Even as a part of the cinema-dominating Marvel Studios megabrand, being a female-led, not-particularly dark and gritty spy-drama set in the 1940s, the chances of Agent Carter lasting past it’s first year looked grim , so to see Peggy and co return for another season is an extremely welcome surprise.
It’s now 1947, and the story has moved from New York to Los Angeles. And coming with the change in location is a change in genre: while the first season of Agent Carter was a spy series, with all the double-agents, gadgets, alibis and infiltration you’d expect, the new season has more of an LA detective noir vibe, like Chinatown, LA Confidential or a Raymond Chandler novel.
And the noir-ish mystery our heroine will be gumshoeing around trying to solve? In the middle of summer, the body of a young woman has been found… encased in a giant block of ice.
All the classic California detective tropes soon come into play: seedy affairs, goons in suits and fedoras like the opening of a Batman cartoon, a conspiracy of businessmen and politicians running the show (though, because this is still a Marvel series, they’re also a HYDRA cult), a bought-off crooked police force…and there’s even a Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard aspect to the season’s big villain, Whitney Frost – an aging Hollywood actress who’s slowly being edged out of the business. (Well, I say aging but she’s like maybe 40 – the classic problem of pop culture and it’s lack of room for older women again…)
The series’ subtle transition away from being a straight-up spy story is smart writing: Peggy spent most of last season trying to hide away so many of her own secrets, but they had all been gradually revealed by the season finale. So now, instead of risking repeating themselves by giving her a whole new set of secrets to hide this year, the writers have moved her into a more investigative role: now she’s trying to sniff out other people’s secrets rather than covering up her own.
Last season she was fighting for respect, to exonerate her friend, and to protect Captain America’s legacy – but this season, Peggy is just doing her job. Which is to protect people, investigate crimes and hit bad guys with heavy things (and sometimes sacks of money) – which is what she wanted from the start.
But because that arc has been wrapped up, her personal story this season moves from “Peggy needs to fight against institutionalised sexism to prove herself as an agent” to “Peggy’s love interest is getting married to another woman, and she’s starting to fall for a new man” – which is a plot with way more potential to feel like a reductive “female protagonist’s romance troubles” cliché.
Luckily Agent Carter the series and Agent Carter the character are both better than that: when Peggy first meets Sousa’s new fiancé, Violet, rather than descending into jealous sniping, the two hit it off and quickly become warm and friendly to each other. And later, Peggy makes a point of telling Sousa how sincerely happy she is for him. Peggy Carter doesn’t let her private hurt ruin her friends’ happiness, and she damn sure doesn’t fight with other women over any man.
Meanwhile, when she meets and feels an attraction to the newly introduced Doctor Wilkes (Reggie Austin), she keeps him at a distance both for professional reasons (he’s a major witness in her case) and personal ones (she knows she’s still processing the news of Sousa’s engagement).
But she’s eventually won around despite herself – both she and the audience are a lil’ bit charmed by the warm, funny and capable Doctor. As a black physicist who fought in WW2 and then had to face huge prejudice and barriers to find any work in a field that he’s clearly very gifted in, there are clear parallels between Wilkes and Peggy. He seems to be being established as a recurring character and love interest – which makes his (apparent) death at the end of episode 2 all the more impactful.
(It’s cool though, he comes back in the next episode as like a science-ghost, or something.)
Bringing Wilkes back as an intangible presence for the rest of the season gives him a reason to stay a part of the story and interact with the main characters even after the initial plot of the murder at his laboratory has been wrapped up. “How can we get him back to our world?” can now be an overarching plot that runs through the whole season, and connects the character to all the weird super-science stuff that Peggy investigates.
As for the other supporting characters, Thompson (Peggy’s asshole perma-frowning colleague/new boss, aka that one guy from One Tree Hill) and Dottie (the Soviet super-assassin who used to be Peggy’s next door neighbour) are kept off in New York, away from the LA-based murder mystery plot.
It’s a nice little nod to/ holdover from the depiction of workplace sexism within the SSR last season that while Peggy is still in her same position as an agent, both Thompson and Sousa have been promoted to Office Chief positions.
Thompson stays in New York, separated from the main LA murder mystery plot, and is on his own separate-but-connected story path: After taking the credit for Peggy’s investigation at the end of last season, he’s started down a slippery slope – and now the Dad from That Seventies Show is grooming him to be part of a HYDRA conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. (Which, incidentally, is my favourite place for conspiracies to go.)
So oh yeah, HYDRA are back, too. But as suggested in The Winter Soldier and the latest season of Agents of SHIELD, it’s the arm of HYDRA that’s secretly made up of 1% business executives and corrupt politicians.
The bad guys have also switched genres with the move to California: instead of Nazi superspies, they’re now a nice LA noir-style evil conspiracy of rich white guys for Peggy to take down (or maybe fail to take down, to extend the Chinatown reference – since we know that they’re still around as of 2014’s The Winter Soldier.)
Thompson being on the bad guy’s payroll is an interesting way to keep his character around, and I’m sure his story will intersect with the other’s later in the season. (I’m calling it now: around episode 7 or 8, he’s going to realise he’s “in too deep”, have a crisis of conscience brought on by Peggy’s good example, and become a mole on the inside for the good guys.)
Aside from Evil Businessmen HYDRA, our villain for the season is Wynn Everett’s Whitney Frost (aka Madame Masque). The original comics, she’s a female rip-off of Doctor Doom who eventually becomes Iron Man’s crazy, obsessive ex-girlfriend. Sooo… there’s room for improvement here.
Madame Masque really benefits from being re-imagined in the 1940’s and being pitted against Peggy instead of a male character: in this version, she’s a massively successful Hollywood actress (“We put our pearls on one string at a time, just like everybody else.”) who’s being slowly edged out the door because of her age. (She’s in around her late thirties, a comment on Hollywood’s lack of opportunity for older women that is just as true today as it was in, y’know, the nineteen-forties.)
As well as allowing some pointed commentary on the gender politics of Golden Age (and Modern Age) Hollywood, this new version of Whitney Frost is also heavily inspired by the story of Hedy Lamarr (the 1930’s Hollywood mega-idol who secretly invented the technology that’s the basis of Wifi and GPS in her spare time – a fascinating story I can’t recommend enough you google).
Like Lemarr, Frost was originally a scientist, who invented radio signalling systems that were vital to the Allies in the war, and became an expert in our superscience Maguffin for the season, the shadowy, blackhole-ish Zero Matter.
And also like Lamarr (whose story had a sad, Sunset Boulevard-esque end), it looks she will increasingly lose touch with reality, as Peggy sniffs around the murder of Frost’s husband’s mistress and as the production studio executives try to push her out of the film business.
Similarly to Doctor Wilkes and Peggy, Frost found meaning in doing what she did best to help the cause during World War 2, but unlike the other two – who were able to continue their meaningful work in some ways after the war – something apparently happened that pushed Whitney out of the lab and led her to become a Hollywood actress instead. Setting Madame Masque up as a woman like Peggy who hasn’t been able to hold on to the meaning the war brought to her life, creates a really interesting parallel
So, a lot of exposition in this first piece on Season 2, but these first three episodes are really are about introducing the new characters, the new personal dynamics, and the new LA noir-ish status quo for the season.
But now “The board is set, the pieces are moving”, as Gandalf always used to say, and we can dig into more of the thematic stuff in the coming weeks.
I’m so happy this series is back.
- “Love the hat.”
- This series has such a distinct and creative visual style, as opposed to so many of the other action series on television right now (cough)AgentsofSHIELD(cough). There are so many nice little touches that sell the 40’s setting and adventurous tone: the location shots of real footage from 40’s LA, complete with pillarbox screen and skipping “film stock” quality. The use of actual non-clichéd music from the time, and the Indiana Jones-style plane-travelling-over-a-map scene. See, other TV series? You can play around and have fun with your presentation a bit, and still not lose the drama of your serious moments. It’s possible…
- And outside of just the period-establishing visuals, that slow-motion shot of Peggy just thwacking Dottie with the bag full of coins was soooooo satisfying, and comic-bookey in just the right way.
- “Aside from danger, my middle name is charm.” – Aaaaaayyy, Jarvis is back! It’s Jarvis everybody!
- “I have no desire to spend the rest of time as a disembodied voice.” – And he’s feeling meta this year!
- Not sure about that Fatty Arbucle joke. On the one hand, I felt clever cos I got it, but on the other hand, I felt squeamish cos…I got it.
- “Who’s that clown?” (Camera pans to a sad-looking clown in the waiting room)
- This week in Peggy is the Best Spy: She knocks out Dottie with a bag o’ change! She runs the interrogation like a pro! She palms a keycard and sneaks into the lab! She beats up crowds of henchmen, not a bother! She disdains 40’s-era racism the same way she does sexism! She finds the hollow floorboard and realizes the evidence is fake! She sneaks into the bad guy’s boardroom and bugs ’em! She waltzes into Madame Masque’s dressing room and starts grilling her like it ain’t even nuthin’!
- ” Even the great Eleanor Roosevelt was turned away at our threshold.” “Well, I’ve seen old Ellie’s threshold, I believe you’ve made the right choice.” – Oh yeah, and Howard Stark’s back! (Also, eww.)
- As the series moves towards the 1950’s and the start of the Cold War proper, elements of America’s Communist panic and the Red Scare are starting to crop up – with the show now set in 40’s Hollywood, I wonder how and when it’ll engage with McCarthyism, the Hollywood “Communist” trials and the whole dawning era of “Are you now or have you ever been…?”
- “Are you gonna punch all of LA?” “Maybe. I could do with a hobby.”
- “It’s the flamingo isn’t it?” “It is indeed the flamingo.”
About the author: A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Poland and thinks you look very nice today.