By Josh Axelrod
I’ve been looking forward to “Agent Carter” since Marvel announced it was going to bridge the gap between the midseason finale and spring premiere of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Peggy Carter is by far the best Marvel heroine so far, though admittedly the bar wasn’t set particularly high by Pepper Potts or Jane Foster (I see Black Widow as more of an anti-hero). We all saw her whip Captain America into shape in “The First Avenger,” but that didn’t necessarily mean she could carry her own mini-series. Luckily for us, she totally can.
The series kicked off in New York City circa 1946. The war is over, and a sad Peggy reminisced about her time with Steve Rogers, who has yet to be thawed from his icy prison. We quickly met her roommate Colleen, who thought Peggy worked at a phone company. Of course, we already knew Peggy works for the Strategic Science Reserve, which was the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D.
The office was inhabited by mostly male agents, and pretty much all of the sexist alpha male variety. Chief Dooley (Shea Whigham), Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) and Ray Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer) all treated Peggy like, well, Peggy Olsen on “Mad Men” before she became a copy editor. The sole exception to that was Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), who stood up for Peggy, much to her embarrassment. She can fight her own battles, thank you very much!
The central mystery of the series was laid out pretty quickly. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, also first introduced in “The First Avenger) was accused of selling weapons to America’s enemies. He failed to show up to a hearing, so the SSR was out to find him. After a quick dinner with Peggy’s waitress friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca), Mr. Stark found Peggy and the two go for a ride with his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy).
It turned out Howard Stark had a vault full of his “bad babies,” aka dangerous inventions. Someone cleaned out his vault and framed Stark. He wanted Peggy to help clear his name, and left her with Jarvis to help on her mission while he went to look for his inventions that had already been sold overseas. It’s worth mentioning that Stark namedropped the Red Skull, who really needs to show up again whether Hugo Weaving wants to return to the roll or not.
Sousa told Peggy that one of Howard Stark’s inventions, a chemical formula for the dangerous nitramene, was being sold at a nightclub owned by Spider Raymond (Andre Royo of “The Wire”). Peggy went to the club undercover as a blonde floozy and quickly got a meeting with Spider. He kissed her, and she knocked him out cold. She did the same thing a few minutes later to one of his associates. She does that to men twice her size a lot in the first two episodes.
She cracked Spider’s vault and found a weaponized version of nitramene in the form of an orange-glowing orb. She called Jarvis, who told her how to deactivate it and, if she wasn’t careful, it would explode with a blast radius of 500 yards. She quickly escaped with the weapon without being spotted by any bad guys or her fellow SSR agents who went to investigate the sale. Of course, a mysterious bad guy shot Spider in the head before anyone could question him.
Peggy went back to her apartment and deactivated the nitramene weapon. The same guy who shot Raymond broke into Peggy’s apartment, killed Colleen and proceeded to get his butt kicked by Peggy. He somehow survived being thrown out a window and escaped. Peggy cried over Colleen’s dead body, which was a good reminder that in addition to handling action, Hayley Atwell is a great actress.
After a quick pep talk, she and Jarvis bring the weapon to Dr. Anton Vanko, who told them about the vita-rays in the weapon that power it. Meanwhile, our mysterious bad guy used a typewriter to contact his superior, who ordered him to finish his mission by all costs. That included killing Peggy if she got in the way.
Peggy Carter doesn’t give up though. She snuck into a facility where she saw more nitramene weapons being made. She stunned one scientist, but the other (James Frain) escaped and grabbed a weapon. He had a “Y” scar on his neck and talked with a device pressed to his throat. He mentioned that an organization called Leviathan (sounds pretty similar to H.Y.D.R.A) was after the weapons, and he activated one. Both scientists escaped, and so did Peggy thanks to some quick driving from Jarvis.
The first episode ended with three revelations. 1.) The photographer at the club might’ve gotten a picture of Peggy, which would get her in a lot of trouble with the SSR. 2.) Peggy has the ability to kill a man with a fork, as she demonstrated by almost doing it to a sexist pig who smacked Angie’s butt. 3.) Jarvis and Stark are using Peggy for some larger plan.
The second episode was framed around the Captain America radio show (sponsored by Roxxon Oil, which is important). It depicted Peggy as a damsel in distress, which obviously wasn’t how it went down at all. It kept following Peggy around, which made her upset about the way she was being portrayed and miss Steve more.
There was also a subplot about Angie wanting Peggy to move into her apartment complex, but Peggy didn’t want to make any strong connections after what happened to Colleen. She came around eventually with a little push from Jarvis. Angie and Peggy’s relationship isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s cute and a nice reminder that Peggy is capable of having a life outside the spy game.
Through some nifty spy-work involving going undercover as a health inspector, Peggy found two names that could help her in her investigation: Sheldon McPhee and Leet Brannis (James Frain, the guy with the “Y” scar). At the same time, the SSR was on the case as well. They found the wreckage of that facility and Sousa received what could’ve been pictures of Peggy at the club.
Peggy, being the careful spy she is, told Jarvis to dispose of the car they drove to the facility with the nitramene weapons. It’s a good thing she was on edge, because the SSR teamed with Hugh Jones (Ray Wise), the head of Roxxon oil, to test for radiation on any SSR agent who might have been involved with the explosion. This is how they catch Van Ert, the other scientist at the facility, who Peggy scared into revealing himself.
While the SSR agents (I see them all as the same character at this point) interrogated Van Ert, Peggy and Jarvis went to Sheldon McPhee’s house. Peggy knocked him out and tied him up, but before she could talk to him, Brannis showed up and tried to steal McPhee’s truck. Luckily Jarvis had sabotaged it, so he had nowhere to go.
As the three drove away, typewriter guy jumped on top of their car and began shooting. Peggy climbed on top and fought him, causing another weapon to fall and activate. Peggy, in an incredibly badass move, pinned typewriter guy to the car with a knife, ditched the car before it fell into a nearby lake, and watched it explode. Brannis was badly injured by all this, and before he died, he drew the Leviathan symbol in the dirt. The SSR agents arrived after Peggy and Jarvis had already left, and Sousa found a key that fell from the car.
There was a sweet scene between Jarvis and Peggy where he stitched up her wounds and begged her to let him help her more. She said she didn’t want anyone else getting hurt because of her, which clearly stemmed from her guilt about Colleen. Jarvis told her that she was a huge asset to Captain America, and he wanted to be the same for her. Their relationship is also pretty cute, without an ounce of romantic tension (Jarvis is married).
The second episode ended with the knowledge that the club photographer didn’t get a good shot of Peggy’s face. Of course, she’s not out of the water yet, because the SSR found the license plate from Jarvis’s car in the wreckage of the facility.
There are only six weeks to answer a lot of questions and see how “Agent Carter” connects to the larger Marvel universe’s story. After these strong first two outings, I’m intrigued, and I want Hayley Atwell to play Peggy Carter forever. Hopefully it keeps up the momentum, but either way I’m all in on “Agent Carter.”