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Agent Carter Premiere Recap: “Pilot” & “Bridge and Tunnel”

AgentCarterBridgeTunnelWhat kind of powers make a superhero? This question is at the center of Marvel’s Agent Carter, and two episodes in, the answer seems obvious: whatever is necessary, Peggy Carter has it in spades.

I should pause the recap right here to just warn the serious Marvel geeks out there: I read Marvel comics, and I have since middle school, but I didn’t really get into Captain America until the movies and don’t necessarily know the finer points of the lore of his particular universe. Let alone having a sense of how Cap’s world is going to rub up against the world of Agent Carter. So let’s muddle through obscure villain names and weird imploding MacGuffins together!

We open with a flashback to probably the saddest scene in Marvel movie history, Steve Rogers’s plane going down as his collaborator and love interest Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) listens in on the radio, helpless. Carter might be a superhero, but she doesn’t feel like one. This is why.

After flashing back to the worst day of Peggy’s life, we’re treated to a montage of Agent Carter getting ready for work in 1946 New York, to the rhythm of some sick period beats. (Seriously, though, the choice to use 1940s pop music absolutely works here.) An encounter with her roommate Colleen and a murphy bed sets up Peggy’s cover story and a bit of the landscape of postwar America. Colleen’s just been laid off from her Rosie The Riveter industrial job, while Peggy works for “The Phone Company.” Which I should mention was an actual thing: my grandparents still refer to “The Phone Company” when they mean Verizon.

Peggy Carter is no telephone operator, though. She strides into the office in her sharp Carmen Sandiego hat, past the switchboard and into the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which as we all know is the old timey precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Her coworkers aren’t entirely convinced that she’s not their personal assistant, though, and Chad Michael Murray, aka Agent Thompson, makes a crack about covering the phones while the real agents are in this big important meeting. Agent Carter isn’t falling for that, though, and makes her way into the Big Expository Newsreel Meeting anyway.

Here we get the setup for, I assume, the entire 8-episode arc. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper reprising his Captain America: The First Avenger role) invented a bunch of dangerous stuff that somehow got into the hands of the wrong people, and the U.S. Government is convinced he’s a traitor. Stark is now on the lam. The S.R.R. is given the task of capturing Stark and bringing him to trial.

Before they can make any headway, Peggy, whose pin curl and lipstick game is on point and who does NOT need well meaning Agent Sousa (Dollhouse and The Avengers’ Enver Gjokaj!) to come to her defense, is accosted in an alley by a shadowy stranger whose ass she immediately kicks. As one does.

Except it turns out that this particular stranger is Jarvis (James D’Arcy), Stark’s butler, who is picking her up so she can get the jump on the S.S.R.’s entire mission in the form of exonerating Stark.

In order to fit double agenting into her busy schedule, Peggy begs off work due to “ladies’ things,” which her boss, Director Dooley (Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham), is only too happy to oblige. Luckily for us, “Ladies’ Things” means dressing up like Veronica Lake and infiltrating a bangin’ nightclub to seduce the club owner out of the implosive weaponized nitramene he was planning to fence.

She slips on a bit of knock-out lipstick, uses her darling ladies’ watch to break into the safe, and is just about ready to bounce on out of there when her coworkers arrive at the club to investigate the same lead she just beat them to. Except they can’t know she’s working on behalf of Stark. This introduces two elements that make Agent Carter good TV, whether you’re into geeky comic book stuff or not: the show’s clever take on feminized spy gear, and the fact that Peggy never has only one adversary. She’s always fighting off two sets of antagonists, the real bad guys and her own S.S.R. coworkers.

But Peggy Carter is a superhero, remember? She slips out of the club by blending into the crowd, then sneaks home and uses her Home Ec skills to defuse the nitramene bomb.

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Unfortunately, while she’s doing this, one of the real baddies – not her bumbling SSR colleagues – has busted into her apartment, murdered poor Colleen, and needs Peggy to open a can of whoop-ass to push him out a third-floor window.

After defusing the threat with a solid ass kicking, Peggy does something we don’t usually allow our superheroes to do: she cries.

This is another thing which elevates Agent Carter beyond just another period action romp. Peggy Carter is a superhero not only because she’s an incredible spy, thinks on her feet, and fights shadowy figures in dark alleys. She also has the power of being human. She’s heartbroken after losing Steve, and Colleen’s death is just another in a long line of losses. Like a lot of people in the aftermath of World War II, Peggy doesn’t know how to move on from loss and build a new life in a new world. Unlike the rest of America, however, Peggy’s war is still being waged. She fears she’ll attract death wherever she goes, that anyone she touches will be condemned.

We learn all of this in a touching scene in the Automat between Peggy and Jarvis which contrasts the pain of a never-ending war that destroys everyone you let yourself love with the classic spy-movie trope of two people having a secret conversation while facing back to back at different tables. Here, the important secrets aren’t coordinates to secret facilities or rolls of microfilm, but all the ways Peggy must grapple with the dark side of life as a superhero.

After the conversation in the Automat, there’s an exciting action sequence in a chemical plant that I won’t go into too much detail about because all my notes just say things like “BREAKS INTO FACILITY BECAUSE OF GLOWY BOMB THING” and “AWESOME LIGHT GUN” and “TRUCK FULL OF GLOWY BOMB THINGS!” which is unfortunate because it was a very cool sequence that, it turns out, is going to be the entire basis for the next episode.

Warning: I like talking about “Epic Feels” and really sharp hats much more than I like talking about fast-paced action sequences. But you guys watch this show, so you saw the whole Roxxon implosion sequence, and we’re on the same page. Right?

And have I mentioned there’s a lot more to this “Exonerate Stark” mission than Peggy has been filled in on? So in addition to her two sets of adversaries, now we also have to worry about what Stark is actually up to. Who ever said comic book stories were simplistic?

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I have to confess I’m confused about the actual bad guys, the ones behind the theft of the nitramene bombs in the first place. There are two of them, neither of them have names (as of Episode 1), and both of them have had laryngectomies which render them virtually speechless. One of them spends a lot of time typing ominous stuff into a converted typewriter that can answer him with even more ominous stuff. It all has something to do with Leviathan, which I’m guessing I’d know more about if I were more of a hardcore Marvel fan. I closed out this first episode feeling like I had a handle on these two, but in the next episode it all gets much more confusing.

Which brings us to the second of two back to back Agent Carter episodes which aired last night.

“Bridge And Tunnel” uses the clever frame of a Captain America radio adventure to, again, highlight the fact that it’s Agent Carter who is the real superhero in this story. Despite the presence of her radio show counterpart, Nurse Betty Carver, the classic damsel in distress.

In Episode 2, the Really Actual Bad Guys come into sharper focus. If you can call it “sharper focus” when, the more we learn, the more incomprehensible it all seems. The speechless villain who types into the weird sci-fi typewriter – who is listed in the credits as Green Suit and in my notes as “Quiet Dude” – is on the trail of Leet Brannis, who it seems is the OTHER villain with a laryngectomy, and is played by James Frain. Except in the first episode I thought they knew each other and were working together? Can we just call them Leviathan and agree that everyone – both Carter and Jarvis and also the boys from the S.S.R. – is hot on their trail trying to figure out what’s up with the implosion at the Roxxon plant?

It’s interesting to see everyone’s basic approach to getting the spy work done, and I’m wondering how much of this will be reflected in future episodes. Peggy opts to use her superpower of going unnoticed to find out everything she needs to know and stay one step ahead of the S.S.R. team. Which it turns out is a solid choice, because it also turns out that “a blonde” was seen taking the nitramene bomb from that bangin’ club in the previous episode, and S.S.R. is apparently full of keystone kops who have no idea that it’s possible to disguise yourself or change the color of your hair. Which is lucky for Peggy.

Meanwhile, the S.S.R. tactic is to find people and violently interrogate them. This works better than you’d expect, and the boys are a half-step behind Peggy for the whole episode, notably catching the hapless milkman she’d tied to a chair moments before speeding away in his nitramene-stacked milk truck.

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Peggy is able to get away in the truck thanks to Jarvis’ general approach to spying, which is to be the ideal butler: know what people need better than they do themselves. He manages to subdue Green Suit, who is also on the trail of Leet Brannis and the nitramene milk truck, despite Peggy’s claims that she could handle it all herself. Agent Carter is a self-sufficient lady and a superhero, but even she probably couldn’t have a gun battle on the roof of a truck while also driving said truck.

Did I mention all this is happening while Peggy is on the hunt for a new apartment? She ends up moving into an uptight “Ladies’ Hotel”, which I’m sure is going to be a laugh riot and the setting of lots of rad action sequences in future episodes.

Other things that happened in the first two episodes that I haven’t had time to mention because, oy vey, two hour series premiere, can you even?

  • Peggy’s waitress friend Angie provides some levity, some teachable feminist moments, and also a new apartment in Episode 2.
  • Shipping Peggy and Agent Sousa already. Can he just catch onto her and then defect to her team, already?
  • I haven’t had time to go into what a great character Jarvis is, and what brilliant chemistry he and Carter have. He’s the Giles to her Buffy, the Jeeves to her Wooster, and he makes a mean soufflé.
  • The scene where Peggy manages to sneak out from under Sousa’s desk and back to her own desk while Sousa is on the phone at his desk is EVERYTHING. You got moxie, girl.

I can’t wait for next week, when hopefully only having one episode to watch will translate to a better handle on our two voiceless Leviathan-connected bad guys. Also, hopefully more sharp little hats.

Every week, I’m going to give people who like Agent Carter and the whole Captain America universe a homework assignment of sorts. If you agree with me that Steve Rogers’ plane going down as Peggy listens over the radio is the saddest scene in any Marvel movie, have I got a movie for you! Check out A Matter Of Life And Death, made in 1946 – the very year Agent Carter takes place – by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It starts from a scene exactly like the one between Peggy and Steve, and then traces what might have happened if, instead of being cryogenically frozen for decades, there was a (trippy, quasi-supernatural) way Steve could have lived to be with Peggy after all.

What did you guys think of the first two episodes of Agent Carter? And, OMG, can someone please explain the Leviathan dudes?

Sara Clarke is the creator of the web series Fake Geek Girls. When she’s not writing and directing her own film projects, she’s coming up with new questions for her next live trivia comedy show and slaving away at her TV production day job. She reads Ms. Marvel religiously.

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