MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER: Snafu (television mini-series critique)


“You think you know me, but I’ve never been more than what each of you have created. To you I’m a stray kitten left on your doorstep to be protected.

Those are Peggy Carter’s words after self-confessing everything to fellow S.S.R. agents Dooley, Daniel, and Thompson who, despite a triple interrogation, were unable to grill it out of her on their own. Peggy’s pain and frustration pours forth in that snippet of powerful dialog, one of many such examples to be found in Agent Carter‘s penultimate episode entitled Snafu.

Agent Peggy Carter

The guys find it hard to believe that Peg was able to conduct her investigation for Howard Stark without them noticing. They don’t understand why she went through so much trouble instead of coming to them with her findings. A fired up Hayley Atwell lets them have it with:

“I conducted my own investigation because no one listens to me. I got away with it because no one looks at me. Because unless I have your reports, your coffee or your lunch, I’m invisible.”

This answer echoes that of the Russian hypnotist when asked by Dooley in the previous episode why the Black Widow spy program is strictly female:

“Women are often overlooked. Taken for granted.”

The collective expression on the faces of Dooley, Thompson, and even Daniel (who treated Peg better than the others) telegraphs a melancholic mix of shame, surprise, and remorse. One gets the sense that the trio is more mad at themselves for neglecting Peggy than for her perceived betrayal. This epiphany pays off the gender inequality theme of the entire mini-series in a climatic, story-driven way.

Noble Russian defector Ivchenko, A.K.A. shifty hypnotist Fennhoff, A.K.A. super villain Dr. Faustus (one of Captain America’s comic book enemies) is turning out to be the big bad of the show.


Dr. Faustus in comic book form…

Despite Fennhoff’s nefarious agenda, the opening scenes of this episode and the last one (A Sin to Err) wisely keep him from becoming a typical two-dimensional villain. Each scene, a flashback to World War II, shows us how the good doctor turned bad.

Last week’s scene depicted Fennhoff being threatened by Leviathan agents — either join their cause or be killed, along with his family. Not much of a Sophie’s Choice. This episode’s flashback shows Fennhoff using his hypnosis focus to help an injured soldier cope with anesthesia-free amputation.

The pair of scenes add dimension and humanity to what would otherwise be your standard mad scientist role. We don’t know yet what his motivations are for his current scheme, or even what that scheme is (though it does involve mysterious item #17), but we know where he as a person came from.  Not bad for a “comic book show.”

Fennhoff’s partner in crime is another citizen of the mother country, Dottie Underwood. The two are more dangerous and less bumbling than that other infamous Russian duo, Boris and Natasha (Natasha Fatale,    not Natasha Romanoff).

...and live-action form.

…and live-action form

The sexist agents of the S.S.R. aren’t just surprised by how capable Peggy is. They’re also blown away by the Black Widow assassins (who aren’t yet called Black Widows). Selecting them as co-villains is inspired. It’s appreciated by fanboys who love any connection to the larger M.C.U., but most importantly it perfectly fits the thematics of the series. What better antagonist for a show steeped in gender equality than an all-female squad of killers more skilled than the men?

In an otherwise tense, dramatic episode, some welcome humor is provided by the “buddy cop” team of Peggy and Jarvis. Of particular comedic note is the bit where the twosome, handcuffed to a table, use said table to break out of a locked interrogation room.

The two Brits possess shades of John Steed and Emma Peel — the other Avengers. The non-powered ones played by Macnee and Rigg, not chemistry-deprived Fiennes and Thurman, i.e. the other other Avengers. (For those wanting to know about the other other other Avengers, see the West Coast and Great Lakes iterations.)

Jarvis on the move

As funny as Edwin Jarvis can be, he serves a higher function than mere comic relief. Characterizing him as an effeminate milquetoast of a man who borders on cowardice was a smart choice. It hones closely to the comic book version. (The polite straight Marvel version, not the surly gay Ultimate version.) It also adds another side of masculinity — contrasting nicely with the tough guy agents — to the gender politics debated throughout the series. AND he’s comic relief! Check out his bad James Cagney impression for proof.

Although these elements of Snafu are thoroughly entertaining, the fiber of the show is the character growth experienced by Carter’s peers at the Strategic Scientific Reserve.

In agent Thompson’s case, the shame he feels for his mistreatment of Peggy triggers equal shame for his mistreatment of Daniel. He’s looked down on Peg’s gender while simultaneously looking down on Daniel’s handicap. In the eyes of macho Jack Thompson (even his name is macho), Daniel’s manhood was stripped by his wartime injury, as if a bum leg equals castration. To Jack, a “cripple” is as inferior as a “broad.”

Dooley and Daniel

However, when the two male agents look into Carter’s hunch about a Black Widow assassin perched in the building across the way from the S.S.R. office, Thompson, who previously had his butt handed to him by a tween Widow-in-training (twaining?), warns Daniel to shoot the assassin upon sight. Daniel, thinking this is yet another example of Thompson underestimating his handicapped abilities, says he can handle himself. With a mixture of respect and concern, Thompson replies:

“I don’t doubt that. But after seeing that kid tear through us in Russia, I’d hate to tangle with one that’s all grown up.”

The combo of well-written dialog by Chris Dingess (“I don’t doubt that.”) and sincere performance by Chad Michael Murray illustrates how far agent Thompson has come in his character arc.

As satisfying as it is to see Thompson mature, Snafu belongs to S.S.R. Chief Roger Dooley. It’s his final episode and he goes out with a bang in more ways than one. **SPOILERS LAY AHEAD, MATEY!**

We heard of Dooley’s troubled marriage in the previous chapter. Now we get to see it. When he says to his estranged wife…

“I just want to come home. Can I come home?”


Shea Whigham as S.S.R. Chief Roger Dooley

…it tugs at your heart strings. Her implied “yes” tugs more strings. And then  we realize that the Spielbergian spousal reunion is all in Dooley’s mind courtesy of Fennhoff’s favorite word, “Focus.” It’s heartbreaking, but even more so when the chief awakens from his trance dressed like a suicide bomber.

Tricked into wearing a malfunctioning Howard Stark invention — an armored vest replete with Iron Man color scheme and penchant for exploding — Dooley makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his co-workers. His final words pack an Emmy-worthy punch:

DOOLEY: “Promise me you’ll get the son of a bitch who did this.”

CARTER: “We’ll catch him.”

DOOLEY: “…Attagirl.”

Actor Shea Whigham does a solid job throughout the episode, but especially when it comes to his emotional delivery of an old-time idiom like “attagirl.”

It’s a gender-perfect last word that shows Roger’s arc come to its natural conclusion. His world-view has evolved from a chauvinistic bitterness directed towards all women after being betrayed by one (his wife) to an open-minded perspective able to see the full worth of Peggy and females in general, including said wife. It’s a fully realized maturity that makes his heroic death all the more heroic.

And tragic.

NEXT MISSION: The grand finale — Valediction.


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