The first season of Agent Carter met with a lot of mixed press, mainly focused on whether it was misandrist messagefic. In the end, those issues were resolved, but as I described in my take on the first three episodes, it could have been avoided and still presented the same situation (that is, the unthinking sexism of that era) to the audience. What with articles heralding the show’s second season as a feminist masterpiece, I saw several people assuming things would get even worse. I even got a bit of activity on my previous articles on the subject.
I took a more cautious approach. As I said last year, the show was excellent, in spite of the heavy-handed approach. I thought the first season ended on a very high note, propelling Carter’s World War II character into a Cold War setting, and having mostly traded in the poor attempts to portray the cultural difference for techniques that actually worked. I felt there was a good chance that we’d get an even better season this time around.
Well, the first two episodes came out last week, and over the snowed-in weekend I not only watched them, I enjoyed them. Peggy Carter is back, and better than ever.
In the two episodes I watched, there were only two characters who truly had a problem with Carter. The first, of course, is Thompson, now the chief of the SSR office we saw in Season One. Here, though, we clearly see that his irrational dislike of her is due to something other than sexism; and when he orders her to do something that she knows is stupid, Carter throws it right in his face rather than just letting him steamroll her like what happened in the previous season.
In fact, let me just quote myself here:
After I finished the third episode, I went back to the original Agent Carter short film and rewatched it. It turns out my memory wasn’t faulty at all. The demonstration of sexism in that particular Marvel One-Shot was quite different than in the Agent Carter TV show. Not only was it the unthinking bigotry (as opposed to outright persecution) that is appropriate to the setting, but there was another difference that I had forgotten: Agent Peggy Carter stood up for herself. She shot back an insult at her section chief after he berated her (and said berating was for showing up the rest of them, rather than for being slow with the coffee), clearly prepared to do what she saw as her duty, rather than letting them walk all over her in the apparent hope that they will respect her if she doesn’t call them on it. (Do note: that never works. And in a story, it makes that character look weak.)
As tempting as it is to think that someone at Marvel read my post and thought “Hey, great idea,” it’s far more likely that that someone looked at the reaction, compared it to the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the short, made the same comparison I did, and came to the same conclusion. However, if I’m wrong, then I’d just like to let the Marvel Studios employee reading this know that I’m available for consultation at very reasonable rates.
(Hey, we all have to have dreams.)
Thompson, seeing his chance to get rid of her, transfers her to the West Coast to work at the new SSRi office out there, run by the newly-promoted Sousa. In the course of the case she’s sent to help solve, she meets the other character with a negative bias toward her. This one is an LA police detective. His attitude is 100% sexist. He is brash, unthinking, bigoted, and quick to assume that anything feminine is weak, without making it appear like he actively hates women. He acts in exactly the way that I described should have been employed in the previous season.
(Seriously, Marvel. Reasonable rates. Call me.)
We also get re-introduced to a character from the previous season, and introduced to one we’ve heard a lot about. Both help strengthen the image of the show in terms of gender topics, without ever getting close to the 21st century gee-aren’t-we-more-enlightened historical bias of the first season.
Jarvis, of course, is back; and I think the subtle improvements in both the actor and the character are even better and more striking than we have with Carter/Atwell. He remains my favorite character, but I think his wife might get in the running by the time this season is over. Yes, we finally get to meet Mrs. Jarvis: an energetic, uninhibited person who is, in many ways, a better model for “strong woman” than Carter herself. Rather than describe more of Ana Jarvis, I just encourage you to look forward to any scene she might appear in.
The one we’re reintroduced to is Rose Roberts, the woman at the phone company who activated the secret door to the SSR offices. She’s now the main secretary/public face for the LA branch, which has a cover as a theater agency. This bit character, who honestly didn’t stand out very much in the previous season (despite the fact that she’s revealed to be packing a gun, the only woman other than Carter and Dottie to show hints of combat ability), has suddenly been transformed from the mildly perceptive woman she was back them to a savvy, sassy, classy, sees-everything character who knows people better than they know themselves. Yet the most remarkable thing here is that it actually feels seamless. I don’t feel like she’s been transformed so much as given room to grow, almost like her actor herself. As much as I enjoy Carter, Jarvis, and Ana, I find I can identify best with Rose: always watching, reading between the lines, and delivering a snappy comeback here and there.
There’s another character I want to talk about, but it takes us into spoiler territory. So, just in case . . .
In the course of Carter’s investigation, she finds herself at Isodyne Energy, where she meets Dr. John Wilkes, the first recurring black character we’ve had in the show.
Now, I’m going to quote myself again, because this is an important topic that people in the 21st century United States, even outright racists, just have no personal context for. This is, again, from my first post on Agent Carter, where I referenced racism in the 1940s alongside sexism:
The issue in Agent Carter is not that the sexism is exaggerated. Far from it. It’s actually pretty accurate, perhaps even toned-down — rather like how the racism of the same period is usually severely toned-down in historical entertainment, to the point that modern audiences don’t even realize that the racism of yesterday is completely alien to today. (Hint: today, blacks can try on clothing before buying it, and can return it later if they change their minds. Think about that.) No, the issue is that the sexism is presented with the clear bias of the 21st century, where it’s a given that anyone who suggests that a woman is incapable of making her own choices is met, rightly, with scorn. Since that is a given, any man who acts otherwise must be an idiot . . . even in an historical period where very few people gave gender roles a second thought.
This is period of time when a black man who knew how to cook would “lack experience” to qualify as a dishwasher, have to give up a seat to a white man on the bus as he went to the unemployment office, and then walk through a separate door marked “COLOREDS” in order to reach the exact same desk.
And all of that pales in comparison to the example I referenced above: that a black person could not even try on a hat — a hat! — in a store without buying it first. All those period books that mention blacks wearing ill-fitting suits? Now you know it’s not a matter of being poor. It’s a matter of shopping while black.
So I found myself in the odd position, after having been irritated at the first season for trying too hard to show sexism, of getting afraid that the second season was going too far in the opposite direction with racism. Here we have a black man with a doctorate, working at a top research facility, never deferring to a white, never being called “boy,” never hesitating when flirting with Carter, and — most odd to me — never being looked at as if any of that is odd for the setting.
Just as I was about to conclude that the writers had become too timid with the topic after what happened last season, we got a partial answer in the second episode. Wilkes admits the reason why he has such loyalty to Isodyne despite knowing that there are some shady things going on is that they were the only ones to hire him. More specifically, in his words, they were the only employer “willing to put one of . . . my kind in a lab.”
By this point, it had become clear that while they were still taking a light touch on the unthinking racism of the period — and as I said last year, it is impossible to portray it accurately and feel believable today, because compared to how it was then we’ve all but eliminated racism — a major difference here was that Carter herself didn’t get it. It turns out that the writers are playing off of how England of her time, while not free of racism, might as well have been compared to the US of the same decade. She just doesn’t think like an American, and since we were viewing all of this over her shoulder, her perspective combines with the light treatment to make it seem almost invisible.
In this case, I think they were going a little too subtle, which is probably better than beating people over the head but still they could go a little stronger. There’s actually an excellent Foyle’s War episode dealing with the topic: Series 7, Episode 2, “Killing Time.” Inasmuch as any modern drama can encapsulate the realities of racism, this one did; and it did it without making the British seem inherently superior even though the American policies of segregation were presented as flat-out wrong.
For a more Stateside example, the Leverage episode “The Van Gogh Job” does a good job of showing the racial tension of the period. Woven around the usual fun of that show was a surprisingly deep exploration of 1940s racial segregation that makes it worth watching just for that topic.
There was also a TV show called Rewind which filmed a pilot episode but was never picked up; no great loss to the genre, but aside from a mildly intriguing premise that deserves a rewind of its own, there’s a moment forty-five minutes in that I always remember on this topic. Our time-traveling team of one white man, one white woman, and one black man are about to drive a car in the late twenties, and the black character insists on driving. “Think about it,” he says. “It’s 1929. We’re south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m the driver.” He states it with a hint of resigned irony, but without rancor. It was the best moment of the whole episode to me; those dozen words were delivered so perfectly that you can just feel the weight of everything that wasn’t said — the commentary of on the period, the acknowledgement of what would happen, and the inability of most people to even realize how far they had come in just a few decades. (And that was mostly the actor there. He was the best of the three.)
But back to Agent Carter. I can’t fault them for taking a light touch on the subject, for two reasons. One, as I said, they run the risk of getting too heavy-handed like they did with sexism in the first season. Two, there actually wasn’t a whole lot they could do without detracting from the plot; and if there’s a creative writing sin I hate more than inaccuracy in an historical drama, it’s sacrificing the story in favor of infodumping about something different.
And toward the end of the second episode, we had a very good picture of the sort of thing you can see in the episodes I mentioned above: as Carter and Wilkes enter a store, the man behind the counter assumes that Carter is somehow being coerced by who she’s with. It’s the first time the term “boy” is used, and it was delivered perfectly: no special emphasis on the word, and the passive contempt of someone who is completely certain he’s in the right. A perfect representation of the racism of the period.
When Peggy realizes what’s going on, she snaps at him. It doesn’t feel out of place because she’s currently in a very stressful situation, and Wilkes has to stop her from just punching the man to get what they need. It’s capped off by a very humorous moment immediately after where she’s fuming and Wilkes is somewhat amused.
I can look at that and think about it from his perspective. Here’s a white woman who doesn’t look at him as an inferior, either as something disgusting, or as a servant, or as a dalliance. She’s exotic and foreign not because of her accent, but because she looks at him in the eye and sees a person, and clearly expected one there all along. I’d have driven the point home a little more, for those in the audience who haven’t studied the topic; but if you already know the subtext it becomes a work of subtle art.
It was a little peculiar to take so long to get to this sort of thing, but in hindsight, there’s an advantage: you get to know Wilkes through Carter, and thus get used to the idea of her treating him as normal, which makes the shopkeeper’s attitude that much more obvious. By the end of the episode, my major issue was that I wanted to let the audience know that this wasn’t just Carter being Carter, but also Carter being British. Perhaps this will come up in future episodes.
Oh, right. Spoilers. Well, Reggie Austin is credited for all ten episodes this season. He’ll be back. And his reappearance might be related to a Marvel character of the same name that only appeared in one blink-and-miss-it story back in 1962, before much of the Marvel mythos had been set.
We’ll also get more of dotty Dottie, the Red Room-trained Russian agent who may or may not be working against a Hydra faction. (Or at least that lapel pin looks like the symbol that showed up this season on Agents of SHIELD; though since that’s supposed to be a secret for about seventy years, we’ll likely only get the barest of hints on Agent Carter.) And since Zola appeared at the end of last season, we should expect a payoff this year.
Last year, I called Agent Carter “Foyle’s War meets The Avengers* with a dash of James Bond,” and noted it would have a much wider appeal with a few edits. If these two episodes can be used to judge things, then it looks like that’s exactly what we’re going to get: pulpy secret agent tropes, snarky commentary, and delightful costume dramas. My expectations are quite a bit higher this time around, and I really hope I don’t get let down.
(* Not the Avengers superhero team. The British sci-fi/secret agent show.)