[Review] – Agent Carter, Season 2

In which relationships are tested, and space-goo monsters ruin everybody’s day.

I regarded season one of Agent Carter as a huge success. And not just because it allowed us to spend valuable time with the most interesting character in the MCU, one who by the nature of her existence is doomed to flashbacks inside Marvel’s cinematic fair. But because, at the time, it stood in pretty clear opposition to everything that was happening over on the far inferior Agents of SHIELD. And while I presume that is still the case (I gave up on Agents of SHIELD long ago), this season of Agent Carter fails to find as stable a footing as the inaugural season did. It is still a solid show, and I’d much rather sit through multiple seasons of this quality then the likes of Antman or Age of Ultron. But it lacked the pixie dust that greased the wheels of season one: purpose. We’re in the thick of it; thar be spoilers ahead.

Season one was about grief. It had that built into the DNA of the show. It was about Peggy coming to grips with Captain America’s death. And it informed the characters, and their actions. While the plot might have been about Peggy confronting sexism, or mind-controlling Russians, the subtext was always concerned with Peggy finding her way in the world, a way that was defined however briefly by her affection for Steve Rogers. This same sub-text defined Howard Stark as well. It was, basically, how does the world move on without a superhero? Through that investigation, the characters proved themselves to be interesting, faceted creations who deserved our affection for non-superficial reasons. Peggy ain’t just an ass-kicking dame, she is a competent, admirable, flawed and damaged person.

This season lacks that purpose. Everyone involved had moved on with their lives. They had found the closures they needed, and are now reasonable adjusted, well-rounded, healthy individuals. And there isn’t a lot of drama in well-rounded, healthy individuals. So, off the bat, the confrontations feel more manufactured then what Peggy and co. confronted last season. Take, for instance, Dottie, whose arrest by Peggy opens the season. There is no really reason for Dottie to be in this season other than the character was popular and Bridget Reagan and Hayley Atwell have great chemistry. So, the show goes out of its way to contrive reasons for Dottie to keep popping up. This puts the viewer in an awkward position. When Dottie’s around, fun is to be had, but it’s obvious that her being there makes little sense. She might have had purpose if this season had continued on with Leviathan as the primary threat, which would have made sense considering the time period and the growing Soviet threat. Instead, that organization is relegated to one off hand line in an early episode then forgotten about. For a show that felt like it had been a tight ship last year, these sorts of turbulences felt bigger then they rightly were.

Likewise went the plot of the season as a whole. With two additional episodes over last year’s count, they managed to avoid filler episodes by keeping the focus clearly on the goal of stopping zero matter. Unfortunately, to keep the plot from advancing at its natural pace, various contrivances resulted in a soft shoe from time to time, backing away from conclusive confrontations in an effort to pad out the end game. In the end, cruelly, it felt like it was two episodes too long, with the natural conclusion meant to have come in the desert instead of an unnecessary double cross leading to a technobabbled finale. There are, after all, only so many times that Whitney Frost could slip through their fingers before the audience caught on that they were using gloves full of holes. But the mark of the season ultimately came down to diluted results, near misses and an emotional roulette that was never quite as earnest as any of the emotions we’ve felt in the past.

The great triumph of season one was unquestionably the relationship between Peggy and Jarvis. Odd, considering the friendship between Peggy and Howard which we know goes on to define espionage and security for the rest of the century, that the greater relationship would be the one to come from the butler. I especially celebrated the fact that it was completely platonic, with Carter and Jarvis building a friendship immune from romance. Peggy was too hung up on losing Rogers, while Jarvis was happily married. This, thankfully, is maintained in season two, solidified by the introduction of Mrs. Jarvis, and having her and Peggy strike up a similar friendship utterly bereft of jealousy. It was refreshing to see humans treat each other with respect and humanity, a rarity in network dramatic television, where the more common stance is one of constant suspicion and manipulative mistrust. Unfortunately, this is the only relationship that the writers seem one hundred percent convinced of, and fail utterly to bring any lasting sense of emotional force to the other affections in Peggy’s life. This season sees most of the characters being torn in two. Perhaps, if this second season has a theme, it is about choosing a direction. Peggy is torn between two men, Jarvis is town between his wife and his thirst for adventure, Daniel is torn between two women, Thompson is torn between his duty and his aspirations, and Whitney is torn between her greed and her life. But none of the implications from these choices seem particularly lasting, with the characters facing their inevitabilities with all the weight of a feather on a duck’s back: small burdens that show no risk of sinking.

The season was also noticeably… jollier? Some episodes bordered on straight up comedies, with James D’Arcy getting special attention as the mirth maker. His straight-laced Jarvis comes dangerous close to buffoonery this season, slipping out of his Jeeves-ish-ness into something that straddles parody.  The terror visited upon the Jarvis’ towards the season end might have been an attempt to balance the lunacy, undercut somewhat by the fact that D’Arcy was literally bouncing around the set at certain points. I am the first to say that including humour in even the most dire of situations is welcome and reflective of normal healthy reactions, but a whole-sale slippage into something a little less self-serious might be reflective of a waning interest on the part of the writers. Evil Dead syndrome is very real, and when left unchecked can result in Three Stooges routines, or song-and-dance sequences. It undermines the emotional integrity of the primary plot somewhat if the characters most invested in it don’t seem to be taking things seriously. Humour undercuts tension, it doesn’t replace it.

Of course, the A-plot might have needed the edges filed down by some heart-felt laughs, as this season took Agent Carter into full-on 1950’s B-grade science fiction. As much as the MCU movies might pride themselves in being adaptive to different genres, Agent Carter’s spy games seem a little too bred in the bone for a mysterious space-goo to be taken seriously. That and, as I watched Whitney Frost absorbing people with oil-like tendrils, I couldn’t help thinking that they found a way to back-door in a future origin for Venom. They tried dressing it up in as many trappings of the time and spy genre as they could: G-Men, gangsters, politics. But it kept coming back to the fact that there was a nuclear space monster living in an actress’ face, and Peggy was in love with a ghost for most of the season, and as much as it feels fine in the moment, at a distance it just doesn’t suit Agent Carter’s shtick. Let Coulson’s team deal with sci-fi nonsense that won’t have any bearing on the films. Peggy has a destiny to keep moving towards.

All of that is a big breath removed from saying that, even at its most loosely plotted and most ridiculous, Agent Carter is still a lot of fun. Atwell continues to charm in the lead, as does D’Arcy. Really and truly, the show needs only retain them in order to maintain its credibility: two friends forged in intrigue, who are willing to forgive the other their moral trepidations and offer support in time of need. And there is still much to be wrung out of the implications of these two. That we know Carter to successfully led SHIELD for nearly forty years only tantalizes, though the show is frustratingly held back by the originating short from allowing her to move on to that destiny too fast. There is a whole future relationship implied between Jarvis and Carter that is intertwined with the Stark family (hinted at in my favourite line from this season, concerning Jarvis’ desire not to end up a disembodied voice). Since the movie division continues to view the television division as their junior, I have no doubt that the head office would like to leave Peggy behind with the rest of Phase Two and move on, and there is reasonable expectation that this will be Agent Carter’s final mission. And that would be a shame, as continuity aside, Peggy Carter is simply an interesting character to know better. So long as her stories are focused and they keep things on this side of reasonable (for a comic book franchise), hers is company I’m inclined to keep.
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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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