Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) springs into action with a two hour premiere that lays out of the
MacGuffin groundwork for the eight part miniseries.
Let’s bitch it out…
Peggy Carter was a key figure in the first Captain America film and has appeared several other times (briefly in the sequel, as well as recently in flashback on several Agent of SHIELD episodes). Now she gets to prove her mettle in her own stand-alone eight part, seven week miniseries. Initially when this endeavour was announced, I thought perhaps that it would center around the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. (since we know Carter has an integral role to play in its creation), or that we would see more of the history of the Diviner hinted at in the most recent season of SHIELD (mostly because I hoped to see more of Dollhouse alumni Dichen Lachman and Reed Diamond).
It turns out that Agent Carter is – wisely – neither of those things. Clearly having learned the lesson from the burdens associated with launching Agents of SHIELD, this new Marvel series dispenses with onerous backstory and a preponderance of exposition in favour of a few well-selected clips from Captain America and a cameo from Howard Stark portrayer Dominic Cooper. Aside from that, however, this is a completely stand-alone story that is clever, well-cast and, above all else, fun.
We pick up with Peggy Carter in New York circa 1946. The second world war is over, the men have returned home and with them they bring both unemployment and misogyny. The emancipation that women took up during war time is brushed aside as jobs are either lost (Peggy’s Red Shirt roommate frets she’ll lose hers) or, like Peggy, they’re relegated to “assistant/secretary” status. Instead of her capable hands, we’re left with buffoons like Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer) or arrogant pr*cks like Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) and Dooley (Shea Whigham). Some of the early reviews that I read suggested that the sexism angle was the series’ least endearing aspect, and while it is true that it’s much more fun to see Peggy battling baddies on the roofs of moving cars or going undercover Alias-style in a 40s jazz bar, the adversity that she faces in her chosen profession (spying, not the telephone agency) needs to be included because it is not only what bonds her to men like Stark and war-injured nice guy Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), but also why she’s willing to risk being labeled a traitor to clear Stark’s name.
The impetus for the series appears to be a series of MacGuffins in the sense that the objects Stark has tasked her to recover exist primarily to encourage Carter to dress up, investigate, shoot guns and generally kick bad guy butt. Whether or not the objects turn out to be something more meaningful as the series inevitably builds to its doomsday finale is unclear, but for now, given the level of fun in these first two episodes, I can’t say that I care. The unique combination of the 1940s setting (nostalgically evoking childhood memories of The Rocketeer, as well as film noir), Atwell’s game-for-anything lead and a deft blend of action and comedy makes for a winning show. I was already excited for the series, so it is satisfying to see that it is well-produced, looks great and hits the ground running.
At its center is a star-making turn by Atwell. This is her fourth crack at the character between the feature films, the Marvel One-Shot that arguably kickstarted this series and her Agents of SHIELD appearances and Atwell is clearly very comfortable with the role. As written, Peggy is intelligent and competent, with a solid sense of humour and just enough vulnerability to make her human. Atwell takes these qualities and makes them three-dimensional, anchoring the narrative with ease and confidence (even her accent work is impeccable).
Running a close second is Stark’ butler Jarvis (James D’Arcy), who, in just two episodes, has become the other half of the team. 1×01 & 1×02 find the pair learning to work and trust each other, which makes sense, though I hope that Peggy’s resistance to involving Jarvis in dangerous capers tapers off quickly. It’s fairly obvious why she’s afraid to let people get close (the dialogue about losing people in her life is necessary, but pretty on the nose), but now that it’s been addressed, we’ve got lots of other things to cover and only have six hours left.
I’m a little more on the fence with everyone else. As I feared, Chad Michael Murray feels too contemporary for the period setting, even though he’s got the smarmy charm down pat. Show killer Bornheimer barely registers as the office idiot; ditto Whigham as the chief. In fact, the only truly memorable characters aside from Peggy and Jarvis are the villains, including larynx-free Green Suit (James Landry Hébert), who may have expired in the molecular nitromene explosion at the end of the second hour and Leet Brannis (James Frain), who definitely did.
The intentions of Leviathan, the evil corporation presumably attempting to wrestle control of Stark’s Bad Babies, remain unclear. For now, all we know is that Carter and Jarvis have their work cut out for them, especially once whoever is behind the mysterious self-typing typewriter (anyone else have Fringe nostalgia?) discovers they’ve blown up the entire supply of nitromene. The other storyline of note is the net around Carter, which will presumably tighten as her co-workers, including (unfortunately) Sousa, close-in on “the blonde” they hold responsible for multiple murders. Buckle up your Daisy Clovers, folks: this is going to be a fun ride.
- Interesting how the series began in a fairly grounded sense (even the Captain America bits focused on the romance angle, not the fact that Carter’s dead ex was a supersoldier). Then as we get deeper in, things became increasingly Marvel-ized, culminating in the detonation of the bombs that destroy entire city
blocksavenues and leave behind spheres of fused material.
- I was surprised at how good the stuntwork is – all of the fights are very impressive. I couldn’t decide which one I liked best: Peggy’s apprehension of Van Ert (James Urbaniak) in the lobby with the briefcase is a comedic highlight while the (improbable) high stakes milk truck battle and kitchen fight scenes with Green Suit are edge of your seat exciting. We know that Peggy won’t die, but damn if the stunt team doesn’t try to convince us otherwise.
- I quite like the contrast between the visuals of Peggy kicking ass and the aural adventures of the Captain America radio show. It’s a fairly obvious attempt to showcase just how capable Carter is, especially in the second episode when she visits McPhee and the program plays over her fight scene, but it is still effective. Plus Atwell is comedy gold as her exasperation with (presumably) the depiction of Steve’s escapades, as well as the helplessness of the girl, increases over the two hours.
- While the two episodes back to back work as a solid block, there was clearly some tinkering with Peggy’s diner friend, Annie (Lyndsy Fonseca). In the first episode Annie is frank, but also slightly demure whereas in the opening scene of ‘Bridge And Tunnel’ she’s much more crass, direct and almost off-putting. Two episodes in and clearly Annie’s role is to represent the “normal” life that Peggy must fake, but the insistence on having a character “in the dark” seems to exist solely for comedic purposes. Watching Peggy try to cover up her nocturnal activities as a secret agent should prove humourous, especially after her introduction to the very prim and proper Miriam Fry (Meagan Fay); I just hope that it doesn’t come at the expense of the show’s true agenda.
- Thanks for stopping by for the cameos, Dominic Cooper and James Frain! Looks like Stark will return next week, but I did think it was unusual to hire Frain, a man so well known for his polished, eloquent voice, only to have him play a mute character. That’s not getting bang for your buck.
- Peggy (when Colleen suggests there’s a fine line between spinster and independent woman): “Is it the shoes?”
- Peggy (to Jarvis, when he says he goes to bed at 9pm): “You’re new to the espionage game, aren’t you?”
- Peggy (to Jarvis after Coleen’s death): “Perhaps losing is too nice a word. I get them killed.”
- Sousa (joking about losing his effects from the war): “Still missing half my stuff. Can’t find my leg anywhere.”
- Jarvis (when Carter tells him to get some sleep): “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’ll sleep for days.”
- Carter (to Jarvis, after learning McPhee has escaped): “Oh, well don’t shoot yourself in the face.”
- Jarvis (riding in the back of the Daisy Clover van): “This rack of explosives is distracting me from the smell of stale milk.”
- Angie (after introducing two girls at the apartment complex nicely): “That’s Sarah – she’s a slut.”
Your turn: what did you think of the two hour premiere? Are you in for the (admittedly not that) long haul? Are you a fan of Atwell’s Carter? Were you hoping for more from the men of the team? Does Annie and the “regular life” storyline distract from the spy stuff? Are Stark’s Bad Babies just MacGuffins, or do you think they’ll turn into something more? And how long before someone finds out about Carter’s extracurricular activities? Sound off below.
Marvel’s Agent Carter debuts in its regular Tuesday night timeslot at 9pm EST on ABC. Here’s a look at episode three: