One of the charms of Captain America: The First Avenger was the way Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) held her cards close to her vest. Quiet and watchful, she seemed to know more about what was going on than anyone else around her. There was something extremely appealing about finding that kind of restrained character in such a big loud summer blockbuster.
As a show, Agent Carter uses this quality to great effect. A lot of it comes from Hayley Atwell herself. As an actor, she’s always been reserved and cool. I first became aware of her in Woody Allen’s 2007 neo-noir Cassandra’s Dream. That film was flawed in many ways, but Atwell was a revelation. Gorgeous beyond reason, she was also aloof and unknowable. In Agent Carter, of course, she’s much warmer and pluckier. Episode 2 gives her some old school Nancy Drew level intrigue (hiding under a desk and picking a lock, for instance) that calls for a lighter touch. For the most part, though, the show uses Atwell the way it should. She’s always good when she’s playing the smartest person onscreen, yet she never telegraphs her thoughts. She’s an enigma, which is a good quality for a spy.
“Bridge and Tunnel” finds her in full-on Sydney Bristow mode, donning different disguises and uncovering a mysterious organization known as Leviathan. Her main adversary thus far is a Leviathan agent who gets his secret orders by connecting a special radio to a typewriter which then types out instructions.
Of course, her other primary adversaries are the assholes she works with. Agent Carter has set up a double agent plot which, one suspects, will run through all eight episodes of the series (it’s unclear if we should call regard the show as a miniseries or a first season). At the office, Peggy has been relegated to the status of secretary by her bosses and coworkers while she’s running her own secret operations without them knowing. In a nice twist, the one nice guy at the office, Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is also the guy who seems most likely to uncover her double life.
Her only real partner in espionage is Edwin Jarvis (played in a winning turn by James D’Arcy) the butler to Howard Stark. Now, fans of the Marvel movies will remember that Jarvis will go on to tutor Stark’s son, and future Iron Man, Tony, and will inspire Tony’s artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S., but here he’s a cross between Reginald Jeeves and Alfred Pennyworth. One of the real highlights of the show thus far is the relationship between Peggy and Jarvis. In a fast-paced comic-book-inspired spy show, it’s fun to have things grounded by some dry English wit and unspoken sexual tension. Their relationship also recalls Laura and Steele in Remington Steel and Honey and Sam in Honey West, which are nice touchstones.
“Bridge and Tunnel” builds on the sexism theme that began in the first episode, as we keep hearing bits of a Captain America radio show that recasts Peggy as Cap’s helpless damsel in distress girlfriend. This is juxtaposed with scenes like the one where Peggy is duking it out with a guy on the roof of a truck (in heels, no less). The juxtaposition is a little heavy handed because Peggy Carter isn’t Peggy Olson; she’s a superspy who jumps onto moving vehicles and beats the hell out of men who outweigh her by fifty pounds. We already know she’s a badass. We already know she’s underappreciated by the creeps at her office. No need to keep making the point.
(One aspect of the sexist radio show subplot that I liked in this episode, however, is the way it seems to atone for the sins of female representation in the entertainment of the day. The radio show here really isn’t a parody. It’s pretty spot on.)
There’s a lot of fun stuff going on so far. Leviathan is shaping up to be an intriguing successor to Hydra, and Peggy’s various relationships are interesting. The show has given her a sassy sidekick in the form of a waitress named Angie (a sharp Lyndsy Fonseca) who works at a diner that looks like it was lifted straight out of the 1937 Jean Arthur comedy Easy Living. Angie gets Peggy a room at a women’s only hotel—which, frankly, should inspire its own spin-off.
Despite Angie’s presence, though, Peggy remains an essentially isolated hero. She is surrounded on all sides by deception and danger. The guys at work are worthless. The love of her life has disappeared, and she’s lost loved ones and friends. But she’s got a job to do, so she does it. That’s pretty badass.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.