People living in Fresno can likely tell that we are living in a society that is broadening its pop culture audience at a rapid rate. Not only are minorities taking on an ever increasing part in the our media (movies, television, music, etc.), but the role of the female protagonist has also broadened. In film we have seen heroines like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games or Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and even in children’s animation we have seen heroines like Korra from The Legend of Korra; these are characters whose appeal have transcended beyond just the female audience but to the male audience as well. Even in comic book-related media (one of the most prominent forms of geek culture today) have worked to try to introduce us to more interesting female heroines, especially in the film and television coming out of Marvel Studios. And now, after a very successful first outing last year, one of the premiere heroines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe returns to television for a second chance to engross us with her adventures.
The second season of Agent Carter, chronicling the missions and daily life of Captain America’s former flame Peggy Carter during the post wars years of the 1940s, follows in the tradition of it’s first season by serving as a temporary fill-in while its sister show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in allowed to go on its mid-season break. The first season was praised for its strong main protagonist, quality of entertaining storytelling, progression of its fictional universe, having a solid and entertaining story, and for not shying away from the dark and cynical sexism of the era in which its story takes place. From the first two episodes, it would seem that the second season is poised to do a lot of the same things.
The first episode of the new season, “The Lady in the Lake,” opens in 1947 New York, as Strategic Scientific Reserve Chief Jack Thompson (played by Chad Michael Murray) and Agent Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell) apprehend Soviet spy Dottie Underwood (played by Bridget Regan) in the midst of a bank robbery. Meanwhile, newly appointed Chief Daniel Sousa (played by Enver Gjokaj) of the Los Angeles SSR office meets with a police detective who has discovered a woman’s body in a frozen lake during a heat wave. Sousa takes on the case, but he is skeptical of the inexperienced agents currently working under him, so he calls Thompson for backup. Despite her currently interrogating Underwood (with whom she has a history with from last season), Carter is chosen to join Sousa in Los Angeles. Arriving in California, Peggy is greeted by her confidant Edwin Jarvis (played by James D’Arcy), who picks her up and helps her settle into one of Howard Stark’s L.A. mansions. Here, Peggy also get s the opportunity to finally meets Jarvis’s wife, Ana (played by Lotte Verbeek). An autopsy of the dead woman’s body shows that it glows in the dark, likely caused by exposure to a particle accelerator at Isodyne Energy. When the SSR investigates, CArter meets Isodyne scientist Jason Wilkes (played by Reggie Austin) and learns from him that the dead woman was once a physicist there who had an affair with Isodyne owner and prospective senator Calvin Chadwick (played by Currie Graham). Peggy goes to question the potential senator while Jarvis distracts his actress wife Whitney Frost (played by Wynn Everett). Back east, Underwood is taken into FBI custody, with Thompson’s mentor Vernon Masters (played by Kurtwood Smith) warning him that the SSR will soon be replaced by a new, peace-time organization.
The second episode, “A View in the Dark,” involves Chadwick meeting with the secretive Council who shut down a program he had established as Isodyne to study Zero Matter, a mysterious element that can such in matter that was accidentally created in an attempt to recreate the Manhattan Project. The Council are shutting the program due to its seeming lack of results and so Chadwick can focus on his senatorial ambitions. Chadwick then goes to inform his wife Frost, who turns out to be the true brains behind the program while struggling with her acting due to sexism in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Wilkes meets with Carter to help with her investigation, even though he is hesitant to turn on Isodyne as it was the only company willing to hire him due to being a black man. Wilkes explains to Peggy that the frozen woman must have come into physical contact with Zero Matter, though its effects are not limited to that. Because of this discovery, Carter and Wilkes agree to steal the Zero Matter, only to find agents of the Council destroying the program. How will either of them get out of this alive?
Obviously that is a lot to take it right away, but the two premiere episode of this season nevertheless do a great job ob getting us into the story arc and doing it fast. This season is only slated for ten episodes, only two more than the first season, so time is a luxury that these writers are limited with. I give the writers credit for getting Peggy out west as quick, yet naturally, as they could and doing so in a way that feels convincing and fun.
In fact, that word pretty much sums up this premiere: fun. The first thing we open up with is a a bank robbery led by Dottie Underwood, a familiar face from last season, and in disguise as Peggy no less. This escalates into a martial arts brawl in a bank vault with Peggy using the heavy weight and force of a wad of gold coins to knock Dottie out as if they were brass knuckles or something! Once we get to LA (following the reveal of the frozen woman and lake in the middle of summer), we get reintroduced to Jarvis and, of all things, a live flamingo that he is ordered to bring back to Howard Stark’s mansion.
It was also a lot of fun to see that Peggy had earned her place in the SSR now after all she went through last season. I’m not saying that the period sexist of last season was overly unpleasant because, yes, it was necessary to the story arc. But I am happy that the premiere doesn’t just sweep all of that under the rug to get us back to the original status quo…That being said, this is still the 1940s and Peggy is on a different side of the country, so I’m certain that those same themes are going to reappear this season as well.
Actually, this season introduces a very similar theme into the series, the racism of the period, with the introduction of Peggy’s new potential love interest Jason Wilkes. The show does not shy away from the elephant in the room and addresses the reality of a African-American male working as a scientist during the 1940s. But what I like about this character is that he has defied the odds and made something of himself despite the times he is living in, and yet he is also very much ha civilian. He has fears, he gets very nervous, he knows full well what he is risking by helping Carter with her investigation, and he knows that he is perhaps in over his head in doing so. But he is also a very likable guy at the same time with a shade of doubt over him because of how much he seems to know and exactly what he is involved with. The end of the second episode leaves his fate up in the air, but I heavily doubt we have seen the last of this character or the full exploration of his and Peggy’s relationship.
In speaking of relationships, Sousa has come far since the first season and it was great to see him and Peggy working together again. The episodes make in clear that he must still have some sort of feelings for her, and yet he is also in a relationship with a nurse, a woman whom the story does nothing to make unlikable. I’m not totally sure there they are going to with this (I have a pretty good idea, but I’m not 100% sure), but we will see as the season plays out.
The tease of the SSR becoming obsolete was an interesting one. We all know from the rest of the MCU that this is the spy group that will one day reorganize and become S.H.I.E.L.D., and that Peggy and Howard Stark are going to be two of its founding members. It remains up in the air whether we will be seeing that transition this season or if it is merely set up for things to come in further seasons.
There were a number of new characters introduced in these first two episodes. Wilkes works well, as does Rose Roberts. But I think my favorite of the new characters has to be Ana Jarvis, a character that we were told about several times during the last season and now finally getting to see. I have to say that this portrayal defies my expectations: I always assumed Jarvis’s wife to be a more innocent, proper woman who was more-or-less oblivious to the missions that Peggy was dragging her husband on, and instead the actress plays her as a very young and energetic woman with whom she shares a flirtatious and touchy-feely relationship with Jarvis and clearly knows all about Peggy and what she does. That scene where she gives her a garter belt with a gun hidden inside sums everything up!
And while I am talking about the new characters, that brings us to our major villain for this season, Whitney Frost. Those who know the comic books will remember this character for being the true identity of the recurring Iron Man villain Madame Masque, the daughter of supervillain Count Nefaria, leader of the criminal group called the Maggia, and later a leader of the group in her own right, who wears a gold mask to hide her face and had a on-again-off-again fling with Tony Stark; basically she was Iron Man’s Catwoman. This portrayal of the character is obviously very different from that, instead making her a scientist that works as a glamorous Hollywood actress during the forties and married to a senatorial candidate that is also part of a mysterious Council (reported her character in the show was inspired by Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall). There is a hint at her comic book identity in the final scene of the second episode, but again, they seem to be going in a very different direction. Eve though she obviously cannot have any kind of relationship with Tony Stark in this continuity, I do think that Frost is a very clever choice to pit as a nemesis to Peggy this season, and I very much look forward to seeing what the writers will do with it.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about the Calvin Chadwick character, only that he is playing second fiddle to Frost (a puppet essentially) and that I am more curious about the mysterious council (which Wikipedia tells me is called the Council of Nine) that his is a part of and what kind of challenge they will pose for Peggy and how they tie into everything we know will come in the contemporary Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as whether they are linked the the communist’s role this season that Dottie represents.
There is also the introduction of the season’s McGuffin, the Zero Matter, which adds more fantastical element to this era of the Marvel universe. Even though it is called Zero Matter in this show, it needs to bee clarified that this element is the exact same thing as the Darkforce, which was previously introduced in the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. through the Marcus Daniels (a.k.a. Blackout) character that Coulson and his team faced in the latter half of that season. The creators have already revealed that this season will have tie-ins to the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, and for all intensive purposes the Zero Matter seems to be their way of achieving that. Wherever the writers are going with the Zero Matter element this season, they have reportedly made sure that their psudo-scientific approach will not contradict the undoubtedly more mystical approach will will be seeing in the Doctor Strange script.
Like last season I also enjoyed the period design of this season. The costume designer claims that she looked as films like LA Confidential, Chinatown, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit to design the costumes for 1940s Southern California and to capture the “sunshine noir” feel for the season and it pays off. There is something about that Golden Age Hollywood flare that cannot be denied its charm, and it was also a nice change of pace after seeing 1940s New York for all of last season.
But of course, the greatest strength of this premiere was in the performances. Hayley Atwell continues to excel in the role of Peggy Carter, proving again how she has turned this character from merely Captain America’s love interest into one of the strongest female protagonists in the Marvel franchise. James D’Arcy reprises his role as Edwin Jarvis, Howard Stark’s butler and Peggy’s friend and chauffeur, and he does seem to be playing the part more broadly this time, being used frequently in this premiere as borderline slapstick comic relief, but not to the point of obnoxiousness or unlikability. Enver Gjokaj return as Daniel Sousa and he too remains a likable guy, now in a new position where he become more involved with the action than he was last time, both in the field and in his scenes with Atwell. Wynn Everett show plenty of promise as Whitney Frost, selling the mystique of the 1940s Hollywood starlet that covers up the much more sinister character that lies underneath; I eagerly look forward to seeing where her part goes this season, especially after that ending to the second episode. Reggie Austin make a very effective introduction as Jason Wilkes, having a likable performance and a special, almost boyish kind of chemistry with Atwell that I also want to see play out even more during the season because, again, I have little doubt that we are done with this character already. Returning from last season along with Atwell, D’Arcy and Gjokaj is Chad Michael Murphy as Jack Thompson, who plays his part pretty seriously like he did last time around, but he also seems to have some discomfort over the new leadership role he is undertaking and also seems to be set up for his own arc that might shape not only him but this entire universe that he inhabits. Currie Graham appears as an okay foe as Calvin Chadwick, coming off as a powerful figure when the show quickly reveals to us that he is merely a corrupt leader and a tool being used to the ends of his wife and the Council he serves. Lotte Verbeek steals the show whenever she appears as Ana Jarvis, surprising us with her energy, wit and humor that so strongly contrasts with D’Arcy dry wit and proper mannerisms. Other performances we will be seeing this season include Lesley Boone as Rose Roberts, Bridget Regan as Dottie Underwood, Kurtwood Smith as Vernon Masters, Matt Braunger as Samberly, Ken Marino as Joseph Manfredi, Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, Lyndsy Fonseca as Angie Martinelli, and Ray Wise as Hugh Jones.
Overall, Marvel’s Agent Carter–Season Two is already setting up to be a fun follow up to last season and is shaping us for an entertaining ride. It continues the themes of gender roles of the times and now broadens out to address the unfortunate role of racism of the time as well and how wrong all of it was, while at the same tie expands the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe both or its period era and going forward with the Phase Three films. There are some missteps, namely a higher sense of quirky comedy related to Jarvis in both episodes, but once those moments are passed, the rest is good fun.
Welcome back Peggy Carter, and lets hope for the best!