Move over, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Peggy Carter is here. Marvel’s Agent Carter premiered tonight with a two hour special, and it will air in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s time slot for seven weeks. The series set between Captain America: The First Avenger and the Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter wasted no time in presenting an active and engaging story, compelling characters, action, and some vague but serious threats. The limited season may be partially responsible for the strong start in “Now Is Not The End” and “Bridge and Tunnel,” but I’d like to think the powers that be learned from mistakes made in the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D. Case in point: at no point does the Agent Carter premiere make you twiddle your thumbs and wait for something to happen.
The war is over, Steve Rogers is presumed dead, and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is juggling a double life. Her cover is working for the telephone company, but she’s actually employed by the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR). It’s 1946, and the boys of the office look past Carter’s contributions during the war, only valuing her for secretarial skills such as typing reports and serving coffee. We see that aspect of ’40s life immediately in the series, and though it’s painful to watch, how Peggy handles it is inspiring.
When Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) – the only sympathetic ear in the office – tries to defend her, Peggy shuts him down. She doesn’t want to be seen as the victim. It’s not as if she likes sexism or encourages it, but she understands she can use the ignorance of her male co-workers to her advantage. They don’t suspect she’s secretly working with Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to prove his innocence in the case the government has against him (the United States has accused Stark of selling his dangerous technology and weapons despite Stark insisting they were stolen), and they’ll say anything and everything in front of her.
It’s one of the many wonderful aspects about the character of Peggy Carter. She’s not written as a “strong female character,” she’s strongly written. She’s fierce, tough, and capable of dealing out a sound ass-kicking, and she’s vulnerable and emotional. There’s even a touch of dorkiness. She doesn’t shy away from embracing her femininity and/or leveraging it. A man likely wouldn’t have been able to get in Mr. Raymond’s office and recover the chemical as quickly as she did. Additionally, true to the time period, Peggy is always prim and proper with her smart outfits and red nail polish.
Atwell couldn’t be better in the role. I’m sure I’ll eat those words once I’ve seen future episodes, but she kicks off her performance with a bang. She handles the dialogue and combat (she wanted to do her own stunts as much as possible) exceedingly well, but she also says volumes with her posture and expressions. Oh! And she changes up her performance nicely when she dons disguises.
Over the course of two episodes, we see Peggy in a range of situations that demonstrate her skills and humanity. She has to come up with a solution to defuse a bomb within seconds in her tiny apartment bathroom (what a flawless scene), she mourns for Steve, she grimaces and listens to the awful-but-wonderful-for-the-plot “The Captain Adventure Program” on the radio, and she loses her shit. She’s hot on the heels of Leviathan and investigating who stole Stark’s nitramene while trying to stay one step ahead of the SSR because they’re looking into Stark too.
This is the right time to note that I appreciate they’re not writing the SSR boys as a group of bumbling idiots. They’re sexist and occasionally oblivious, but by and large, they’re not stupid. They need to be developed more and we could stand to learn more about them, but they weren’t given jobs as agents for no reason. Peggy has to stay on her toes to outwit them, and while Sousa seems like her only ally in the office, he could be her biggest threat. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Peggy loop him into her inner circle if it becomes necessary.
And Peggy does need to establish a circle. It’s clear she’s been in her own head since she lost Steve, and after we watch her first roommate get killed (it was an effective way to establish the high stakes), we can understand her concern about making connections. Her stilted interactions with Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) are further proof. Stark left Jarvis with instructions to assist Peggy, and their developing friendship has already risen to the top, becoming one of the shining parts of the series.
D’Arcy is so damn endearing as Jarvis I can barely stand it. He’s proper, but he made it clear in the second episode he’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty. My favorite aspect of Jarvis might be how unflappable he is. Whether he’s involved in a speeding chase, talking about Stark’s bedroom romps, or giving Peggy a heartfelt pep talk about not working alone, he maintains the same calm composure and even delivery with only a few outbursts. And by outbursts, I mean he raises his voice slightly. Finally, I’m pleased his and Carter’s relationship is totally platonic with no subtext at this point, and I hope it stays that way. I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that they aren’t torn apart by Stark’s secret.
The period setting probably brings on a number of production challenges I can’t fathom, but the work is paying off. The palette, the sets, and the costumes all contribute to 1946 being its own character in the series. Tenets followed by society back then dictate more than just the look of the show and introduce some specific plot points into Agent Carter that you won’t find elsewhere on television. I’m talking about the attitude towards women, yes, but also the concept of a female living space with a curfew and strict rules about appearance. That’s going to be entertaining. I can tell.
Let’s not forget about the dialogue. Conversations in films from the ’40s had a different pace and delivery, and that’s sprinkled throughout Agent Carter. The dialogue is often snappy and direct, and there are real gems in the first two episodes. Mr. Raymond telling Peggy to “get the rest of you in here” when she sticks her head into his office comes to mind.
Overall, Agent Carter didn’t open the door and tiptoe in; it busted through and took charge. Atwell is a magnetic force of nature and seems completely at home in the role, and she’s complemented by D’Arcy and Gjokaj. The series is giving depth not only to the character of Peggy Carter but to the foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
What are your thoughts about the Agent Carter premiere? Share ’em in the comments or chat me up on Twitter.