Recap: Marvel’s Agent Carter, “The Iron Ceiling” (1×05)

This is the episode that Peggy Carter supporters (which includes everyone who watches this show, right?) have been eagerly anticipating, where Peggy gets to prove to the post-war Strategic Scientific Reserve how completely she dominates in the field. Howard Stark is back in the wind and Jarvis remains estranged from Peggy for his part in her deception, which gives Peggy a chance to dig into the Leviathan mystery like the (mostly) diligent federal agent she it. Even if Peggy is enraged and disappointed in Howard’s “thoughtless, inconsiderate, vain, childish, arrogant” demeanor, she knows he isn’t a traitor, but someone sure is invested in making it look that way. To the credit of the Chief and Agent Thompson, the rest of the SSR seems to be coming around to her point of view.

Before we return to Peggy, though, we get to see the famed Soviet “Red Room” training facility, whose notable Marvel Universe alumna include Black Widow and crazy-eyed Dottie, and it is just plain awesome. Young girls, who sleep handcuffed to the bed, are trained to speak perfect English and to murder each other in combat training. Dottie is a crazy spy, but a crazy good spy, and now we see why she’s a little…off. Her crazy eyes are the windows to the soul of a brain-washed sociopath with a single-minded purpose (and a bit of a Single White Female crush on Peggy).

Meanwhile, back in the SSR, the Psychic Typewriter spits out a coded message that stumps even the nerdiest cryptographers. Peggy proves her worth by recognizing that the missive was written on a one-time pad, but in Russian. (The fact that the message was in Russian – unlike all the other missives we’ve seen on the typewriter – suggested to me that this was some sort of a trap. If the intel was too easy to get, the SSR might have rejected it as suspicious and obvious.) In a burst of confidence, Peggy demands she be included in Agent Thompson’s mission to Belarus to track down the coordinates – she is the most qualified, and the Chief is inclined to agree even if the potential political implications of putting a woman in the field outweigh her potential usefulness. That is, until Peggy gets the 107th, the Howling Commandos, as tactical support. Now, Peggy gets what she wants: the chance to earn their respect.

From the moment Peggy straps on her tactical gear (in the men’s locker room), her confidence and composure takes over. As stunning as she looks in her civilian wardrobe, those dresses are a costume. Peggy’s suffering from the loss of autonomy and prestige that she had during the war. She’s a soldier, and although none of the men in the SSR can comprehend it, she’s as lost-at-sea after the war as the male veterans are.

Peggy’s easy camaraderie with the Hollowing Commandos, still led by Dum-Dum Dugan (guest star Neil McDonough, reprising his role from Captain America: The First Avenger), and their evident respect for her leadership gives Agent Thompson pause. Dum-Dum and his men are a poignant reminder of Captain America, and loved him too in their own way, but they’re also people who appreciate Peggy for her accomplishments, woman or not. Here, Thompson’s the outsider, although Peggy endeavors to include him in their fireside conversation by urging him to tell the story of how he earned his Navy Cross. Thompson singlehandedly shot and killed six Japanese soldiers when they entered his camp in Okinawa after he fell asleep on watch. Not quite spotting a Yeti, true, but still an impressive feat.

Back in New York, the Chief meets with an informant, who gives the Chief a description of a fist-fight between a dead US general and Howard Stark in the aftermath of Linow. The revelation doesn’t sit well with the Chief, who’s beginning to see that all the signs pointing toward Howard are contrived and too obvious. More driven to find the truth than ever, he appeals to Jarvis to get a message to Stark: let’s talk. The SSR is now willing to listen.

The next day, the combined Howling Commando and SSR team heads into a mysterious, bleak Russian facility, and the Commandos aren’t willing to follow Thompson’s orders without Peggy’s approval. Soon after entering the facility, it becomes clear to us – though not to them – that we’re in the same place that turns little girls into hard-hearted killers. One of the tiny agents remains behind, and manages to stab Dum-Dum and kill the most junior member of the Commando squad. Next, they find a duo of prisoners, a brilliant engineer tasked to build a bomb from a Stark schemata and the brilliant psychiatrist tasked with keeping him sane, but no Leviathan*, and certainly no Stark. Clearly, they’ve been set up, as the trigger-happy Soviet soldiers hot on their trail soon prove.

(*I disagree. The laws of television dictate that Dr. Ivchenko is not just a shrink, especially after he shoots the engineer who threatens their escape and then accepts a ticket to New York. If you can’t beat them, infiltrate them – Ivchenko is therefore Leviathan.)

In the ensuing firefight, Peggy assumes command by default, since Agent Thompson suffers a paralyzing bout of shell-shock under heavy fire. In the knick of time, Dum-Dum manages to blow an escape hole in the wall, and Peggy singlehandedly lays down cover fire to allow the others to escape. After all, Cap would tell them to listen to Peggy, and there’s no higher endorsement than that.

Returning home after the mission, Agent Thompson, distraught by his inaction, unburdens himself to Peggy. It turns out the soldier he killed weren’t hellbent on slitting his CO’s throat, but on surrendering. They had a white flag he didn’t see until it was too late, and rather than face up to his mistake, he buried it. Chad Michael Murray managed to tug on my heartstrings as he explained the terrible weight of his guilt, which means either I’ve been transported back to the early ‘00s, or that Agent Thompson – Jack – just got a whole lot more interesting. “I’ve been trying to tell that story since I got home,” says Jack, to which Peggy replies, “You just did.” When Peggy decided last episode to be guided again by Steve Roger’s decency and humanity, moments such as this one were what she had in mind. Jack’s past mistreatment, all those derisive commands directed towards “Marge” and his outright declaration that the men wouldn’t respect her, didn’t matter. In the moment, he was a fellow soldier and person, hurting, in need of someone to hear him without inducing shame. “You just did” is a Cap line if I ever heard one.

Despite Jarvis’ warnings that it would never happen, Peggy’s prowess on the mission earns her the respect of the Chief, and gratitude in the form of a simple “Good work, Carter.” Carter, like Thompson and Sousa, not Peggy. Even more significantly, she earns an invitation out to grab a bourbon with Jack and the “boys”. We’ll see how deep that newfound respect runs, though, when and if Sousa reveals that Peggy is indeed the blond woman from the club. Sousa’s sharp investigative eye spotted two gunshot wound scars on Peggy’s right scapula matching the ones on the blond woman. What does Sousa do?

Odds & Ends

– I find the speculation about who Peggy’s future husband is to be, quite frankly, the least interesting thing about her. However, to indulge it for a moment, even though Jack served in Japan, he’s still in the running because lots of soldiers served in Japan after VE day.

– Two quick-witted retorts Peggy delivers near the end of the episode are gems: to Dr. Ivchenko’ observation that Peggy’s combat skills are “Not bad…for a girl,” she snarks, “I hate you all” and to Dum-Dum’s latest effort to give her a Commando nickname, Miss Union Jack, she replies “Never speak again.”

– The banter between Jack and Peggy in the locker room, loaded with innuendo and insults, is pure 40s screwball comedy, split screen (by the lockers) and all.