Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Agent Carter Season 2, Episode 4, "Smoke and Mirrors" REVIEW (SPOILERS!)

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You know, I think this might be their best episode yet for the parallels they create between the hero and villain.  Peggy Carter and Agnes Cully/Whitney Frost really are not such different women.  Both are driven to excel in fields from which they are largely barred due to their gender.  Both of them feel the pushback of a society that does not think they can contribute in those fields.  Both of them attempt to conform to societal standards.  But Peggy gets one thing that Agnes/Whitney does not:  an opportunity.

Marvel seems to believe that every TV season needs at least one “flashback episode” (admittedly, it’s an effective technique for fleshing out back stories—some of them are among my favorite episodes from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, and Jessica Jones), so it’s not surprising to find one in Agent Carter season 2.  What really set this episode apart (at least over season 1) are the direct parallels between Peggy and Agnes.  I think that if things had turned out differently, either one could have been the hero and either one could have been the villain.  Daredevil season 1 came close to this with Matt and Fisk, but ultimately did not make as much of a parallel between them as we see between Peggy and Frost.

The episode opens with the first of a number of flashbacks showing Peggy before we first met her in Captain America: The First Avenger.   Peggy as a little child is playing a game inspired by a book about knights and dragons.  However, where society would expect her to be the lady needing to be rescued, Peggy instead pretends to be the knight, something in which her older brother, Michael, encourages her.  Later on the next flashback jumps forward to 1940, when Peggy is recently engaged to a soldier named Fred (we later learn that he works in the Home Office, while Michael is serving at the front lines).  Peggy is a code breaker, but she is given a letter from the Special Operations Executive, which wants to recruit her to become a spy and work with resistance movements behind enemy lines.  Peggy is at first questioning if this is something that she can do, but agrees to discuss it with her fiancĂ©.  Evidently they decided that she would not join the S.O.E., though this disappoints Michael, who had recommended Peggy to them in the first place, which Peggy learns from him at her engagement party.  Michael seems to dislike Fred, and I don’t think it is exclusively because he doesn’t think he’s right for his sister (though there’s that, too!).  Michael tells Peggy that he knows her better than anyone—perhaps even better than Peggy knows herself at the moment—and that he knows she will not be happy marrying Fred and sitting behind a code breaker’s desk for the rest of the war.  Peggy doesn’t want to hear this at the time, but later on, after learning that Michael was killed in action (it’s not clear if he was killed, wounded, or missing), she decides to leave behind the safe, comfortable life that society wants for her (including the milquetoast fiancĂ©) and join the S.O.E.

As I was watching, I was rather confused by Peggy’s initial reluctance to join the S.O.E. as that seemed to run counter to what we saw from the little child flashback and to what we know of her now.  However, the rest of the episode makes it clear:  Peggy in 1940 is desperate to conform to societal norms, and that means working in a “woman’s job” as a code breaker, marrying the “safe” option of Fred, and foregoing the life of adventure that she dreamed of as a child.

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Peggy’s relatively normal and fun childhood contrasts very sharply with that of Agnes Cully (or as we know her now, Whitney Frost).  As a child we see Agnes working on a radio at her kitchen table while her mother is expecting her “gentleman company” (Agnes’ mother is basically a prostitute/mistress/“concubine” for this “Uncle Bud” character).  It becomes quite clear just why Agnes needs this radio by the end of the first flashback, as she turns up the music to drown out the sounds coming from her mother’s bedroom while she does her homework.  When she is older and looking at colleges (1928), Agnes is again working on homework when her mother has an all-out fight with “Uncle Bud,” who throws them out of “his house.”  In fury, her mother turns on Agnes and mocks her for applying to the University of Oklahoma’s science program:  all that matters to Agnes’ future is her face, not the brain inside it.  Consequently, it appears that Agnes left Broxton, Oklahoma, for Hollywood to try her luck at conforming to society’s expectations.  She is discovered by a talent scout in 1934, at which point she starts modeling and acting—exactly what society would want from a woman.  However, Dr. Wilkes makes it clear that Agnes never gave up her true dream of science, as in 1943 she patented a generator 1,000 times more powerful than the neutron reactor in Los Alamos.  She was not given the same opportunity that Peggy received; she had to fight for it, and it wasn’t until she had already become wealthy as an actress that Agnes/Whitney could finally pursue science.

The similarities between these two women are very interesting.  Both aspired to a profession/life from which society would bar them.  Both eventually achieve their goal, but the way they do it is what really sets them apart.  And at the end, Agnes/Whitney isn’t really a villain—or at least not based on the flashbacks.  The rest of the episode, however, makes it quite clear that she’s the villain.

Peggy and Jarvis learn that Chadwick’s driver is none other than Rufus Hunt, the assassin that Chadwick sent to kill Peggy in the previous episode.  The two of them attack Hunt and capture him by tranquilizing him—though it does not go according to plan as he shrugs off the tranquilizer at first and attacks Peggy, and then he sticks Jarvis with the dart, knocking him out.  At Howard’s house, Peggy runs into Sousa, who quickly surmises what Peggy has done and is upset that she did not discuss it with him (“I thought we were a team”).  Peggy says she was trying to protect him by giving him “plausible deniability” while she commits a felony, but in the end the two of them agree to interrogate Hunt together.  They do this in style, as Peggy injects Hunt with “Stark’s weaponized malaria” (in reality a particularly virulent strain of the common cold) and telling him he only has 20 minutes to live.  Hunt breaks quickly when Sousa and Peggy start arguing about whether or not to save him to interrogate further.  He gives them two names (Hugh Jones and Thomas Gloucester) and explains that the “Council of Nine” is involved with pretty much everything, from the Great Depression to the McKinley assassination (that’s not quite on the same level as Magneto being responsible for the magic bullet in the Kennedy assassination, but it’s up there).  He also tells them that the Council records all their meetings, giving them something to look for at the Arena Club.  Peggy and Sousa take this information to the S.S.R. and call to get a search warrant to search the Arena Club and seize the tapes.

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However, before they can get the search warrant, Vernon Masters (who evidently works for the War Department) comes in with a group of his men to make life miserable for Peggy and Sousa (seriously; he really doesn’t hide his intentions).  He stops them from raiding the Arena Club and begins an extensive audit of the S.S.R. office’s case files.  He confronts Peggy about the informant on whose word they were planning to raid the Arena Club, but Peggy refuses to divulge the name.  At this point he starts accusing Peggy of espionage and threatening everyone she knows and loves with being branded a communist.  I get that he is trying to send them a message, but if he was trying to prevent them from continuing their investigation, I think a little more subtlety would have been in order.

After Masters leaves, Peggy and Sousa regroup and decide to continue the investigation despite the risk to their careers and freedom.  How are they going to shake free a new lead?  By letting Hunt escape and listening to what he does.  Sousa takes a punch and lets Hunt escape with a listening device attached to his suspenders, and Hunt immediately goes to the Chadwick residence.  When Chadwick returns home, Hunt explains that Peggy had kidnapped him, and Chadwick loses it against Peggy.  Of course Frost is the smart one who asks what Hunt told her.  Hunt finally reveals that he’d named names, and he and Chadwick start threatening each other with Council sanctions.  Finally Frost solves the problem for them.

How did Frost do that?  She’s been practicing with her Zero Matter absorption ability by experimenting with lab rats.  By absorbing the rats, Frost learned how to absorb on command, but she also discovered that each use of her powers expands the Zero Matter crack in her forehead.  By the time she absorbs Hunt, the crack is all the way down her face with a couple of lines also going up into her hair.  Chadwick is horrified to learn what his wife is capable of, but Frost appears to feel freer than she has in a long time.

The only other plot to discuss with this episode has to do with Wilkes, who seems to be feeling a pull from the Zero Matter.  The strain of being intangible and unable to sleep, eat, or feel anything is really taking its toll on him.  I wonder if by the end of the season he will have finally been sucked into the Zero Matter Dimension.

Overall I really enjoyed this episode, and especially the tandem exploration of Peggy’s and Whitney’s histories.  It’s amazing that after four movie appearances, a One-Shot, and an 8-episode miniseries, this is the first we’ve really seen of Peggy’s history before World War II!

What did you think of this episode?  Do you think they are going to fix Wilkes before he gives in to the pull of the Zero Matter Dimension?  Let me know in the comments!

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