[Review] - Agent Carter, Season 1 Episodes 1 And 2, "Now is Not the End/Bridge and Tunnel"

Courtesy of Marvel Television Studios
I think everyone's biggest worry going into this was that Agent Carter would repeat the mistakes of Agents of SHIELD, and that the televised corner of the MCU would be doomed to languish in mediocrity. Happily, in two hours, not only did Carter completely sweep aside any of those fears, but managed to make one and half seasons of SHIELD look all the more disappointing. Not to rag on SHIELD, but I think the faults of that series' creative team are all the more apparent in the wake of the immediate, focused and layered success of the period adventures of Peggy Carter. And not just because she's British.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that wish Captain America were here to save them.

The series opened repeating the final words Carter shared with Cap in the first of his films, which immediately established both it's connection to the MCU and gave anyone who was tuning in without having seen the films (though, really?) with the set up: Peggy Carter, capable spy lady of yester-year, is grieving for her lost hero. It wasn't exactly establishing a tone, as the next two hours proved that this is not a dour, film noir tale of loss and sadness. More, it was establishing that the series will be about moving through the stages of grief, starting at a point when the character is her most emotionally fragile, and presumably working her way to the acceptance that was evident in her appearance in Winter Soldier.

The superiority of Carter as a series (compared to SHIELD; on it's own, it's only a really solid network offering) was apparent almost immediately. Even if you didn't know that the series was working on a limited, eight episode run, you'd notice that the storytelling was much sharper, much more focused and much more directed. The series jumps straight into the action, with Carter being the only competent but woefully under-respected agent of the SSR, who is forced to become a double secret agent when Howard Stark is accused of treason. The rest of her department are incompetent enough that she manages to operate either beside of beneath their noses without them noticing, though expect the cat-and-mouse routine to be a defining feature of the series. But at least the series has an immediate motivation: whomever is framing Stark stole a garage full of doomsday macguffins, which Carter must hunt down, both to protect the planet and clear Stark's name, as well as establish her own as a viable agent of the eventual SHIELD.

This set up gives every frame of the series something to be constantly working towards. And, the writers are aware enough that some concepts can only get you so far. Within these two hours, they appear to have wrapped up some plot lines already, only to raise new ones. This is competent story writing. Nothing, thus far, is unnaturally over extended, nor has anything been diluted down to make sure it lasts long enough to really pay off. If something is going to pay off, Carter appears to favour going straight to the point. It is economic storytelling, leaving the gristle behind and going straight to the meat. And because of that, the series moves very quickly.

Most films don't move as briskly as these inaugural two hours did. And yet, Carter felt very much like a movie. Get points across clearly and quickly, move into action while not sacrificing character development. Unlike SHIELD, which feels very formulaic in it's construction of what "mystery" television should be, Carter clearly takes more of a guiding hand from the MCU's film manual. Not surprising considering that more of the behind the scenes folks have spent more time in the MCU movie machine. Really, what we're getting is a trilogy of Agent Carter films, on a smaller budget. And if anyone deserves that, its Peggy.

The series won me over when it killed her roommate. Sure, it didn't make a lot of room to establish her before it shot her in the head, but admit that you didn't see it coming. They had set up the traditional superhero double identity, with mystery and intrigue on one side of the door and comforting domestic on the other, and then swept the leg. Giving Peggy the nagging suspicion that she's cursed is an excellent way to introduce believable doubt in a character who has only so far been shown to be incredibly self assured. Then loading her up with new emotional entanglements provides excellent opportunities for her to face those fears, while strengthening her character. Everybody wins, especially us, because the writers make it interesting, and Haley Atwell makes it engaging.

It helps that shes surrounded by a cast that manages to match or exceed what is expected of them. James D'Arcy is fun as a Jeeves-esque fuddy-duddy, who will no doubt be a James Steed-in-hiding by the end of the series. Also fun, and front runner in the "who does Peggy eventually marry" sweepstakes is Whedon regular Enver Gjokaj, as Peggy's war wounded SSR partner, and the only person in the office not to be played for a joke. Lyndsy Fonseca as the perky and equally friend starved Angie provides an excellent counterpoint to Carter's stiff-upper-lippedness. In fact, there isn't anyone in these initial episodes that fails to step up in their roles. Some are there for comedic relief (and the second episode played up the laughs more so that episode one, entirely intentionally). Some are more serious. All of it equals a very well rounded and emotionally mature series developing. Even the ever welcome Ray Wise turned up in episode two (I had hoped he might be introduced as the series Grand Fiend, but that appears not to be the case).

Marvel doesn't do a lot of history. There is basically the war, then whatever is happening now, or ever so slightly before now. So it is in the comics, so it is in the films. The in between stuff doesn't get a lot of definition, so this series is magnificently unencumbered by an established timeline. So long as SHIELD get invented, and the world doesn't end before 2007, they can do whatever they want. It frees the writers up considerably, not having Avengers around for the audience to wonder why they aren't dropping in and helping. Of course, it could be asked what the Howling Commandos are doing, and why isn't Dum Dum giving Carter a hand. But the show manages what SHIELD could not in it's first year: independent, yet reverent. Carter manages to establish it's own identity, it's own sequence of events, while still letting us know that it's part of the same world. Like it's use of Roxxon, something that has been visible in the background of the MCU, but hasn't been thoroughly explored yet. Carter gets to do that, and use it as it needs to.

I'm excited for what the next seven weeks have to offer. I like that it's only seven weeks. I'd be fine with 13, which is the most I think SHIELD ever needed or needs, but I'm very OK with eight episodes total if it means we get better episodes, and thus a better series. Narrow band plotting allows for maximum impact in minimum time, and a more entertaining experience. Carter has proven that they can pack a lot of plot into 40 minutes, and still have room left over for Atwell to kick a line of ass along the way. Which is not unenjoyable.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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