As a drama, Marvel's Agent Carter rides a not-so fine line between period piece and modern action show – striving for the former but always deferring to the latter. It's chock-full of music that sounds as if it's from the '40s but was recorded in the 2000s, sci-fi tech that's comic-booky in the best sense of the term and jargon that's more Damon Runyon than Boardwalk Empire.
With its fourth episode, the ABC series tips its tonal scales toward the network's boilerplate episodic spy dramas rather than continuing to develop as a post-war novel of a miniseries. Right from the opening scene -- Edwin Jarvis attempts to stall some central casting New York smugglers as Agent Carter kicks her way through a set of dopey guards -- the show's sore thumbs stand out. Even for the butler of a wealthy inventor in a fantasy world, a $50,000 fee is an obscene amount of money for 1945 – to say nothing of coughing it up in $1,000 bills. But all it takes is one smuggler to say "It's not ex-trortion, it's a shakedown" for us to stop caring about all that. And by the time the smuggled cargo is revealed as Dominic Cooper's perfectly smarmy take on Howard Stark, we're in for the show's version of reality all the way.
Stark's return stateside comes with a new mission for Peggy and a new set of complications for the entire team of S.S.R. double-crossers. Under the banner of checking in on his supposedly deadly arsenal of stolen technology now under S.S.R. lock and key, Howard has to hide out at Carter's gals-only boarding house. The subsequent scenes of sneaking around the house's stuffy matron while Howard canoodles with every blonde available are expected but no less pleasurable. But the contrivance does put the mission to recover one of Stark's most dangerous weapons – the episode's titular "Blitzkrieg Button" that modern audiences would just call an E.M.P. – square on Peg's shoulders where the narrative belongs.
Meanwhile, Peggy's boys club office has straightened out its act enough to put on the hard press for answers after one of their own was killed during last week's Stark tech salvage mission. Having traced the names of the tongue-less Leviathan operatives to a mysterious war massacre that took place on the Russian front, Chief Dooley speeds to Nuremberg to interrogate the one Nazi who may know what happened before he meets his end on the gallows. That leaves pretty boy Agent Thompson to crack the whip on the office for any new information and wounded warrior with the heart of gold Agent Sousa with an opportunity to prove his worth.
The three men's storylines attempt to show off a little more personality for Agent Carter's honorable but unlikable agents, and they succeed with two of them. Dooley's last-minute interview with the German unveils the barest of information for the plot (the Russians at the massacre weren't killed by Germans) without giving any new layers to the hardened chief of the unit. But both Sousa and Thompson see their one-dimensional portrayals challenged as they press forward on the home front. Sousa's nice-guy reputation gets a more humane angle as he admits to a stubborn witness that he knows the world pities him for the loss of his limb more than it respects him. But the real revelation is Thompson's cutthroat take on the post-war world. Not only does the character (played with some style by ever-improving Chad Michael Murray) crack the witness with cynical if effective booze bribery, his explanation to Peggy that the man's world that is America is unfair but unchangeable strikes as true as any of the period gender commentary the show has offered up yet. It sure as hell doesn't make Thompson any more likable (he is the unfair beneficiary of an oppressive society whose impact we still feel today, for Pete's sake), but that he's willing to tell it like it is to the striving Carter earns a modicum of respect from her and the audience.
Of course, being the fantasy drama that it is, the rest of the hour isn't spent watching Peggy get crushed by the system that's rigged against her. Armed with Howard's clever pen camera and a terrible poker face from the bumbling Jarvis, Agent Carter finds her way to the truth even the men closest to her would rather shield her from. The supposed electro-bomb Stark's obsessed with isn't a weapon at all but the last remaining vial of Captain America's blood not in the government's hands. That revelation doesn't just provide the otherwise slow-moving hour with its first fan-baiting twist, it also puts Peggy in a place to play the moral authority as she castigates Stark for putting his own ego over an honest appreciation of the Cap legacy.
As the tension around Peggy tightens, the episode's seemingly lamest plot becomes its most surprising as spurned Stark smuggler Mr. Mink chases after our heroes. Stalking through the halls of the boarding house with a semi-automatic handgun that's the show's best yet piece of faux-period gadgetry, Mink crosses paths with Peggy's next-door neighbor. What looks to be another scene of a woman "fridged" in service of the bigger plot is flipped on its head when the innocent-looking woman turns Terminator-esque killer. The cold-blooded end that Mink faces gives birth to the most promising foe Agent Carter has seen yet: a true opposite force for the beleaguered but resilient Peggy.
That tease aside, the rest of the episode does little to advance the season's uber plot. Stark may have been at the Russian massacre. Stan Lee shows up to pull a few smiles from the Merry Marvel faithful (though why oh why couldn't he have asked for the comics section?). And the bonds between Carter and every man on camera remain bruised but perhaps not entirely broken.
That final point is the real question Agent Carter will be struggling to answer as it enters its back half. As a modern generation of fans cheers on a woman we know deserves an equal place at the table, will the show ultimately give us the triumphant Marvel ending we know is far from the reality of the '40s or carry the heartbreaking burden of its hero to a more realistic if tragic finish? Either way, it should be a hell of a ride.