The concept of a backstory episode is something of a cliche. Take one of two characters; cut in some scenes from the past that inform scenes set in the present, and show the contrast between who a person is now who they were along the way to becoming that person. It’s a fairly standard exercise, especially in genre television. But it’s a recurring trope because it’s effective.
To the point, it’s nice to know where Peggy Carter comes from. Hers was definitely the better of the two parallel stories told in “Smoke and Mirrors”, where the show contrasted the ways in which Whitney Frost tried to be something different and was taught to be something more traditional, and the ways in which Peggy Carter tried to be something traditional and was taught to be–true to her nature–something different.
Peggy’s mother and brother are mere sketches in that story, with thumbnail personalities that feel more fleshed out than they really are given the roles they play within it. Peggy’s mother is the standard-issue mom of a precocious young girl, chiding her daughter to be more ladylike, and apparently forgetting her handkerchief across decades. And Peggy’s brother is the conventional sibling tormentor who, as revealed when he recommends Peggy for field work and encourages her not to live the life that her mother expected of her, sees Peggy for who she is deep down.
It’s a bit pat, to be sure, but it’s also the most impacting element of her story. It would be easy to make Peggy Carter someone who was fully-formed from the beginning, a bold and talented young agitator who cast off the shackles of tradition and expectation from the very beginning. But the idea that the smart, strong woman Marvel fans have seen since The First Avenger was always within Peggy, but had been muted by the world in which she had grown up, and that it took the recognition and death of a loved one to motivate her to find that person again, is a deft stroke from the folks behind Agent Carter. True, the death-as-catalyst concept is a cliche in and of itself, and the imagery of the engagement ring and recruitment letter was far from subtle, but for a show that hews toward popcorn, it was a strong story.
The darker parallels to Peggy’s story, shown in the flashbacks to Whitney Frost’s upbringing, were not nearly as well-crafted or interesting. The idea of the bright young girl who sees her mother valued only for her looks by a male-dominated society, and is taught to suppress her intelligence in favor of her more aesthetic qualities is a fine cautionary tale, but also just as much of an hoary trope. More to the point, the flashbacks to Whitney’s childhood are much louder about their intended point than the ones in Peggy’s story. That said, showing how Whitney split the difference between her natural scientific aptitude and her mother’s old-fashioned viewpoint, by depicting the way that she learned to use her pretty face to take advantage of men like her would-be agent or Calvin Chadwick for her broader goals, makes her a compelling, shaded reflection of Peggy.
The show quite consciously draws a connection between the two of them, and shows how each found a different path to utilizing their talents in a world that undervalued them. That parallelism carries to the present, where Peggy proves effective in interrogating Chadwick’s henchman through her wits and intuition, and Whitney handles the same fly in the ointment in a much deadlier fashion. Each is faced with a similar challenge, and while they find differing solutions to the problem, the show sets up the reasons for their different approaches quite well. I just wish the execution–replete with Jessica Jones-style encouragements to smile, had been a little less neat and on-the-nose.
But even when this show leans into holding the audience’s hand through its themes in a given episode, the hilarious rapport between Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy sustains it, with their dynamic serving as a reliably enjoyable part of every outing. Peggy and Jarvis have a wonderful chemistry together. Jarvis’s shock at the realization that Hans was their near-assassin and Peggy’s almost annoyed bemusement that the goon keeps recovering from being tranquilized, were highlights buoyed by the pair’s impeccable timing and comedic rhythms. It’s clear that the series would not work nearly as well without their combined talents.
Were it that the romantic elements of the show were anywhere near as successful. Wilkes continues to be a fairly bland presence this season, and he and Peggy don’t have nearly the spark that the overbearing score attempts to impart to them. The idea that after Wilkes’s incident, there is a void, or something otherworldly calling to him, is an interesting one, but the character himself isn’t all that compelling. On the other hand, Sousa’s puppy dog act with Peggy has grown tiresome as well. Sousa’s not a bad character necessarily; he’s just kind of there, fulfilling a very specific, but not all that compelling role as the big hunk of white bread with a barely suppressed crush on the series’s lead, who believes in Peggy without ever (explicitly) betraying his feelings. Neither of these nigh-love interests detract that much from the main story, they just feel like unnecessary detours between Peggy’s efforts to unravel this year’s mystery and going on much more entertaining misadventures with her platonic pal, Jarvis.
The latter elements of the show are the clear strength of Agent Carter. The series has the strongest lead among Marvel’s television offerings, and it lets star Hayley Atwell carry the show in both its comedic and dramatic moments. There’s a crackle to Atwell’s performance, in the scenes where she’s finding out how to make her captive talk, or coming up with off-the-cuff excuses for the odd sights and sounds emanating from her car, or breaking down at the death of Peggy’s brother. Wynn Everett absolutely sells the balance of Frost’s characters fears, scars, and convictions, but even she can’t quite match her heroic counterpart’s performance.
Again, providing backstory to the big villain and the big hero at the same time is nothing new. But Carter and Frost are two of the show’s strongest characters, and taking some time to examine how they became the equally effective, yet still very different women they are today is a fruitful exercise on the way to the pair’s inevitable confrontation. Each found themselves with talents that didn’t fit the expectations of their gender in that era. One found inspiration from a loved one who encouraged her to be true to herself, while the other was taught to use her the role expected of her to her advantage. It’s a nice contrast, and while neither narrative broke any new ground, with story beats that were not especially nuanced, the different roads these women went down, and the way those choices brought each of them to where they are today, was a story worth telling.
Andrew Bloom (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He would absolutely watch an episode of Agent Carter consisting of nothing but Peggy and Jarvis’s comedic banter.