To understand the unique charm Agent Carter brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one need only look to the opening dream sequence of “A Little Song And Dance,” the second episode of tonight’s two-parter. After getting knocked out and kidnapped by Whitney Frost, Peggy takes a journey through her subconscious that leads to a musical number about Peggy’s position at the center of a love triangle. The cast members sing an original song and dance to choreography by Dancing With The Stars’ Louis Van Amstel (who appears with other DWTS veterans as part of the dance ensemble), successfully channeling the spirit of old Hollywood musicals to begin the evening’s second chapter with style, energy, and humor.

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The sequence is pure fun and a refreshing burst of humor in the middle of a high-stakes plot, and something that would likely never be attempted on any of Marvel’s other TV properties (although I’d love to see Daredevil or Jessica Jones take a crack at a Rent-style rock opera dream sequence). Peggy’s dream does suffer from some clunky exposition at the top, particularly when Peggy sees her dead brother and proceeds to recite the major bullet points in their relationship, but the lazy writing is redeemed by the joyous thrill of the sequence that begins when Peggy leaves the black-and-white S.S.R. office and enters the more colorful, musical dream world of the diner she used to frequent in New York City. (The return to the diner also means the return of Lyndsy Fonseca’s Angie, who makes her sole appearance this season in Peggy’s dream.)

That musical number is easily the highlight of tonight’s two episodes, which feature Peggy and the rest of her team racing against time to rescue Dr. Wilkes and prevent Whitney Frost from reopening the Zero Matter rift. Whitney Frost becomes a less captivating character as she acts more overtly evil, and despite her insistence that she wants to use the power of the Zero Matter to help the world, she’s firmly in supervillain mode now. Villains don’t think of themselves as the villains of their own stories, so Whitney’s viewpoint makes sense, but the show’s writers haven’t done much to suggest that Whitney actually plans on doing any good with her abilities.

The prospect of Whitney Frost using cosmic power to create positive change is a fascinating one, but over the course of this season, the character has drifted from this mission as she yearns to become the vessel for whatever is on the other side of that portal. Instead, Dr. Wilkes becomes that vessel when he’s sucked into the rift at the end of “The Edge Of Mystery,” and although Peggy and her team retrieve Wilkes with Howard Stark’s gamma cannon, he returns as a person fully possessed by the Zero Matter. He spends the majority of tonight’s second episode strapped down to a table while Whitney tries to extract the Zero Matter from his body, and it’s a pity that this show’s one main character of color ends up being another lab rat for Whitney to experiment on.

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The fate of Wilkes rests in the hands of a group of white people that is predominantly men, and when he does get the opportunity to act, he ends up sacrificing himself to save Peggy. Considering Wilkes has been a ghost for most of the season, I’m going to assume he’s not dead, although the visual of his flesh cracking and unleashing a huge wave of black energy certainly suggests that his physical body has been destroyed at the end of the episode. Whether or not Wilkes is actually dead, I’m getting very tired of the MCU’s treatment of black men at this point. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has killed off one major black male character (Antoine Triplett) and ended episodes with the presumed deaths of two others (Mike Petersen and Andrew Garner); Daredevil killed off its main black male character (Ben Urich); and Jessica Jones put Luke Cage in a near-death situation after he was mind controlled and used as a pawn to hurt the woman who killed his wife and slept with him under false pretenses.

Dr. Wilkes was introduced as a love interest for Peggy Carter, but he’s spent most of the season in the background, haunted by a mysterious force that gradually robs him of his will as it takes control. It’s not a very good attempt at improving representation on this series, and from a storytelling point of view, Wilkes’ relationship with Peggy doesn’t have much emotional weight because their time as a corporeal couple has been so limited. Peggy has a stronger bond with Sousa because they’ve had more time together to develop a fully fleshed-out dynamic, but her romance with Wilkes hasn’t grown as organically, making it feel like a forced attempt to give Peggy a stronger emotional investment in the mission.

While on the topic of unfortunate character arcs, the fridging of Ana Jarvis is an especially regrettable course of events of this series. For people unfamiliar with the “fridging,” it’s a term coined by writer Gail Simone for the practice of having life-derailing tragedies befall women characters, typically as a motivating event for a male hero. Ana Jarvis was fridged when she was shot last week, but the fridge gets colder this week when it’s revealed that the damage caused by the bullet has done irreparable damage to her reproductive system, leaving Ana unable to have children. This entire storyline is focused on Edwin Jarvis’ reaction to the news and his reluctance to tell his wife, and the trauma inflicted on his wife motivates him to go on a solo suicide mission to make Whitney Frost pay for what she did.

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There’s a touching scene between Peggy and Jarvis where he confesses his cowardice and shame over not being able to tell Ana the truth, and while the conversation reinforces the tight bond Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy have given those characters, it would be nice to see Ana’s emotions get as much attention as her husband’s. Writers Michele Fazekas (story), Tara Butters (story), and Chris Dingess (teleplay) show the build-up to the moment when Jarvis tells his wife that she can’t have children, but the script moves away from the couple when he actually reveals the information. I can understand why the writers decide not to show that moment because they may not want to go to the intense emotional place of a woman learning that she can’t get pregnant anymore, but when a show is so rooted in feminist ideology, it shouldn’t have a life-changing event like this explored solely through a man’s point of view, especially when it involves a woman’s body.

Tonight’s second episode may begin with a spotlight on Peggy and her love life, but it drifts away from her as her male colleagues take more prominent roles in stopping Whitney Frost. The plot gets convoluted with shifting alliances as Jack Thompson and Vernon Masters are brought into Peggy’s plan, and the writers sacrifice clarity to add twists that increase the suspense. The moments leading up to the end of the episode are a whirlwind of secret agendas and double crosses, and while it’s appropriate for a spy narrative, this two-parter loses track of Peggy’s place in the story as men take charge of the plot.

Stray observations

  • The camerawork in tonight’s first episode is very strong, particularly the dramatic camera angles and the clever framing. Some of these visuals are subtle, like the long shot of Peggy and Jarvis chatting in the kitchen, framed by the living room archway, while some are more aggressive, like the fight that happens in the background while Joseph Manfredi and his grandmother argue about pasta sauce.
  • The characterizations of the Italian characters on this show are so cartoonish that they border on offensive. It’s fine in small helpings, but tonight’s first episode serves up a heaping platter.
  • I wish Jarvis in a tuxedo surrounded by Dottie, Whitney, and Ana as his showgirl companions was a bigger part of the musical number.
  • “I don’t think she’s like the others. I think he respects her!”
  • Whitney: “Such a pity. Two accomplished women should be standing on opposite sides.” Peggy: “Yes, you’re such a staunch defender of the sisterhood. I could tell by the way you shot an unarmed, innocent woman.”
  • “You’re asking me to judge what will happen when something I never fired miraculously manages to hit something I never knew existed?”
  • “Do as Peggy says!”

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