Let it be noted that Episode 5 of Agent Carter is the moment where the show goes from “promising” to “good.” After setting up various plot points and intrigues over the course of the previous four episodes, the story really achieves liftoff with “The Iron Ceiling.”
We open with a flashback to a bizarre school in Russia where a dormitory full of pubescent girls are handcuffed to beds. They’re uncuffed in the morning, drilled in English (via a recitation to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and set against each other in hand to hand combat. We see one girl kill her friend (or, to put it more accurately, we hear it), and then we see the girl wake up in the show’s present day as Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan), Peggy Carter’s chipper neighbor who also happens to be some kind of sleeper agent.
At work, Peggy (Hayley Atwell) breaks a coded intercepted message that seems to pinpoint a meeting between the fugitive Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and the mysterious covert Russian organization Leviathan. The meeting will take place in Belarus, so Peggy’s boss Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) assigns a task force led by Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) to go capture Stark.
The show turns a corner here because Peggy finally asserts herself. After breaking the code, she points out that she’s the only one who can do any necessary code-breaking on the mission. Agent Thompson, as usual, is a jerk about the whole thing, arguing, in effect, that Carter can’t go on the mission cuz she’s a girl. Peggy points out that she knows the front and the code, and then she sweetens the deal by promising that the famous 107th—the Howling Commandos who served with her and Captain America—will come along on the mission.
What’s been interesting about Agent Carter is the way it has quite consciously tried to create the feel of a feminist comic book spy story—which is to say that in addition to slugging it out with the bad guys every week, Peggy also has also had to deal with some sexist realities of 1940s American society. This has been something of an awkward fit, if for no other reason than comic book spy stories are a blunt instrument with which to explore serious issues. Peggy is such a superhero-level badass that it’s been a little clunky to see her having to deal boorish behavior from her coworkers. Still, the show clearly wants to work as a kind of metaphor for the way women of incredible ability and promise were shunted into menial jobs in the post-war era (or kicked out of the workforce altogether), and though its critique is broad and shallow, it’s in keeping with a show that is, after all, basically a comic book.
The fun part of this episode is that Peggy finally comes out of the shadows as a badass. After forcing her way into the mission, refusing to take no for an answer, she leads the team into Belarus. They don’t find Stark, but they do find a small girl who has ninja-level assassin skills. After freeing a couple of imprisoned scientists, Carter and company have to fight some pretty standard-issue “indistinct guys with guns” who stand at the end of the hallway and fire round after round without hitting any of the main characters.
In addition to Peggy asserting herself, the episode also sees Dooley and Thompson turn corners of their own. For the first four episodes, these guys have been purely adversarial toward our hero—acting less like a team of super spies than the gang at Sterling Cooper during the first season of Mad Men. Here they start to loosen up. Dooley lets Carter go on the mission, and he actually reveals himself to be an effective investigator as he tries works an angle that suggests, just maybe, that Howard Stark has been framed. Thompson is even more interesting. Up to now, he’s been a grade-A asshole, but here we get his back story—a tale of wartime valor that deepens and becomes more complex as the story goes on. He and Carter serve well together, and they even share a moment that might be seen a set up to something romantic between them.
There is an ongoing—albeit unstated— How I Met Your Father subplot in the show since viewers of Captain America: The Winter Solider know that Peggy will eventually meet her husband working for SSR. This is complicated, however, by the last major turn of the show— Agent Sousa’s (Enver Gjokaj) breakthrough in his search for the mystery woman. Spying a bullet wound on Carter’s shoulder, he now thinks that she is some kind of sleeper agent.
Speaking of sleeper agents, the show ends on a great image as we see Russian killing-machine Dottie (who has earlier broken into Peggy’s room and uncovered some secret documents, as well as her connection to Steve Rogers) settle down for the night by handcuffing herself to her bedpost. The whole Dottie subplot—which promises to end in a damn good fight with Carter—is nicely creepy.
Previews for the next episode show everything being raised to a boil: Sousa revealing Carter’s secrets and Carter being forced to go on the run. Can’t wait.