The Rise and Fall of Agent Carter

Yes, I know I’m a bit late getting to this one, but I’ve been busy. However, with what looks to be an interesting Luke Cage series airing on Netflix at the end of the month, it’s past time I got caught up.

So, on with the show.

Agent Carter is the second Marvel TV series produced by ABC (the first being Agents of SHIELD). Set in the post-war 1940s, it follows the titular Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as she struggles against conspiracy, and against the rampant sexism of the times. Agent Carter is more thriller than superhero drama, and head and shoulders above its stable mate, Agents of SHIELD, in just about every way. It’s also been cancelled, so two seasons are all we’re likely to get (although there has been talk of a special to tie up the outstanding plot points).

Is cancellation a fair fate? Well, no and yes.

Agent Carter does so very much right. It nails the era (at least, my pop culture perception of the era, which admittedly might not be the same). It looks fantastic, and the episodes zip along a respectable pace, rarely outstaying their welcome. The stories have plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing.

It’s also brilliantly acted, with almost every recurring character a delight to watch. James D’Arcy’s cautious but courageous Edwin Jarvis is a wonderful counterpoint to the ‘tough’ butlers of which we’ve recently had so many. Dominic Cooper returns to breathe life into playboy wunderkind Howard Stark. Wynn Everett and Bridget Regan deliver stellar turns as Whitney Frost and Dottie Underwood. And a bunch of side characters (likeable and otherwise) are quickly and efficiently established.

Peggy herself is, without doubt, the star of the show. She’s smart and tough, while being just arrogant enough ensure she’s not too self-sufficient. When she bests her opponents, it’s not through magical plot-means, but because she’s more determined, more focused, and just plain stubborn. That Peggy does so in the face of some pretty obnoxious sexism – especially in the first series – makes her all the more compelling. She gives us no histrionics, but gets on with a job that no one else seems prepared to do right. Even without a nefarious evil to confront here and there, that’d make her a hero.

And Atwell is fantastic. She nails every damn thing the scripts call on her to do – especially when she slips in and out of accents and personalities, juggling the demands of her work and her ‘I’m just a switchboard operator’ cover. She sells Peggy as a spy, and many more things beside. I’m never really one for liking the protagonist of a TV show – I’m more of a secondary character sort – but Agent Carter is always at its best when Peggy’s onscreen.

So that’s the ‘no’. What about the ‘yes’?

The tragedy of Agent Carter is that it learns from its mistakes only to make new ones. The first season’s biggest problem is that it can never quite decide what kind of show it wants to be. Sure, there are plenty of Howard Stark’s science gizmos in play, and the antagonist has impossible powers, but the motivations and pay off are a little too human for the outre concepts elsewhere.

The second season does much better in this regard, giving Peggy a truly weird-science thriller to unpick, but makes a huge back-peddle by making her the love interest for a bunch of characters (two conventionally, one where the attraction outs itself as clumsy bullying). The ‘women are too distracting in the workplace’ fallacy was a tent pole of interactions in Season One, and it was a shame to see it undermined in the very same show, so very soon. That, and the fact that the love interest that wins out kind of comes out of left field, and never really convinces.

(Which isn’t to say I was rooting for someone else. I found all the romance angles in Season Two a touch forced).

Season One leaves you begging for more. Unfortunately, Season Two, two episodes longer, drags in places – mostly due to a focus on the plight of an unsympathetic character with whom we’re supposed to empathise. Between that and the inexplicable musical number dominating the start of Season Two’s Episode 9, it makes me suspicious that the original run was to have been eight episodes, and was padded out to ten at a later date. That would certainly explain the redemption heel-turn that comes on all too suddenly. (And I wanted that heel-turn, dammit – but you have to earn it.)

Does this sound really negative? Probably. It’s not meant to. I’m just a touch frustrated the show isn’t just that little bit better. Should you watch it? Absolutely. Even with its flaws, Agent Carter‘s a much better paced, plotted and acted production than Agents of SHIELD and the Netflix Marvel shows – which, despite bold claims, struggle to rise above angsty teenage drama shot in the dark with a bit of blood spatter. It also manages to be more light-hearted and yet more serious than the bulk of the CW’s output.

And if those comparisons didn’t make you angry, the next one surely will: Agent Carter‘s like Firefly. It nailed the setting, gave great lines to talented actors, and built an intriguing world. For the first half of its run, it delivered fantastic stories. Then, just as the pacing started to slip, it was cancelled. I’ve no doubt Agent Carter will in time earn a similar cult status to Firefly – it aimed to do something different, and did it well. However, like Firefly, maybe we should be glad it ended when it did, before the grind of production schedules wore away everything that was unique. Nonetheless, the
fact remains that they’re both great TV, and you should watch ’em both if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, is it too much to have Peggy show up in Infinity War? Sure, she’s dead in the present day, but there are such things as the Time and Reality Infinity Stones…

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