Peggy Carter is one plucky gal. Despite flagging ratings during its first season (not to mention the general tedium of its execution), Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ somehow got renewed for another eight-episode run. The new season brings a big change in setting and scenery, but is that enough to qualify as an improvement?
Between this series on broadcast TV and ‘Jessica Jones’ on Netflix, I have to applaud Marvel for putting some focus on female-driven comic book shows. This is a much-needed development. When it premiered, I was really excited for ‘Agent Carter’. Its period setting looked like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the first season was a massive dud. The episodes were tremendously dull, the plots went nowhere, and the whole thing felt like a pointless waste of time that had no direction or purpose. In blatant contradiction to the advertisements promoting it as a “limited run” series, the show ended on a cliffhanger begging for a renewal that, at the time, seemed unlikely to happen.
Yet here we are. Marvel is apparently determined to see this property succeed. With a superficial retooling that moves the action from New York to Los Angeles, the show is back for another chance to win us over. It’s a good thing star Hayley Atwell is so appealing in the lead. I’m not sure I’d sit through any more of this without her.
Episode 2.01, ‘The Lady in the Lake’
The two-part premiere opens with a bank robbery perpetrated by Dottie Underwood, the deep-cover Russian agent Peggy tangled with last season. Just as she thinks she’s broken into the bank’s vault, Dottie finds Peggy waiting for her with a shotgun. All the bank’s customers are also SSR agents who quickly take down Dottie’s goons. In a very poorly choreographed catfight shot with too many disorienting close-ups, Peggy and Dottie squabble inside the vault until Peggy eventually gets the best of her. If this is supposed to be a big, exciting kick-off to the new season, it’s pretty lame.
We cut to sunny California. Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is now Chief of the Los Angeles division of the SSR. The LAPD calls in the “science cop” to help with a dead body found in a lake, believed to be the victim of a serial killer. What does this have to do with the SSR? The lake was frozen over and the body trapped in a big block of ice… in the middle of summer. That’s weird. His office resources strapped, Sousa calls back to the New York office asking for assistance.
In New York, Carter is pulled out of interrogating Dottie by her dickwad superior, Chief Thompson (Chad Michael Murray). He tells her that she’s been specially requested by the L.A. branch (she hasn’t) just as an excuse to get rid of her. Peggy looks forward to reuniting with Sousa. What she doesn’t realize is that he has a new girlfriend and is trying to move on.
When she arrives in California, Peggy is greeted by Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Although we don’t see him in the premiere, we’re informed that, conveniently, Howard Stark has also recently moved to Los Angeles to open a movie studio. Jarvis offers Peggy his services driving her around town. She asks to be taken to the Auerbach Theatrical Agency, the local front for the SSR.
Sousa is very surprised to see Peggy and tries to keep their relationship strictly to business. He brings her up to speed on the frozen body case and introduces her to LAPD detective Andrew Henry, whom she’ll have to work with. When she learns that the corpse has been very slow to thaw and glows in the dark, Peggy immediately concludes that it must have been exposed to uranium from a particle accelerator (which in absolutely no way would explain the freezing).
Peggy’s investigation leads her to go snooping at a company called Isodyne Energy, where she meets overly-friendly and helpful scientist Jason Wilkes. She takes an immediate liking to him. In the fantasy version of 1947 where this show takes place, a black man overtly flirting with a white woman is barely commented upon. (To be fair, the second episode makes a couple of quick references to the racism of the era.)
Peggy learns that the victim’s name was Jane Scott, and she was the mistress of company owner Calvin Chadwick. Chadwick is currently running for Senate, and his wife is semi-famous movie star Whitney Frost. Peggy concocts a plan to go undercover at a ritzy horse race to get close to Chadwick and question him. To do this, she’ll need to get dolled up. For help finding an appropriate outfit, she finally meets Jarvis’ oft-mentioned but never previously seen wife Ana (Lotte Verbeek from ‘The Borgias’). She’s cute as a button and friendly as can be, and has not a trace of jealousy about her husband working with a knockout like Peggy.
While Jarvis distracts Ms. Frost by pretending to be a movie producer, Peggy accosts Chadwick and tries to pry some answers out of him. He doesn’t give her much. I’m not sure what she was expecting.
When the SSR coroner freezes solid after too much exposure to the mystery corpse, Peggy enlists Wilkes’ help. Apparently, the Strategic Scientific Reserve doesn’t actually have any scientists of its own working for it. Unfortunately, Wilkes is first kidnapped by Det. Henry, whose body shows signs of freezing. It turns out that he’s a dirty cop who was paid to cover up the Jane Scott murder by making it look like the work of a serial killer, but exposure to her body affected him and now he needs the genius scientist’s help to cure him. Peggy chases after them. Before she can apprehend him, however, a rookie beat cop with an itchy trigger finger shoots Henry, which causes his frozen body to shatter. Later, we’ll learn that the rookie did this on purpose and is part of the big evil conspiracy.
Back in New York, Thompson’s interrogation of Dottie goes very badly. She isn’t intimidated by him at all. Eventually, Thompson’s boss in the War Department, Vernon Masters (Kurtwood Smith), arrives and transfers Dottie to the custody of the FBI. He tells Thompson that the SSR was created as a wartime agency, and now that the war is over, it’s on the verge of being disbanded. If Thompson can play nice, he might get promoted to head up its successor.
The first episode wraps up in L.A. with the revelation that Chadwick’s actress wife is a Lady Macbeth type pulling his strings. We also get a suggestion that Wilkes might be evil as well, when we see him back at the lab suspiciously watching over an undulating black goo substance that clearly can’t be anything good.
Episode 2.02, ‘A View in the Dark’
In the second episode, Jane Scott’s corpse is stolen from the SSR to cover up the entire incident. Chadwick is chastised by members of the mysterious, conspiratorial “Council of Nine,” which also includes Hugh Jones (Ray Wise), introduced last season as the evil CEO of Roxxon Oil. Against Chadwick’s objections, the Council informs him that the Isodyne project is being shut down – though they assure him that they still intend to back his Senate campaign.
Peggy and Sousa obtain a search warrant for Isodyne Energy but are stymied by a fake radiation leak at the company. However, Wilkes slips Peggy a note to meet him that night at a fashionable jazz club. He then breaks into an office he’s not supposed to have access to and steals a reel of film from a locked file cabinet. I guess perhaps Wilkes isn’t evil after all.
For Peggy’s date that night, Jarvis offers her Howard Starks’ tricked-out “leisure car,” which is basically a James Bond gadget vehicle by way of Austin Powers. Ana helps Peggy find a suitable dress.
Peggy meets Wilkes at the club. Before he’ll give her any info about the case, he insists that Peggy must tell him a little about herself so that he knows he can trust her. Basically, he’s just trying to charm her. After they get to know each other a little, Wilkes brings Peggy to the Los Angeles Observatory where he continues to schmooze her. He then finally tells her about an atomic weapons test during WWII that inadvertently uncovered a powerful energy source called “Zero Matter.” He shows her the stolen film, which shows a black blob of undulating goo (hey, we’ve seen that before!) that created some sort of mini black hole and sucked everything nearby into it before exploding and vanishing. Wilkes says that he was hired by Isodyne to build a container to hold and transport the Zero Matter.
Suddenly, some evil goons show up and shoot up the observatory. Peggy and Wilkes run back to Howard’s car, but find the tires slashed. Peggy flips a switch that signals Jarvis she’s in trouble, then steals the goons’ car. They make it back to town before the car overheats and dies. Peggy tries to make a call at a pay phone but doesn’t have any change. She and Wilkes go into an all-night donut shop, where the racist donut maker assumes that the black guy must be kidnappning the white woman. Peggy gets indignant about that, but Wilkes brushes it off and buys a donut.
Jarvis calls Sousa, and together they search for Peggy. They rightly figure that she’d probably try to make her way back to Isodyne.
Indeed, Peggy and Wilkes break into the company. They separate, and Peggy sends Wilkes to steal the Zero Matter. He transfers it into a clear glass container when he’s confronted by Whitney Frost. He’s confused why the actress would be there late at night. Whitney pulls a gun on him. Wilkes doesn’t believe she’d shoot him while he’s holding the Zero Matter. She doesn’t, but she does stupidly struggle with him, causing him to drop the container. The vessel breaks and the Zero Matter explodes in a flash of light.
The next morning, Peggy fills Sousa in on what happened. Wilkes is presumed dead and she’s very sad about that. However the episode closes with the reveal that Whitney Frost is still alive. She’s freaked out and has a small injury on her head. Something tells me she’s liable to develop some super powers after this.
With all that said, does the second season seem to be any better than the first?
It’s too soon to tell. For now, I’ll say that the first two episodes aren’t quite as agonizing as many from Season 1. They’re still a little flat and the story hasn’t grabbed me yet (which is a problem), but they work in some fairly effective humor here and there. A bit where Peggy interrupts Jarvis in the middle of his silly exercise regimen is pretty funny.
I like the addition of Jarvis’ wife Ana, who’s not at all what Peggy (or viewers) expected from his prior descriptions. I also think it was a good idea to sideline (if not eliminate entirely, unfortunately) most of the boring SSR characters from New York that nobody cares about.
And yet, sitting through two episodes back-to-back was something of a chore. I could’ve handled them individually on separate weeks, but together they ground me down and I really needed to watch something more exciting afterwards.
With another short eight-episode season, I will undoubtedly stick this out again and hope for the best, but at the moment I still think this show is one of the weakest entries in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.