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

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The grand finale of Agent Carter is both grand and final.

The grandness comes in the form of feature film quality special effects, most evident in a climatic flight over Manhattan. Just as grand is the top-notch production design showcased in an art-deco movie palace and a hanger full of classic airplanes.

As for the finality, it comes by way of some well-earned closure for Peggy, her supporting cast, and the audience.

Agent Peggy Carter

It took the entire run of the mini-series to figure out exactly what it’s been about all along, to uncover the main theme bubbling just below the surface of action and intrigue. That’s not a negative. It’s great that we weren’t hammered over the head with the theme. It took us time to fully realize it, just like it took time for Peggy to realize.

Gender inequality flows through each episode, but that issue climaxed in the previous episode when Peg’s fellow agents finally saw her as an equal (if not more). With that storyline mostly wrapped up, the finale shines the spotlight on the true theme of the series — grief. How we deal with it. How we deny it. How we reconcile it.

While Peggy has been mourning the loss of Steve Rogers, the nation has been mourning the loss of Captain America. This has been addressed throughout the series, but it’s only ever been subtext. Until now.

Carter accepted Howard Stark’s secret mission in episode #1 to help him, and to relieve the boredom of her day job where she was marginalized by sexist co-workers. She also took on the mission to distract from her grief, which she didn’t admit and most likely wasn’t even aware of. Now, however, plot complications force Peg to confront her sorrow.

The text has transformed the subtext into its own text, which is another example of fantastic writing in a series exemplified by fantastic writing.

The Strategic Scientific Reserve

Agent Carter is ultimately not just about Peggy letting go of Cap’s memory and moving on, but also Howard, Dum Dum Dugan, and all of America. It’s rare for a comic book project to address the consequences and aftermath of a character’s death, let alone devote an entire mini-series to it. Look no further than the destructoporn second half of Man of Steel for the opposite of what Agent Carter achieves.

The surprising amount of story dedicated to Peg and company’s stages of grief is admirable. It’s also ironic given that, aside from Uncle Ben and Bruce Wayne’s parents, comic book deaths are temporary at best, which is even more ironic given that Cap isn’t actually dead, though we, the modern day audience, are the only ones privy to his Capsicle status. To paraphrase The Princess Bride’s Miracle Max, “There’s a big difference between comic book dead and all dead.”

There’s a sign in Valediction (in ’40s font no less) that displays Stark Industries’ motto: Better Living Through Technology. Is it really better living? Not if it’s Stark technology. I’ll walk you through it.

Howard Stark

Episode #7 contained Howard’s Iron Man-like armored vest that malfunctioned and killed Chief Dooley. Episode #8 gives us Midnight Oil (*), a gas designed to keep soldiers awake, but instead it spikes people’s aggressions to the point of mindlessly killing each other. (**) Remember the World’s Fair in Captain America: The First Avenger where Howard’s hover car malfunctioned? See what I’m getting at here? I’m just saying I’m sensing a pattern is all, one that surely won’t be inherited by Howard’s son in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.

What the senior Stark lacks in his invention success rate, he makes up for with comedic flair. From trying to bargain his way out of a bad situation by offering Rosalind Russell‘s phone number, to remembering Dottie Underwood’s real name (“Ida!”), the actor and writers have a ball with Howard’s charm. The highlight is his Rule of Threes demo of how to properly store his inventions. Dominic Cooper punchlines the third item in a priceless Howard Hughes O.C.D. sort of way.

As funny as Howard is, he also has a serious side. If you thought his notorious womanizing caught up with him before, that was nothing compared to the wrath of a rejected Black Widow.

Dottie/Ida, like all of the ladies questioned by Peg and Jarvis in Snafu, is a jilted ex-lover of Howard’s. Unlike them, however, Dottie happens to be a world-class assassin.

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Dottie “Ida” Underwood

She represents the dark side of Peggy. Whereas Peg lashed out at her male tormentors by embarking on a clandestine mission, Dottie lashed out by teaming with Dr. Fennhoff to brainwash Howard into slaughtering the New York populace with one of his own inventions, proving the old adage — Hell hath no fury like a psychotic K.G.B.-trained woman scorned. (That was the original version. Honest.)

Fennhoff’s motivations are revealed as well, and they too are personal. Even more so than Dottie’s.

Dr. Fennhoff (Dr. Faustus in the comics) and his brother were in the Battle of Finow, infamous for having Howard’s Midnight Oil sprayed upon it, which transformed opposing armies into primal killers, indiscriminate about who or how they killed. Fennhoff was protected by a gas mask. His bro wasn’t so lucky. The brother’s eyes were gauged out by another Midnight victim in front of Fennhoff. Now Fenn holds Howard responsible, despite Howard not being the one who greenlit the Finow massacre.

Agent Carter is so good that I didn’t realize until late in the series that it didn’t have a definitive villain. There was always one lurking in the proverbial shadows giving commands to mute henchmen and female assassins, but we didn’t see him until the fifth episode and even then his true allegiance was hidden behind a wholesome facade.

Dr. Fennhoff (or Dr. Lecter?)

We didn’t miss the standard role of a big bad like Red Skull because the conflict between Carter and her co-workers was ample enough to hold our attention. Having said that, the post-episode cameo of the Skull’s right hand man(iac), Arnim Zola, bodes well for future storylines — hopefully beyond the Winter Soldier program.

The airport smackdown between S.S.R. agents and Dr. Fennhoff results in the doc’s attempt to hypnotize Daniel into shooting Thompson. Fennhoff preys upon Daniel’s insecurities of being looked down upon by Thompson as a helpless “cripple.” It’s easy to believe that Fennhoff could succeed because:

1) We’ve seen him succeed with mind control of Dooley and the agent who walked into traffic.

2) Daniel’s insecurities have been established for a while now.

Thompson pleads for Daniel to resist Fennhoff’s hypnotic suggestions and, due to Thompson’s growth in the previous episode where he finally saw Daniel as an equal, we want him to, which makes Thompson’s final scene all the more frustrating.

After sparing Thompson’s life and defeating the good (and by “good,” I mean bad) doctor, Daniel is rightfully infuriated when Thompson takes all of the credit for saving New York. Thompson claiming credit for Daniel and Peggy’s hard work is a slap across the face of fans, as well as Jack Thompson himself. He’s gone through a lot of positive change thanks to Peg.

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Captain America’s shield.

In addition to saving his life several times, she helped him realize the error of his sexist ways AND gave him a shoulder to cry on after he confessed to slaying Japanese soldiers surrendering during the war. When Jack’s platoon peers awoke to the carnage, they assumed the Japanese were attacking and declared Jack a hero for saving them. He didn’t correct their assumption and he repeats that behavior at the end of Valediction when a random senator assumes that Jack single-handedly saved the Big Apple, as if he were a one-man army like Captain America.

It doesn’t hurt that Thompson looks like Steve Rogers, what with his blonde hair and all-American good looks. Was this physical resemblance a requirement in casting the role, or was it just coincidence? Either way, it’s effective.

Thompson’s credit-claiming misconduct is the one thing I feel at odds about in Agent Carter. On one hand, it feels forced by writers who at the last minute realized that if there’s a second season, then they’ll need more inner S.S.R. conflict, but won’t have any if Peg earns everyone’s respect.

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Arnim Zola

On the other hand, real people aren’t like fictional people. We learn. We change, but not necessarily in eight episodes. Not in huge dramatic ways as portrayed in film and television. And for those of us who do change, not every one of us stays changed. Sometimes we fall off the wagon. Hopefully Thompson will pull himself back onto that wagon. If not, then there’s always the chance of the wagon-master running him over. Hit the trails, wagon-master.

As great as this finale is, it’s not perfect. Nor is the series. Questions remain.

General McGuiness is revealed as the dude who authorized the use of Midnight Oil in Finow. Good to know. Who’s General McGuiness? Unless I missed something, his name (or hers) is uttered for the first time in this episode. It comes out of the blue and feels like an 11th hour bid from the showrunners to pass the buck of blame from Howard to an unseen unknown.

Another loose end tied up too neatly is the explanation of the mute Leviathan agents and their extreme tracheostomies. We haven’t seen these guys since early in the series, so I wasn’t even thinking anymore about why they were missing their larynxes. When the question is answered in Valediction, it only serves to draw attention to something that I would’ve otherwise forgotten about (forgotten about in a good way).

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Edwin Jarvis

Demystifying one thing opens a can of worms to other mysteries. For instance, what’s the deal with those self-typing typewriters lifted from early seasons of Fringe?

The mute henchmen aren’t characters I wanted closure with because I wasn’t connected to them (nor should I have been). One character I did connect with is Jarvis and it’s his situation that I would like clarified. Or at least one part — What happened to his off-screen wife whom we heard him talk to early on?

He references her maybe one more time, but that’s it. Is she the M.C.U.’s equivalent of Vera/Maris/Mrs. Wolowitz — a woman heard, but never seen? Doesn’t that go against what Agent Carter is all about — equality for women? I’m just saying.

Agent Carter’s climax mirrors that of The First Avenger, which we were reminded of in Carter’s first episode via archive footage. The start of this final episode refreshes our memories by playing out the same scene in a clever way — the Hollywoodized version of a Captain America radio drama.

In both versions, our heroine uses a radio to talk Cap out of steering a bomb-filled flying wing away from New York and into the ocean. At this she fails, and, believing him to be dead, her grief begins. It’s only fitting that Peg’s grieving period come to a close in the guise of a similar scenario.

Instead of talking Cap out of downing his plane to save New York, she’s talking Howard out of dropping Midnight Oil from his plane that will destroy the city, though that’s not what Howie thinks is happening.

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Peggy on the horn.

He’s been hypnotized to think he’s doing something noble — locating Cap’s final resting place in the Antarctic. Stark figures that bringing the body of Captain America home will give closure to himself, Peggy, and the country.

Rolling calls like she would if she really worked at the telephone company that she pretends to, Peg talks to Howard and Jarvis who pilot two different planes. Jarvis awaits the order that he dreads having to obey — to shoot down Howard, his boss and friend, before Stark’s deadly payload reaches Times Square. That won’t happen though if Peg can snap Howard out of his trance.

PEGGY: “Steve is gone. We have to move on. All of us. As impossible as that may sound. We have to let him go.”

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Peggy on a bridge!

The range of emotions that alternate across Hayley Atwell’s face is heartbreaking as Peggy realizes that she must do what she’s asking Howard to do. And this she does. Where once she failed in stopping a suicide flight, this time she succeeds.

Peg also emerges from her mourning and proves it by emptying Steve’s remaining vial of super-soldier blood into the East River, thereby bidding him the fond valediction referenced in the show’s title.

As of this writing, no sophomore season of Agent Carter has been announced. Critical response to the first season was high, though ratings weren’t. Here’s hoping that “valediction” does not also refer to saying goodbye to a terrifically entertaining series.

Otherwise I’ll be in mourning.


NEXT MISSION: Hopefully a second season. Until then, we have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season to get back to.


FOOTNOTES

(*) The Midnight Oil toxin should not be mistaken for the Australian rock band of the same name.

(**) The aggression-spiking gas should not be mistaken for the aggression-spiking S.I.M. cards in the currently playing Kingsman: The Secret Service. (***)

(***) Kingsman: The Secret Service should not be mistaken for a grammatically correct film title. Secret Service refers to an organization of people, which makes it plural. Therefore, shouldn’t Kingsman be Kingsmen? Discuss amongst yourselves.


 

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