Monday, August 3, 2015

Agent Carter Season 1, Episode 1, "Now is Not the End" RETRO-REVIEW (SPOILERS)

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Conveniently, there are 9 weeks left before Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns, and there are eight episodes of Agent Carter season 1.  So since I’m done reviewing Daredevil, I’m going to replace Daredevil (and other assorted Netflix-related articles) with Agent Carter reviews on Mondays!

Simply put, Agent Carter may be one of the most underappreciated installments in the MCU.  It is not an action series—I don’t expect there to be too many sequences on Agent Carter that rival the best of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  What it is instead is a very strong character-driven series.  The plot and character development are the most important elements of the series, and the pilot episode, “Now is Not the End,” does an excellent job of setting everything up for the season.  Most of the characters fall into somewhat stereotypical roles in this episode—Thompson and Krzeminski as the tough guys who underestimate/don’t appreciate women, Dooley as the boss who doesn’t appreciate Peggy’s talents and relegates her to a secretary, Sousa as the only man in the office who sees Peggy as more than just a woman in a man’s role.  However, these stereotypes do not carry through the entire season; the characters become much more defined over time as their relationships with Peggy become more defined.

Additionally, Agent Carter very much benefits from having the same budget as a full 22-episode season on network TV:  this allows them to put a lot of detail into the setting of the series as well as bringing in special guests like Dominic Cooper reprising his role as Howard Stark from Captain America: The First Avenger.  The scenery is very well done in my opinion, and I really like how they use the color palette to set Peggy apart in some scenes as the most colorful element in the shot.  Overall, the period elements of the series are very well done.

However, by far the best aspect of this season is how strong and cohesive the plot is.  There are a few twists and turns, but everything holds together very well.  You can really see the progression not only for Peggy but also for the other main characters as they all try to unravel the mystery of Howard Stark’s inventions which got into the wrong hands.

Reminder:  These Retro-Reviews will contain spoilers for all of Agent Carter season 1.

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The episode begins with clips of Captain America: The First Avenger interspersed with clips of Peggy reminiscing while getting ready for her work at the “phone company.”  I did feel like there were a lot of Captain America clips in this episode, but the way that they were worked into the plot made it feel natural:  essentially, every clip is part of Peggy’s grieving process as she deals with the loss of Steve Rogers.  Never having experienced that kind of loss, I can’t say that that’s how people normally grieve, but from my (limited) counseling training it is accurate to say that grieving is not a simple process.  And so Peggy’s grief for Steve Rogers is a major factor in Agent Carter season 1.

Side Note:  While going through her morning routine, Peggy also has some memories of her missions, including the Zodiac mission from the “Agent Carter” One-Shot, which opens very similarly to the series.  However, it’s not entirely clear where the One-Shot fits into the continuity of the series.  The One-Shot opens by stating that it is 1 year after Steve Rogers’ death, 3 months after either the end of the war or her last field assignment (which would theoretically be Agent Carter season 1).  The series opens by dating itself to 1946, which would also be about a year after Steve Rogers’ death.  I remember the show runners explaining that the One-Shot takes place after season 1, and that could work, but it still raises questions like how she is having a memory of a mission she hasn’t yet gone on.

However that may be, Peggy does not get much time to reminisce and grieve.  She reports for work just in time to sit in on a briefing about Howard Stark, who is the S.S.R.’s new mission.  Howard has been accused of selling weapons to enemies of the United States, and because he fled before his last day of testimony before Congress, the S.S.R. is tasked with bringing him in to answer for his treason.  Naturally, Peggy stands up for him—and equally naturally Chief Dooley shuts her down, calling her “Captain America’s liaison” in a tone which suggests that he thinks they were sleeping together.  Throughout the episode, Dooley and the rest of the S.S.R. consistently underestimate Peggy, assuming that she is only there because during the war she served with Captain America and has no other qualifications for her position.  And in the context you can actually see their point:  they have relatively little experience with women in the workplace as anything more than a secretary or clerical assistant, so why should they assume that she is as capable as they are themselves?  The episode also accurately depicts the situation of women in the workforce who were let go as soon as the men returned from the war.  For a woman like Peggy Carter who is used to being capable and having “a sense of purpose,” being shunted aside is difficult to accept.  This is why she leaps at the opportunity to be needed again when Howard approaches her to help clear his name.

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The Automat is one of the main set pieces for the season, serving as Jarvis and Peggy’s main meeting location for part of the season, as well as Angie’s employer.  I actually like the way that we are introduced to it because they take the time to set the mood and create that period atmosphere.  We get to see Peggy and Angie chatting.  There’s a particularly rude patron (and anyone who’s worked in food services knows that such patrons are not uncommon) who treats Angie terribly—more terribly than you would expect today.  And then Peggy finds a note to meet someone in the alleyway behind the Automat, which leads to one of the funniest meetings on the series.

I loved how Jarvis walked up to Peggy, didn’t introduce himself, and just told her that “You are coming with me.”  And no sooner had he said that than Peggy knocked him down and ran to escape before shooting out one of the tires on Howard Stark’s car!  I think this is our first indicator that Jarvis is new to the whole espionage business.  The rest of the episode just goes to drive the point home, particularly when he shows more interest in baking a soufflĂ© for his wife than helping Peggy defuse a bomb!

The rest of the episode is fairly straightforward.  Howard enlists Peggy to help him track down all of his “Bad Babies”—the inventions which were stolen from the vault inside his mansion—and clear his name.  Peggy tracks down the first of the “Bad Babies,” the formula for something called “nitramine,” at a club owned by a man named Spider Raymond thanks to a tip she overheard from Thompson at the office.  Conveniently, Thompson and Dooley allowed her to eavesdrop on their mission brief because they did not think of her as anything more than the woman who brings them coffee.  She used the information to infiltrate the club and make it all the way to Spider Raymond’s office disguised as a blonde (he has a thing for blondes… and sexual harassment).  Being a beautiful woman entices Spider to open up to her right away, though he tries to kiss her almost immediately and gets knocked unconscious by her special lipstick.  Again, Spider conveniently underestimates a pretty face because Peggy is a woman.  Peggy uses a trick watch to crack the safe in his office and discovers that someone had weaponized the nitramine and turned it into a bomb.  She takes the bomb and escapes from the club, but is followed by Spider’s buyer, who breaks into her apartment while she is defusing the bomb, kills her roommate, Colleen, and nearly kills Peggy before she succeeds in overpowering him and throwing him out the window.  For as much fun as the action scenes and old-school spy gadgets are, I think the best parts of this episode are all of the little character moments, such as Peggy sitting next to Colleen’s body and crying, followed by her conversation with Jarvis in the Automat about how she seems to get the people closest to her killed.  This is a good reminder that what makes Peggy a strong woman is not her spycraft or fighting prowess, but her strength of character:  she can show emotions and even cry for a friend… but then she can move on and avenger her friend’s death.

Thanks to a tip from one of Howard Stark’s scientists—Anton Vanko, who made his first MCU appearance in Iron Man 2—Peggy and Jarvis deduce that the bomb was synthesized at the Roxxon Oil refinery (Amazing:  2 MCU tie-ins in a single sentence!).  Peggy and Jarvis go to the refinery, where Peggy goes in and discovers the manufacturing operation along with a man named Leet Brannis, who is working to synthesize a lot of these bombs, presumably to sell them for profit.  Peggy shuts down the manufacturing operation by blinding the scientist in charge of it and chasing down Brannis, who sets off a bomb, giving both himself and Peggy 30 seconds to escape from the refinery.  Peggy and Jarvis do succeed in escaping, but the car’s fender gets sucked into the ensuing implosion.  This implosion draws the attention of the S.S.R., putting them on Peggy’s trail.

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This episode also introduces us to the main villainous organization for the season:  Leviathan, which in the comics serves as the Soviet equivalent of Hydra or S.H.I.E.L.D.  The main Leviathan representative for the episode is the silent buyer who killed Colleen.  However, we learn very quickly that he’s not working alone and that Leviathan has unique ways of communicating.  Specifically, the man sets up a wireless receiver which attaches to a typewriter and gives him the ability to send and receive messages.  I like all of these spy gadgets, though some of them (like the typewriter and safe-cracking watch) seem a little farfetched and a little too convenient.

All told, “Now is Not the End” set the tone for the season very well:  This is a character-driven series which incorporates action/adventure elements.  This series fits very well into the spy-thriller genre.  Sexism is one of the key factors in the series, but it is something which will be affected by the rest of the story.  As a matter of fact, Peggy succeeds in using her gender to her advantage by allowing men to underestimate her—something that I really like from this series.  And of course, Peggy’s struggle to overcome her grief over Steve Rogers will play a major role in this first season.  I have some nitpicks with the show, but for the most part it lives up to and even exceeds my expectations. 

What did you think of Agent Carter?  What was your favorite part of the first season?

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