In A Sin to Err, a Russian scientist is asked why his country’s Black Widow spy program is comprised solely of women. His reply:
“Women are often overlooked. Taken for granted.”
This statement not only explains how the Widows are so successful at espionage (No one pays attention to the so-called weaker sex.), it also sums up perfectly what the Agent Carter mini-series is all about — gender inequality. It may be gender inequality of a bygone era (1946 to be exact), but this hot button topic is still hot as evident by Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech.
The theme of gender politics is established right from the start of the series. Now is Not the End opens with archive footage showing Hayley Atwell fighting Axis powers alongside Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger. This is cleverly contrasted with new clips of Atwell’s Peggy Carter doing laundry and other more typical (boring) women’s chores post-World War II.
The resultant montage kicks off an exploration of female inequality in the workplace and beyond that runs through subsequent episodes. All of that comes to a head in episode #6.
Making the plot engine of Agent Carter be a frame-up of Howard Stark is a stroke of genius. As Stark and Carter have fought to clear his name, they’ve wondered how he was framed in the first place. Now we know.
Consummate playboy Howard was hoodwinked into becoming Public Enemy #1 by femme fatales masquerading as the typical Stark floozy. He fell for the Black Widows’ charms just as his future son, Tony, will do decades later with modern Widow, Natasha Romanoff. (Luckily for Tony, Natasha turns good.)
Once Peggy realizes that one of Stark’s former flames is behind the shenanigans (all lingo in this review shall be era appropriate), she sets out to uncover which one. This would be easy if Howard was more like Moe Howard than Howard Hughes, but he is who he is.
With a list of conquests long and varied (including Ginger Rogers), Peggy and Jarvis, who supplied the list, focus on just the past six months, which is still daunting. It’s also violent. Poor Jarvis, the proxy who broke up with these jilted lovers per Howard’s orders, is on the receiving end of left hooks meant for his employer.
Juxtaposing the fallout of Howard’s womanizing with the issue of women’s rights is where this series shines. Thankfully it’s been the heart of each adventure, though The Iron Ceiling was a bit lacking. The characters are so well written that Howard isn’t even in this episode, yet his testosterone is sensed throughout.
This juxtaposition also supplies great conflict for Peggy who becomes more and more disgusted with Howard’s mistreatment of women (a far cry from Steve Rogers), yet she’s obligated to clear his name and grateful for the playboy’s paradoxical belief in her non-sexual abilities.
Although Howard was the first man to recognize Peg’s true potential, he’s no longer the only one. As her fellow S.S.R. agents have gotten to know her better, they’ve come to respect her and cut back on their sexist behavior. In turn, we’ve gotten to know them better and see where that behavior stemmed from in the first place. (Other than societal norms of the time period.)
The previous episode gave us the backstory on Agent Thompson, whose manly chauvinistic exterior hides a less-than-manly wartime secret. This time it’s Chief Dooley’s turn.
We learn about Dooley’s home life, which includes two kids and a troubled marriage. While he was serving his country overseas, his wife was cheating on him at home. Dooley’s bitter words on the subject match the sexist actions we’ve seen him direct toward Peggy and other “dames.” I’m not saying that these actions are excusable on account of him being betrayed by a woman, but at least now we understand their source.
Two of the reasons that this mini-series has been creatively successful are:
1) It’s a mini-series, which by definition comes with an ending. The showrunners have a finale to write toward, rather than tread water not knowing when the end will come. (For an example of treading, see Lost before the creators declared they would conclude the series in season 6.)
2) The creatives behind Agent Carter chose a theme, the aforementioned issue of gender inequality, and have so far stuck to it.
Every story decision reflects this — From a jailed man afraid to admit in front of inmates that he was beaten up by a girl, to a male dentist thinking he can take advantage of a member of the fairer sex. If by “fairer,” he means a world-class assassin feigning fragility in order to kill with a dental drill, then he’s right.
He’s also dead.
Exciting action scenes. Fun character interplay. Impressive production value. Agent Carter has all of that, but most importantly it has what some other shows lack (including Marvel’s own Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) It has thematic purpose.
This episode began with a Russian scientist explaining to a doubting Dooley and Thompson why women make perfect spies — they’re continuously underestimated by men. It ends with Dooley and Thompson becoming firm believers after discovering that Peggy herself is a spy. The men underestimated her before, but never again. Dooley throws her in the interrogation room and says to interrogator Thompson:
“Don’t go easy on her just ‘cause she’s a girl.”
The scientist’s statement perfectly summed up the first half of this mini-series. Dooley’s statement perfectly sums up the second half. Or at least I think it will. I’m a little behind in my viewing, which brings us to…
NEXT MISSION: First we got S.H.I.E.L.D. as an “S” acronym, followed by S.S.R. Now it’s an episode entitled S.N.A.F.U. (Situation Normal: All F—ked Up) Could S.C.U.B.A. be far behind?