So I think that “The Iron Ceiling” (1x05) may be my absolute favorite episode of Agent Carter season 1. And the reason for that is pretty straightforward. Three words: “The Howling Commandos.” Dum Dum Dugan, Happy Sam, Pinky, and Junior make this episode a blast in terms of humor, action, and character development for the two main characters who get the most screen time (Peggy and Thompson). Can we see these guys again in Agent Carter season 2? Please?
Reminder: Retro-Reviews contain potential spoilers for everything to-date.
The main plot of the episode picks up from the conclusion of the previous episode, when the S.S.R. received a transmission from Leviathan on the typewriter transmitter. Dooley brings in a code-breaking specialist to crack the message, but he is unable to… so Peggy takes a shot at it and succeeds on the first try. Why the specialist wouldn’t have thought to “try Russian, have you tried Russian?” (sorry; couldn’t resist the Iron Man 2 reference) is beyond me, especially since the man whose room the device was found in was Russian. And to be honest they do a decent job of answering that question: the look on the guy’s face when Peggy suggests Russian says, “I can’t believe I’m such an idiot!” Peggy deciphers and translates the message on the fly, and discovers that it is announcing an arms sale which will be taking place in Belarus a couple days later when Leviathan (a covert Russian organization that wanted to attack the Allies after the conclusion of World War II) buys something called a “Havoc Reactor” from Howard Stark. This of course gets Dooley and Thompson salivating at the possibility of catching Howard red-handed committing treason, so Dooley decides to send Thompson to Belarus with 2 other agents and an S.S.R. tactical team. Peggy, however, insists on joining the team because her World War II service all over Europe (and knowledge of the language) makes her absolutely necessary as a resource. Dooley is at first uneasy about sending a woman into a potential firefight, but when Peggy says she can deliver the 107th (Captain America’s regiment) to join them as their tactical team, Dooley agrees to let her go if she delivers the Howling Commandos. And… did you even question if the Howling Commandoes would agree?
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Peggy, Thompson, Li, and Ramirez fly to Belarus and rendezvous with four Howling Commandos: Dum Dum Dugan, Happy Sam Sawyer, Pinky Pinkerton, and Junior Juniper. I think the best part of this episode is just how well the Howling Commandos knock Thompson down a peg. When the two teams meet, Peggy is the one Dum Dum defers to and sits with in the transport. When Li comments that Dum Dum fought alongside Captain America, he confirms it but says Peggy fought alongside Cap longer than he did. When they are planning their infiltration of the Leviathan compound, Happy Sam wants Peggy’s opinion of Thompson’s plan. Considering how little credit the male S.S.R. agents give Peggy, the Howling Commandos offer a completely different perspective on Peggy as men who served alongside her and trust her completely.
During the mission, Peggy’s team discovers a projector loaded with films containing subliminal messages as well as a dormitory room with handcuffs on the beds. They also find a little girl (looking around 12-14 years old) sobbing on the floor. Dum Dum approaches her, but when he turns his head for a moment the girl pulls a knife, stabs him in the chest, takes his sidearm, and shoots Junior, killing him. The girl escapes into the vents, and Peggy restrains Dum Dum from throwing a grenade in after her. They also discover a psychiatrist and engineer locked up in a prison cell claiming that they were brought in to construct a “Photonic Amplifier” whose plans Leviathan had stolen from Howard Stark. They free the prisoners and attempt to escape, but Li gets killed and Happy Sam is injured in a firefight against Leviathan’s soldiers. The psychiatrist, Dr. Ivchenko, also shoots the engineer, Nikolai, to prevent him from executing Happy Sam. The team finally succeeds in escaping when Dum Dum blows a hole in the wall and brings the second team for reinforcements. This gives us a semi-playful scene of Dum Dum telling Peggy to leave first, with her ordering him to leave first. “What would Cap say if I left his best girl behind?” “He’d say, ‘do what Peggy says.’” I really like all of the banter between those two, as well as the intense action in this episode. At the end of the day, the S.S.R. agents part with the Howling Commandos amicably, and Peggy rejects Dum Dum’s offer to join them in favor of returning to New York to try to convince the S.S.R. of Howard’s innocence. They are joined by Dr. Ivchenko, who agrees to assist the S.S.R.
Peggy and Thompson get a couple of nice scenes together as Thompson is initially reluctant to bring Peggy along but slowly warms up to her after seeing how comfortable the Howling Commandos are with her. We also learn just what makes him such a “hotshot S.S.R. agent:” he received a Navy Cross for killing six Japanese soldiers who had infiltrated his camp under the cover of darkness. However, during the firefight Thompson freezes up and spends most of the time huddling behind cover. On the plane ride home, he finally opens up to Peggy and tells her that the soldiers he had killed were carrying a white flag which he didn’t see until it was too late and which he buried to hide the evidence. Since then he’s been struggling to live with the image that others have of him as a war hero. In the end, he appreciates Peggy as an equal, and perhaps as being even more of a war hero than he is. For the first few episodes of the season Thompson was little more than a misogynist; after this episode I feel like I understand his character much better. He’s no longer such a stereotype; they subverted our expectations and turned him into a much more dynamic and interesting character.
There are three other subplots which tie in with the main plot. The first subplot is Sousa’s continued efforts to identify the mystery woman who killed Spider in the first episode. However, he makes a major breakthrough in this episode when he comes into the S.S.R. locker room to give Thompson some files and Thompson sends him around to the other bay of lockers where Peggy is changing. Peggy turns her back, and Sousa notices a pair of gunshot scars on her right shoulder, which he recognizes as similar to the ones on the mystery woman’s back. He takes Peggy’s medical record and compares her scars to the picture with a magnifying glass and realizes that Peggy is the woman he’s been searching for. I really like the look of stunned disbelief on his face when he is finally convinced that Peggy is the woman.
The second is Dooley’s search for the truth about the Battle of Finow. Talking to a reporter friend, Dooley learns that Howard Stark was at the battle site a couple days after the massacre and got into an altercation with a general. Following that altercation he canceled a million-dollar contract with the U.S. Army. This gives Dooley at least enough suspicion to give Howard the benefit of the doubt, something he intimates to Jarvis, telling him that he would be open to hearing Howard’s side of the story if it will get him closer to the truth. Considering that just a couple episodes earlier Dooley came across as a modern-day Ahab hunting Howard Stark, it is interesting that he is so willing to hear Howard out, even after talking to the German colonel in the previous episode.
Finally, I think the biggest subplot of the episode is getting to know Dottie a little more. The episode opens with a flashback to her training: being handcuffed to her bed every night, sharing a loaf of bread with the girl in the bunk next to her, watching American cartoons (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—has every recent MCU medium included a Disney Easter egg like this?), and combat training, which concludes with the victor breaking the loser’s neck (in Dottie’s case, her friend in the bed next to her). It is eerie to see her going through almost the same routine even now, handcuffing herself to the bed and sharing bread with Peggy. Dottie also breaks into Peggy’s room to find any information she has there about the Stark inventions in the S.S.R.’s possession. This episode is a fascinating exploration of Dottie’s character. Her relationship with Peggy going forward is definitely going to be of interest, since the sharing bread bit seems to suggest that she feels close to Peggy but also sees Peggy as a rival she may need to eliminate unflinchingly.
Before concluding, there is one last comment I think needs to be made: continuity. We meet 4 Howling Commandos in this episode, only 1 of whom appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger. Of those 4, 1 is killed on the mission, despite Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) stating in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that Bucky was the only Howling Commando killed in action. How are these two things reconcilable?
To the first issue, it should be pointed out that if we assume Steve Rogers to have actually been granted the rank of Captain, he would have been eligible to command a company (80-250 soldiers), of which the Howling Commandos introduced in the movie (Bucky Barnes, Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita, James Montgomery Falsworth, and Jacques Dernier) would only be a single platoon. Though I wouldn’t suggest there were another 100 Howling Commandos, Colonel Phillips may have recruited a couple additional platoons to work with Cap on occasion when the mission called for it (and remember, we didn’t see every mission they went on). The three additional Howling Commandos introduced in this episode may have been part of one of those platoons.
To the second point, I don’t think there is any contradiction here. The Smithsonian exhibit is speaking solely of World War II action; this mission took place after the war and probably received a completely different classification level than the rest of the Howling Commandos’ missions. I highly doubt that the general public ever finds out about your average S.H.I.E.L.D. operation unless it gets so messy that it can’t be covered up.
Overall I really enjoyed this episode. We got quite a bit of character development from Peggy and Thompson. One major villain was introduced and the other’s back story was explored in depth. And we got to see the Howling Commandos in action. All in all, that’s a good episode in my book.
What was your favorite part of this episode? Would you like to see the Howling Commandos make an appearance in Agent Carter season 2? Let me know in the comments!
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