Yesterday morning, The A.V. Club posted a “For Our Consideration” piece by Caroline Siede on the fascinating but flawed gender politics of Agent Carter, and it was on my mind for most of “Valediction,” which spends a surprisingly short amount of time on the lead heroine. One of Siede’s criticisms of the show is that most of the attention goes to white men when it’s not on the central character, and that becomes an especially prevalent problem when Howard Stark returns this week, pulling the spotlight away from Peggy for a large chunk of the episode.
Dominic Cooper has plenty of charisma as Howard and gets to bring more emotional depth to the character in this episode, but this show isn’t called Howard Stark, so why is he taking up so much damn screen time? Peggy is a supporting character for the first half of the episode, and while she gets more to do in the second half, it’s as if writers (and co-showrunners) Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas suddenly realize that Peggy is their main character and push her into a prominent position. It’s only when Howard is hypnotized and forced into an antagonistic role that Peggy is given the opportunity to step into action, and she only saves the day by helping Howard work through his personal issues, which in turn helps Peggy work through her own grief over Steve Rogers’ death.
The first half of “Valediction” wraps up the S.S.R. vs. Stark plotline, bringing Howard back into the fray to help stop Leviathan’s plot by drawing attention to a new target that isn’t Times Square on the anniversary of V.E. Day. Agent Thompson publicly announces that Howard Stark has been cleared of all the charges against him in hopes of drawing out Johann Fennhoff and Dottie, but that plan backfires when Howard is taken captive in the chaos following an attack on the press conference. He’s hypnotized to think that he’s flying a plane to uncover Steve Rogers’ body when he’s being used by Leviathan to unleash his psychosis-inducing chemical, and Peggy needs to talk him out of it before Jarvis is forced to shoot his boss down over the Atlantic Ocean.
Hypnosis and mind control are convenient plot devices that provide easy shortcuts to questionable character actions, but that’s also what makes them problematic. In this universe, it’s entirely possible that Johann Fennhoff has some sort of superhuman hold on the minds of the people he hypnotizes, but the show hasn’t done anything to suggest that he has extraordinary abilities, so he’s just getting everyone to do what he wants by talking to them and touching his ring. I’m not versed in the tactics of criminal hypnotists, but I suspect it’s a lot more difficult than that to actually control someone’s mind, and Fennhoff’s trick feels lazier each time the writers use it.
This week’s script by Butters and Fazekas maintains the general bluntness that has defined most of this show’s writing, particularly in the last act of the episode. In order to break Fennhoff’s spell, Peggy’s radio speech to a hypnotized Howard summarizes all the things she’s learned over the course of the series, most importantly that they need to let go of Steve and move on with their lives. This strategy is a success and Howard regains his willpower, but as has become the custom, Peggy doesn’t get the recognition she deserves for her actions.
When Agent Thompson takes the credit for Peggy’s work—much to Sousa’s dismay—she takes the insult in stride, delivering a line that reveals the philosophy that has guided Peggy on her journey: “I don’t need a congressional honor. I don’t need Agent Thompson’s approval or the President’s. I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” Atwell’s delivery of this line embodies everything that makes her perfect for Peggy Carter: she’s confident, powerful, and poised, above it all and yet slightly disdainful that the rest of the world is still struggling to get to where she’s at. She doesn’t need medals or approval or a positive opinion, but it wouldn’t hurt to have these, and she’s going to keep being herself until women get the recognition they deserve.
Siede points out that this show could greatly benefit by spending more time on Peggy’s relationship with the other women in her world, and her final showdown with Dottie would have a lot more emotional punch if the show had highlighted their friendship in past episodes. Dottie and Peggy are acquaintances more than friends, two people that live in the same building and are totally courteous to each other, but not heavily involved in each other’s lives. If the writers had created a stronger bond between their characters, their big fight would have even higher stakes for Peggy. On the flip side, it makes sense that Dottie would get close but not too close to the S.S.R. agent, but because the show is lacking in female relationships, the Dottie/Peggy relationship feels like a missed opportunity.
The Doctor Faustus and Arnim Zola epilogue suggests that Marvel is fairly committed to a second season of this series, and it would be wise to stick to the shorter season format, which makes the story more concentrated and moves it along at a quicker pace. I wouldn’t mind seeing Agent Carter and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. split 22 episodes evenly, especially if it means the former can introduce more Golden Age Marvel characters and concepts (Agents of Atlas, please!), but if a shorter episode order means a bigger budget and tighter plotting, then an eight-episode season 2 works just fine.
One question about a potential season 2 is how would it bring Jarvis back into the fold? He promises that he’ll be there for Peggy whenever he needs her, but will he still have a place in this show if Stark isn’t directly involved? The relationship between Peggy and Jarvis is one of the most captivating things about this show, and while I’d like to see it continue to grow, I’m also confident that Hayley Atwell could create an equally captivating dynamic with another character, perhaps another female or a person of color (my vote is for secret agent Jimmy Woo). Some complain about diversity just for the sake of diversity, but in the case of a show like Agent Carter, where so much of the narrative and thematic content is rooted in challenging a patriarchal, prejudiced society, a more diverse cast offers more opportunities to explore different kinds of challenges.
Because this show isn’t directly attached to the present-day MCU the way Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, the writers have a lot of freedom in regards to the future direction of the series. A time jump is entirely feasible, perhaps jumping to a point where Peggy is in a position of power within the S.S.R. and has brought some female agents into the ranks. And moving into the ’50s would also introduce new design elements to give the second season a different visual flavor than the first. There are so many opportunities for growth with Agent Carter, and hopefully this show’s creative team gets the opportunity to build on the solid foundation laid in this first season.
- I was hoping that Agent Carter would use Steve Rogers’ blood to introduce Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America, into the MCU, but that’s not going to happen given this episode’s final scene. Still holding out hope for Bradley’s addition to this series, though, maybe as a test subject in a different experiment to recreate the Super-Soldier serum.
- This episode features the return of The Captain America Adventure Hour radio serial, which makes me very happy. I hope they keep the radio show around in the second season because it’s a lot of fun and really helps sell the time period.
- There are some great period-specific music cues this week, including “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” (I’m partial to this Ella Fitzgerald recording) and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Music is a very easy way to reinforce the time period, so this show shouldn’t shy away from using the popular music of the era.
- Ed Brubaker used Doctor Faustus excellently in his Captain America run, casting him as an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. psychiatrist that manipulates Sharon Carter to have her assassinate Steve Rogers after Civil War. If you liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you should definitely check out Brubaker’s run, which also features some great flashbacks to Cap and pals in World War II.
- Fennhoff: “A new opportunity has arisen.” Dottie: “Just since I left the car?”
- “Is it true you were hiding at the residence of Barbara Stanwyck?”
- “Is it Alice?” (Palm to the face.)
- Howard: “I owe you another one, pal.” Peggy: “To be honest, I’ve stopped counting, Howard.”
- “I appreciate the finer things, I just don’t want to know what’s happened in and on the finer things.”