This show, you guys, this show. On the Fangirl Happy Hour Episode 1, Ana and Renay talked recently about the terrible injustice that Agents of SHIELD got a whole season commissioned and didn’t start delving into proper character stuff for at least ten episodes, while Agent Carter is brilliant from the start, and it only gets eight episodes all up, and we all have to sit on tenterhooks waiting to find out if we ever get another season.
It’s true. But I wonder if the short run works in Agent Carter’s favour – 8 x 40 minutes a fantastic length in which to tell a crunchy, layered crime story, with plenty of room for character development and side plots but no excuse to have throwaway episodes or padding. Like, you know, most of US network television with its crazy long seasons.
Agent Carter hits the ground running and never stops. I’m five episodes in, and I was in love from the start. Here are some of the things that are great about this show:
1. Hayley Atwell. Her performance of Peggy in Captain America: The First Avenger was fantastic, and both she and the scripts so far have been uncompromising in allowing Peggy to be more interesting and substantial than “the love interest” or the “strong female character” in action movies generally gets to be. In Peggy Carter we have a woman who dresses in traditionally feminine ways (late 1940’s, so it’s all pin curls and stockings) and has taught herself to be an action heroine in very traditionally masculine environments.
Instead of the elegant martial arts usually used to explain how a Hollywood-petite woman can be lethal (eg. Black Widow, Melinda May), Peggy is a total bruiser. She punches, kicks, elbows and uses every dirty trick she has to hand. She also has a sense of humour and a full emotional range. She’s a genuine pleasure to watch on screen, whether she’s deflecting awkward work situations with quiet sarcasm, or punching the hell out of a pair of goons on the waterfront. Peggy, I love you, don’t ever leave me.
Oh and Hayley Atwell’s Twitter account is a thing of beauty, including livetweets of episodes (Howard, you dog!), ridiculawesome set pics, cake, and the documentation of the terrible damage she has inflicted upon her army of stuntmen.
2. No boyfriend. The really great thing about Agent Carter as a spin off show after the first Captain America movie is that as far as the narrative is concerned, Steve Rogers is literally the fridged damsel, and Peggy is the hero. This already turns comic and action hero traditions on its head, but also gives us the rather splendid option of a spy drama with a female protagonist without a love interest, because she’s still mourning the love of her life. I’m not saying that the show won’t give her a boy to kiss eventually (eyeing all the main suspects right now), but it’s really great that the show is focusing on other kinds of relationship instead. Her past relationship with Steve is used not only to show her being sad, wistful and extra inspired to do the job she was doing long before he came into her life, but it also shows the social fallout from being the woman that Captain America left behind. From the cheesy radio programme depicting Peggy as a fainting damsel constantly being rescued by the star-spangled man, to the assholes at work making snide comments about how no new dude can measure up to her super-powered DEAD WARHERO BOYFRIEND (yeah nice tact there, guys) it’s hardly surprising that she’s not in a mood to date again any time soon.
3. Trust issues. Peggy’s narrative arc through the show is about learning to let others in and build friendships – and that she deserves more respect that she is currently getting with the men she works with. She starts out as the classic lone wolf archetype who pushes everyone away because she doesn’t want them to be hurt through proximity to her – after several instances proving her paranoia right (including the “death” of Captain America and the casual murder of her roommate). This is so… not the usual arc of a female action hero. It’s usually the arc given to, like, Wolverine. PEGGY CARTER IS WOLVERINE AND SHE NEEDS TO LEARN TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE AND TRUST THOSE WHO ARE SQUISHIER THAN SHE IS. Sadly, many of the people she does start to trust aren’t completely worthy of her, and learning to trust those around her isn’t always going to pay off… there are still a few betrayals to come!
4. Jarvis. Peggy’s partnership with Jarvis is amazing on so many levels – not only because Howard Stark’s butler is dry and witty, giving us a show which is largely about two sarcastic, beautifully dressed English people taking on America (it’s like that other Avengers with the bowler hat and the cat suits) – but because it’s a gorgeous platonic friendship with a whole bunch of gender norm reversals. Seriously, every time she calls him into action for the first couple of episodes, he’s doing laundry or chores for his wife. Also, him being married (and completely committed to his wife) is super sweet, and there’s not a hint of romantic spark between he and Peggy – it’s respectful partnership all the way.
Jarvis is a useful chap to have around, with many skills honed from years of picking up after Howard Stark’s disasters, but he’s not as tough or as experienced or as frankly violent as Peggy herself. It reminds me a lot of early episodes of Fringe, where Olivia was the flinty-eyed, gun-toting FBI agent and Peter was the squishy civilian who dealt with problems via guile and unexpected language skills. I also like the realistic touch where Jarvis is more actively angry about the way the men at Peggy’s work treat her than she is – because she has to deal with it every day, and can’t always afford to let anger and resentment take over. It boggles his mind that Peggy continues to tough it out at the SSR under those conditions, and that she even defends her co-workers at times which goes to show that he doesn’t entirely get how normal it is to her, to be treated like crap.
His tendency towards mansplaining on this particular issue is the flaw in the Persian rug of Jarvis’ loveliness as a character, but it’s also a completely realistic portrayal of a man who values women as equals but is a little naive about how easily their problems could be fixed. THE WORLD IS BROKEN, JARVIS, HANG IN THERE DUDE, WE’LL GET EQUAL PAY SOMEDAY.
5. Howard Stark. A clever twist of the show is that Howard Stark, weapon inventor and self-made millionaire, is central to the plot but not always central to the story – he is used sparingly, but constantly relevant. Peggy and Jarvis bond over how ridiculous he is with his wandering pants and his terrible life choices – but when he’s actually there in the show, he and Peggy are great together, all sharp-edged, siblingy banter and in his case, surprising depth under the charm and expensive suits. It’s a different vibe to the Peggy-Jarvis friendship, because Howard is obviously attracted to Peggy, but her complete lack of romantic interest in him means he has to learn how to talk to her like a person. It’s like he’s never had a woman stand up to him before, so he eyes her like a fascinating science experiment. And you know, Peggy gets to punch him when he deserves it, which is SO satisfying.
When you see Howard and Jarvis together, it makes sense – Howard has spent most of his life around people who fall over themselves to impress him and say ‘yes’ to whatever he wants, because of his money and influence. Both Jarvis and Peggy are willing to mock him, and/or call him on his bullshit, so he will do anything to keep them in his life, while also using them shamelessly. (yes, it completely mirrors the Pepper-Rhodey-Tony friendship in the Iron Man movies, I can’t believe that’s a coincidence) [EDIT: After watching Episode 6 it is very clear that Jarvis is Pepper in this scenario, and Peggy is Rhodey – Jarvis is the one who is literally paid to break up with Howard’s girlfriends on his behalf, while Peggy is the respected bro he can talk about the good old days with, and trust to tell him when he’s out of line.]
Peggy asking Howard why his moustache is so sad is one of my favourite things in the history of things.
6. Angie and the women. Much like how Steve Rogers’ friendships with Natasha Romanov and Sam Wilson took the narrative space usually devoted to a romance in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Peggy Carter’s emotional arc in Agent Carter is about her learning to appreciate and invite civilian women into her life, so that her whole world isn’t just about struggling against the patriarchal work structures. Angie the waitress is a sweet character who genuinely wants to be Peggy’s friend, but Peggy is so used to lying about her job and her life that she doesn’t really know HOW to be friends with ordinary women. A big part of this story is about how she is a woman in a sea of double-breasted suits, and that’s important, but I like very much that the easy option of making her look special and awesome by not letting any other women get near her is not what’s happening here. Watching Peggy’s armour slowly fall away as she allows herself to have friends and to live among a community of other women is an interesting progression, especially when you realise that her automatic reflex is to under-estimate what those women are capable of in exactly the same way that the men at the SSR under-estimate Peggy.
I won’t talk about Dottie because spoiler spoilers, but oh, I love her storyline so much even though I have no idea where it’s going, and it makes me wonder how many of the women of the Griffith Hotel are hiding double lives. I kind of hope all of them. All of them would be good.
7. The Manly Men of the SSR. Oh boy, Peggy works with a bunch of jerks. To put this into context, I could not watch beyond the first episode of Mad Men because the whole historically accurate sexism thing made me feel sick to my stomach, and I knew I couldn’t sit through hours and hours of it. But watching Peggy at work, and the levels of casual disrespect she has to deal with every day, is inspiring as well as infuriating. I really like the balance here, and the way that they are acknowledging the real problems that happened with women in the workforce after the war, when desperation was no longer a good reason to ignore gender conventions. But while she does work with assholes who are constantly keeping her away from “real” work and getting her to fetch them sandwiches, there’s also some real progression here. Not all the guys who are appalling sexists are actually also bad at their jobs – and it’s worth noting that the one guy in the office who isn’t appallingly sexist, Daniel Sousa, is at the absolute lowest point of the pecking order (just above Peggy) because he is came back from the war missing a leg, and is also the new guy.
What I really like about this show is that they never lose sight of the fact that exploring gender politics is not only interesting, but has as much to say about masculinity as it does about femininity. Through Souza and Thompson, respectively the nicest and the jerkiest of Peggy’s colleagues, we see the harsh expectations on men of this era, especially the returning soldiers from the war, and how sexism RUINS EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE.
8. The Howling Commandos Do What Peggy Says. Apart from our civilians, Howard and Jarvis, the other interesting group of men are the Howling Commandos, who feature in Episode 5 of the show, appropriately named The Iron Ceiling. When Peggy blags her way into an overseas mission, based entirely on her skill, experience and contacts, her two worlds collide. Jack Thompson, jerkiest asshole most sexist agent of all, finally gets to see the woman he constantly dismisses in her true element, working in the field with a unit held up as the most famous war heroes of all time – and not only does he see that Peggy is genuinely good, he also gets to see how deeply she is respected by the Howling Commandoes, who treat her as an equal.
There are hints of traditional chauvinism here – Dum Dum Dugan’s friendship with Peggy is gorgeous, but it’s clear some of the awe that he and the others hold Peggy in is because she was “Cap’s girl.” Still, that’s only part of it – they have also seen her in action, know what she’s capable of, and will always listen to her when she speaks. The very opposite, in other words, to how Peggy is treated in the office as a civilian agent. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t enormously satisfying to see Jack Thompson’s head explode as his code was rewritten with all this new information.
Dum-Dum Dugan: What would Cap say if I left his best girl behind?
Peggy Carter providing covering fire for his retreat): He would say DO AS PEGGY SAYS.
9. The fanfic. With a new show that’s developing its own fandom, I’m always interested to see which fanfic pairings rise and explode. In the case of Agent Carter, while there’s a bit of inevitable fannish glee around Peggy/Jarvis (ugh, what’s wrong with you people, he has a lovely wife at home) Peggy/Howard (HE WISHES) or Peggy/Souza (best of a bad bunch), for the most part the fanfic adoration is all about the femmeslash. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Cartinelli! Peggy’s friendship with Angie Martinelli has been rightly picked as the emotional heart of the show – and while it’s almost certainly not going to be romantic in the official narrative (though that would be amazing, let’s not rule that out, show), I always see a viable femmeslash following as a sign that there are credible connections between female characters in a story. Never mind the Bechdel Test, this is the Cass/Steph Test.
10. The Clothes, the Hats, the Cars. My friend Isabel, a longtime comics fan, is as much in love with Agent Carter as I am, but every time we discuss it, she has one true lament: WHERE IS THE PATTERN BOOK? She has had the same lament about the Miss Fisher Mysteries for years, now. Why can we not just order these clothes, or the patterns to make them? The gorgeous period style of this show is really enjoyable, and I like particularly the way that Peggy’s personality is expressed through her clothes. She won’t dress in dark tweed to fit in with her male colleagues – screw that, she wears gorgeous dresses in plum and violet and magenta because it’s not like she can hide that she’s a woman. The men’s hats are also stylish and wonderful and oh, the cars. The cars in this show. If only there were more historical superhero/espionage dramas in the world. Or, you know, I’d settle for more of this one.
I started writing this post a few episodes ago, and right from the start I had a wish list for where I wanted this show to go: I wanted Black Widow/Red Room, the Howling Commandos, a suspiciously exactly-the-same-age Nick Fury, Winter Soldier, more Howard Stark, and the weird typewriter subplot to mean that this is actually all taking place in the Fringe universe. SOME OF THESE THINGS CAME TRUE!
Truly, this is a great show. It’s not perfect thanks to one pretty glaring omission – pretty much every article I’ve read about the show flags that Agent Carter is surprisingly silent on the racism of the era, while having so many interesting things to say about gender politics, disability, class, etc. The cast is mostly white, and racial issues are barely even touched on even when we do get characters of colour, like with the Howling Commandos episode.
Which is weird, because the most interesting thing about the Howling Commandos is that this super legendary World War II squad of crack troops who went with Captain America and Bucky Barnes on all their missions, and are still honoured in a Hall of Fame seventy years later, were actually a mixed-race military unit at a time when American troops were still racially segregated. The MCU didn’t do much to highlight this in the first Captain America movie, apart a line about how Jim Morita was born in Fresno, but Agent Carter is exactly the kind of show that could explore the racial implications in more depth. Sadly, apart from establishing (I assume thanks to actor availability) that Gabe Jones and Jim Morita weren’t the only non-white members of the 107th, Agent Carter hasn’t done anything with this yet. THERE’S STILL TIME, SHOW!
Interesting thought: now that Gabe Jones is no longer the only canonically black member of the Howling Commandos, we now have another potential grandfather for Antoine Triplett in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D in “Happy” Sam Sawyer. Though I don’t want people to stop writing “Peggy Carter was Trip’s Grandma” fiction, because that stuff is aces.
Agent Carter explores all kinds of social issues to do with history, oppressed minorities, and injustice, with sexism front and centre – these themes are deeply embedded in every episode, which makes the absence of important (or hell, background) characters of colour really weird and disorienting. It seems like a show that would tell stories about a realistically diverse 1940’s New York. So why haven’t they?
If women of colour are not welcome at the Griffith Hotel, for example, I think we should be told whether this is a deliberate policy of the management! Peggy Carter is, like Captain America, the kind of hero who would notice day-to-day social injustices and stand up to them, so let’s see her do it. Also, which of the sexist jerks that she works with are also racist jerks? We need all this information.
I’m keen to see the show follow up on Jarvis’ Jewish migrant wife, because their story is so interesting and it’s kind of weird the way we never see her. I want Anna to get to know Peggy, and I really want to see how she puts up with Howard. I like to think that in her spare time, she sponsors a mission specifically for finding good jobs, education and comfortable clothing for all of Howard’s discarded good-time-girls. We definitely need an episode where Jarvis is left at home with a broken leg, and Anna drives Peggy’s getaway car instead.
For all the things it could do better, and has yet to follow up on – I still LOVE AGENT CARTER SO MUCH. I’m sad that that the #saveagentcarter hashtag is apparently necessary because there are people in the world who are not watching this show like it’s made of chocolate-covered dolphins in adorable hats. I don’t want to even consider the possibility that we only get one season. There are so many angry lady spy stories in the post-war Marvel Universe still to be told!
Agent Carter Links (may contain spoilers):
Sleeps With Monsters: Agent Carter, I Think I’m in Love
Agent Carter: The Iron Ceiling
The Superficial Yet Satisfying Feminism of ‘Agent Carter’
“say it with me now. agent carter is failing on representation. not discussion.”