As the cape-wearing denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have continued to dominate the silver screen and its down-and-dirty street heroes have conquered Netflix, the more traditional TV dramas the studio airs on ABC have been somewhat left to the wayside. The anchor show of the MCU -Â “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” -Â has won over a core of loyalists by abandoning a bigger connection to the Marvel movies in favor of some confident spy-fi storytelling all its own. And tonight, the much beloved but somewhat inconsequential (in the continuity sense) “Agent Carter” landed back in its mid-season slot on ABC.
Last season, the post-war adventures of Captain America’s ass-kicking sweetheart provided a beacon of hope for fans enduring an excruciating wait for better representation of women in big superhero media. The mix of Hayley Atwell’s star-making performance and some highly entertaining (if fantastically optimistic) period trappings made for a critical and fan favorite. Sure, there was less and less of the Easter Egg-interconnections promised but mostly ignored by this shared universe (Here’s the Red Room! You knew Hydra’s origins would get teased somehow!). But who cares about all that, really?
“Agent Carter” Season 1 earned its continuation by telling a whip-smart mystery whose twists and turns never lost sight of the compelling thematic territory built into a woman striking out in the ultimate man’s world. That the show was able to achieve that in what was essentially an eight-episode expansion of a 15-minute short is astonishing. All that’s left to ask as Season 2 rolls in is whether the producers can repeat their success without repeating themselves.
In its two-episode premier, this season spends one hour taking a bow for last year’s fans and one doubling down on the ultra efficient storytelling that comes with an eight-episode season. The opener, “The Lady in the Lake,” checks all the boxes for a season two bow. Peggy (now something of a legend in the Strategic Science Reserve) gets transferred out of the SSR’s New York office by her jealous and careerist new boss Jack Thompson. But when she lands in Los Angeles on the job to help hunt down a bizarre serial killer, she’s reunited happily with her former partner in sleuthing Edwin Jarvis and awkwardly with her flirty coworker Daniel Sousa. The procedural format of finding out who exactly killed then froze (or froze to kill) a young woman and left her floating as an ice cube in a lake is by the numbers, but we’re too busy celebrating Peg’s return to notice.
It starts where last season finished: with psychotic Russian spy Dottie in the crosshairs of the SSR. The opening sequence is as close to pure fan service as possible. From letting Dottie and a gang of bank robbers walk on screen in the guise of Peggy’s own red-hatted entrance from last year on through to Agent Carter’s own surprising “I was in the bank vault you’re robbing all this time…with a shotgun!” move (which comes a close second to the old lady with a shotgun in “Captain America: The First Avenger”), each moment in the fight plays out in order to elicit maximum fist pumps from the viewer.
Once Dottie is in custody and Peggy is pushed from her interrogation and out to LaLa Land, the returns diminish. While we love watching Carter and Jarvis play off one another, the pair debating the merits of Los Angeles heat while carting a pink flamingo around for the butler’s absentee boss Howard Stark falls flat. Similarly, the mystery over why Sousa has been ignoring Peggy’s letters (hint: he has a girlfriend now!) comes without any real chemistry or tension. Worst of all, the actual mystery of how our frozen victim became a human ice cube feels pretty rote. Of course the local detective who insists the killer is his longtime foe turns out to be the killer himself. The overall effect is a welcome return to the action of the series but an unmemorable outing all the same.
Where the hour starts to shine is in its big story details. After Chief Thompson pushes Peggy off to the West Coast, his own part in the drama gets more and more compelling. Aside from Dottie’s delicious and wicket toying with our boy (the character was built to be Peggy’s arch nemesis and thank God they’ve kept her around to play the part), the introduction of Red Foreman as an FBI puppet master pulling Jack away from the SSR and into a shadowy game of Washington ladder climbing is a promising turn.
Meanwhile out in LA, all the fireworks start to sparkle when Carter, Sousa and company dig at Isodyne Energy -Â an atomic-minded startup run by a slimy would-be senator named Calvin Chadwick and his Lady MacBeth-esque movie star wife Whitney Frost. The murder victim is Chadwick’s office fling, but her killing is less about hiding his infidelity and more about covering up a secret energy experiment that Isodyne has in the works. While the introduction of whistle-blowing employee and potential Peggy love interest Dr. Jason Wilkes shows how the series focuses on the ideals of modern storytelling more so than the harsh realities of minorities in the 1940s (even the few moments that underline the struggle of a black man like Wilkes included feel tacked on as a formality), it still adds some character spark to the proceedings.
Hour two jumps right into that intrigue in a way that feels much more assured and intriguing than the “police detective turned icicle villain gets shattered by a dirty cop” finale of the opener. We get Peggy and Sousa opening up about how they’ve grown apart just enough to work the case together as equals. Jarvis and his wife (actress Lotte Verbeek delivering an instantaneous fan favorite performance) upend societal expectations of a mid-century marriage with a dash of judo double entendres. And the world behind Chadwick’s company opens up in the pulpiest way possible with an Illuminati style organization pulling all the strings (led by creepy TV all-star Ray Wise, no less!).
Oddly, the second episode (“A View in the Dark”) is almost absent of a dedicated A-Plot…much to its benefit. Rather than amping up a case of the week contrivance to put Peg in motion, the writers smartly step deeper into the questions asked by the premier and let the characters take the wheel from there. Peggy has a clandestine night meet with Wilkes that veers between secret op and first date in a charming, natural way. Chadwick’s wife reveals the extent of her being the real power in their marriage in a way that shows the reader what a threat she is even if they don’t automatically recognize which Marvel supervillain she’s bound to become. And all the drama of the SSR hums in the background waiting for the moment when it’ll doubtlessly force Agent Carter’s personal and professional life to collide and collapse.
When the hour ends with Wilke both explaining the existence of Isodyne’s dangerously powerful “Zero Matter” experiment and then almost directly dying trying to keep it out of Frost’s cunning hands, the finish feels less like a shocking reveal than it does a promise that “Agent Carter” Season 2 will move at as fast a clip as the first go round did.
It’s a promising start. While the opening hours don’t quite hit the strong thematic notes of last year’s run (or even turn them on their ear in a compelling way), the decision to focus on character relationships and the mystery of a new setting and cast pay off as pure entertainment. With luck, the show will not only build up the story in a manner that makes a hungry Marvel audience think about the kinds of stories we want to see but also deliver a few extra espionage explosions in the process.
So who cares if this is the low show on the continuity porn totem pole? Marvel Studios as a whole can forget that “Agent Carter” is part of its film canon for as long as it wants. If the show succeeds on its own terms regardless, fans won’t likely notice that there’s nothing here that will show up in “Avengers 12.”