One of the most appealing aspects of Marvel’s interconnected live-action universe is how their output spans a range of genres. If we were just watching an endless parade of superhero stories it could be frustrating, but the studio have proffered crazy sci-fi adventures, a heist flick, a gritty crime thriller, a psychological drama, and Agent Carter’s throwback spy caper. And all of these stories take place within the same world, which is an impressive achievement. When you’re watching the sprightly and fun ABC television series Agent Carter, it almost never draws attention to its Marvel heritage, and is all the better for it. The show has built on existing strengths for its second season, moving the titular character from New York to Los Angeles and having her face a worthy new opponent.
Agent Carter has always had a lighter, more humorous tone than the rest of the Marvel canon, and the stakes are lower because it’s a prequel and we know what can and can’t possibly happen, to a certain extent. That isn’t necessarily a downside, as constantly placing the whole world at risk, rather than establishing personal stakes, has often been a problem for the Marvel movies.
The joy of watching Agent Carter is seeing its blend of comedy and action, as Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter prioritises her work solving a case that always reveals itself to be more complex than anyone could’ve imagined. The dynamic between Carter and prissy Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), the butler to billionaire Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), is another major selling point, with both Atwell and D’Arcy consistently bringing a very amusing and distinctly British vibe to this adventure.
In the show’s second season, Peggy leaves the Big Apple for L.A to help Chief Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) with a strange mystery. The developments of the case soon lead them both to Senatorial candidate Calvin Chadwick (Currie Graham), but it’s his villainous wife Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett) who turns out to be the greater threat of the season. After subtly manipulating her husband to investigate and fund research on an enigmatic black substance known as Zero Matter, Whitney finds herself infected by it in such a way that leaves her both disfigured and exceptionally powerful. At the same time as Frost is affected by the Zero Matter, so is scientist Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), who commits to helping Peggy stop Frost from harnessing its destructive force.
There are definitely elements within season 2 that are connected to the wider Marvel discussion, but rarely is it obvious. Some eagle-eyed viewers may recall that Zero Matter, also known as Darkforce, already appeared in Agents of SHIELD when used by Marcus Daniels (Patrick Brennan) as he pursued the cellist Audrey Nathan (Amy Acker), who was in a relationship with SHIELD director Phil Coulson before his untimely death. The dark and powerful extra-dimensional energy is also rumoured to be showing up in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, too. One of the great benefits of this show being set in the past, however, is that it doesn’t have to drop too many hints about its connections, and can provide an accessible platform to introduce more complex sci-fi ideas that’ll reoccur later in the Marvel timeline.
Unfortunately, though, it also must be said that Agent Carter’s strengths don’t lie with its spying storylines, as it deserves praise far more for its winning actors and deft touch with comedy. As a small-screen espionage thriller, this show has a tendency to disappoint, always being decent without transcending itself. Atwell’s headlining performance is so magnificently charming, charismatic and commanding that it can be easy to forget just how unexciting much of the plot happening around her is, and the show does such a great job bringing in compelling characters so that we don’t focus on how poorly defined much of the narrative’s become.
Thankfully, Whitney Frost proves to be more than adequate as this year’s supervillain, providing a menacing presence throughout the episodes. In the fourth episode, “Smoke & Mirrors”, we get to see the pasts of both Carter and Frost as flashbacks reveal how Peggy’s brother steered her from code-breaking at Bletchley Park towards spy work in the field, while Frost’s exceptional scientific mind is disregarded by those around her as a child due to sexist attitudes. Ultimately, we see how Carter chooses to stand up to those who expect a different life for her, while Frost commits to manipulating those who doubt her abilities so that she can get her own way. The two women aren’t so different from each other, but the paths they’ve chosen are worlds apart.
The relationship between Carter and Jarvis also gained added complexity this year, even if the show has an unfortunate tendency to treat Stark’s butler as someone much wackier and clumsier than he was last season. Jarvis’s insistence on being part of Peggy’s adventures does have serious consequences, and the way the show examines the cost of this dangerous line of work makes for some strong material in the final batch of episodes. The addition of Jarvis’s attractive wife, Ana (Lotte Verbeek), works very effectively, as she’s shown to be someone very different to her husband, but a woman who also fits perfectly with him in a romantic relationship. That she’s outgoing, optimistic, kind, and willing to assist Peggy in her important work, makes her a key presence of the season, and it’s a shame she’s not in more episodes.
There are hints of romantic plots for Peggy herself, but none of these are particularly gripping. Atwell is, of course, terrific, and has wonderful chemistry with just about everybody she shares the screen with, but ever since Captain America: The First Avenger her character’s always been a spy first before being paired off with anyone romantically. Peggy’s dedication to her job will always be what the show’s focus is committed to, rather than a love story. It’s noticeable the show is setting up these more traditional narratives for her character, but even as you root for her to find happiness with a suitor it’s not like that has any bearing on the outcome of the storyline.
The future of Agent Carter is somewhat hanging in the balance, especially as rumours circle that it won’t be coming back for a third season. While some Marvel fans have been vocal about how they’d like the show’s focus to move on to the formation of SHIELD itself, it’s clear the showrunners are being clever in how they’re keeping the show’s attention squarely on Peggy’s adventures as a spy rather than as a bureaucrat and founder of a multi-national organisation, which is surely less interesting material for the character. If the show does get another season, it would be wise not to tangle it up too much in Marvel world-building and to keep its strong espionage anchor to the drama.
The show definitely benefits from having shorter seasons, which mean there are no wasted hours, and while it can occasionally feel like merely an adequate spy drama with a strong cast of characters and an excellent lead, there’s more than enough visible improvement to Agent Carter’s second season. That’s especially true when you take into account its well-developed villain, strengthening sense of humour, and smaller but more personal and involving stakes. For some, this might not feel like an essential cog of the Marvel machine, but its ability to bring something different to the table is incredibly valuable and it’ll hopefully return for a third year to do so again.
Cast & Crewwriters: Brant Englestein, Eric Pearson, Lindsey Allen, Jose Molina, Sue Chung, Brant Englestein & Chris Dingess.
directors: Lawrence Trilling, David Platt, Craig Zisk, Metin Hüseyin & Jennifer Getzinger.
starring: Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj, Dominic Cooper, Bridget Regan, Wynn Everett, Reggie Austin, Currie Graham, Lotte Verbeek, Lesley Boone, Matt Braunger as Aloysius Samberly, Kurtwood Smith, Rey Valentin & Ken Marino.