In its two years on the air, ABC’s Marvel Universe period piece “Agent Carter” has grown a large fanbase on quirk. The flippant humor. The jazzy music. And of course the paradigm-flipping hero at its heart. But if you thought that cranking up the quirky style of the show to an all-new level would keep the series flying high, this week’s episode has some words for you.
Nominally set up as a fan-servicing heist story, “The Atomic Job” is the rare misfire in “Agent Cater’s” canon. The hour only moves the story forward in perfunctory or melodramatic ways, instead placing its focusing on an oddball assemblage of supporting players who flatten out the fun of the series rather than propping it up.
The issues begin early on. Staying in Howard Stark’s mansion, Peggy is awoken in the middle of the night by the intangible scientist Dr. Wilkes to observe…something that he’s discovered about his bizarre Zero Matter-infused state. Superhero science is typically as nonsensical as it gets on screen, but Wilkes’ connection to the ZM (and by extension, season baddie Whitney Frost) is in sore need of some definition beyond “My ghost sense says we need to track down the body of the woman who was killed in episode one!” Meanwhile, Peg’s former office flirt Daniel Sousa tosses out a mostly awkward marriage proposal to his night nurse girlfriend. The moment coming so early in the episode is a major signifier that something will go horribly wrong between these two, which is a real shame since she seems like a textbook case of a likable “Baxter” whose heart you don’t want to see broken.
Soon enough, the action of the week is underway. Peggy and Jarvis are hot on the trail of the corpse with the mysterious key to understanding of Zero Matter, but they’re cut off in their pursuit by Frost and her bumbling would-be senator of a husband Chadwick. The entire sequence plays the same notes we’ve seen from the season so far. Peggy is ultra confident in the face of Jarvis’ bumbling nature, and as they watch our villains suck the sinister matter out of the body, the sense is serviceably tense. After connecting with the lost piece of her superpowered self, Frost becomes convinced that she needs to recreate the experiment that originally brought Zero Matter to the world -Â which means stealing an atomic bomb. While there’s a hint of a solid mystery in the idea that the ZM is communicating to those it’s infected (an alien tie to the larger MCU perhaps?), it’s mostly wheel-spinning.
From there, the episode is all about two major set pieces. First up, Peg goes undercover to gain the only key that can help her beat Frost to the atomic punch. This means sneaking into the office of all-time slimeball Hugh Jones and getting out before he can remember that he’s met our agent once before. Luckily, Peggy is armed with a noggin-shocking memory eraser device from the SSR’s overlooked science whiz Dr. Samberly. So when push comes to shove, Agent Carter has to erase Jones’ memory of her identity again and again as he tries to lecherously latch onto who he thinks is a secretary. The scene builds to a moment where Peggy regrettably learns that she’ll have to do a full pat-down on the creep in order to get what she wants. It’s the most broadly comedic scene the show has ever delivered, and it lays on things a little too thick. Yes, watching a sexual harasser get repeatedly shocked into incoherence is satisfying in and of itself, but the laugh quotient of the moment nosedived as it went on.
The second half of the episode is entirely focused on the competing attempts to take the atomic bombs from Jones’ Roxxon corporation. In one corner stands Frost and Chadwick, backed up by the muscle of her mafia boss former boyfriend (an unhinged Ken Marino who we better hope will show up again). In the other stands Peggy and what can loosely be described as “the nerdy half dozen” (if you include Wilkes). Empowered with Stark’s plans for the secret holding site but afraid of being compromised by the seemingly endless string of double agents on the side of Chadwick and Jones’ nefarious Arena Club, Peg and Sousa recruit a group of trustworthy yet wacky allies. This includes the maternal but tough SSR secretary Rose and the aforementioned Dr. Samberly alongside the still befuddled Jarvis.
To be frank, Carter’s team of misfits is everything fans like about the show in cloying overkill. Rose and Samberly are broad stereotypes played for the dumbest laughs imaginable. And as they battle their way into the Roxxon facility, it’s the doc’s hi-larious mishap with the place’s self-locking security system (only one of the unbelievable-even-for-a-comic show’s 1940s tech pieces) that makes things worse for everyone. Jarvis is locked into a room with two A-bombs and is forced to remove their nuclear material instead of the steady-handed Sousa. This hammy sequence eats up minute after minute of action and elicits no real laughs. Meanwhile, Peggy’s takedown of Frost’s men is an afterthought action sequence leading to her brief and tension-less showdown with the big bad woman herself.
After going toe-to-toe for all of two seconds, Peggy barely escapes Frost’s matter-eating powers by leaping off a balcony and onto a pile of iron-jutting bricks (like you do). The whole fight is over too fast and plays with the D.O.A. expectation that Agent Cater might be in real physical danger (which we know she isn’t because we’ve seen “Winter Soldier”). Even when Peg gets run through by a piece of iron, there’s nothing exciting about the cliffhanger commercial break. When the show reappears for its final moments, things play out with cookie-cutter precision. Sousa takes the wounded Peg to his fiance’s home where our put-upon supporting player realizes the love her man has for his coworker and storms off. Chadwick attempts to stand up to Frost for her increasingly deranged schemes only to be rebuffed enough to shut him up but not to stop him from alerting the Arena Club of her condition. Peg herself goes on bedrest for all of 12 seconds until Dr. Wilkes begins to fade out in a manufactured cliffhanger.
The thing is, all of these components have worked for the show beautifully in the past. The romantic triangles. The character based humor. The extended action sequences. The crazy villains. “Agent Carter” has typically delivered all of these with style. But as wacky sidekick after sidekick was piled on over this hour along with a series of textbook genre cliches, the overall effect was that tiresome tone that accompanies the kinds of movie sequels that try way to hard to deliver more of what the fans want (shades of “Age of Ultron” here).
Overall, we’re left with Frost still on the loose, Peggy still torn between worlds, the Zero Matter still a mysterious threat and a half dozen other stillborn storylines. Much like last season, the show is seemingly saving its big payoffs for the final few episodes. After “The Atomic Heist,” the endgame can’t get here soon enough.
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