This review contains spoilers
If you were to attribute just one quality to the success of Agent Carter’s first season, more so than its delightful cast, period setting, or the earnest silliness of its silver age tone, the thing that made Agent Carter so special was that it had something to say. Prior to the release of Jessica Jones, the exploration of the prototypical rise of feminism in the United States following the second World War was the most thematically ambitious and coherent story Marvel had attempted to tell on TV. In the modern landscape of comic book adaptations we got a period spy vs. spy thriller with real, meaningful things to say about women’s rights, buoyed by talented creators and a top notch cast.
With its second season, almost everything that made the show tick on the first go ‘round is back in the mix, but that one crucial element – a strong, clear thematic statement – seems to be missing. That missing piece becomes especially painful this week as Peggy finally comes into direct conflict with her nemesis.
Zero Matter (or Darkforce, if you prefer) kicks off the action as the mysterious substance continues to exert more influence over the people who have come into contact with it. This week, Jason Wilkes and Whitney Frost are both drawn to the corpse of Jane Scott (the frozen body dumped in Echo Park back in ‘The Lady of the Lake’) and the Zero Matter that still infects her body. Wilkes believes that the Zero Matter is his key to regaining physicality, while Frost seeks to feed her vampiric hunger – a hunger so ravenous that even after she’s consumed the last of the energy found in Scott’s corpse, she still craves more. How would one go about obtaining more Zero Matter? Why, with an atomic explosion of course. An explosion much like the one that seemingly created the stuff in the first place.
This whole business with the corpse feels somewhat inelegant; a false start that serves to quickly tie up some loose ends before getting to the real point of the episode. Instead of having the corpse play back into the story in a motivated and interesting way, it’s just thrown away as a convenient device to get Carter and Frost in the same room so that Peggy can hear about her plan to steal an atomic bomb. That’s not even mentioning the way Zero Matter serves as a sort of divine intervention to set the events of the episode in motion rather than having them work as an organic progression of the existing story. It’s a narrative shortcut that uses coincidence to go from point A to point B instead of charting out a plausible chain of causality, and it ends up making the progression feel manipulated and unearned.
All of that said, this winds up being only a minor hiccup, as the episode quickly moves past its clunky setup and into the real meat of the story. This is a heist episode, with Peggy and the SSR racing to figure out a plan to find and diffuse a pair of atomic bombs before Frost and her cronies can get to them. The bombs in question are being held at a secure Roxxon facility, and in order to get to them, they’ll need to obtain a top-level security key, evade the guards on site, find the room where the bombs are being stored, bypass the locked doors, and then remove the uranium rods without detonating the bombs. No sweat, right?
For the first stage of the plan, Peggy infiltrates Roxxon’s headquarters disguised as a bubbly secretary in search of the security key belonging to Roxxon boss, Arena Club member, and all-around bad guy, Hugh Jones. There’s some fun to be had here as Peggy makes frequent use of a device that erases the last two minutes of a person’s memory, and though the joke wears thin a little too quickly, it’s still a joy watching Ray Wise and Hayley Atwell have a blast playing this scene as Peggy has to deal with Jones’ sleazy flirtation and repeated realizations of her true identity.
Meanwhile, Whitney Frost begins recruiting a team to aid in her own heist, and approaches Joseph Manfredi – head of the Maggia crime family – for hired help. Through all of this, Calvin Chadwick can barely contain both his terror and resentment as his wife’s newfound power emasculates him and threatens his own sense of control. This is the thing I’ve spent the most time wrestling with this episode, because there’s definitely something interesting going on thematically with this, but I’m not sure if those themes have fully crystallized yet. As with the first season of Carter, we have women as both the primary hero and the primary villain, but while Season One was primarily about the ways in which Peggy Carter and Dottie Underwood both manipulated men’s arrogant dismissal of women, this season’s themes are much less clear.
It seems like maybe they’re playing with ideas of power and emasculation, where Zero Matter renders both Wilkes and Chadwick powerless in their own way while the women in each of their lives are empowered, but I’m still not sure what exactly the show is trying to say about this dynamic. In this episode in particular, there’s a weird quality where the villain is the one who more radically rejects the traditional patriarchy while our hero, though more independent than most, is still working within the status quo. For all of Peggy’s willfulness and badassery, she’s still an agent of the SSR and a subordinate Agent Sousa – a cog in the machine that is built and overseen by men. I certainly don’t think the intention here is to say that an outright rejection of patriarchal institutions is somehow evil, but the muddled thematics make the meaning unclear, and I’m hoping it’s something that they develop and clarify over the next half of the season.
But for now, we have to get to our first real showdown between Carter and Frost. Not knowing what exactly to expect in the Roxxon facility*, Peggy elects to recruit Rose Roberts, the woman in charge of maintaining the SSR’s civilian-facing cover, and Aloysius Samberly, an SSR lab tech. On paper, the idea of effectively bringing both Moneypenny and Q along on a field mission is a fun one, but in practice it leaves something to be desired. The biggest issue is that we don’t really know these characters. Of the two, Roberts fares a little bit better as we’ve seen her in a handful of episodes before and she’s gotten at least one stand out scene, but Samberly was barely featured in one episode prior, and here he just comes across as incessantly irritating. The shot of this team walking out of the SSR together is played as a big moment (albeit one that’s undercut with a joke), but it doesn’t feel like one, because we don’t know who half of these people are.
Still, once the heist gets going, the episode hits its stride and things start getting fun. The interlocking mechanics of the heist are primarily focussed on Peggy, Sousa, and Jarvis which does admittedly make the presence of the other two SSR agents feel even more superfluous, but it also means that they’re not wasting much of our time on characters we’re not invested in. It’s these characters, after all, that are the entire reason for this shows inception and continued existence, and as ever it’s a treat just to get to spend 40 minutes with them. It’s fun watching a flustered Sousa have to talk Jarvis through diffusing not one, but two atom bombs; it’s fun seeing Peggy take matters into her own hands to go after Frost; and it’s electric getting to see these two characters meet for the first time without any pretenses and go toe-to-toe for their individual causes.
For any lack of focus this season might have compared to the first, this is why I keep coming back. The fact that I love these characters doesn’t excuse the shortcomings, but it’s a life raft to cling to during weaker episodes. This was definitely a weaker episode, probably the weakest of the series to date (which isn’t exactly a harsh criticism since I broadly like just about every episode of this thing), but there are still seeds of interesting ideas planted throughout that I hope blossom into something really worthwhile in the second half of this season. Whether it’s the interesting start to a theme exploring the dynamics of power and emasculation, or the soapy drama of Sousa proposing to Violet only to have her realize that he’s still carrying a torch for Peggy, there’s stuff here that I’m definitely invested in and I’m optimistic that these things will be paid off in interesting ways as the season concludes.
*They discuss the fact that they have no way to scout out the facility in front of a character who is invisible and intangible, at which point I was screaming at my television.