While Marvel has had secretive, decades-spanning plans for their cinematic and TV universe since Iron Man hit theaters in 2008, with intricate designs to take over the world (much like Hydra), I doubt very much they ever expected Agent Peggy Carter to be the first female hero to strike out on her own. I think we’re all grateful for it, however, as Hayley Atwell turned what could’ve been a one-note love interest into one of the best parts of Joe Johnston’s underrated Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.
Four calendar years later and Hayley Atwell’s dashing and dangerous agent has secured her own TV show, in the form of Agent Carter, a midseason ABC show that provides the perfect respite for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans, but should attract an even larger audience, because over the course of its two hour premiere, it’s clear Agent Carter arrives fully formed, completely comfortable in its own skin. It took Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. an entire season to find its identity, but Peggy Carter knows who she is, and Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas’ (Reaper, Resurrection) show knows what it is within the opening moments, lifting the climactic (and admittedly goofy) crash scene from the closing moments of Cap’s first adventure to kick off the pilot. It’s no coincidence that the writers of The First Avenger (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) reprise their involvement, and are credited with the creation of Agent Carter and wrote its first hour. The old-school cheesy tone remains, and it’s glorious.
Following the war (it’s a stylish 1946), Peggy Carter finds herself in a New York city flat, lying to her sickly roommate Colleen O’Brien (Chronicle‘s Ashley Hinshaw) about her work at the phone company, as she packs her bag with firearms. Unfortunately, at the S.S.R. (the Strategic Scientific Reserve, a precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D.), her role as esteemed agent and war hero has devolved into secretarial duties, buoyed by rampant sexism from her co-workers. This includes her boss Roger Dooley (Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Whigham), meathead oaf Ray Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer) and when sexism exists, Chad Michael Murray can’t be far behind, as Agent Jack Thompson. Kind-hearted Daniel Sousa (Dollhouse‘s Enver Gjokaj) can’t stand without a cane, but he stands up for Peggy (much to her chagrin; she fights her own battles thank you very much), and seems to be the only one who recognizes her abilities and the fact that she saved the damn world. This probably means Sousa is Hydra, or should I say, Leviathan, the new, can’t possibly NOT be related to Hydra in some way, shady Big Bad criminal organization responsible for the evil Peggy Carter must vanquish in the first season.
She’s put in that situation not through her work at S.S.R., which now consists of filing, fielding phone calls and serving coffee because the men have returned from war, but by playboy genius inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), showing up to lighten the mood and chew scenery (there’s a fascinating article to be written about the parallels between Robert Downey Sr. and Jr. and Howard Stark and Tony Stark). Howard’s been accused by the government for selling weapons to America’s enemies, and apparently Stark’s “Bad Babies” (dastardly inventions that he can’t show anyone yet but can’t not invent because he’s a Stark) have fallen into the wrong hands, and are popping up on the black market.
Bingo, you have the engine for Agent Carter‘s week to week storytelling. Because Dominic Cooper is too important, and Howard Stark needs to investigate abroad, he leaves Peggy with this knowledge, trusting her to combat his babies on the home front. It’s a shame he’s not around the whole time, but he leaves Peggy with help in the form of his trusted and very British butler Edwin Jarvis (Cloud Atlas‘ James D’Arcy), who claims not to have any experience with espionage, preferring to cook souffles for his off screen wife and wash the linens, but seems to have a knack for helping Peggy Carter in the most opportune times. As we find out, there’s certainly more to Jarvis than he’s letting on, and something Stark and Jarvis aren’t telling our badass heroine.
Over the first two hours, Peggy tracks the sale of
random maguffin molecular nitromene, a formerly theoretical invention that becomes very tangible, in the form of glowing golden globes that can destroy entire city blocks. We mean whole avenues, not silly old side streets here, so yes, there are a lot of interested parties, mainly two silent assassins, Green Suit (Gangster Squad‘s James Landry Hebert) and Leet Brannis (James Frain), who have had their voice boxes removed and can only speak like one of those terrifying women in cigarette ads (or Stephen Hawking, if you prefer).
At first it appears they are on the same side, both part of Leviathan, but it’s never that simple. There’s a ton of action, whether in Peggy’s apartment, on top of a car, or paired with the delightfully hammy Captain America radio show that has transformed Peggy Carter into Betty Carver, a ditsy damsel in distress. It’s the clever nuggets like these (and there are several) that make Agent Carter more than just a spy show. It also helps that we’re gifted with several stalwart guest stars beyond Dominic Cooper, including The Wire‘s Andre Royo as a guy actually named Spider Raymond, Buzz from Home Alone (Devin Ratray, who’s having a McConnaisance himself, with Blue Ruin and Nebraska) is one of many men to get his ass kicked by Peggy and the ubiquitous but always great Ray Wise shows up as Hugh Jones, the CEO of Roxxon Oil, a nefarious company that has all kinds of MU history and is embroiled in the nitromene plot.
Meanwhile, because Peggy Carter needs to have someone in her life outside of work, she befriends Angie Martinelli (Nikita‘s Lyndsy Fonseca), a delightful waitress at the awkwardly named Automat diner. Angie has the unenviable task of dealing with Farva from Super Troopers complaining about her BLTs. The horror. Considering Fonseca’s work on Nikita it’s fair to wonder if she’ll be brought into the ass-kicking fold as an ally at some point, or (more likely) if she’s a Leviathan plant. Because Peggy Carter needs to learn she can’t trust anyone.
Agent Carter is Alias in the 1940’s, with a Marvel flair (and Leviathan instead of Rambaldi), and Hayley Atwell is more than up to the task, donning wigs, multiple outfits and doing it all in high heels like a BAMF. Atwell was a star the moment she appeared in Captain America; her screen presence and universal appeal forced Marvel to create an entire show for her, and based on the first two episodes, I’m glad they did.