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Agent Carter Recap: “Smoke & Mirrors”

 

Agent Carter‘s fourth episode features a lot of new information about the childhood days of Peggy Carter and this season’s new villain, Whitney Frost. Get ready for some flashbacks, folks! And a lot of episode spoilers, obviously.

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This episode kicks off with a flashback to young Margaret Elizabeth Carter’s childhood days of pretending to be a knight and waving a wooden sword around. That is, until an obnoxious little boy (her brother, perhaps?) shows up and takes her sword away.

Then, to make matters worse, her Mom shows up and yells at her: “One of these days you’re going to have to start behaving like a lady!” Smash-cut to adult Peggy eating a sandwich messily enough to spill mayonnaise on Howard Stark’s papers. As cliché as this joke set-up may be, I still laughed.

Turns out they’re not Howard Stark’s papers – and shame on me for assuming such a thing! The camera pans up and it’s Jason Wilkes, smiling at Peg and admitting, “I miss food.” Turns out he doesn’t need to eat anymore. I’m telling you, he’s going to go Dr. Manhattan on us with this new ghost form.

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He apparently can’t feel anything. Uh … that’s going to make it hard for these two to hook up, huh. My ship is sinking! And so is my heart …

Wait, never mind, the two of them just alluded to the sexual frustration that Jason’s “condition” causes them. There’s still hope, folks. Surely science can allow these two some make-outs, sooner or later?

I still think it’s adorable whenever Jason Wilkes casually refers to himself as a genius; he’s not an egotist, he’s just stating a fact. But he also admits that Whitney Frost is even smarter than he is: “She defies categorization.”

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Cut to Whitney Frost’s home, where a servant named Mabel is delivering a creepy package from Isodyne. Why is the package creepy? Because, according to Mabel, something is moving around inside of it. (Is this the first black woman who’s had a speaking role on this show? And she’s a servant?)

Anyway, I don’t think Whitney Frost ordered a new puppy. But I could be wrong.

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It’s… a cage full of lab rats. Okay, I have to admit, I didn’t expect that.

Jarvis isn’t a very good undercover agent; he always looks so nervous wherever he goes. He grabs Peggy a button for Chadwick’s election while investigating their campaign headquarters; Peggy immediately throws the button away. Didn’t Chadwick already get elected last episode? Does he still have to run even though his opponent dropped out? That is what happened, right? I guess he still has to go through the election process even if he’ll win no matter what.

Jarvis makes a reference to Hedy Lamarr, on whom he apparently has a crush. That’s adorable, but it’s also a little confusing. If Hedy Lamarr exists in this universe, then there are two super-genius actresses, not just one. I mean, that’s awesome, but it’s also a little weird, because Whitney Frost is based on Hedy Lamarr, so you’d think they wouldn’t want to directly mention her on this show. Or maybe they want to be sure we know about Hedy Lamarr? I don’t know, this seemed weird to me.

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Jarvis and Peggy notice that Chadwick’s driver has the same wound that she inflicted on Mr. Hunt when he attacked her in Stark’s front yard. So the driver is Mr. Hunt. This is helpful because I cannot recognize this guy; he is so nondescript, just as an assassin should be. Great casting choice.

Rose, the secretary back at the SSR office, looks up Mr. Hunt’s info, and apparently his first name is Rufus. Oh, also he was court-martialed for racketeering, but his name is Rufus??? Makes a lot of sense for a dog’s name – and I guess Mr. Hunt is Chadwick’s dog. Or perhaps Whitney Frost’s dog.

Apparently, Jarvis has a tranquilizer rifle, which he suggests Peggy use against Mr. Hunt, because I guess we don’t want to kill the guy, we just want to apprehend him. Why does Jarvis have a tranquilizer rifle? He uses it on Howard Stark’s animal menagerie – specifically the koala, who has a “vile temperament.” Maybe the koala’s pissed off about being forcibly removed from their natural habitat?

The animal menagerie is my least favorite sub-plot so far in season two. I already don’t like Howard Stark, so I don’t see why we need to add “cruelty to animals” to his character sheet; it’s obvious he doesn’t care about these pets, so why include them? Isn’t Howard busy with all his science activities, anyway? Why does he needs to adopt a koala, only to make his butler take care of it? It results in some funny Jarvis scenes, but I’m not sure we need the animals there in order to see Jarvis be hilarious. In fact, I know we don’t need animals for that.

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Another flashback – this time, it’s a young Whitney Frost, as we learn in a moment. She’s having fun messing around with modifying a radio, which is a perfectly healthy way for youngsters to learn about electric engineering. This flashback serves as a pretty interesting parallel between Peggy’s adventures (play-acting) and the pursuits of young Agnes (that was her name back then before she changed it to Whitney Frost).

Whitney’s mom shows up and tells her to clean up the mess she’s made; Whitney shows off that she fixed their radio, which has been broken for weeks. Instead of being happy about the radio, Whitney’s mom keeps warning her daughter that “Uncle Bud” is about to show up. Based on how ominous this sounds, I predict “Uncle Bud” is not a very nice man.

“Uncle Bud” walks in and gives Whitney’s mom a firm smack on the butt; she seems into it, although Whitney clearly hates the guy. Bud orders young Whitney to smile, and she tells him she won’t. Why? “Because I’m thinking.” After getting a talking-to from her mother, who then goes upstairs to sleep with Uncle Bud, a grim-faced young Whitney turns up the sound on the radio.

Adult Whitney is still experimenting, this time on lab rats. She picks one up, screws her courage, and tries to kill it – but nothing happens. It doesn’t seem like she has any control over her zero matter powers yet. Chadwick knocks on the door and Whitney flings a pink scarf over her rat cage. Isn’t he going to hear them squeaking?

Chadwick does note that she’s acting a bit suspicious right off the bat. Plus, her agent has gone missing – you know, the agent that Whitney killed by accident at the end of the prior episode? Whitney quips that maybe they’ll find his body in the river, since he’s a hard drinker. “That’d be terrible for the campaign,” responds her egotistical husband. These two were really made for each other, huh? Anyway, he reminds her that they have a Life magazine photo-shoot this evening at 6:00 PM.

As soon as he leaves, Whitney grabs another rat. When it bites her, she manages to set off her zero matter powers and kill the rat (lots of animal cruelty in this episode, folks!). Seems like her powers work based on self-defense. Unfortunately, the rat murder causes the scar on Whitney’s forehead to get a little bigger. Whitney, you’re going to have to really step up your side-swept hair game to hide this stuff …

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Cut to Jarvis banging on Mr. Hunt’s door, doing a terrible American accent, pretending to be a police officer. One of Mr. Hunt’s nosy neighbors catches Jarvis in the act; she looks suspicious, but when Jarvis orders her to go back inside her apartment, she complies. I have no idea if that’s going to come up again, so I’ll include it here just in case.

Meanwhile, Hunt runs out the back door, where Peggy’s waiting with the tranq gun. Yet Mr. Hunt is somehow immune to tranquilizers and overtakes Peggy – how … ? Stuck in a chokehold, Peggy elbows the guy in the face. Mr. Jarvis and Peggy load his body into the trunk of their car, at which point Mr. Hunt wakes right back up again, and Peggy knocks him out again.

Meanwhile, Jarvis accidentally got hit with a tranq. He tells Peggy that he is “Jarvelous!” Then he faints.

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Peggy drives the two passed-out dudes back to Howard’s estate, where Sousa’s waiting for her. Apparently she’s using up her vacation days to finish this case, because Jack doesn’t want to officially assign her to it. Sounds like crap to me — Jack saw those fake newspapers at the Hatpin Club last episode, so he should know by now that this case is legit, and Peggy should stick around Hollywoodtown until it’s squared away. Sousa hands Peggy the file on Whitney that he’s put together; Peggy tries to give him the brush-off, because she probably doesn’t want him to know that she just tranquilized and kidnapped Mr. Hunt.

Sousa can tell she’s giving him the brush-off, though. He sees Jarvis passed out in the car. Peggy’s explanation? “An overindulgence of drink.” Doesn’t sound like Jarvis! Mr. Hunt starts banging on the car trunk interior. Uh, Peggy caught a possum! Mr. Hunt starts shouting. Okay, okay, so Peggy may have committed a small felony. Whoops?

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Sousa yells at Peggy for the whole “felony” thing, then points out that she could have called him for back-up. She points out that she had Mr. Jarvis, who has repeatedly proven himself to be almost completely useless in situations like this, given that he’s a butler and not a trained secret agent. Why didn’t Peggy call Sousa, actually? He probably would have been helpful. He does keep pointing that out. But he’s also right. This time, at least.

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Sousa and Peggy go ahead and interrogate Hunt, since he’s already there, legally or not. Mr. Hunt gives them no answers, and Sousa tries to play bad-cop, which Hunt calls “cute.” He then brags about getting kidnapped by the Japanese and tortured. Peggy takes out a syringe – truth serum? Mr. Hunt makes fun of her, too, but she doesn’t give a crap.

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Another flashback – this time Peggy’s in an office that looks mysteriously similar to the office set for the SSR (no harm in re-using sets, techies). It’s a group of women, taking about code-breaking – so I assume this is Bletchley Park. Peggy’s showing off a new engagement ring from “Fred”, to the delight of her coworkers.

Peggy’s boss calls her into his office and offers her a big promotion – field agent at the S.O.E., a new spy division. Peggy seems very hesitant, probably because she’s about to get married, and that usually means the end of a woman’s career during this time period (and sometimes even during our time period).

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Back in the present day, we learn what’s inside Peggy’s syringe: a toxin developed by Stark Industries based on a strain of malaria. So, basically, it’s poison. Hunt finally starts looking scared – when he hears the name “Stark,” his expression changes. I guess Howard does have a reputation.

Peggy and Sousa leave the room. Turns out Peggy was bluffing, which I suspected – although the shot she gave Hunt will mimic the effects of a sudden-onset illness, it won’t actually kill him, even if he doesn’t get “the antidote” in time (that “antidote” is probably just saline). That’s for the best, since they kidnapped him illegally and all. They shouldn’t be injecting him with malaria! Even injecting him with the common cold seems a little suspect, but hey, the law’s always been a little squishy on this show.

Flashback time again – now we get a glimpse of a teenaged Whitney working on schematics at the kitchen table. Her mom and “Uncle Bud” are fighting; I guess Bud found a new younger girlfriend. Since Whitney’s mom is played by the exact same actress and looks no older than she did before, this seems a bit weird, especially given how gorgeous she looks, but … hey, Uncle Bud’s a real dick. Do you get it? He’s a dick. (I like the idea of these flashbacks, but since they have to establish a lot in a short time, they’ve all been pretty heavy-handed.)

Anyway, “Uncle Bud” was paying for their home, so now he’s kicking them out. Maybe he owns the place? It’s not clear, but either way, Whitney and her Mom have to get out now. As soon as Whitney’s mom goes back inside, she starts blaming her daughter for not being “nice enough” to Uncle Bud. Then the Mom shows Whitney a rejection letter – I guess Whitney was trying to get into college? – but her Mom points out that they’ll never accept women into science colleges. These two women keep blaming each other for their problems instead of realizing that they’re both up shit creek. It seems realistic, but it’s still pretty depressing.

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Whitney’s mom drags her in front of a mirror and points to her daughter’s reflection: “This is the only thing that’s gonna get you anywhere in this world.” Again: depressing, if accurate.

Back to present-day Whitney, who cancels that Life magazine photo-shoot, to her husband’s protestations. She seems much less anxious about it now — she’s even smiling — even though the scar on her forehead is growing. Perhaps she’s finally settling into her own …

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Peggy’s bluff works well enough to convince Mr. Hunt to give them a little more information about the Arena Club. But then he admits he’s dead anyway – even if they set him free, even if the SSR tries to put him into some sort of proto-witness protection program, his bosses will find him and kill him. That’s the thing about working a security gig for a super-villain and/or a shadowy secret society. It’s not the type of job you can quit.

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I can’t believe I feel sorry for Mr. Hunt, but I do.

Meanwhile, Jarvis has replaced Howard Stark as Jason’s resident Science Bro, even though Jarvis doesn’t know any more about science than he does about secret agent work. The two men bandy about over formulas that Jarvis doesn’t understand, and then Jason starts seeing things – things that Mr. Jarvis can’t see. Jason sees a crack in space-time, or something, and he starts fixating on it, which is a little scary. Luckily, Sousa and Peggy show back up and break the guys out of their reverie.

Sousa calls up a judge to get a warrant to raid the Arena Club. On what grounds? A testimony offered by Mr. Hunt, the guy they kidnapped. I guess the kidnapping was somehow legal after all, even though a minute ago it wasn’t. Again – the laws seem a little bit shaky on this show.

Back at the SSR office, the middle of planning the raid on the Arena Club, with a bunch of other men in suits (agents?) that have never before appeared on this show and probably never will show up again, Vernon Masters walks in the front door and shuts down the party. Remember Vernon, the old guy who told Jack to try modeling? No surprise that this guy’s here to shut things down, since he’s a card-carrying Arena Club member (not that our heroes know that … yet). Also, he’s got a signed order from the president saying that the War Department gets to perform an audit on Sousa’s office. Yayyy, we’re stuck in bureaucratic hell, unable to do anything!

Vernon takes Peggy into a private office and questions her. It’s obvious he’s trying to figure out how much she knows and whether she poses a significant threat to unraveling this whole Arena Club thing. Peggy tells him a little bit about what Mr. Hunt revealed, but she doesn’t want to name her source, for fear of his safety. Vernon insists on learning who their informant is, and he’s so stubborn about it that Peggy begins to doubt that he’s on the side of angels. When Peggy refuses to give up Mr. Hunt’s name, Vernon closes out the conversation with an oblique threat: he could brand her and the entire rest of Sousa’s office as Communist spies, easily, and the fact that Peg “isn’t even American” won’t help her case any.

Flashback! 20-something Peggy introduces her brother, Michael, to her new fiancé, Fred. Michael doesn’t seem too impressed by Peggy’s sudden proclivity towards settling down; he also doesn’t seem impressed that Fred works at the “home office” during the war, while Michael is one of the troops on the ground. (World War II clearly is still in-progress, here, although it’s not clarified what year it is.) Peggy changes the topic: “Did you know I was recruited to be a spy?” Uh, Peg, I don’t think you’re supposed to tell anybody that. But I guess telling your brother and your fiancé is okay? I don’t actually know what the rules are here.

“We turned them down, of course,” Peg’s fiancé interrupts. We? Wow, this guy sucks. It wouldn’t be like “our” Peg to be a spy, after all. Our Peg. Oh my god. SHUT UUUUP

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As soon as Fiancé steps away from the table to get everybody new drinks, Michael asks Peggy why she turned down the S.O.E. spy job. Apparently, Michael was the one who recommended Peg for the gig; he reminds Peg that a “life of adventure” is what she’s always wanted, not being some dude’s wife.

This scene seems strange for a couple of reasons, one of which is that I had no idea Peggy even had a brother, and I’m racking my brain to remember if it’s mentioned in Captain America or in any previous episode. Is it? Anyway, uh, they’re super duper close, and that’s important to the story, apparently, even though this guy never mattered before. We’re all going to be very sad when he dies in five minutes. (Yes, I’m just assuming he’s going to die; we’ll see if I’m right in a few.)

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The other reason why this scene seems strange is that apparently Peg needs to be reminded by her own brother that she doesn’t want to settle down and get married to some jerk-ass. Why does she need her brother to tell her this? Why did they invent a male character to tell Peggy what to do here, especially when her fiance is such an over-the-top jack-ass right out of the gate? Can’t she decide to pursue her dream job on her own, without two separate guys showing up to make it into a conflict that somehow involves them?

Michael recommending her for the job is fine, but browbeating her into deciding not to get married … I would have rather seen Peggy come to that conclusion by herself, as opposed to her brother bullying her into it. Peggy spends this entire scene insisting that she does want to get married; we see no real hesitation from her on that point. This scene would work a lot better if Peg seemed more doubtful or was given any lines of her own besides staring teary-eyed at men. I’m honestly surprised to even see a scene like this on a show like Agent Carter.

Back in the present, Peggy warns Sousa about the speech Vernon gave her. “I got that speech too,” he scoffs.

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Here’s something positive: I love the dynamic between Peggy and Sousa in this episode. I like them as platonic friends and partners – I still can’t really picture them as a couple, especially at this point. This has been a great Sousa episode, too, so he’s back in my good graces. I like it when he respects Peggy, as opposed to just throwing weird babyish tantrums, as he has done in all the other episodes before now.

Anyway, Vernon’s audit meant that his guys could take all the evidence against the Arena Club out of the SSR. But not all of it! Sousa hid some of the information about Jane Scott’s autopsy. Plus, they’ve still got Mr. Hunt hidden away in a broom closet. Carter and Sousa “let” Mr. Hunt escape and make him think that he overpowered them, but they actually let him leave. He instantly shows up at Whitney’s house; our heroes have bugged Hunt’s suspender set or something, so they can listen in on his whole conversation.

But Mr. Hunt refuses to say anything until Whitney’s husband gets home. Speaking of husbands …

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Apparently 20-something Peggy made it all the way to her wedding day before deciding to call off her marriage to Fred. Wow. I hate this storyline, and I do not understand why it’s here. We don’t need to literally see Peg in a veil in order to understand what she chose to give up in order to become a field agent.

Never mind, apparently she’s just trying on the dress to see how it fits? It’s not really her wedding day; calm down, me!

A couple of soldiers show up at the front door with some bad news. I was worried, at first, that Fred had died — thereby making Peggy’s decision for her — but instead it’s her brother Michael who died. Also, Fred was just a desk clerk anyway, so he’s not going to die in the war — but Michael would, what with being on the front lines.

Even though I called it only a minute ago that Michael would die, I’m still surprised and annoyed. Now Peggy is going to become a spy to honor her brother’s death, probably. Why are all of her decisions here revolving around the men in her life – men who we’ve never even seen before this episode???

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This is a beautifully composed shot of Peggy crying over her brother’s death while wearing a wedding dress. And I can’t even care, because this entire plot-line does not work for me. At all. No one needed to see Peggy Carter crying in a wedding dress and veil. That is not what this show needed.

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New scene: slow pan from Peggy’s wedding dress over to her hand picking up the S.O.E. envelope. After she picks up the envelope, she replaces it with her engagement ring. Okay, so did she break it off with Fred off-camera? That relationship was so irrelevant that we don’t even need to see it end! Well, at least I agree about that aspect. All we need is Peggy picking up a suitcase and dipping out. I get that this is supposed to be a big emotional moment for Peg, but it doesn’t land.

Back to Jason and Peggy. Thank goodness, an actor with whom Hayley Atwell actually has some chemistry! But Jason Wilkes’ Dr. Manhattan plotline is only getting harder and harder to watch. He can’t eat, can’t sleep, and has begun to lose his grip on reality. He’s basically already dead, except that he can still talk to Peg and still has ties to the human world in that sense. I’m really worried about this guy …

Back at the Frost household, Calvin Chadwick has finally come home, so Mr. Hunt has another man to talk to and will now finally open up. Can Whitney just kill both of these guys? Mr. Hunt proceeds to admit that he told Agent Carter about pretty much everything. Why did he come back here again? Doesn’t he realize he’s about to die? What’s he playing at?

Mr. Hunt decides to take this opportunity to make a counter-threat against his employers: he’ll go to the council and tell them what Isodyne’s really up to, unless they protect him. Whitney still seems eerily calm throughout all of this. I think she’s about to use her zero matter powers on Mr. Hunt in front of her husband …

Yup, that’s exactly what she did, and now Mr. Hunt’s super-dead. As for the bug that Peggy and friends have been listening in on? That’s super-dead as well, zero matter-style. But they did get to hear Calvin shout “Whitney, what are you doing?” enough times in a row that they all must suspect something by now.

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Flashback to a 20-something Whitney Frost going to the movies; she looks in her purse, sees she really doesn’t have enough money, and starts to walk away. The cinema ticket-taker stops her — making her the second black female character to have a speaking part in this episode. Not that I’m counting. (I am.) The women share a brief conversation about how awesome movies are, and the ticket-taker ends up giving Whitney a free ticket. This is probably the least realistic thing that’s happened on the entire show thus far.

As Whitney makes her way into the theatre, a random man stops her and orders her to “smile.” Back to the realm of depressing realism again! She complies with his request, and it turns out this guy is a talent agent, and he thinks Whitney could be a model or an actress. “That sounds real interesting,” Whitney admits. It sure does.

Back to the present again. Whitney Frost’s scar has grown into quite a formidable one by now. And her husband is terrified of her awesome murderin’ powers, as well he should be. “What are you?” he gasps in horror.

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“Whatever I want,” she responds.

Is it just me, or is Whitney Frost’s back-story one trillion times better than that of our heroine Peggy Carter? We just saw a bunch of flashbacks, meant to directly compare these women, and now I’m finding myself rooting for our villainess. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what was supposed to happen!!

What’d you all think about this episode?

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).