Even though it's only in its second season, Marvel's ABC drama "Agent Carter" has already established a pattern for its annual "more than a mini series" outings. To date, the second run of the period spy drama has followed a very similar track to last years stellar opening season: establish a central mystery, mix in a handful of charming if one-dimensional supporting players, run through a series of solo adventures that almost wear out the show's welcome before finally kicking it into high gear for an action-heavy final act.
With a with the two-fisted two-parter that dropped tonight, it appears that season two is on the bleeding edge of that final act -Â and not a moment too soon. The ostensibly separate stories "Life of the Party" and "Monsters" added up with a highly satisfying turning point in the show's story arc by bringing back on the series best villain and finally setting the Los Angeles status quo on its head.
The first hour convincingly flips the script on the most tried-and-true plot in all of spy TV (and in many "Agent Carter" episodes): the undercover op. Grievously wounded from the fall she took last week, Peggy is incapable of doing much of anything but also under the gun to save Dr. Wilkes who continues to hear the call of some otherworldly force that's infected his very being. The only way to get the Zero Matter that can make the doc tangible for long enough to stabilize himself is to steal the blood of unhinged movie star scientist Whitney Frost. And to do that, Peg must break out and blackmail into service the show's most entertaining antagonist: Russian spy Dottie Underwood.
The character brings the right amount of biting humor and genuine menace to the proceedings. And Making Dottie an agent of good (if only because the tracker necklace Peggy gives her can also take her life) is a smart play. The setup leans into the strengths of the show's writing staff and puts a well-placed wild card into the mix just as the stakes are most dire. Around this ticking time bomb spin an assemblage of supporting players confronting their own crisis moments. Alongside the aforementioned Dr. Wilkes is Mrs. Jarvis, not nearly as memorable as her initial appearance but drawing sympathy as she worries over her bumbling husband's key role in the plot to steal Frost's blood. Speaking of which, the target herself is portrayed as increasingly unhinged in her own quest to create more Zero Matter. Her spineless politician husband Chadwick is all too aware of this but all too incapable of dealing with it on his own.
Jarvis and Dottie hit a fundraiser for Chadwick where they hope to suck up a bit of Frost Blood in passing while avoiding the watchful eyes of SSR Chief and unfortunately power-hungry frienemy Jack Thompson. Jack's toadying for FBI sleazebag Vernon Masters allows for some cute modern commentary as Chadwick butters the pair up with talk of military support while his coffers are equally filled with Howard Stark's money. It's not the only moment in the show that feels a bit too modern for the period trappings, but since everything is in service of making Dottie's mission more of a glorious disaster, it works just fine.
Amidst this mission, Peggy herself steps back to a more B-plot status in her own show for the hour. Mostly her part in the episode is to dream up the plan and then to have sexual tension with Chief Sousa in the van for the rest of the proceedings. The show works double time to make the growing love triangle between these two and the intangible Dr. Wilkes something that has some honest doubts at play, and there are certainly fans who will be invested in which suitor wins our Peg's heart by the end of the season, but for the most part these relationships frills are overly sweet frosting on the cake. The real action -Â both in terms of entertainment and theme -Â comes squarely from the sci-fi segment of the show.
Of course, it wouldn't be a spy show if everything went according to plan, and Dottie has a plan all her own. Once she's attained a sample of Frost's blood, the proto-Black Widow stakes out the meeting between the Matter-poisoned starlet and the Arena Club. Through a mostly opaque curtain, Dottie watches on with Chadwick and the rest as Frost displays her ability to eat away at organic matter with a sticky, seemingly intelligent black discharge. But killing a rat in front of the powerful cabal of men doesn't endear the actress to the club, rather it pushes them to turn the tables and capture the scientist/science experiment gone wrong for their own purposes. Then again, it wouldn't be a spy show if everything went according to play, remember? So in a flash, Frost strikes back by showing off a display of power like none she's every used before - eating up the majority of the Club and her own husband in a rage-fueled fit.
That hostile takeover scene isn't nearly as horrific as its meant to be (blame both the budgets and standards of network dramas for the reliance on "spooky goo" to carry the action), but luckily the rest of the hour picks up strongly from that slightly anti-climactic moment. As the new head of the Arena Club, Frost quickly sets her plan to make more Zero Matter in motion. Its remaining members (including smarmy ass-kiss/Roxxon Oil head Hugh Jones) are dispatched to cover Frost's murders and then set her up with new atomic materials to create more Zero Matter. But under the surface of this new regime is tension amongst a cabal of once-powerful men worried that they've been usurped by a woman (insert your Hillary Clinton joke here).
Much more exciting is when Dottie goes rogue, kicking and killer her way through the Arena Club's hired goons in an attempt to earn her own freedom. It's an appropriate "shit hits the fan" moment. Yes, Peg and company are able to recover the blood sample and by extension save Wilkes, but in the process they've lost their psychotic spy (to pseudo-turncoat Thompson and his new masters) and the slight edge they may have had on Frost -Â not to mention the fact that Peggy's preoccupation with saving Dottie destroys Wilkes' sense of self (perhaps only temporarily).
The second hour is almost a direct extension of the first, only much more straightforward in terms of its plot mechanics yet deeper and weirder in terms of its themes and character work. On one side of the coin, Wilkes has constructed a machine to reconstitute himself alongside the Jarvises and Peggy. On the other side, Frost is torturing her way towards recapturing the nuclear material she needs to recreate Zero Matter with Dottie, Masters and the ever-charming if still underutilized Joseph Manfredi in tow.
The action rolls out like clockwork. Peggy and Edwin find a way to track Dottie down into what is certainly a trap -Â the kind of mission that will require some improbable contraption of Howard Stark's to win the day. But breaking up their steely focus on the task at hand is Peggy's lovelife. Dr. Wilkes kissed her upon his finding a corporeal body, and Jarvis is either the first or last person on earth to realize that she's now torn between the good doctor and Chief Sousa. Meanwhile, Sousa himself is facing down a hostile takeover from the honey-tongued Vernon Masters who seems incapable of turning him the same way he did Jack Thompson.
When our heroes get captured on Frost's estate, she's already on her way back to Stark Manor to steal what she needs and tap into the mind of Dr. Wilkes for more info on what the hell Zero Matter even is. But thanks to some well-timed bumbling on Jarvis' part (is there any other kind of Jarvis bumble?), Peggy's team is freed. Sure, the crew may not know exactly how terrifying Frost is thanks to Dottie's own snarky rejoinders, but the Russian has been marked by her encounter with the season big bad in a way that's prophetic for what may come next.
More importantly, Frost's own ransacking of the mansion carries two powerful moments. For one, her pitch to Dr. Wilkes on why he should join forces for him is perhaps the cleanest explanation of her worldview. Whitney doesn't want the Zero Matter for power in and of itself. She wants it to radically alter the system that puts people like her and Wilkes at the bottom rung of society's ladder. It's a sympathetic angle for a villain to come from, and Wilkes' own yearnings for her to be right are apparent. But he and the audience still know right from wrong, and so he has to be forced into following her to the next phase of her plans.
Even more dramatic is Whitney's escape plan. As Peggy, Edwin and Dottie approach, Frost catches Anna Jarvis on the Stark grounds. Having just explained her own social justice worldview, Whitney swears that she and her ilk aren't monsters, but soon proves to be that very thing when she gut shoots the innocent Anna as a smokescreen for their escape. Ideally, this moment would be the one that truly turns the audience away from any sympathy it had for Frost. But like we said above, hardly anyone didn't already think the unhinged actress was on a one-way trip to Masters of Evil status. So the shooting's impact is undercut in one sense. But still, capping a character created solely to be loved by fans is a can't miss move to put a show into its endgame phase, and from here "Agent Carter" is all business.
A last minute escape by Dottie and a takeover of SSR Los Angeles by Masters (in the face of a mysteriously wounded Sousa to boot) only enhance the feeling that we've past the point of no return. With three episodes left, there are plenty of threads to tie up with this season. What exactly is Zero Matter? What mysterious force is calling to Dr. Wilkes from beyond? Who will Peggy end up with? Will any of the characters from the comics end up donning their supervillain duds (please say Ken Marino, please say Ken Marino)? Luckily, the answers are just around the corner, and the show is in great shape to pull the reveals off in style.