As Marvel’s only live action TV series, it’s impossible not to compare Agent Carter and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hell, they both have “Agent” at the start of their titles), and over the course of these last seven episodes, charm has become the thing that sets the two shows apart more than anything else. Charming performances. Charming writing. Charming visuals. Agent Carter has its own stylish character while Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is far more generic, and that extra personality has made Carter a considerably more engaging series.
At the heart of it all is Hayley Atwell, who impresses week after week with her comic timing, physical presence, and emotional conviction. More than any other actor on this show, Atwell makes it all feel real, likely because she’s lived in this world longer than any of her costars. Because this is a retro series, some of the actors lay it on thick to evoke the time period, but none of that artifice is found in Atwell’s cool, grounded performance. There’s a difference between acting in a big-screen blockbuster and acting in a genre TV show, and Atwell is operating on a slightly different frequency than the rest of the cast because she’s taking Peggy from film to television. Atwell’s performance isn’t changing, but the context is, and the richness of her character has been one of the major reasons to check out Agent Carter each week.
Teaming Atwell with James D’Arcy was a fantastic casting decision, and Peggy and Jarvis’ relationship has only become more endearing over time. While watching Peggy and Jarvis bicker in an S.S.R. conference room this week, I realized why these two are so enjoyable together: they remind me of the classic couples that starred in films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’m not saying that Atwell and D’Arcy compare to Hepburn and Tracy or Bogart and Bacall, but the two have great chemistry and play off each other very well. And because they’re British, there’s an air of refinement to their performances that makes them stand out from the gruff Americans in the cast.
Peggy’s colleagues at the S.S.R. want her to speak up about why she interfered with their investigation by running her own on the side, and speak up she does, but not just about her agenda. This is her chance to release her pent-up frustrations, and most of them involve the rampant sexism she’s dealing with on a regular basis. The S.S.R. is guilty, but so is Jarvis, who tries to save Peggy’s hide by casting her as a victim of Howard Stark with his fake confession scheme. Peggy is getting really sick of all this shit, as evidenced by these irritated quotes:
- “To you, I’m a stray kitten left on your doorstep to be protected. The secretary turned damsel in distress. The girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore.”
- “And I suppose the confession portrays me as what? A patsy? A doe-eyed idiot succumbed to the charms of America’s mustachioed Casanova?”
- “I conducted my own investigation because no one listens to me. I got away with it because no one looks at me. Because unless I have your reports, your coffee, or your lunch, I am invisible.”
With next week’s series (season?) finale likely focusing on wrapping up the Leviathan plot, it’s not going to have much time to address the gender dynamics that have been a major part of this story, which would explain why “Snafu” goes out of its way to make Peggy’s feelings known to her male colleagues. This is her time to stand up for herself and assert the power she’s been trying to show all season, and she makes her move just in time because the S.S.R. is going to need that power after losing its chief.
If the hint in the flashback is any indication, Dr. Ivchenko is the MCU’s version of Captain America villain Dr. Faustus, a psychiatrist that mentally manipulates his victims and convinces them to kill themselves after they help him with his criminal plots. (Ivchenko is most likely an alias.) Ivchenko continues to use Chief Dooley this week to get his hands on Item 17, a biochemical weapon that causes people to become uncontrollably sick and violent, and once the Leviathan agent has what he needs, he sets up Dooley for a tragic end.
After being used by Ivchenko, Dooley wakes up trapped inside a vest created by Howard Stark to be a new suit of armor, but there’s a reason the vest never made it past the prototype stage. The power source is unstable and there’s no way to free the wearer once the armor is activated, leaving Dooley in a very difficult position. (Dooley’s death vest is a great example of the charm I was mentioning earlier; that low-budget prop would never fly on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., but is totally appropriate for this show’s retro time period.) He knows that he’s not going to survive, and rather than taking the rest of the S.S.R. with him when the armor blows, he jumps out a window and sacrifices himself. But before he does, he makes sure to tell Peggy that whoever did this needs to pay, finally acknowledging that their success lies in Agent Carter’s hands.
A moving character death can do great things for a show’s forward momentum, and Dooley’s end dramatically turns up the stakes heading into the finale, hitting the S.S.R. right at the top and cutting off its head. The S.S.R. is going to be scrambling as Leviathan moves forward with the final stage of its plan, but luckily it has Peggy Carter around to save the day, and the men of the S.S.R. are keenly aware that their fate lies in her hands. She wanted respect and she’s got it, now she just needs to do what a hero does and beat the bad guys.
- Tonight’s episode is written by Chris Dingess, a writer and producer on shows like Reaper and Medium, but whom I know best for his work on the Image Comics series Manifest Destiny. That ongoing title is another period piece, turning Lewis and Clark’s western expedition across America into a riveting horror tale (one that landed in The A.V. Club’s list of the best comics of 2014). I highly recommend checking it out.
- I cannot wait for Dottie and Peggy to finally fight next week. That’s going to be one hell of a showdown.
- Like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the score on this show can get overbearing at times when it comes to setting the mood for the scene. There’s no need to push so hard.
- “Howard Stark has never scrambled my mind, or any other part of me.”
- “Does this stuff implode? Explode? Spice up an Old Fashioned?”
- “What if there are people behind this mirror we’re breaking?” Peggy: “Then they may get hurt. There will be a spray of guns.” Jarvis: “What if those hypothetical people behind the mirror have guns?” Peggy: “Then we’ll get hurt. There will be a spray of bullets.”
- “We’re still attached to a table.”