Monday, September 21, 2015

Agent Carter Season 1, Episode 8, "Valediction" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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Agent Carter’s season 1 finale was a lot of fun.  It answered everyone’s questions for the season 1 plot, set up some things for season 2, and even gave us some good character moments between Howard Stark and Peggy Carter, moments which we did not get a lot of during the rest of the season and which Captain America: The First Avenger completely ignored beyond the moment with them in the plane with Steve.

I think one of the most interesting parts of this episode is the insight we get into Dr. Fennhoff’s character.  We only met him halfway through the season, but by the end of this episode we have a much better grasp on his character and motivations than we had on Dr. Whitehall from the first 10 episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2.

The episode picks up right where the last episode left off, with the discovery of the grisly scene at the movie theater.  The S.S.R. arrives shortly after the police and discovers that the victims all killed each other.  However, they cannot figure out how it happened until Sousa discovers Dottie’s baby carriage overturned and the gas canister nearby.  He gets a face-full of the gas and immediately turns on Thompson and Peggy, elbowing Peggy in the nose and pummeling Thompson’s face before the police manage to subdue him.  Sousa going crazy didn’t feel entirely necessary, though it did set up the scene with him waking up in a cot at the S.S.R. headquarters, apologizing for hitting Peggy, and telling her that “I still want to kill Thompson, but no more than usual.”  That was pretty funny.

Thompson, Sousa, and Peggy brief the remaining S.S.R. agents on the substance used at the movie theater.  However, they do not know exactly what “Ivchenko” is planning to do with it or what his target is; he has enough of the gas to throw the entire city into chaos.  As if on cue, Jarvis walks into the bullpen with Howard Stark, who announces that he is “Ivchenko’s” target.  I have to say that I found the scene with the S.S.R. ordering Howard to raise his hands and Jarvis complying while Howard ignored them to be really funny—almost has funny as Stark trashing the company that designed the security system for both the S.S.R. and the White House!  Howard’s primary function in this scene is to offer a ton of exposition about the gas—he calls it “Midnight Oil.”  It was originally developed for the U.S. military as a stimulant to keep soldiers awake for days at a time, but it had unforeseen side effects (which of Stark’s inventions didn’t have unforeseen side effects?):  it causes hallucinations and psychosis, leading those affected to attack anyone nearby, as well as causing asphyxiation.  General McGinnis (the general Stark punched out, as mentioned in “The Iron Ceiling” (1x05)) stole the Midnight Oil from Stark’s lab and dropped it on the Russians to help them take Finow—it didn’t work out.  When Stark discovered what he had done, he immediately went to Finow to see the massacre, cancelled his contract with the U.S. military, and began construction on his vault.  Because his inventions were used and were the cause of everything that happened, Stark blames himself for all the deaths throughout the series.  However, he has a plan to use himself as bait to draw out “Ivchenko”—now known to be Dr. Johann Fennhoff—and Dottie:  a well-publicized press conference at which the S.S.R. clears him of all wrongdoing.

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There’s an interesting villain scene in there while Fenhoff and Dottie are driving around the city.  Fennhoff is commenting on how impressive New York City is:  “It is a beacon for all the world to envy” as a testament to American ingenuity and wealth.  Dottie’s immediate response is:  “And won’t it be fun to tear it all down?”  Their plan isn’t simply revenge against Howard Stark; their goal is to destroy America at the same time and blame it on Stark.  This will destroy Stark’s reputation even more than it already has been by the accusations of treason and selling weapons to enemies of America.  If they had succeeded in releasing Midnight Oil over New York City during the V-E Day celebration and framing Stark for the crime, no one would ever have been able to repair Howard’s reputation.  Abducting Stark from his press conference and using his own plane to release the gas would certainly have done the trick.

The interrogation scene with Dottie beating Howard for not remembering her alias and Fennhoff hypnotizing Howard was fascinating for the insight it gave us into all three characters.  Dottie is not quite the cold, hardened operative that Natasha Romanoff is; she doesn’t have the same handle on her emotions as Natasha.  Instead, she allows her emotions to help her in her missions, like seducing Howard and then “tenderizing” him for Fennhoff.  If I had to make a comparison between her and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, I think the most appropriate comparison would be May, who buries her emotions until they can do her the most good, at which point she releases them all over her intended target.

Fennhoff finally reveals his motivations while speaking to Howard:  he was at the “battle” of Finow with his soldiers, and he survived because he was able to put on a gas mask in time.  However, his men were not so lucky; his brother was also there and was also killed by the Midnight Oil.  He managed to save a couple men’s lives by performing an emergency laryngotomy to prevent asphyxiation—these men became his operatives Brannis and Demidov—but the rest of the soldiers were all killed.  Because he blames Stark for all these deaths, Fennhoff has made it his mission to destroy Howard Stark in the same way that he destroyed an entire Russian Army, by using that same substance to destroy New York City.  This is a very different and unique villain motivation, as least as far as MCU villains are concerned.  Where a lot of them are intent on either chaos for the sake of chaos or taking over the world or pure greed, Fennhoff’s motivation is revenge on a very personal level.  It’s the equivalent of Kingpin in the comics learning Daredevil’s real identity and using that information to make his life a living hell.  Fennhoff doesn’t want to destroy America; he wants to destroy Howard Stark—America is just his means for doing that.

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The S.S.R. realizes Fennhoff’s plan when Jarvis reveals the existence of another secret warehouse full of expensive toys (including three self-piloting planes), and the three agents drive to the airstrip with Jarvis.  They arrive too late to stop Howard, but Peggy decides to try talking Howard down from the radio room while Jarvis chases Howard in a second plane to shoot him down over water as a last resort (why shouldn’t Jarvis know how to fly?  He does pretty much everything else Howard needs him to do!).  Meanwhile Thompson and Sousa attempt to capture or kill Fennhoff.  When Peggy goes to the radio room, she finds Fennhoff and Dottie, kicking off a quick but fairly impressive fight between Peggy and Dottie.  They were really building this confrontation up through the season, and it was quite well choreographed, but I do think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 had a better fight sequence with the May-vs.-May fight (“Face My Enemy,” 2x04).  I’m actually glad that Dottie escaped at the end; hopefully she will have a long antagonistic relationship with Peggy throughout this series, similar to Ward on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fennhoff manages to escape from the radio room during the fight, but he is cornered in the hangar by Thompson and Sousa.  After knocking Thompson out and taking away his gun, Fennhoff then tries to hypnotize Sousa into shooting Thompson by telling him that he could help Sousa gain respect in the office and win Peggy’s affections.  The hypnosis seems to be working; Sousa walks closer until he is standing next to Fennhoff, pointing his revolver at Thompson’s head.  And then he looks at Fennhoff and pistol-whips him, knocking him out cold.  To Thompson’s bemused look, Sousa simply responds by pulling some cotton out of his ears.  I really liked this scene not because it embarrassed Thompson (it really didn’t) but because it showed Sousa’s primary asset:  his investigative and problem-solving abilities.  Where Thompson’s fallback is violence, Sousa is more willing to think his way through a problem.  Overall, these two make a good team, one which season 2 needs to explore further, especially with their complicated relationship.

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However, the primary focus is not on these two action scenes but on the deeply personal confrontation between Peggy and the hypnotized Howard.  Howard fully believes that he is flying to the Arctic, following a signal from the Valkyrie, and that he is going to bring Steve Rogers home.  I find it fascinating that Howard’s greatest failure—and he has a laundry list of them in this season alone—is failing to find Steve Rogers.  He believes Steve to be the only purely-good contribution he ever made to the world, something with which Peggy agrees to a point.  However, Peggy finds herself in the position of having to tell Howard that they need to let Steve go and move on.  He died in the crash, and they can’t change that.  This is enough to free Howard of the hypnosis as he accepts that Steve was already good before Project: Rebirth, at which point he snaps out of it and turns the plane to follow Jarvis back to the airstrip.  I really liked this for the emotional climax of the season.  It was painfully obvious that Howard couldn’t actually die since he still needs to turn into John Slattery and father Robert Downey Jr. (that sounds weird, even though it’s kind of accurate), so the threat of Jarvis shooting the plane down was a little empty—and it really wasn’t played up that much even in the context of the episode.  The focus was entirely on Peggy and Howard figuring out how to accept Steve Rogers’ death and move on from there.

The conclusion of the season was appropriate for how it wrapped up a few storylines, gave us the payoff for Peggy’s journey, and set a few things up for future stories.  Peggy is in a much better place now, with the S.S.R. applauding her for saving New York and solving the case, Sousa asking her out and her hinting at the possibility of a future romance, and her decision to move into one of Howard’s “smaller” residences with Angie as her roommate.  However, the two major payoffs come in the form of her acceptance of her own worth (despite Thompson receiving official credit for stopping Leviathan) and decision to let Steve go by symbolically pouring his blood into the Hudson River off a bridge.  I was a little disappointed with that decision—I thought the blood would play a role down the line (Isaiah Bradley, anyone?)—but it made a lot of sense for her character as the conclusion to season 1’s emotional arc.

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The most interesting twist came at the end of the episode when Fennhoff was shown into his cell in an S.S.R. prison, where his roommate was revealed to be Dr. Arnim Zola, who was very interested in collaborating with him on matters of the mind.  After all, “America is the land of opportunity,” and that gives the two of them the “opportunity” to plot their eventual future triumph as Hydra rises from the ashes, armed with Fennhoff’s “Faustus Method” of brainwashing (used with great success by Dr. Whitehall, among others).

I really enjoyed this whole season and cannot wait for season 2 to arrive in January.  There wasn’t quite as much action as one would expect from something bearing the “Marvel” name, but that was actually good because it showed that Marvel can also create a very character-driven and emotionally-driven TV series.  I think a lot of the reason people weren’t happy with Agent Carter season 1 is because they were expecting more action, rather than a character- and emotion-centric period-set espionage series.

What did you think of Agent Carter season 1?  What was your favorite part?  What do you want to see in season 2?  Let me know in the comments!

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