Marvel’s Agent Carter – Season 2 Episode 4
“Smoke and Mirrors”
Marvel’s Agent Carter delves into the past of both Peggy and Whitney to show how both women became what they currently are.
The question of what Peggy was like before her introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger is one that has been unanswered up to this point and possibly didn’t need to be. Peggy is a strong enough character in the moment to not really need an extensive backstory as her role completely makes sense without any of that needing filled in.
Of course that doesn’t mean that the backstory isn’t interesting, especially when it defied expectation in some ways. Seeing her as a child imaging herself as the knight that rescues the princess is entirely consistent with the Peggy that audiences will be familiar with and I had my doubts about the whole thing when she was portrayed that way as it’s not terribly interesting to see someone who always thought a certain way turn out exactly as we see them.
Expectations are challenged when it is revealed that she was once engaged to be married and passed up her first opportunity to become a spy because of the needs of her husband. It was a surprise to me to see Peggy conforming to society’s expectations of her and doing things that will make her man happy. She even acts more timid and reserved which hides who she really is from her fiancée.
We also see that she had a close relationship with her brother, Michael (Max Brown) who was clearly going to die from the minute he was introduced. If Peggy had a brother she was close to alive somewhere then it’s likely that we would have heard about him before this point. His inevitable demise didn’t stop him from being significant to Peggy. He reveals that he recommended her for the position as a spy in an effort to force her to embrace the life of adventure that she always wanted. It was a well acted and well written scene that showed how genuinely supportive Michael was of Peggy’s ambition and having him be at least part of the inspiration behind everything she has done in her career worked well. Seeing her cast off the expectations of her as a woman to honour her brother by removing her engagement ring was a great symbolic touch.
Whitney is shown to be almost the opposite to Peggy. Throughout her life she was completely discouraged from concentrating on her intelligence and was advised that for a woman looks are all that is important. She is teased by her mother’s sleazy boyfriend because she never smiles which she justifies as being a reaction to her always thinking. The teasing identifies her inability to smile when thinking as a weakness and she manages to overcome it which allows her to use everything at her disposal to get everything she wants. Her ability to smile at people while plotting to destroy them makes her really dangerous and provides an intriguing alternative to the Madame Masque persona her character has in the comics. Both versions hide behind masks but this version is a lot more subtle and sinister about it. This is best shown in her conversation with the Hollywood producer who just sees her as another pretty face and has no idea what lies beneath.
The use of the radio acting as a recurring image throughout the episode was really interesting. It is an object that becomes tied to Whitney’s development as it becomes important to her early on. When it is first used she fixes it as a demonstration of her intelligence and the next use is simply listening to it showing that she has embraced her intelligence leading to the final use where it exposes her signifying a possible betrayal. She is infected by Zero Matter which only happened because she is so intelligent so in some ways the power that being a genius represents is starting to destroy her.
I also like that Whitney is conflicted over the destructive nature of her abilities but doesn’t let her guilt get in the way of using them to further her own ends. She is a villain with a conscience but makes an intellectual decision to push that aside.
Flashbacks are a common device in TV shows as it allows viewers to get some insight into characters or situations in a more interesting way than listening to lots of exposition. Arrow uses flashbacks as part of the core storytelling but they have become less relevant as the seasons progress so there’s always the chance that they won’t make sense within the narrative.
The flashbacks used in this episode somewhat fall into the category of lacking relevance. There was no real connection to the present day narrative. Peggy certainly wasn’t reflecting on her life in any way and Whitney seemed more focused on her current predicament. I was waiting for some thematic link between the time periods but it never really happened.
As good as they are they fall into the trap of using dialogue that feels like it exists just to further the point of that specific flashback. They are short so a lot of information must be conveyed in that short time which means that there’s an unreal quality to them. If the characters were remembering the events and their memory was unreliable in recalling the minute details then it would be understandable but since the flashbacks existed in isolation the slightly forced dialogue stood out.
The present -that is the present of the show- day story this week was eventful enough but fairly light compared to the previous episodes of the season. Peggy does find out about Whitney by the end of the episode but there’s fairly little happening to get to that point.
Peggy’s relationship with Jason is further developed in their really well done exchanges that show how much chemistry the two actors have. Peggy clearly feels completely at ease with Jason and there’s a tragic element to him being present but intangible.
The hints that Jason might have some sort of destructive ability are intriguing and it made sense for him to hide it for a while out of fear before finally confessing to Peggy. His terrified reaction is very real and Jason continues to be an engaging character.
Her interrogation of Mr. Hunt (Chris Browning) was a nicely done scene as it shows how ruthless Peggy can be. Mr. Hunt points out that she’s a good guy and there’s certain lengths that people on her side are unwilling to go to. This causes Peggy to remind him that she fought in the War and during a War people are forced to do things they wouldn’t do. She then proves her willingness by infecting him with a very intense cold and telling him that it’s Malaria.
Eventually he talks and gives her enough information to go after the Arena Club. I still have a lot of time for the secret society that push events in the direction they want to due to having powerful members. It’s a believable antagonistic force as many people in the modern world are really cynical about those in power so it taps into that mistrust that a lot of us will already have.
They are also a valid opponent to Peggy who is fighting to be seen as relevant in a world run by men. The Arena Club are the personification of everything that opposes her so it helps keep the struggle personal and tied into one of the major themes.
Sousa is used well in this episode with their relationship moving to a slightly different level when Peggy chooses to trust him with what she is really up to instead of hiding it from her. Granted she only did that when she was caught but seeing them work together towards a common goal was good. I like that Sousa was constantly horrified at how calmly she approached torturing someone but ultimately chose to trust her and was glad when the desired result happened.
The arrival of Vernon Masters at the worst possible time further develops that there’s something much worse at work above their level. Masters’ speech to Peggy about a tide coming and the difficulties she will have staying afloat was really heavy handed with some needlessly extreme symbolism but Kurtwood Smith delivered it with enough sincerity for it to work. It was reminiscent of the conversation he had with Thompson in the first episode so it’s clear that Masters will be one of the architects of that change when it comes. I did like that Masters credibility was shaken a little when Sousa told Peggy that he got the same speech. Having a laugh about that reduces the menace of Masters in their eyes a little which probably just makes him more dangerous. It seems pretty obvious to me that Masters is affiliated with H.Y.D.R.A. and sees Peggy as a direct threat to that. Nothing else really makes sense at this point and it’s about time to start establishing H.Y.D.R.A. as being around considering Peggy was still hunting them in a flashback seen on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Another great episode that gave plenty of insight into both Peggy and Whitney’s upbringing to show how they became who they currently are. The flashbacks weren’t all that relevant to the present day story which was light on development but what did appear was really well done.
• well-crafted flashbacks that offer insight into both Whitney and Peggy
• the sinister implications of the Arena Club and what they represent
• Peggy’s willingness to do what it takes to get information
• the chemistry between Jason and Peggy
• the flashbacks being unconnected to the present day story
• some stilted dialogue designed to further plot in the flashbacks