Agent Carter: Hit or Miss?
That’s a rap on Season One of Marvel’s Agent Carter. So how did it do? Will the ratings drive a second series? Have we seen the last of Agent Peggy Carter?
As you know I’ve been participating in the Diesel Powered Podcast’s weekly Agent Carter Roundtable hosted by the maestro of Dieselpunk Cool, Johnny Dellarocca. I had a blast appearing on both the first and last episode reviews as well as others in between. We torque-checked every bolt that held Agent Carter together to make sure they were tight. We found a few loose screws and so here is my final analysis of the Hits & Misses of Agent Carter:
Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter You have to start with Hayley Atwell as the biggest hit of this show. Supported by excellent script writing, her performance as Agent Peggy Carter came across as strong, self-confident, clever and witty. She’s beautiful to look at, but in no way did the show’s producers exploit her good looks. She out-detected the detectives, out-fought the bad guys and pieced together the clues to the over-arcing mystery storyline like a female Sherlock Holmes. She held her own when she had to, showed a vulnerable side when it was required and in essence carried the show.
Dieselpunk Aesthetics The series was a showcase for the aesthetics of the diesel-era. Visually, the producers got it right from the Art Deco architecture, the period-perfect costumes, hairstyles and set design and the quirky radio plays. Beyond the visual props – gorgeously pristine 1940s cars and Agent Carter’s pop-off-the-screen brightly colored fedoras – there was plenty to like about the way the cultural norms of the time were portrayed and how they played a pivotal role in the plot. The first episode in particular underscored the role reversal of women after World War Two where millions of returning GIs displaced the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ heroines of the home front and sent them back to waitressing and secretarial duty. Caught in this misogynistic mess was Agent Peggy Carter who, although she’d fought on the frontlines with Captain America, was relegated to fetch coffee in the male-dominated office of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Agent Carter took us back to a time where women’s rights took a decidedly backward step and the witty dialogue gave us plenty to cheer about when Peggy Carter got one up on the guys.
Retrofuturistic Science The early episodes were a Dieselpunk fan’s delight with the weird science of Howard Stark’s gadgets throwing us back to a time when every Saturday morning there were sci-fi serials shown in the local cinemas. The Enigma-styled two way typewriter was pure genius and so were the nitramene bombs. In the latter part of the series, the weird science was replaced by a more human threat in the form of evil Dr. Ivchenko and Dottie, the Leviathan assassin. We’ll cover the missed opportunities that resulted in a minute.
Action-driven Plot with a Human Twist So much in Hollywood these days is about special effects and awe-inspiring cinematography but the producers often forget about having a compelling plot and more importantly the key question: why should we care about the main character? From the outset, we were treated to a classic ‘ticking bomb’ thriller arc that was set in motion by Howard Stark’s call to action: “Peggy, you have to find my stolen technology or bad things will happen.” From that point forward, every episode was its own mini-mystery where Agent Carter used her guile to piece the clues together. Eventually, the threat got bigger and the mystery got clearer but in the mean time Agent Carter had been pushed into ever more dangerous situations and then tarred with a treasonous brush. We rooted for her to save the day. We cringed when she was trapped. We cheered when she escaped. And at the very end, we were relieved she found closure to the painful memory of a love lost forever. Other script writers please take note: make us care about the protagonist like the writers of Agent Carter did!
And now for the:
Jarvis Who was this character supposed to be? By the end of the series, we still hadn’t quite figured it out. His character was a foil, a sidekick and an erstwhile substitute for the anti-hero Howard Stark. You could always count on Jarvis to provide a backup plan in a dangerous situation. He was our window into the rarefied world of playboy inventor Howard Stark but we never really got a sense of who Edwin Jarvis as a person really was. At times his blandness appeared contrived and inappropriate for the circumstances. Other times, his goofiness added welcome comic relief. But we never got the measure of a man who apparently had his own secret heroic journey during World War Two. This was an omission that could have been a superb sub-plot, a clearly missed opportunity to connect with the real man behind the cardboard cutout known as Jarvis. This wasn’t the actor James D’Arcy’s fault. This was a missed opportunity by the script writers, who generally got it right.
The Ultimate Threat Wasn’t Big Enough In the early episodes, the weird science of Howard Stark’s technology got bigger and more dangerous. Then we’re introduced to the shadowy organization known only as Leviathan. Its unknown motives drove the initial episodes of terrific suspense. At some time after halfway through the series, we started to get clues to the origins of the threat. Leviathan came from Soviet Russia. The Russkies replaced the Nazis as the global menace which is faithful to the historical realities of the post-atomic Cold War era. In the early episodes of Agent Carter, the mystery of Leviathan was a plot driver that you knew at some point had to have a face painted on the threat. Enter two psychopaths: the villain Dr Ivchenko and his assassin, Dottie Underwood, both played with superb menace. So far so good. The next-to-last episode was indeed ‘explosive’ and set up what was hoped to be a thrilling climax. The final episode fizzled like a firecracker in water. SPOILER ALERT: This was all about Dr. Ivchenko getting personal revenge on Howard Stark? What about world domination? The victory of Soviet Russia over America? A new World Order? And I’m sorry but a gas attack with a rage-inducing chemical on Times Square seemed anti-climactic to me. People have suggested this idea dovetailed with the currently popular trope of zombies running rampant in our streets. Okay, I get that, but why? There was every opportunity to be more original than that and the producer’s took a safe way out and missed it.
A bit more FX when you really needed it I’ve applauded the prominence of plot and character development over special effects. So it seems strange to make this criticism. But the producers of Agent Carter played it safe with their budget. They probably didn’t have a big FX budget to start with, certainly not a movie blockbuster budget, so they frontloaded what they could into the early episodes in order to build and retain their audience. Then they used mystery and character-driven plot lines to bring it home. It worked. By all accounts, the show exceeded ABC & Marvel Studio’s expectations, had decent ratings numbers in a tough Prime Time TV timeslot and scored high with both critics and fans. But if there was anywhere that needed a final touch of Dieselpunk retrofuturism, it was the final episode. SPOILER ALERT: Agent Carter follows the abduction of Howard Stark to one of his secret technology factories. But what do we find? A period-perfect hanger filled with shiny museum piece prop planes from World War Two and a collection of polished vintage 1940s cars. The only piece of technology that looked vaguely retrofuturistic was something that looked like the Nazis’ Horten delta-wing fighter. Say what? This is Howard Stark we’re talking about. In 1946, we already had jet powered fighters entering service. The Nazis sure had them at the end of the war. That episode was the time to treat us visually to some dieselpunk imagination: a taste of what the future would have looked like to those in the mid-1940s as expressed in the devilishly clever inventions of genius Howard Stark. Instead, we got a setting filmed inside a brightly lit aviation museum. No, no, no. Make it dark, make it mysterious and for goodness sake, next time make it more retrofuturistic!
Overall, it’s hard to fault what Marvel tried to do with Agent Carter. You can nitpick through each episode to find out how you would have done it better but the real test is: did Agent Carter succeed overall? The answer is clearly YES. I’d score it my personal 8.5/10 and I very much hope that Agent Carter gets another run. Of all the things it did, and it did many things really well, it brought Dieselpunk to millions of new fans who didn’t know what this genre is all about. I get asked the following question all the time: “What is Dieselpunk?” This show has given people like me a powerful answer to that question: All I need to say is… “You know, Agent Carter, like that.” To which the answer will increasingly be, “Oh, now I get it!”
Thanks Marvel! Thanks Hayley Atwell! And good luck with future episodes of Agent Carter.