Who was Peggy Carter before she met Captain America? How did she become a field agent? These are important questions about Peggy’s past that haven’t been explored before “Smokes And Mirrors,” an episode that contrasts Peggy’s history with that of Agnes Cully, the young genius from Oklahoma that would reinvent herself in Hollywood as Whitney Frost. Both women receive a series of flashbacks detailing their childhoods and early adult years, revealing how these formative experiences impact their present-day actions and providing valuable context that makes them more fully realized characters.
As a young girl, Peggy used to imagine herself as a daring knight, but over time she started to conform to society’s expectations of her as a lady. That conformity is represented by the wedding ring on her finger, which is given extra visual prominence to emphasize its importance in her overall narrative. When the Special Operations Executive offers Peggy a field agent position because they want people that won’t draw attention (specifically women), she turns it down because she’s engaged, prioritizing her fiancée’s happiness over her own desire to have a more exciting life in service to her country.
Peggy’s brother, Michael, knows that she will never be truly happy as the bored housewife Fred wants her to be, which is why he recommended her for the S.E.O. position. (Considering Michael’s experience on the front lines, it’s a bit strange that he describes war as an adventure, which is really dancing around the possibility that Peggy could very well lose her life as a field agent.) He’s disappointed to learn that she won’t be pursuing the opportunity, but his disappointment is important. It shows Peggy that there’s someone out there who believes she can be the person she truly wants to be, and when Martin dies on the battlefield, Peggy honors his memory by ditching her wedding ring and becoming that bold, adventurous woman.
Agnes Cully doesn’t have that same positive influence. Her family never encourages her natural talent for science, and she’s raised to believe that beauty is the only gift a woman could have. It’s interesting to watch “Smoke And Mirrors” after reviewing the first season of Jessica Jones, which deals with very similar themes regarding women reclaiming their agency in a misogynist society that wants them to be happy with subservient complacency. The villainous Kilgrave prefers it when his female victims have a smile on their faces when he controlled them against their will, and this idea that women should put on a happy face for the pleasure of men is a huge part of Agnes’ story.
The notion that Agnes would be so much prettier if she smiled is first brought up by her mother’s skeezy boyfriend when Agnes is a young girl, and is repeated by the movie producer who discovers Agnes when she flees to Hollywood as an adult. When “Uncle Bud” asks Agnes why she won’t smile for him, she tells him it’s because she’s thinking, and as she grows up, Agnes figures out how to keep thinking while putting on the smile the world demands from her. There’s a lot happening under the surface of Wynn Everett’s performance during her scene with the Hollywood producer, and even though she flashes him that smile he wants and lets her touch her face, there’s clearly a plan in motion that only Agnes knows.
That producer paints Hollywood as a land where people can decide who they want to be, but at this point in Hollywood’s history, it’s a place where the studios decide who they want people to be. As Whitney Frost, Agnes’ value to the studio is in her beauty, and her career is already in jeopardy before zero matter puts a giant black crack in her face. The zero matter scar, which happens to be centralized in the same place where that producer touched Agnes years ago, is a nice metaphor for the danger of being a middle-aged woman in Hollywood, where roles start to dry up once wrinkles start to appear. Whitney is faced with a dilemma a lot of actresses face: she can either keep working within a system that doesn’t want her, or she can leave Hollywood and pursue a more fulfilling path. She ultimately chooses the latter, giving in to the power of the zero matter and allowing her beauty to be tarnished in order to protect her larger scheme.
“Smokes And Mirrors” does fall into some flashback traps, namely dialogue that is more concerned with advancing thematic threads rather than creating believable characters. Because the script only offers small snippets of past events, writer Sue Chung has to pack a lot of information into each flashback scene, which doesn’t leave much room for nuance. The actors have to put in extra effort to ground these characters in reality when working with broader dialogue, and while most of the cast does well in this regard, Samaire Armstrong veers into cartoonish territory very quickly with her interpretation of Agnes’ mother Wilma. Armstrong’s exaggerated line delivery doesn’t have convincing emotion behind it, making for an especially superficial performance. Wilma is a superficial person and her message to her daughter is ultimately that, as a woman, her mind doesn’t matter and she will only be recognized for her appearance, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of depth in Armstrong’s performance, which could have been modulated better by director David Platt.
Peggy Carter straddles the line between traditional views of femininity and masculinity; she’s beautiful and compassionate, but also tough and aggressive, and she’s not afraid to speak her mind, throw punches, and break the rules when faced with opposition. That balance of feminine and masculine characteristics is reinforced by her costume for the majority this episode, pairing a bright pink top with dark green pants. (The top looks more like a salmon in the production still, but it reads as pink on screen.) That pop of pink makes Peggy stand out in a crowd of suited men, like in the scene where Vernon Masters and his goons raid the S.S.R., and it’s also a loud declaration of her femininity and the pride she takes in it.
Peggy isn’t trying to ape the style of her male coworkers, and instead dresses in fashions that make a personal statement in a way the monotonous suits don’t. She’s stepped up her dress game since coming to Hollywood, but she opts for pants in this episode, a reminder to people like Rufus Hunt and Vernon Masters that she has both feet firmly in their world and she won’t budge. From certain angles, the silhouette of the pants makes it look like she’s wearing a pencil skirt, but rather than wearing the more feminine, and restrictive, item of clothing, Peggy is in wide-legged trousers. It’s an excellent way of using wardrobe to accentuate the themes of the episode, combining masculinity and feminine elements in a harmonious way.
The flashbacks give “Smoke And Mirrors” significant character development, but the overarching plot for this season is also taking shape and it’s very intriguing. The story of the Arena Club taps into the political paranoia that made Captain America: The Winter Soldier an MCU highlight, and a secret society of rich old white men that assassinates presidents and instigates economic disaster is terrifying because it’s totally plausible. The Arena Club is a great opponent for Peggy Carter, who has been fighting an uphill battle to gain respect from men for years, and the addition of Whitney Frost to the mix provides an X-factor that makes it hard to predict where the narrative is going to go next. “Smoke And Mirrors” is another great episode of what is shaping up to be a remarkable season, and it’s a shame that Agent Carter’s ratings are declining as the show’s quality continues to climb.
- Peggy never completely cleans off the mayonnaise that drops on Wilkes’ document, and it’s still there when they push the page to the side and start looking at other stuff. That’s gross.
- Why would this show make a Hedy Lamarr reference when one of the characters is basically Hedy Lamarr? It immediately pulls me out of the moment.
- It’s another episode without Rose or Ana, and I’m really starting to miss our supporting female players. Looks like Rose will be back in next week’s episode, though!
- I like how the radio is used as a recurring motif throughout the episode, first as something Agnes fixes, then as something she listens to, and finally as something that exposes her when Peggy and her team listen in on Rufus Hunt’s bug.
- “Its adorable appearance belies a vile temperament.”
- “Or I have a man stashed in the boot.”
- “We’re not going to torture you because we don’t have time.”
- “That’s right, he did say ‘hidden door’ and ‘secret area.’ We’re dealing with odd rich men here who like that sort of thing.”