This review contains spoilers
Power. Just last week I was wondering whether Agent Carter had finally settled into a thematic angle for this season, and last night’s pair of episodes confirms it; this season is all about power – who has it, who doesn’t, and the lengths people will go to maintain it. Across these two hours of television, virtually every character’s power, or lack thereof, is forced into sharp relief as we get to see how each of them deal with it.
Let’s start with the titular agent herself. After being impaled on a piece of rebar at the conclusion of last week’s episode, Peggy is having to square with the fact that she’s in no physical condition to engage in her usual brand of espionage and fisticuffs. This presents a bit of a problem as James Wilkes’ condition continues to worsen, and the key to saving him is locked away in the blood of Whitney Frost. Peggy’s itching to go after her, but as Sousa rightly points out, Frost will see her coming a mile away, and in her weakened state she’d have no way to deal with the defenses Frost could throw at her. With her own abilities compromised and the loyalty of her fellow SSR agents in question, Peggy finds herself turning to least likely ally imaginable: Dottie Underwood.
Now, when I say “least likely ally imaginable” I’m talking strictly from the characters’ perspectives. It’s been clear from the very beginning that Dottie’s appearance at the start of the season was setting the table for a Carter/Underwood team-up later down the line, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting from a character perspective. What we have here is Peggy – the unflappable, ever resourceful, relentlessly persistent SSR agent – put in a position where she not only has to give up control, but specifically gives it up to her old nemesis. That’s not to say Peggy doesn’t desperately try to maintain the illusion of control using spycraft and gadgets in an attempt to keep Dottie on a leash, but eventually she can do nothing but watch as her best laid plans go awry.
You see, while Peggy’s power has been compromised, Frost’s power continues to grow. Thanks to her husband, she’s been granted an audience with the leadership of the Arena Club, but as she presents the power Zero Matter has given her, her husband turns traitor and tries to have her restrained and taken away. This scene is all about the exchange and subversion of power, and as such it serves as a sort of microcosm for the whole two hour affair. You have room full of people, each of whom believes they have the upperhand in the power dynamic, and as each person tries to display their own power no one winds up being in quite the position they thought they were. Calvin Chadwick, emasculated by his wife, believes that he’s used his wits to outsmart and subdue her, but he winds up ground up into fuel for Frost’s voracious rise to power. The Arena Club, ever in control of politics and economies, believes that controlling this one woman won’t be a problem, but they wind up gravely mistaken as Frost herself not only escapes her would-be captors, but turns the tables and establishes herself as their leader.
Meanwhile, as Dottie Underwood attempts to get away with the blood she stole from Frost, she’s captured by Agent Thompson, unwittingly working for the Arena Club, and turned over to Frost and her goons. She’s interrogated first by Vernon Masters, whose threats of torture elicit little more than a chuckle from the black widow spy, but when Frost steps in, wielding the power the Zero Matter has given her, the unbreakable agent is broken.
With Dottie in the wind and untraceable, and Sousa ousted from his position of authority in the SSR, our heroes find themselves powerless to do much more than wait for a lead to present itself. In the meantime, Wilkes – the most powerless of the bunch – has found a way to regain his tangibility. Using the small amount of Zero Matter they were able to extract from Frost’s blood, Wilkes creates a containment field that anchors him to the real world, but in the process effectively confines himself to a cage, trading one form of powerlessness for another. It’s not without its benefits, though. For one, he can eat again, and as Dottie’s tracer suddenly (and suspiciously) reactivates, Wilkes and Mrs. Jarvis share a meal, some wine, and more than a little commiseration. Even Ana Jarvis has found herself feeling powerless lately – her husband having traded the relative safety of being Mr. Stark’s butler for the high stakes danger of espionage, and her having no way to guarantee his safety. Unfortunately, at the moment Edwin happens to be the safer of the Jarvis couple as Whitney Frost’s bait was not intended to lead into a trap, but away from one. As Peggy and Jarvis are off rescuing Dottie, Frost arrives at the Stark mansion to take by force the Zero Matter Wilkes absorbed in the accident at Isodyne. What she finds instead is that her power has no effect on Wilkes, but instead only serves to strengthen his physical connection to the world. She resolves, then, to settle for kidnapping instead of murder, though that doesn’t stop her from shooting Mrs. Jarvis in the stomach just as Peggy and Edwin arrive on the scene.
It seems that after half a season Agent Carter has not only settled on a theme, but resolved to announce that theme as clearly as possible. Every element of this pair of episodes deals with the shifting balance of power, and specifically the way people respond to those changes. What’s interesting is that, unlike last week, the power dynamics are not shifting along gender lines, but instead just seem to be a straight reversal for each character involved. Those in power are robbed of it and those who have no power are granted it (or take it by force), and I’m not sure that indiscriminate take works to deliver a clear, consistent theme as well as it would if it were more specifically tied to issues of gender or even race.
Near the end of the second hour, Whitney Frost speaks to Wilkes about the way in which they are both marginalized as a woman and a black man respectively, and the way in which Zero Matter can change that, but that doesn’t seem to be something that the episodes are really addressing at other points. There are clearly gender politics in play in the power reversals Whitney Frost is involved in with both her husband and the Council of Nine, but when it comes to other characters like Sousa or Dottie or even Peggy Carter herself, it’s much less clearly an issue of gender. As for the race issue, that’s something the show has barely touched upon at all (partly because the only black character has been stuck moping around Stark’s lab all season), so bringing it up now feels a little bit disingenuous, like they’re trying to will this into having a greater symbolic importance than it actually achieves on its own. And once again I’m left wondering why, in a show that espouses to be about female empowerment, the one woman who is the most empowered is also the one who is the most evil. I get that there’s an element of ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ at play here, but when we’re dealing with issues of marginalized groups (in this case women) we’ve got to get to a point where they have even equal power to their peers before we should start concerning ourselves with whether that power is being abused.
That said, even if the themes haven’t really clicked into a satisfying place yet, this was a much better week for Agent Carter than last. Across the two hours of television we got some exciting development for pretty much all of our main characters (and even a few characters I wasn’t expecting to see much development from) and by the end we’re in a more interesting place than we started with stakes raised across the board as we head into this season’s penultimate week. The show is hitting so many of the right notes with its characters, its tone, and its action, and it feels like it’s just on the cusp of reclaiming the heights achieved in the first season, but it’s not quite there yet. I’m hoping in the remaining three episodes these final elements will click into place, and we’ll see this thing firing on all cylinders in a way that retroactively elevates the rest of the season, but for now, even if it’s not “there” yet, it’s still gobs of fun, and maybe that’s enough.