Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Girl Has Got it Rough: "Agent Carter" season 2

In episode 4 of "Agent Carter" season 2, "Smoke and Mirrors", the scene flashes back to Broxton Oklahoma, 1920. Dusty sunshine, a cute kid, frowning intently as she dissects the radio, making notes, solving problems. She fixes the radio--clearly a budding genius--and upbeat jazz fills the room. It's a classic Marvel scene; the comics are full of young geniuses. We could imagine Howard Stark or his son Tony, Peter Parker, or, more recently, Lunella Lafayette in that same position. When the girl's mother comes in and tells her to clean up the mess she made fixing the radio, the feeling doesn't change.
But this little girl isn't going to grow up to be a hero. Little Agnes is this season's villain, Whitney Frost, A.K.A. Madame Masque. The reasons why she's destined for trouble quickly become apparent. Her mother gets along by being nice to men. She wants little Agnes to be nice also. But Agnes already knows that if you give a man a smile, he'll think you want to be on your back. "I bet you're pretty when you smile. Why won't you smile for your uncle Bud?" her mother's boyfriend asks. Agnes is too smart to be groomed by a randy pedo. She's busy thinking. She wants to think her way out, not live her life on her back.
In a post-"Jessica Jones" world, telling a girl "Smile," is simple shorthand for "I'm an asshole." "I think all you're good for is pretty scenery." "There's nothing going on in your head that isn't about me." Agnes Cully never gets told anything but "smile." If I were her, I'd go batshit crazy too.
The best thing about "Agent Carter" season 2 is Whitney Frost, under-appreciated genius, who uses the only currency her world lets her have--her pretty face--to put herself in a position where she can finally exploit her god-given brain. Surrounded by men who use her and betray her, the touch of real, concrete power that Zero Matter allows her is like finally reaching land after swimming through an endless buffeting sea.
She's not the only under-appreciated genius. Jason Wilkes, an African-American WWII veteran, tells his story of struggling to find employment after the war. Luckily Whitney Frost's company is there to take him in. And after that goes boom, quite literally, our favorite charming womanizer Howard Stark picks up the baton, tidying Wilkes away into a research facility where Stark, as he blatantly admits, will take credit for his work and become even more rich and famous by the theft.
In a universe where the events of Truth: Red, White and Black--the Marvel comics series by Robert Morales which explores the preliminary tests of the super-serum that created Captain America on involuntarily recruited black soldiers (most successfully Isaiah Bradley, the first Captain America), written to resonate with the horrors of the Tuskegee Experiments--has not been actively denied, Wilkes's backstory feels soft and Disnified. Our token moments in Black LA only highlight the odd lack of Latinx or Asian characters in a location that if Philip K. Dick was right, would belong to the Japanese Empire had things gone the other way during the war.
All of this, of course, is "Agent Carter"'s writers' flustered attempt to combat the criticism that pointed out that it was odd that the first season failed to have any main characters of color considering it was set in post war NYC. Somehow, it seems that they must also have been incisively criticized for focusing too much on the relationships between female characters. The quiet and yet resonant building of trust between Carter and her now-roommate, Angie Martinelli, has no parallel in season 2, and Martinelli herself is utterly forgotten in the script, save for an appearance as a figment of Carter's imagination in the musical interlude and one reference as "my roommate" in the final episode.
In spite of this valiant effort, "Agent Carter" season 2 suffers by comparison with season 1. Wilkes, though pleasant enough, is continually attacked by the script: shot at, insulted, exploded, disembodied, kidnapped, manipulated, led on, rejected, and ultimately tidied away. The female characters are given uncomfortably short shrift. Whitney Frost, the most developed of the group, loses agency halfway through the season, her behavior attributed to madness and megalomania rather than the reasoned chess-moves of a woman pushed to the brink. Ana Jarvis, sassy and charming, is simply there to be a concerned wife and then a victim, pushing her husband to man up and express his emotions through violence. Rose is given the occasional sidekick moment, but must share it with another (how many are there now?) gormless male scientist, and Violet, the fiancée, has a moment of personality and then is never heard from again. Everyone's favorite villainess, Dottie Underwood, is a force of chaos. Disconnected from her Russian handlers, she has no clear motives beyond a moderate and possibly unfounded respect for Carter. Carter herself is the real casualty of season 2. Her backstory, given as a parallel with Frost's, relies upon a supportive brother pushing her beyond her dreams for herself, which are 'normal' female dreams, reinforced by all of the women in her life.
It is unfortunate that the writers of Season 2 seem to have missed the BBC miniseries "the Bletchley Circle." The use of the women code-breakers of Bletchley Park as nothing more than wedding obsessed traditionalists seems unfairly reductive when compared with the stories of these same women straining against the strictures of the post-war world after testing their mettle at Bletchley. In season 1 we knew that Peggy Carter was making her way in a man's world, but she was not waiting for a man to hand her the prize. In season 2, even her identity as the Peggy Carter we know is a gift of a man--her boss, her brother--and though in this world women might be friends there is no power nor meaning derived from their mutual support.
I am aware that there is often disproportionate pressure applied to the one primetime female-led Marvel superhero show, encouraging it to be groundbreaking on issues of gender and race. Some might say it is unfair to only criticize "Agent Carter" season 2 along these lines. I can accept that. I can put aside my issues with the inadvertent messages it is sending. And, in truth, I would be able to forgive "Agent Carter" season 2 all of these gaffes and missteps if the main plot weren't so unutterably boring.
The first two-parter is a miracle of poor pacing. The inciting incident, an iced over lake in the baking heat of Los Angeles, brings a pleasing touch of the superheroic. (Let's just put aside the unfortunate knowledge that a dead woman is inside it, in fact, a female scientist who was having an affair with a powerful man. Is it surprising that television death is the fate of women who are too smart and too sexual for their own good? No. Of course not. It would have been nice if that weren't the case in "Agent Carter" though.) But as Carter and the Hawaiian-shirted-Sousa along with Detective Henry, a vaguely entertaining sneezy policeman who could have been culled from any Hollywood detective movie of the depicted era, very slowly follow the leads toward a political cabal in a gentleman's club (sadly one without the exuberant licentiousness of the Hellfire Club), the show drags. In the fissure between seasons, the one-sided admiration Sousa had for Carter became an amorphous 'something' quickly followed by Sousa ghosting his way out of the relationship when he is transferred to LA. This banal occurrence required multiple sideways discussions between otherwise interesting characters about 'what might have been.' Then the momentum of Carter's investigation is derailed again by a brief flirtation with a scientist, Wilkes, and the awkwardness of a one-sided exchange of phone numbers. The pacing is not improved by cutting back to New York, where Agent Thompson ineffectually interrogates Underwood. The actual narrative of Detective Henry's poor decision making skills is so buried under this detritus that when his life ends in shattered ice, it has utterly no impact.
Lack of impact is a theme of "Agent Carter" season 2. Suspenseful stakes? Only the fate of the world. But, unfortunately, it is only the fate of the world. When one of the characters is in immediate danger it is usually due to an unforeseen consequence of their own poorly thought out plan of attack. Twice they attack a vortex of doom with a magical machine. Twice they fall into one of Frost's casually laid traps. Twice, perhaps three times, they scrounge for nuclear material. Repetition and lack of escalation keep this season plodding along. The moments of brightness--Frost's complex motivations, Underwood's sly grin--fade away, leaving only a beige blandness in the last act.
The subtle hypocrisy of Carter and her team's actions do not improve the situation. They are the good guys, so when they gleefully cause brain damage to someone in their way, (of course, he's a sleazebag), or steal hard won research (the researcher is the villain), or hit a woman with a car (she's resilient, it's no big deal), it is automatically forgiven by the narrative. There is no nuance here, no understanding that being a good guy means doing it the hard way, or, at the very least, acknowledging the ugliness of the easy way. In spite of Frost's compelling backstory, after episode 4 there is no suggestion that she might struggle with her choices also. Carter's team plots and schemes and steals, all in order to punish a sad and lonely woman for doing what Carter did not do in this season--take what she deserved instead of waiting for it to be given to her.
Fans of the season 1 relationship between Carter and her now-roommate Martinelli wondered if the lack of Martinelli in season 2 was their punishment for daring to read the friendship as romantic. Was this love triangle nonsense a panicked 'no-homo' move by the writers? Worse, it seems that it was a 'I don't know what to do with a woman main character besides put her into a love triangle' move. When even Twilight fans are tired of the love triangle, that shows a sad lack of imagination. But the truth is, the fans of Carter and Martinelli as a couple saw something real: a well written relationship between two very different characters. It developed slowly. Trust was earned. Romantic or not, there was a relationship there. In season 2, all we were given was forced sexual tension. The most charming human moment was when Sousa botches the proposal to his girlfriend Violet. They laugh together. They'd be a good fit. Instead, of course, Violet discovers Sousa's lingering feelings for Carter, sets him free, and never appears again.
Perhaps the moment that leaves the bitterest taste of all is Jarvis's halting description of the motion picture he is pretending to cast Whitney Frost in. She will play a spy, a female Agent. "Any love interest?" Frost asks. "We haven't found the right actor yet," he temporizes, suggesting, unintentionally perhaps, that this might turn out to be a different sort of movie, one where the lady spy can carry the plot without a romance. In a world where that movie existed, Frost would never have had to become a villainess. And in that world, season 2 of "Agent Carter" wouldn't be bogged down in unconvincing romantic subplots. The writers might have thought hard about the characters, discovered what their motives were, where to hit them where it hurt, and season 2 could have been a romp and a thrill ride.
I do not expect miracles from television, but the abandonment of basic principles of storytelling, the cavalierly treated characterization, the forced and unconvincing romance, and the betrayal of the solidly and carefully built first season left me doing little but sighing, wandering away from the screen, and yelling at each missed opportunity and unsupported character moment.
Peggy Carter may not actually be a telephone operator, but I'm sure she can tell when someone is phoning it in. She knows her value. And she deserves better.


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