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Agent Carter’s excellent season premiere changes more than just the scenery

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Marvel's Agent Carter

"The Lady In The Lake"

Season 2 , Episode 1

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Marvel's Agent Carter

"A View In The Dark"

Season 2 , Episode 2

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Peggy Carter is relocating to Hollywood for Agent Carter’s second season, but it’s far from the only big change for the series. As expected from the new setting, the visuals are brighter and the fashion is more glamorous, but there’s also an influx of new female characters, a love interest of color, and a story that pulls Peggy away from the workplace misogyny that defined so much of the first season. (Workplace misogyny is still a significant theme of the series, but it’s explored in the context of the entertainment industry through the experience of new character Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), an actress playing a Lady Macbeth role off-screen as she manipulates a businessman with political aspirations.)

The season gets off to a thrilling start with an opening sequence that plays with the viewer’s expectations as established by season 1. When a woman’s red hat appears in a sea of gray men on the sidewalk, we’re supposed to assume the woman is Peggy because of the shot’s similarity to a defining shot of the first season, but it’s actually Dorothy Underwood (Bridget Regan), who has returned to commit a bank robbery that Peggy and her S.S.R. colleagues interrupt. The close-quarters fight sequence between Dorothy and Peggy is the action highlight of tonight’s two-parter, showcasing the strength and resilience of these women as they pummel each other in a vault. The brawl ends when Peggy smashes a bag of coins into Dorothy’s head, and having the bag burst as it smacks Dorothy accentuates the impact of the finishing move, using the explosion of coins as a visual representation of the force of Peggy’s hit.

Peggy is in a position of power in these episodes, which is why Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) sends her away when he gets a call from Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) asking for help with a case he’s picked up as the chief of the S.S.R.’s West Coast branch. Thompson sees how much respect Peggy commands, so he gets rid of her before she can disrupt his plans for promotion, even though she’s the person best suited to handle Dorothy. Thompson’s career advancement is a subplot that emerges in “A View In The Dark,” which introduces Kurtwood Smith as the gruff FBI agent Vernon Masters, but the developments in New York are far less compelling than Peggy’s adventures in sunny California, where a murder investigation leads her down a deadly path to much bigger, potentially otherworldly problems.

The first person to greet Peggy on the West Coast is her fellow Brit, Edwin Jarvis, who has been managing Howard Stark’s local estate while his boss works on a new defense contract. The tone of the episode dramatically lightens up once Peggy and Edwin are back together, and the Jarvises are the most reliable source of humor in these two episodes. Yes, Jarvises plural. After spending last season off-screen, Edwin’s wife Ana Jarvis (Lotte Verbeek) makes her Agent Carter debut in “The Lady In The Lake,” and her immensely friendly, surprisingly cheeky personality makes her a delightful addition to the cast.

This series struggled with friendships among women in the first season, and after just two episodes, the dynamic between Ana and Peggy is much richer than the one Peggy had with Angie last season. The writers did great work in the first season establishing that Peggy and Edwin’s relationship is strictly platonic, and Peggy is welcomed into the Jarvis home like a longtime family friend. There’s no jealousy or animosity between Ana and Peggy, and even when Ana discovers her husband straddling Peggy in his workout singlet, she’s completely cool with the closeness of their relationship. It’s not as close as Ana’s relationship with her husband, which may be why she’s so publicly affectionate with Edwin around Peggy, but I suspect Ana acts that way with Edwin around everyone.

Those expecting a dowdy housewife for Mrs. Jarvis will be surprised by Ana’s effervescent disposition, and her personality carries over to her bold wardrobe of dresses in brightly colored floral patterns. She’s a housewife that has clearly spent her free time keeping up with the latest fashions, and Ana’s expertise comes in handy when Peggy needs help getting ready for a date with Dr. Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), a scientist working for the company directly connected to the murder Peggy is investigating.

The show addresses the first season’s female relationships issue by adding Ana and giving former phone operator Rose Roberts (Lesley Boone) a bigger role as Sousa’s secretary, allowing her to have substantial interactions with Peggy that reveal more of Rose’s individual personality. There’s also a new love interest for Sousa in Violet (Sarah Bolger), who is the epitome of purity with her pale skin, blonde hair, and all-white nurse’s uniform. The writers of this series are clearly aware of criticisms that Peggy spent too much time interacting with men last season, and there’s a much better gender balance in the ensemble this season.

Racial diversity was also sorely lacking last year, and giving Peggy a new love interest of color in Dr. Wilkes is a considerable step forward. Unfortunately, he’s still the only person of color in a fairly expansive cast, and he’s potentially dead at the end of “A View In The Dark,” which doesn’t present the best optics for representation. I would be more judgmental of this show for introducing a black love interest only to kill him off if I didn’t know that Austin was a regular cast member this season, so it’s more likely than not that we haven’t seen the last of him. (He doesn’t appear in the ad promoting the rest of the season, but I suspect that’s because the show’s creators want the audience to assume he’s dead.)

Austin and Atwell have strong chemistry in their scenes, so I’m hoping there are more opportunities to exploit that down the line. There’s still plenty of chemistry in Atwell’s interactions with Enver Gjokaj, but the love triangle subplot being developed there isn’t as captivating as the romance Peggy is developing with Wilkes. Their bond has extra tension because it’s an interracial relationship at a time when racism is still dominant, and while the writers of these episodes don’t push the racism angle too hard, it’s definitely there in other characters’ reactions to Wilkes. Learning about the mysterious black substance Isodyne is harnessing power from isn’t as interesting as learning about Wilkes struggle as a young black man trying to make his way out of the orange groves to a better life for himself, and the more time spent on detailing the characters’ individual experiences, the more engaging the grander plot points are.

The scene of Whitney Frost on the set of “The Woman With The Golden Face” (a reference to her comic-book alter ego of the golden-masked Madame Masque) establishes how sexism will rear its ugly head this season, and between takes, Whitney’s appearance is dissected by the director, who demands more make-up for the lines around her eyes, a more tightly cinched waist, and a new lighting scheme that covers up her age. This emphasis on appearance is further cemented by framing a later conversation between Whitney and her husband Calvin Chadwick inside a mirror, a creative choice that highlights Whitney’s focus on her own image as she figures out how to deal with her messy husband. Whitney is constantly thinking about how she looks to others when she’s both on and off the set, so when the events at the end of this episode leave her with a dark mark on her forehead, the small imperfection becomes an omen of a deeper corruption in the character.

All the additions made to Agent Carter season 2 benefit the series, but in the end the show’s success is still rooted in Hayley Atwell’s central performance, which only gains more texture as she spends more time with the character. Peggy is fierce but compassionate, friendly but guarded, and always resourceful no matter how dangerous the situation. Her relationship with James D’Arcy’s Edwin continues to be the heart of the show, and both of these episodes are at their strongest when the two are together.

Stray observations:

  • Agent Carter showrunners Tara Butters and Michelle Fazekas take over writing duties on Marvel’s Captain Marvel comic this week, and it’s a very fun issue that takes advantage of the writers’ familiarity with fantastic stories grounded in a workplace environment. Carol Danvers is surrounded by a pretty extensive supporting cast as the new commander of the Alpha Flight Space Station, but her character doesn’t get lost as the script introduces the other members of the ensemble and sets up the workplace dynamic. There’s also some killer art from Kris Anka and Matthew Wilson. I recommend it!
  • I have no problem with Edwin vs. Bernard Stark the Flamingo becoming an ongoing plot this season.
  • I also have no problem with there being a regular stream of performers trickling into the S.S.R.’s talent agency front. It introduces a lot of opportunities for humor.
  • Very nice use of archived footage of Hollywood and Los Angeles to establish the setting, and I especially like how the dimensions of the frame expand outward during the transition from the archived material to the new content.
  • Is Howard Stark being set up to play a Howard Hughes-esque role this season? I would very much like to see that.
  • The evil council pushing Calvin Chadwick to shut down Isodyne and focus on his campaign for Senate is entirely composed of older white men. I do not think this is a coincidence.
  • Wynn Everett’s old Hollywood acting feels a bit too naturalistic to be appropriate for the era. I’d like to see more stylization, particularly in her voice.
  • I love Sousa and Peggy’s dubious reactions to Jarvis saying, “I shall be a beacon of justice,” when they hand him a flashlight.
  • “Love the hat!”
  • “I couldn’t maneuver him into the enclosure. He’s the devil in pink.”
  • “She’s an embarrassing creature.”
  • “Well I suppose this is progress.”
  • “He’s never more lethal than when he’s flat on his back.”
  • “I’ve performed far more strenuous tasks in heels.”