Friday, March 4, 2016
Marvel Watch: Agent Carter - Season 2
Tuesday evening saw the conclusion of Season 2 of Marvel's Agent Carter, a short-run ABC television program. ABC is, of course, a Disney company, and Marvel is also owned by Disney.
The show is a spin-off from the Captain America movies and a lodestone pointing to the mid-20th Century origins of the Marvel comic characters and the fictional origins of the doings of the Marvel Universe films. If you're not keeping up (and both ratings and anecdotal evidence suggests you're not), Agent Carter follows the post-WWII, post-Captain America: The First Avenger doings of Special Agent Peggy Carter of the Strategic Science Reserve - the forebear of SHIELD.
You may remember Peggy as the uniformed sidekick to Tommy Lee Jones as Steve Rogers transformed into Captain America, who stayed on the radio with him as he piloted the Red Skull's plane into the Arctic. Yes, yes, I was quite smitten with Agent Carter back during the first go-round, and I was a bit disappointed that - as we then jumped to the 21st Century, that was the last we were going to see of Peggy. The film had written Peggy as pointing a new way forward for female characters in Marvel movies, and, Peggy was based on a character from the comics, who - in turn - reflected the sort of bad-assery women were displaying in all sorts of very, very real covert and resistance-fighting roles during WWII.
Season 1 of Marvel's Agent Carter took on the issues women faced on the homefront as the war wound down and men returned home as women - who had been flying planes, building military hardware, and keeping the world turning (not to mention all those spy jobs) - were shoved out of the way and condescended to in general. Last year's episodes - while delivering a ripping good comic-booky spy yarn in mid-1940's New York City - had Peggy finding her feet, asserting herself, and smashing a spy ring with no help from her supervisors. What started with Peggy being asked to take lunch orders for "the boys" ended with "Do As Peggy Says" as the motto for both the Howling Commandos and the SSR.
The first season brought back the young Howard Stark we saw in Captain America: The First Avenger (played pitch perfect by Dominic Cooper) and introduced Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy), Howard's butler and the namesake for Iron Man/ Tony Stark's talking home AI system (which got a serious upgrade in Avengers: Age of Ultron).
Season 1 let the story get away from itself here and there, but tied up nicely in the end.
Peggy also appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a flashback or two of ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and in a flashback sequence in Ant-Man.
In short, someone at Marvel was as sold on both Peggy Carter and actress Hayley Atwell as myself. No mean feat for a relatively unknown actress in a secondary role in a movie that didn't exactly do Star Wars numbers.
Season 2, which just wrapped, ran 10 episodes, something ABC seemed to realize might be pushing it as they doubled up episodes for two weeks, bringing the run down to 8 weeks.
Likely for budgetary reasons, Season 2 also transported Peggy from New York City to Los Angeles - banished by her NYC boss, Jack Thompson, to get this meddlin' dame outta his hair and at the advice of his mentor, played with Kurtwood Smithian malice by Kurtwood Smith.
The plot hinges on secretive conclaves of powerful white men manipulating the press, justice, industry, etc... for control and gain. But, really, the entire season's undercurrent was about female characters taking front and center in their own stories. While male characters are certainly present and feel fully fleshed out, none take the center role, nor that of father figure or someone the women must go to for approval. This includes, by the way, not just Peggy but her antagonist of the piece, Whitney Frost (played with contained nuclear rage by Wynn Everett) and last seasons spooky/ fun Russian secret agent, Dottie Underwood.
It's Marvel's very own "Girl's Own Adventure", and the great thing is: it doesn't just earn it, it owns it.
Last season understood, from jump, that Peggy Carter would need to keep up the character we saw in the Captain America films, and that was not someone with lesser danger or adventures than the male Marvel counterparts. She wouldn't be one to outwardly complain, and the writers couldn't set up contrived scenes for Peggy to be magically better than all the "boy" characters. The show kept the speechifying to a minimum and demonstrated Peggy's worth through action and rock-solid writing and performances. Someone took an actress who could already be believable as a military officer and taught her how to throw a punch, hold a gun, and, in general, never give in to the "waif-fu" fight scenes of lesser shows trying to pretend a 92 lb. ingenue can kick a 300 lb. man through a wall. Peggy hits you with a heavy object. On the head.
As a super-hero-type character, she's also quite brilliant and contains leadership qualities that, despite the acknowledged gender disparity of the period, she bypasses as folks understand she's the one with the plan and drive.
This season I don't believe the words "Steve Rogers" are ever uttered. Peggy has moved on, and this is not a show about Captain America's girlfriend. While I like that Peggy Carter came from Captain America comics and movies, I like all the more that Marvel has let her move on rather than keeping Cap at the center of everyone's thoughts, which would diminish Peggy on her own.
Season 2 explores the worlds both Peggy and villain Whitney Frost came from, the barriers they had to climb over and under, and while Peggy's background was genteel, expectations upon her would have hemmed her into a fine if ordinary life. Whitney is from small-town Oklahoma, the only child of a single mother who depends too much on men and pays for it. One finds her path forward in giving up convention as Peggy goes off to join the S.O.E. and fight covert battles in WWII and Whitney Frost lets men define her by her beauty - ignoring the brilliant mind at work.
I didn't see much comparison to actress Hedy Lamarr, but clearly the show's producers had Lamarr in mind when conceiving of their version of Whitney Frost. Lamarr - a beauty in the George Hurrell-approved Hollywood style - was also a scientific and mathematic genius who invented "spread-spectrum" technology in order to keep radio signals being sent to torpedoes from getting jammed. Today, the modern version is used in WiFi and BlueTooth.
And, of course, Dottie Underwood - Peggy's shadow. Dottie is the name they know her by, but she's a product of a bizarre Soviet program to raise children to adulthood learning how to be a perfect assassin. Defeated by Peggy, Dottie is clearly a bit obsessed, but it's unclear if she wants to kill or kiss Peggy in any given scene.
The male characters represent less of the oppressive wall of suits we saw in Season 1 and in Season 2 appear as a pair of suitors, a remnant of her past in NYC and Howard Stark, the caricature. In addition, we have the refreshingly written Edwin and Anna Jarvis. Anna is not written to be jealous of Peggy, and seems to tolerate Edwin's appetite for adventure, even if she worries. That a show was willing to let a married couple behave in a trusting way and repay that trust is... depressingly novel.
While being a show about women, it did so by being a strong show about well-realized characters rather than pandering or with cloying messaging. While television still has a way's to go in general, and the Marvel Universe of movies and television sprawl ever outward, it's been an exemplar of how to diversify from more white-dudes in spandex (as was Jessica Jones, just in a much more R-Rated manner). It's still part of the whole, but from a fresh perspective, designed so seamlessly, it just simply works naturally.
Of course, there's far, far more to any show that runs 10 hours and has a wide cast of characters I've only just touched upon. But I think, despite a somewhat rocky first episode which has a hard time tethering itself exactly to the rest of the episodes, it's as funny, entertaining and fun as any adventure show. It's a pleasure to watch the cast at work, allowed to be more than xeroxes of xeroxes of more interesting characters (see: Agents of SHIELD), and see them really putting in a wide range of performances all true to their characters and somehow never feeling like the tone of the show is varying too wildly.
It's unlikely the show will return, which is too bad. It would have been great to have seen Marvel establish SHIELD under Peggy's supervision, but I don't think we're going to see that occur. But, it's something that seems like it would be worth another 10 episodes.
What we will get is actress Haley Atwell signed to a different ABC series for next fall and a supposed appearance in Captain America: Civil War this summer. I really do see a bright future for Atwell as ABC and Disney seem to want to continue to work with her. She's not just a pretty face - and she is that - but she's a terrifically commanding actor with what seems a great range (if her posing as various other characters is any indication).