Agent Carter (2014, TV)
Show Creators: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Marvel have been busy this year diversifying their televisual universe, but after the often shaky success of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ they have taken a chance giving this strong female character her own show, and I think it’s paid off.
Post war Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) has joined american intelligence agency the ‘Strategic Scientific Reserve’ (S.S.R.), but without Captain America by her side her talents have been forgotten by the male-dominated organisation, though not by former ally Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Suspected of treason, Stark persuades his old friend to help clear his name, teaming her with his butler Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Peggy runs a secret investigation that often puts her at odds with the S.S.R. as they are pursuing Stark and anyone linked to him and his tech.
Based on the success of ‘Captain America’ and the ‘Agent Carter’ one-shot short, this is a condensed eight episode season that was cleverly aired inserted in the middle of the second season of ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ to fill the mid-season break, and I think the technique paid off. As was Captain America, this has a different style and feel as expected from the period setting in the 1940’s, and the show takes on the characteristics of a post-war spy thriller but with the added sci-fi elements.
Starting right from the opening of the pilot episode brief clips are incorporated from ‘Captain America’, these help remind us of Peggy’s past endeavours, set the scene and establish the post-war time, as well as reinforce strong ties with the Marvel cinematic universe, many of which are off-screen too. For example the pilot episode was directed by Louis D’Esposito, director of the ‘Agent Carter’ One Shot, the second was directed by Joe Russo who co-directed ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, keeping the show very closely related to the films and not just a half-formed spin-off left to fend for itself.
The period setting works surprisingly well, as it did with ‘Captain America’. The era lends a strong sense of style, from the use of jazz in the soundtrack through to the nostalgic depiction of New York that’s not unfamiliar especially with spy thrillers and noirs which this clearly draws from. Colourful outfits make Peggy stand out, really emphasising the key theme of a powerful woman in ‘a man’s world’ with the men all wearing dull grey or navy suits. The majority of the women around her are secretaries and though she’s sometimes still treated like one Peggy defies orders and stands up to the men firmly and regularly, she holds her own. The 40’s style suits Hayley Atwell incredibly well, she really looks comfortable in the clothes and quite stunning at times.
Most of the cast look the part, and Carter’s agency colleagues include a number of surprisingly recognisable actors such as Chad Michael Murray (‘One Tree Hill’), Kyle Bornheimer (‘Worst Week’), Enver Gjokaj (‘Dollhouse’) and Shea Whigham (‘Silver Linings Playbook’). There’s also another key MCU alumni Dominic Cooper who reprises his role of Howard Stark, though not always with as much conviction as before, and though his role is key to the plot he’s not on screen much.
The main roles are taken by the very wonderfully British Peggy and Jarvis, with James D’Arcy reminding me quite a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in ‘The Imitation Game’ though this character is far more socially skilled. I quite enjoyed their pairing, an unlikely duo whose missions and exchanges added a nice bit of levity at times, as the show is surprisingly not as light and fluffy as you might expect. There are quite a few killings, even in the pilot, and some tough fights and deaths throughout. Peggy while the model of grace still does lots of ass kicking, she not only holds her own with the men but regularly ‘beats them’ in all senses of the term.
The strength of the show is in the way it holds a clear plot throughout, setting up a problem for the whole season, and though there are twists and complications they all tie back to with the initial inciting incident. It works really well as both a spy thriller and the sci-fi comic adaptation that is primarily is. I think part of why it works so well at holding the plot together is the short-form season, condensing it to just eight episodes means that it rarely feels like nothing is happening, in fact I happily watched the whole season in just two sittings. The same sadly can rarely be said for the preceding episodes of ‘Agents of SHIELD’ as that show often feels like no real thread is being developed, or when it is, the pace is glacial often saving all the best bits for one brief scene per episode and then a couple of really strong episodes per season.
I am really looking forward to seeing where Marvel take this next, I just desperately hope that they keep the quality up. They can learn from this season’s success of keeping it so short, for a second season I could happily do 13 episodes like they are doing with their Netflix collaborations such as ‘Daredevil’, but the longer seasons really haven’t been working out for them with ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ By inserting this in the mid-season break of that show’s second season it essentially split it into two shorter seasons too which it has also benefited greatly from, so maybe that’s the way they will continue.
There’s a really superb cameo saved until right at the end of the season, one that’s so brilliant and entices for where things will lead in the future. So, I’m sure Agent Peggy Carter will be back on our screens to keep showing the men how it’s done, and I am hugely looking forward to watching.