porcelainandporcupines

I watched season 2 of Marvel’s Agent Carter, and now you have to hear about it

Posted on: March 6, 2016

For those who didn’t watch (and judging by the ratings, that’s just about everyone), Marvel’s Agent Carter is the story of Margaret Carter, aka Peggy, who, although she once dated the man who would become Captain America, does not quite live in the world of superheroes. Instead, she’s a modern ’50s gal-slash-spy whose savvy and tough regularly win the day.

In season 1, Peggy thwarted some plans involving Russian operatives undercover in the U.S., cracking wise and a few skulls all while wearing a sensible pantsuit, unless she was under cover at some fancy gala; never underestimate the nefarious potential of formal events. Her success in the field, however, was not enough for her colleagues back in the office to trust her fully, in part because she was British but mostly because they were all males and it was the ’50s and competent spy was not regarded as an acceptable career path for a lady. Yet, Peggy knows her worth and continues to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, in spite of the lack of respect and recognition from the men around her.

Unfortunately, season 2, which wrapped on Tuesday, was missing a lot of the spunk and verve that made season 1 such a delight. In the second season, Peggy relocated to Los Angeles to meet up with a few other members of her team that had also coincidentally relocated to the west coast. Peggy’s main office antagonist from season 1 – Jack Thomas – did not make the transition, leaving Peggy solely with a team of men who recognized her leadership and deferred to her judgement.

Which shouldn’t have been a problem, but, weirdly, the lack of sexism was a running disappointment throughout the season. I understand that the writers might have wanted to tell a different story than season 1, but, as a viewer, watching a woman fight monsters or secret KGB assassins is perfectly fine, but seeing that same woman fight again and again the everyday spectre of sexism – a very real threat we still face, lo these 60 years later -without feeling diminished or the need to prove herself, all the while wearing comfortable shoes? That is appointment viewing. Certainly, the long overdue recognition was nice to see, but the occasional appearance of Jack Thomas, who popped up from time to time to needle Peggy and flaunt his special brand of untrustworthy smarm, served mostly to highlight how vital that tension had been to the first season.

With Peggy getting along well with everyone at work – about which, more later – the burden of conflict for the season fell almost entirely on the villain, and here, too, this season was inferior to the first. Whitney Frost, a moderately famous actress and brilliant yet unappreciated scientist, absorbs a deadly otherworldly substance during an accident in a lab. The substance, Zero Matter, disfigures her in the most artful fashion, and imbues her with the terrific power to, uh. . .absorb more Zero Matter, and talk about how powerful it makes her? I mean, she does also have the ability to absorb actual matter from time to time, which leads her to kill a number of people who betray her as well as a bunch of rats that did nothing other than be be rodents, which was kind of sad.

But, despite all Whitney’s blathering, it seems that the main benefit of absorbing Zero Matter is that it gives her the capacity to absorb more Zero Matter; apart from that, it’s no more impressive than if she were harming people with more run-of-the-mill weapons. If anything, it’s less threatening, because the Zero Matter occasionally does not do what Whitney expected. Which is frustrating for her, but doesn’t have any kind of impact on the story because Zero Matter is a brand-new substance in the world and not well-understood by anyone, character or writer, is seems; without any definition, there’s nothing surprising about what Zero Matter does, since we have no expectation that it will do anything other than what is convenient for the story. Can Whitney absorb people’s matter from many feet away? Sure, but not when Peggy and Jarvis are escaping from her.

Poorly as Whitney compares to the season 1 threat in theory, it becomes even more starkly contrasted when Dottie Underwood herself actually arrives for a few episodes to show Whitney how it’s done. Whitney supposedly gets the upper hand in the scene they share, but Dottie later remains undaunted in her strange, non-romantic flirtation with Peggy, and Dottie is the one who escapes by the end of the episode. But, while the visit from Dottie makes Whitney a little less impressive, what it really throws into relief is how much this show would benefit if Peggy were working with a few of these strong, capable women, instead of against them.

There are two women on Peggy’s side, although they are unfortunately tangential to the action. Rose, an agent at the SSR who poses as a secretary in the headquarter’s false front, is called into service when the SSR is infiltrated and there isn’t anyone else they can trust. Rose is as capable as Peggy, albeit more comic-relief; it’s unfortunate she’s only recruited for the mission as a last resort. The other is Ana Jarvis, the inconsistently accented wife of Mr. Jarvis, who seems to serve no other function but to be fully supportive of her husband’s platonic relationship with Peggy, and then get shot, and then continue to be supportive. Ana appears to have an interesting back story, with her shifting accents and ready consumption of wine, so it’s a shame she isn’t given more to do.

The sororal relationships might suffer but the show does focus on the romantic ones, and here Whitney Frost does have the more compelling plot. Whitney gets involved with Ken Marino (played by character actor Ken Marino) after killing her husband, which, to be fair, was mostly in self-defense; repulsed by Whitney’s artful disfigurement and her Zero Matter absorption skills, her husband enlists the shadowy cabal behind his run for government to stop her. They neither succeed nor survive, freeing Whitney to turn to Ken Marino, an old boyfriend who never stopped loving her. So much so that he encourages her to flaunt her artful disfigurement – to that point, hidden neatly behind a well-placed lock of hair – to let the world see who she really is. It’s an unexpectedly touching seen, particularly given the ridiculouslness of the set-up, which is a credit to the actors. Wynn Everett as Whitney is remarkably vulnerable at this support, and her gratitude at finally being accepted for who she is is both heart-warming and heart -breaking. Ken Marino, as Ken Marino, plays his devotion to Whitney straight; there are no jokes in his feelings. For that brief moment, we in the audience genuinely hope those two will make it.

They don’t, though, because they’re villains. But still, even the failure of their romance  is more involving than Peggy’s who, sadly, is reduced to a rather conventional love triangle. It seems that, if Peggy is getting along with all her male coworkers, the only possible story is for her to have to choose between two potential romantic partners. Which, as much as I enjoy when the people inside the television succumb to their feelings to finally Do Kissing, due to the completely unnecessary dragging out of this plot it makes Peggy’s happy ending for the season that she finally picked a man. And, I mean, it was a good kiss: I was almost afraid for the fellow’s face, having to hold up under the onslaught of her feelings. But Peggy also completed her mission; she literally saved the world, along with a team of people who recognized her leadership and would follow her anywhere; it doesn’t seem like two grown-ups kissing should be equally momentous.

Even though Whitney Frost was captured and Peggy got her man, season 2 still ended on a cliff hanger. Due to poor ratings and a change in leadership over at ABC, prospects for season 3 don’t look great. Which is unfortunate; although this season was uneven at best, Marvel’s Agent Carter is a fun program with a game and capable cast, and, as the first season demonstrated, does know how to tell a good story. If there is a third season – and I hope there is one – I hope they can course-correct. I like Peggy Carter, and I’d like to see more of what she’s capable of.

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