Hollywood’s penchant for making English actors speak with American accents, unless they’re the badguys, it’s refreshing to see Carter and Jarvis speaking naturally and looking to be in their element. Jarvis does, to be fair, look like a fish-out-of-water from time to time, especially in his few domestic moments, inevitably answering the phone to be requested to go to Carter’s aid, despite trying to cook souffles for his wife and listen to the radio.
Where the show really shines is, first and foremost, in the acting, with Hayley Atwell really carrying the load well. Small details, such as the costuming, the cars, and an ongoing (and, to Carter, irritating) Captain America radioplay, complete with damsel in distress and on-air ads for Singer sewing machines, really nail it. For my money, this show is already better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was by the halfway point of their first season, and this only two hours in. The writing is tight (and the first episode was penned by the team of Markus and McFeely, the writers behind the two Captain America films), the directing subtle, and the acting excellent. I am looking forward to the next six weeks of new episodes with anticipation, and I really hope that ABC/Marvel decide to continue this marriage in the future.
Steve’s Grade: A
An excellent beginning to this short season (only six more episodes to go!). Agent Peggy Carter is a fully realized, strongly three-dimensional character with none of the Mary-Sueisms that plagued Carter‘s sister series, Agents of Shield, early on, brought to life by Hayley Atwell’s fine acting. Attention to detail is the icing on the cake.