Recap: Marvel’s Agent Carter, “Now Is Not the End/Bridge and Tunnel” (1×01 & 1×02)

Agent Peggy Carter was too rich a character to languish in oblivion after Cap’s time jump at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. Unfortunately, the need to assemble the Avengers outweighed her individual awesomeness. Fortunately, Marvel had to fill the hole during Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.‘s winter hiatus, and it turns out that television is the perfect home for a series about the badass agent that Cap left behind. The show works on almost all levels, using the trappings of 1946 and a snappy wit to showcase just how interesting a protagonist Peggy Carter can be.

And make no mistake: Peggy Carter is badass. Some of this comes from the way the character has been written, but much of it stems from Hayley Atwell’s capable, confident embodiment. In her very first appearance on screen, she humbled a mouthy super-soldier program recruit by swiftly kicking his ass. She does the same to multiple opponents – all men – in the two hour series premiere. But she can do more than fight; she can climb into a moving car after leaping on the roof (and late fight atop a moving truck), she can don an American accent as well as she dons her roommate’s red hat, and she can convincingly threaten to murder the man harassing her waitress friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca, Nikita) with a fork. Even better, she retains her femininity while doing so. Rather than merely use her sexuality as a weapon, Peggy weaponizes other peoples’ expectations of her gender. She knows she’s unable to singlehandedly change the place of women in the world, but she’s certainly going to take ownership of the fact that she is a woman and manipulate it to her advantage, whether that means getting time out of the office for her investigations by claiming illness from “lady troubles” or by gaining admission to a man’s office in the guise of a sexy blonde party girl. We’ve seen these tactics before – Alias springs to mind – but they seem less like an infuriating commentary on modern gender relations and more like clever resourcefulness in a period show.

What’s remarkable about Peggy’s situation is, despite its extraordinary particulars, how astoundingly common it generally was. Women who filled the domestic workforce while the men fought abroad found themselves struggling to keep their newfound jobs and independence as the men returned home, and many of them had lost their husbands and boyfriends to the cruelties of war. Sure, most didn’t work for a top-secret government organization and none captured the heart of Steve Rogers, but beyond that, Peggy’s story is emblematic of an entire generation of young American women. Her mantle of grief and tenuous autonomy in a (once again) man’s world grounds the character and nicely counterbalances the more fantastical Marvel elements in the series.

The Strategic Scientific Reserve, where Peggy has managed to cling to her job despite all the returning GIs, teems with hostility and casual era-appropriate misogyny. Barred from the field and tethered to a desk, her biggest problems are the three sexist stooges: her slimy good-ol’-boy boss, Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham, Boardwalk Empire); the boorish slob Ray Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer, Perfect Couples); and golden boy agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray, One Tree Hill). Her only workplace ally is the chivalrous Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj, Dollhouse), a war veteran missing a leg.

Peggy’s world gets a much needed jolt of excitement when Howard Stark, the playboy father of Iron Man and genius inventor extraordinaire, falls under suspicion of treason for selling his “bad baby” inventions into enemy hands. Stark claims his vault was burgled, and someone is selling his inventions on the black market. He begs his old pal Peggy to spend her free time tracking them down in order to clear his name. With only perfunctory concerns about being accused of treason herself, she assents, as seeking Stark’s inventions offers far more intellectual stimulation than filing transport reports. For help, she’s assigned Stark’s butler Jarvis (who we know as Iron Man’s robotic helpmate and who may play a larger role in Avengers: Age of Ultron), untrained in espionage but absolutely devoted to honoring Stark’s wishes. First mission: find out if anyone actually used a stolen chemical formula to produce Nitramene, an incredibly dangerous explosive that may or may not actually work. (But, as Stark predicts, he came up with it, so naturally it does work. Is hubris still hubris if you can back it up?)

The relationship between Peggy and Jarvis is a high point, and in a series this well-conceived, that’s saying quite a bit. Atwell and James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas) have an easy odd couple bantering chemistry, and Jarvis’ crisp, servile exterior masks a braver, more ingenious core. Their back-to-back conversations in adjacent diner booths are flat-out adorable, and as their acquaintance progresses, so does their mutual tutelage. Peggy teaches Jarvis about the covert arts (which he finds surprisingly invigorating) and he advises her on how to lower her heavily fortified walls and rejoin the world.

Peggy’s fear that she brings danger to all close to her isn’t entirely unfounded. Her roommate is killed by the voiceless assassin (credited as Green Suit) also in pursuit of the Nitramene on the behalf the mysterious and unseen Leviathan, who will likely prove to be the season’s Big Bad. Green Suit communicates with his masters through a psychic typewriter, an eerie touch. Both he and Peggy are in pursuit of Leet Brannis, a thief also lacking a voice box, who is in possession of the Nitramene and knows where Stark’s other toys are hidden. Peggy and Jarvis’ chase takes them first to a refinery (quickly leveled) and then to the delivery driver whose truck was used for transport, and Brannis agrees to help them in exchange for protection. Unfortunately, Green Suit was close on their heels, and in the ensuing fight Peggy is wounded and Brannis is killed, leaving a hastily drawn heart as the only clue to where Stark’s goodies reside.

Peggy’s colleagues may not be as good as Peggy, but neither are they terrible at their jobs. Although they proceed from the opposite assumption as Peggy – they think Stark is guilty of treason and is behind the ensuing mayhem – they do quickly put together clues and often are close on Peggy’s tail. They discover the trail of the blonde dame from the nightclub, Peggy’s first step in finding the Nitramene, and she quickly becomes their target. Peggy has to evade her agency’s search as well as act against its interests – and to think all they needed to do to keep this from happening was give her a gun and some respect.

By episode’s end, Peggy’s taken baby steps to forge some new connections, finally yielding to Angie’s determined haranguing and moving in next door to her at the Griffith Hotel for Ladies (although there’s no way she’s ever making curfew at ten). But even Agent Carter’s perception isn’t perfect; Stark and Jarvis have a hidden, probably nefarious purpose for collaborating with her. “Miss Carter is an excellent choice,” Jarvis tells Stark over the phone, “I don’t think she’ll have any suspicions at all.” Nothing good can come from an observation like that. Leviathan may not be Peggy’s biggest threat after all.

Odds and Ends

– In “The Captain America Adventure Program” radio show, Peggy is reimagined as Betty Carver, a triage nurse whose sole purpose is to “clean up” after the men and threaten big bad Nazis with the promise of Captain America’s righteous anger. Peggy is aggressively unamused and it’s delightful.

– Enver Gjokaj isn’t given much to do here except be kind and quietly competent. His marginalization by the other able-bodied agents is indicative of how disabled veterans were often ostracized in reality even as their sacrifice was lauded in idealized rhetoric. I hope he becomes a more active partner within the SSR for Peggy. I’m not opposed to a romantic element there, either – [MILD SPOILER if you haven’t seen the Marvel movies] – after all, we know from Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she does eventually get married.

– Jarvis is married? Who knew!

– Jarvis to Peggy: “I can’t tell if you’re being arrogant or ignorant.” Peggy: “Both, I imagine.” She may not be an Avenger, but she certainly thinks like one.

– While the series sits directly in line with the history presented in The First Avenger, I’m not entirely clear how it relates to the Agent Carter One-Shot. In the short, Peggy goes on an unsanctioned solo mission to acquire the Zodiac, then gets promoted to head up S.H.E.I.L.D. by Howard Stark at the end. My best guess is that Marvel’s Agent Carter takes place after the first Cap film but before the One-Shot, or that it replaces the One-Shot entirely.