In MARVEL’s two-part opening episode, Peggy Carter gets up and writes her own history.
Agent Carter does so many things so, so well. It juxtaposes the public rewriting of Peggy and Steve’s narrative with Peggy’s reality — in that excruciating radio play series, Peggy’s fictional alter ego is cast as the damsel and distress who Captain America has to save from evil Nazis every day. And Peggy has to listen to it. Every day. Her story is being rewritten right under her nose, she is framed as the helpless bimbo because building Cap into that hero’s myth is so much more convenient when the lady who saved his ass countless times and helped him become that hero is erased from the history books and the radio plays.
But Peggy isn’t having it. That scene where she beats up the buyer as another episode is broadcast on the radio and then asks, “Is that all you’ve got? Hello?” was a stroke of genius; and it tells us exactly how much bullshit we can expect this woman to take. None.
“Why does this keep happening?”
Peggy Carter, master manipulator
S.S.R. might be content to relegate her to overpaid secretary (except for Danny, but a word on him later on), but Peggy knows exactly how to play them. During “This is Not the End,” she repeatedly uses their own sexism and ignorance of women’s lives against them: citing “ladies’ things” to get a day off work so she can pursue the lead herself. Playing the dumb blonde ditz to get the bodyguard to neglect her as a potential threat. Claiming that she only planned to work until she finds a suitable husband to get the spot at the apartment complex Angie lives in as well, piercing the veil of internalised sexism as well. It’s a way of manipulating people that we will observe in Natasha Romanoff sixty years later. And it will still work. Just saying.
Grieving for Steve and floundering after the war is over, Peggy just about managed to hang on to her job. Sure, Howard Stark put her in charge, but it takes more than word to actually change the world. Now, Peggy is losing her sense of purpose, she’s being forced out — just like the women working at the factories. Now that more and more GIs are being released, the men are being put back to work in jobs occupied by women during the war. They may have proven their mettle during the crisis, but now that the men are coming back, they’re no longer wanted — they’re cast out, losing what pay they got and the satisfaction and independence they gained from working for a living on top of it; never mind that they’re evidently good at what they do. Apparently, the products they manufactured were good enough to sell during the war, but now they can’t hack it anymore; never mind that Colleen is more qualified.
“Today, I had to show a guy how to use a rivet gun.”
Peggy also makes it very clear that she can fight her own battles. Sure, Danny standing up for her is a nice thing to do, but it’s also a very convenient trope that many (predominantly male) writers use to show how their male lead isn’t sexist by jumping to a lady’s aid. It’s a nice thought, but it actually denies us agency. Peggy doesn’t need Danny to tell that arsehole colleague off. If she wishes to, she’s going to do it herself. If she finds she doesn’t have the time to bother, she will not. In any case, it’s her decision to make. (Oh, and isn’t it suddenly easy to portray genuine interaction between women in their everyday lives?)
subverting harmful tropes left and right
This leads me to another trope that’s being artfully subverted in “Bridge and Tunnel,” though: that of the lone wolf. Peggy, still grieving, has to contend with the loss of Colleen who was killed when the Leviathan operative believed it to be her under the covers. As a consequence, she begins to pull away from Angie, her friend at the diner; believing that she must distance herself from human connections so she won’t put anybody else in danger. The “I have to do this by myself” trope is very, very familiar and popular with male leads with a tragic past. It’s interwoven with the trope of the wife/sister/best friend who’s only there to tell the male lead how great he is and that everything is going to be fine (→ Barbara on Gotham). On Agent Carter, we get a role reversal and a subversion. Sure, Jarvis (delightfully portrayed by James D’Arcy) tells her how great she is and that she’s going to be fine. But he also tells her that she can’t do it alone — not because she can’t, but because no-one can and no-one should, because it’s an absurd expectation to have of people (and of a narrative). He tells her that Captain America did not become the lone wolf because she was there to guide him, and that Steve would have never thought of abandoning that guidance. Jarvis asks that Peggy let him help her, offers to be a friend who patches up her wounds, and he doesn’t mean it as an insult to her independence or competence. Peggy reacts with bitterness at first, and with derision, because that’s what she’s used to from the men she normally works with, but in Jarvis she’s got a true friend. And along with Danny, who’s still credibly unlearning some problematic behaviour, he’s great back-up.
(But what exactly does he mean when he tells Stark that Peggy really is the best choice for the job because, surely, she won’t suspect anything..? *dun dun dun*)
Another thing, before I forget: Peggy doesn’t deny herself her tears over Colleen. She doesn’t force them down, she doesn’t beat herself into not caring. It may make her think that she has to stay away from people as to keep them safe, but never once does she stop being vulnerable; because to her feelings are not a weakness. Her work persona is obviously more contained, but that’s because she’s a spy, she must be able to hide her true emotions whenever needed; but to her that’s not associated with her gender identity. She’s also become a rather private person, not revealing much of herself, which is not uncommon in a) people and b) people who’ve recently suffered a traumatic loss. (And, again: secret agent.) And yet, her grief over Steve’s death doesn’t become manpain. (Also because he didn’t die for her narrative, he died for, well, everyone’s narrative including his own.)
“Mr. Jarvis, you do realise that this job will have certain after-hours requirements?”
“So does my wife, Miss Carter. Good night.”
The dynamic between Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy makes my day, I cannot tell you how much. They may want to take care not to let the sass take over, but I’m going to have my fun with those two heckling each other.
This being a two-part series premiere really gave them all a lot more breathing room, which I absolutely appreciated. The episodes managed to set up the bigger series arc — Howard Stark chasing after the stolen weapons and something decidedly fishy going on with him — while delivering a very enjoyable sample of the kind of weekly fetch-and/or-let-explode plots we’re going to be getting from this show. Dodgy science is afoot, my friends.
The production values are no doubt high, the mis-en-scène is terrific — just that one shot of Jarvis in the apartment he shares with his wife, him in his bright blue apron is so beautifully detailed; and the whole show is wonderfully lit and framed. One nitpick I do have: I don’t need a soundtrack to tell me that every single scene is dramatic/ominous etc. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found the score a little overbearing at times.
In conclusion: this series premiere may have been relatively heavy on exposition, but I enjoyed it very much; and I’m looking forward to more. (You should know that I am a novice to MARVEL lore and that, therefore, Leviathan is familiar to me through Thomas Hobbes, not so much a skirmish with the Avengers…)