Heading into tonight's season finale of ABC's Marvel drama "Agent Carter," a slew of questions hung over the proceedings. Would the mystery of what exactly Zero Matter is be solved? Would any shocking deaths serve to wrap up the story as they did last year? Would Whitney Frost transform in to Madame Masque? And maybe most tellingly, would Peggy Carter choose between her two tortured suitors?
But there is one big question that the show itself wasn't asking that many viewers may find themselves grappling with: what exactly is at stake for our beloved Agent Carter? Because when the fade out hit on the episode tellingly titled "Hollywood Ending," this still quirky, fast-paced and admirable show didn't quite deliver a big IDEA the same way last year's story of a woman fighting her way through a man's world did.
In part, this falls at the feet of a very direct and simplistic action plot to drive the finale home. After the Agents of the SSR failed last time to erase Zero Matter from existence with Jack Thompson's ill-advised nuclear option, mad scientist Whitney Frost is now empowered with an excess of the other worldly sludge. While the team can take some comfort in the fact that they've saved their friend Dr. Wilkes from a similar fate as Frost's, they're now tasked with finding a way to stop her before she can reopen the portal to an entirely destructive dimension permanently. In their corner stands Howard Stark, recently returned from
better paying acting gigs another mission in Peru.
While there are other scenes and issues at play in the episode, those broad strokes cover the majority of the screentime. And with Stark back in full effect and a science problem on the table, it's hard to undersell the fun to be had in this story. The constant quipping between the whole crew. The dick measuring over which of our trio of scientists will get to name the dimension-shattering machine they're proposing. The mid-episode fakeout where we think Mr. Jarvis will be killed over a jar of mustard only to learn that legit womanizer Stark is drinking buddies with legit psycho Manfredi. All of these little details have immeasurable charm and keep things light and breezy even as the end of the world looms if our heroes fail.
Even in the more quiet moments when the more serious subplots bubble up, the viewer always knows that nothing too terrible is bound to happen. Though heartbreaking, the loss of Mrs. Jarvis' ability to have children is a storm everyone's favorite British couple will weather. Chief Thompson's psuedo-betrayal pivots quickly into an olive branch mystery plot when he gives Peggy the revealed key to the Arena Club's...something or other. Even the love triangle that the show spent so much time playing up this year seems to wrap itself up in a little bow without much fuss.
In fact, the manner in which we see Peggy's relationship woes resolve themselves is as telling a detail to the failings of this season as you can picture. While admirable and conflicted in equal measure, Dr. Wilkes never seemed a perfect fit for Peggy and so the disposal of the one-season wonder can be done without a lot of conflict. On the other hand, the puppy dog that Daniel Sousa has become in Los Angeles quickly turns into a lion when push comes to shove. As the SSR team powers up a contained portal to draw Whitney Frost into the open and suck the Zero Matter from her body, of course things go wrong requiring Sousa to leap into sacrificial mode. He's nearly eaten up by the spinning CGI vortex but is saved only when Peggy pulls him back from the brink. While the producers mean for this near-death experience to draw the characters fully together, the whole affair leaves an empty feeling with the audience mostly because Peggy has so little to do in it. She would have stubbornly jumped in to save any of the men in a similar circumstance, and by the end of the whole Zero Matter plot, we're left with a main character who neither came up with the solution nor executed it nor put her life on the line to prove her worth. Peg is ultimately a supporting player in her own story.
This hits the heart of Season 2's big problem: What is this story about? While Season 1 tracked Peggy's quest to make it in a man's world and carefully explored the emotional fallout that came with being a woman alone in such a circumstance in a multi-faceted way, this year seemed to have little interest in a theme of equal merit. Nominally, this season was all about power. The Arena Club of old, greedy white men had it. Chief Thompson saw what lay down the path of pursuing it. Perpetual outsider Whitney Frost craved it more than anything else. The Zero Matter represented its literal dark side. But Peggy? Peggy neither wanted power nor articulated any convincing counterpoint to men's obsession with keeping it. Instead, her story was seemingly about "following your heart" - both in the figurative sense in regards to her backstory with her brother and in the literal sense when it came to picking which man she'd marry. While our hero remained as intelligent and feisty as ever, this character arc couldn't help but feel like a letdown.
And so does the very end of this finale. Sousa snarkily plays the part of another man in a position of power belittling Peg for going against the rules, and she falls into his lap for it. It seems to answer the question posed by "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" of who she eventually married (unless another twist awaits), but it left so many of the mysteries that this season asked by the wayside. What was up with Zero Matter anyway? While it felt like a living cosmic force that could be connected with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe in earlier episodes, it ended up just another MacGuffin to let the characters save the world in the end. What was really up with the lapel pin/key that characters like Dottie started chasing early on? Well, maybe it'll be explained in Season 3.
Doubtlessly, there are plenty of people out there who will say "Who cares if this season had any big idea behind it? We like Peggy as a character. We want to watch her save the day. There doesn't need to be more to it." And fine. This kind of superhero story is often only a passing entertainment with a few flourishes of wish fulfillment at the wheel. But it's sad that a show like this that was once able to elevate the material into something more sophisticated and vital ends up reverting to "She chose the right man" in the end.
On the upside, there is the last-minute cliffhanger that sees Chief Thompson getting killed over a file that may rock Peggy's world. Combine that with the show's still winning tone and the various unanswered mysteries, and creatively the material is demanding a third season. But if ABC looks at the numbers and decides that 20-episodes was all she wrote for "Agent Carter"...well, it was mostly a very good thing while it lasted.