In a red lipstick Taylor Swift would kill for, Special Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) dismantles a bomb, pours herself a bourbon, beats two evil henchmen in hand-to-hand combat, and realistically mourns the loss of a friend—and that’s just in five minutes of Agent Carter’s action-packed premiere.
Those who thought Marvel might half-ass its first female-led screen project need not have feared. ABC’s miniseries Agent Carter is not only an action show starring a woman, it’s also a bold feminist critique of workplace sexism. Peggy is the Strategic Scientific Reserve’s most competent agent, but her male colleagues—among them Agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), Agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), and Chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham)—refuse to treat her as anything other than a glorified secretary. She’s working in a post-war America that would prefer if women forget about all that independence they earned while men were fighting overseas.
Having played Peggy in Captain America: The First Avenger and the one-shot short film that inspired Agent Carter, Atwell brings just the right balance of gravitas and charm to the slightly broader world of network TV. Yet, I come here to critique Peggy as well as praise her. The show’s done incredible work in refusing to sugarcoat the past and in creating a strong female character who has none of the played-out signifiers of a “Strong Female Character.” The issue now is learning how to write more than one character like Peggy into the same piece, something Marvel has struggled with in the past.
Agent Carter at least takes a small but important baby step in this direction. Struggling actress/waitress Angie Martinelli (Lyndsy Fonseca) isn’t crucial to the show’s plot, but she represents a connection to humanity for Peggy, who has a tendency to bury herself in her work, especially after the (presumed) death of her love interest Captain America. It’s really refreshing to see Marvel finally recognize the strength of female friendships, especially when Angie remains loyal to Peggy as the shit hits the fan late into the show’s run.
But outside of Atwell and Fonseca (who mostly gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop when it comes to screen time), the show’s main cast and most of its supporting players are white men. This is always the double-edged sword when it comes to historical dramas: How do you depict the patriarchal past without centering exclusively on the patriarchs? One way is to think more complexly about the uncredited contributions women and people of color made to history, a step Agent Carter isn’t really taking outside of Peggy. Personally, I’ve never worked in an office that wasn’t secretly run by its secretaries, yet the S.S.R.’s female secretaries remain literal window dressing.
In surrounding Peggy solely with male allies, Agent Carter runs the risk of implying she’s the only woman competent enough for the job. The show’s point is actually far more nuanced—because Peggy is so ridiculously competent, she’s the only one who’s able to break through the glass ceiling and keep performing this kind of work after the war—but right now Agent Carter is telling, not showing, that fact, which is both sloppy writing and a missed opportunity for representation.
Thanks to Captain America, we know that plenty of women worked for the S.S.R. during the war (like Game Of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer!) back when defeating the Nazis/Hydra took precedent over gender hierarchies. That means there are theoretically a whole slew of women who were unfairly barred from continuing these jobs after the war (the rule to which Peggy is the exception). While the S.S.R. needs to be white and male for the premise of the show (Peggy struggling against sexism) to work, giving her a white, male civilian partner in her double agent life feels like a lazy choice rather than a conscious one.
With the S.S.R convinced Peggy’s wartime buddy Howard Stark (the perfectly cast Dominic Cooper, also reprising his role from Captain America) is selling weapons to enemy powers, Stark enlists Peggy to clear his name and offers his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) as support. The show follows Peggy as she takes lunch orders and files papers for the S.S.R. during the day while kicking ass and taking names with Jarvis at night.
But there’s no reason Stark couldn’t have assigned a female employee (who just happens to be a former wartime S.S.R. agent) to help Peggy—he may be a womanizer, but he’s never had a problem trusting Peggy because of her gender. Don’t get me wrong: Jarvis is one of the best parts of the show. D’Arcy’s comedic timing is perfect and he’s got fantastic chemistry with Atwell, plus Jarvis’ traditionally feminine interests (cooking, cleaning, care-taking) make a nice balance for Peggy’s more masculine ones. But the show would have been stronger if it found a way to explore the flip side of Peggy’s post-war experience, too.
This theoretical female ally could also have answered concerns that the show is too white. If Agent Carter wants to argue that the S.S.R.’s prejudices actually hurts the organization in the long run, what better way to do that than by depicting the awesome woman of color the agency was stupid to turn down? Really the only reason I can think of for not putting a woman in Jarvis’ place is that the writers may have been afraid of another female hero somehow diluting Peggy’s awesomeness.
Giving her a female adversary certainly didn’t: The only Agent Carter character anywhere near as interesting as Peggy is Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan), a deadly Russian assassin posing as a hapless small-town girl. (Watching Dottie go from golly-gee innocence to blank-faced psychopathy is almost as fun as watching Peggy don her various undercover personas.) Raised in a harsh facility that churns out cutthroat women (and will presumably later create Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow), Dottie makes an ideal thematic foil to Peggy. Both women play on the fact that men underestimate them, but they use that power to very different ends.
But rather than make the endlessly interesting Dottie its central antagonist, the show cycles through an array of boring minor villains before introducing Ralph Brown’s evil Dr. Ivchenko, who’s increasingly become a focus in these final episodes and who is—you guessed it—a white dude. Agent Carter is wonderfully unapologetic about its female lead. I just wish it had been a little less cautious with the rest of its ladies, too.
Casting demographics aside, the miniseries’ double-agent conceit is a little troubling as well. It deftly doubles the show’s espionage thrills (Peggy is keeping secrets from just about everyone and it’s a lot of high-stakes fun), but the downside is Peggy has to constantly play the fool at the office. She shows up late after an early morning of secret sleuthing, pretends to accidentally blow an important interrogation, and suddenly requests to leave work in the middle of the day for “lady things.” Her co-worker’s misjudge her both because of her gender and because she honestly doesn’t do much to prove them wrong. Her ass-kicking is for the audience’s eyes only.
That decision limits the relationships between Peggy and her S.S.R. colleagues, who constitute a majority of the show’s main cast. And while their institutional sexism may be historically accurate, it isn’t exactly the most fun thing to watch, especially for those of us who aren’t immune to such comments in the present day. So it’s a breath of fresh air when Peggy finally does prove herself to the S.S.R in the series’ fifth episode, “The Iron Ceiling.” After strong-arming her way onto an official mission to Russia, Peggy saves Thompson’s ass and earns some respect in the process. It doesn’t fix her problems overnight, but it means Chief Dooley is willing to listen to her next hunch.
But that welcome development comes too late in the show’s run. It’s normal for TV shows to take a few episodes to gel (Marvel’s other show, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., took almost a whole season to find its rhythm), but the stakes are different for a miniseries like Agent Carter. Four episodes might not seem like much within a full network season, but they constitute half of Agent Carter’s run.
Almost as soon as Peggy’s colleagues start to trust her, the show begins barreling toward its climax and they discover her secret. Peggy finally gets the equality she wants, but, ironically, it’s as a suspected Russian spy in the interrogation room. (“Don’t go easy on her just because she’s a girl,” Dooley instructs.) It’s a wonderful twist, but it would have been even stronger if the show had defined Peggy’s workplace relationships around something more than prejudice in those early episodes.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying we need more Agent Carter. The miniseries comes to an end on Tuesday, but with a little more time to grow (and a few more female characters), I’m convinced the show can become the period piece/spy thriller/action comedy/feminist masterpiece it wants to be. And since its good-but-not-great ratings haven’t yet guaranteed it a second season, I’d like to officially add my name to the #SaveAgentCarter campaign.