Agent Carter is a show all about sexism, and particularly all about the notion that after World War II, women who had made a material contribution to the war effort were told to go back to their old subordinate roles. But whereas the show's first season was a fairly simple story, season two is delving into a lot more complexity.
In season one of Agent Carter, the kick-in-the-guts intensity comes from seeing Peggy, who we know is ultra-capable and a total badass, being understimated and mistreated by her colleagues at the SSR. All of the men believe she's just there to fetch coffee and answer the phones. And meanwhile, Peggy has been forced to betray her colleagues in order to clear Howard Stark's name — so she actually is behaving in a manner unworthy of an SSR agent. It's a pretty wrenching storyline, in which Peggy is simultaneously dealing with guilt and unfair discrimination.
But season one also felt, at times, kind of too one-dimensional in its depiction of Peggy's circumstances. Even if it was arguably pretty realistic, the first season's oppressiveness started to feel a little one-note after a while, and maybe even kind of cartoony. It made sense: The show was borrowing heavily from a DVD-only short film in which Peggy Carter's underestimated by the SSR agents for a few over-the-top minutes, before she kicks some arse and then becomes the head of SHIELD. All in like 15 minutes. Boom.
I enjoyed season one of Agent Carter a lot, but thus far season two seems to be doing something a bit more interesting. This time around, Peggy isn't just up against the lazy, unthinking sexism of a bunch of veteran agents, but instead an "old boy's club," which has its fingers in every part of American society. And we know that even if Peggy wins this battle, she'll lose the war, since Hydra will end up infiltrating and ruining SHIELD for the next several decades, no matter what happens in this individual story.
Peggy is up against the Council, an organisation of super-powerful white men in finance, industry, and other stuff. They have cool lapel pins and they seem to be some kind of precursor of Hydra, or possibly just an avatar of 1950s patriarchy in the making.
But a lot of the most fascinating scenes in this season involve Jack Thompson, one of the biggest thorns in Peggy's side, getting sucked into the Council's orbit, becoming a stooge for the cheesy Vernon Masters, in exchange for vague promises that he'll become an important guy in the New World Order. These scenes are fascinatingly gross, with Thompson — who's smart enough to know better — getting sucked into playing along with this bullshit. (And we're reminded of how, at the end of season one, he took all the credit for Peggy's victory and let them label him a hero, which is what started him down this path.)
And meanwhile, Daniel Sousa, who's been Jack's foil since the very beginning, is also getting pressured by Vernon Masters to play ball with the Council. And because he resists, he gets the crap beaten out of him by masked men (one of whom might be Jack, I couldn't tell for sure) and then has Vernon Masters himself replace him as L.A. section chief of the SSR.
But instead of just leaving the Council as the unshakable monolith of white male power and authority, last night's Agent Carter set up a pretty surprising reversal. A big arc in last night's two episodes involved Whitney Frost, the Hollywood starlet who also happens to be a genius physicist, demonstrating her weird flesh-melting powers (gained from an exposure to "Zero Matter") to the Council — who immediately conclude that she's dangerous and try to dispose of her. Whitney's husband, the craven Senatorial candidate Calvin Chadwick, has set her up, claiming that he's going to help her gain the Council's support when he's actually asked the Council to help him get rid of her.
But Whitney turns the tables, melting most of the Council members including her husband. And the remaining Council members, including Ray Wise's Hugh Jones, swear fealty to Whitney. Soon Vernon, the uber-sexist, is working for the scheming Hollywood starlet, which seems like a weird turn of events. And when Whitney comes to kidnap Jason Wilkes, the Isodyne scientist who's also been affected by Zero Matter, she tries to appeal to a shared sense of oppression because Dr. Wilkes is African American. It's like Zero Matter, this mysterious black goop from another dimension, is actually a kind of equaliser that helps the oppressed people of the post-World War II to turn the tables on their oppressors.
You sense that somehow, Whitney Frost is going to fail in her attempt to turn the machinery of the post-war patriarchy to her own advantage — you just don't know how, yet. Maybe Peggy will be the tool that the Man uses to take Whitney down and restore the natural order. Or maybe the establishment will reassert itself some other way. In any case, it's sort of hilariously fascinating that the first thing Whitney does when she takes power is elevate her old beau, Joseph Manfredi (Ken Marino!) to become her lieutenant, annoying the heck out of Vernon.
There are a few reasons why this year's gender politics seem more unpredictable and fascinating than last year's — even if they're perhaps not quite as grounded in reality. One is the aforementioned presence of actual scumbags like Vernon Masters, who represent the actual power structure that put old white dudes on top in the 1950s.
Another, though, is the presence of a number of fairly vivid female characters this time around — the Russian spy Dottie Underwood is back, and she's pleasingly psychotic with her hilarious resistance to torture and her penchant for killing everyone who gets in her way. But then there's also Sousa's fiancee, Violet, a sweet nurse who absolutely will not have any truck with her boyfriend's lingering infatuation for Peggy. And Ana, Jarvis' wife, who's sort of a kooky "free spirit" who worries about Jarvis rushing into danger for the thrill of it — only to get herself shot by Whitney Frost, trying to be a hero. And Rose, the cute SSR switchboard operator who gets to take part in a covert operation and turns out to be a natural.
Whitney Frost, though, is the main reason why this is shaping up to be such a memorable chapter in Peggy's saga. You can't help sympathizing with Whitney, who had real scientific genius but learned the hard way that men only valued her for her beauty. And then, because she meddled with forces that yadda yadda, that beauty was turned weird and revolting by the Zero Matter infection. The scenes where her husband tricks her into thinking he's really on her side, and he's cashing in all his chips to help her, are actually pretty heartbreaking, because of the hope on her face. And now, she's trying to turn the tables on the whole damn world that tried to push her down. She's actually sort of a tragic figure, but with blind spots the size of Australia.
But the most interesting thing, honestly, is seeing so many people warn Peggy that if she goes up against the Council, she's going to lose. It feels like foreshadowing of something really dark and interesting — even though we already know that in the long run, Peggy is fine, she dies in bed of old age after decades of being the boss of everything. (But she also totally misses that the organisation she's helping to run is secretly evil. Oh well.)
Oh, and I really like that Peggy gets horribly injured in one episode and then isn't just running around jumping off buildings and kicking people in the face in the very next episode, the way she would be on most TV shows. (It takes two episodes instead!)
The parallel that this show keeps playing with, of Peggy and Whitney both struggling against the same massive block of male privilege and dealing with it in very different ways, opens up a more complicated view of the show's late-40s gender politics. The best part? Neither Peggy nor Whitney is handling the problem of the Council particularly well, or shrewdly. They're both making mistakes that will cost them in the long term. They're just different types of mistakes, probably leading to different sorts of suffering.
Anyway, if you watched season one of Agent Carter and haven't come back from season two, it's definitely time to catch up — this show has never been better.