This review contains spoilers
One of the most distressing changes to the way we interact with movies in the twenty-first century is the advent of ‘live tweeting.’ Setting aside the fact that 99% of these oh-so-witty insights are neither terribly witty nor particularly insightful, the real problem here is that it violates the essential social contract of filmgoing. Your only job as an audience member – whether you are a world-renowned critic or just someone who goes out to the movies once every couple of months – is to surrender yourself to the picture and trust it to effectively impart its meaning. The film may not fulfill its end of the bargain, but it is crucial that you walk into every movie giving it the benefit of the doubt. Note, that this is not an argument for ‘turning off your brain’; you can, and should be scrutinizing, but you must engage the movie on its own terms instead of arrogantly closing yourself off and demanding it meet whatever arbitrary expectations you’ve set for it. If you’re watching a movie – especially if it’s for the first time – and pausing every ten minutes to toss some snarky comment into the digital landfill, you’re closing yourself off to the film before it even has a chance to express its true meaning or intent.
I say all of this because, in many ways, reviewing a season of television week-by-week is a lot like live tweeting a movie. Each week you’re getting, at best, one-sixth of the story, and especially early on there’s no way of knowing how the arc of the season is going to play out or how the creators may or may not be playing with or subverting your expectations to make a point. A good review should come from a position of authority, but it’s impossible to be authoritative when you don’t even have the whole picture in front of you. In the case of Agent Carter, over the past couple weeks I’ve criticized the show for the ways in which it seemed to be struggling to settle into a theme, but after this week’s penultimate episode I’m having to square with the idea that I may have been dead wrong.
The first of this week’s episodes is a somewhat quieter affair (at least until it ends with an atomic explosion) with our main cast of characters dealing with the shakeups that happened last week and moving into their positions for the final confrontation of this season. We open with a tender moment shared between Peggy and Jarvis as the latter is struggling to cope with his wife being shot. It’s a really strong scene with James D’Arcy getting to flex his dramatic muscles after having been the plucky comic relief for most of the season, and the chemistry he shares with Hayley Atwell is impeccable. Early on this season, the interactions between these two characters seemed to be indulging the Carter/Jarvis shippers, but here there’s none of that; instead we’re allowed to really feel the strength of their platonic friendship. These characters are so damn likable, and it’s quiet moments like these were you really get to appreciate what great work the cast is doing with them.
On the other side of the equation, Wilkes – now in the custody of Whitney Frost – is struggling decide where his loyalties lie. He trusts and respects and maybe even loves Peggy Carter, but Frost is the only one who is offering a tangible solution to his tangibility problem. Meanwhile, Agent Thompson, still working as Vernon Masters’ stooge, manages to obtain a government report of questionable validity detailing war crimes in which Peggy Carter allegedly participated. When Peggy and the gang execute an operation to rescue Wilkes, they find out that the scientist is no longer interested in being rescued. He holds Peggy at gunpoint and demands Agent Sousa reveal the location of the Isodyne uranium rods, then retreats back to the custody of Frost and her cohorts.
With the uranium rods in hand, as well a deus ex machina in the form of an anti-Zero Matter gamma gun invented off-screen by Howard Stark, all three parties converge in the California desert. The bomb goes off, opening a dimensional rift but before team Carter can use their spiffy new device, Wilkes is pulled into the portal and filled with Zero Matter.
After a gratuitous, but no less delightful musical number*, we jump back into the fray with an episode that’s all about shifting allegiances leading into the final conflict, and it’s here where we get to the most interesting part of the double bill. As Frost tries to tap into the Zero Matter contained in Wilkes’ body, an unlikely partnership begins to form between Peggy, Sousa, Thompson, and Masters with the goal of setting aside their differences to defeat Whitney Frost. This development floored me, not because it was necessarily an enormous surprise on a plot level, but because it forces me to reconsider my entire analysis of the show up to this point.
The first season of Agent Carter was all about female empowerment. Both the hero and the villain were badass, hyper-competent woman, who could manipulate the system to their own ends and come out on top, and so I assumed the second season would similarly be about empowerment. That’s why I found it so weird that the most empowered woman on the show was also the most villainous. But what if I was wrong? What if this season is not about empowerment? What if, instead, they’re playing into that assumption I had to tell a story about disempowerment? What if Agent Carter Season Two is a tragedy?
In hindsight, this is something that should have been obvious. After all, we know how this story ends. For all of Peggy’s skill, nobility, and determination, she ultimately failed. She, along with the other founding members of S.H.I.E.L.D. allowed HYDRA to have a foothold from the very beginning, and while the Arena Club is not HYDRA, it is a similar organization of patriarchal power – a literal boys’ club that uses their power to shape the world however they want it to be. Whitney Frost has come in and upset that balance, and now for all the right reasons, Peggy Carter is forced into a position of having to work alongside this patriarchy to prop up the status quo.
At the end of the episode, Jack Thompson – having planted a bomb in the waste management facility where Frost is hiding out with Wilkes – almost literally argues that both of them must die because the only thing more dangerous than a woman with power is a black man with power, and protest as she might, our hero, Peggy Carter, has found herself complicit in all of this.
It’s a much more complicated, nuanced theme than the first season offered. It’s a theme that asks you to engage with the work in a way that runs counter to what we normally expect – where you’re asked to be suspicious of the protagonist’s actions and examine the ways where they fail in spite of their best intentions. It’s a theme that’s, frankly, more sophisticated than I expected. Like the arrogance of the live tweeter, I assumed I understood what this season of Agent Carter was trying to do before the full picture was revealed, and now that I see my mistake, I’m both embarrassed and energized. With one week left to go, I can’t wait to see what surprises this show has left in store for me.
*For all of the publicity it’s gotten, the musical number here was wholly unnecessary, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it to pieces. Marvel needs to find an excuse to do a full-fledged musical ASAP.