In the past couple of weeks, RT has been after me to write my promised follow-up to the Supergirl article, regarding the ABC series Agent Carter. I had told him that once I’d finished watching all of the episodes of the former, I’d work on an article for the latter, telling you why you should be watching this show.
Now I have the task of telling you why you should have watched this show.
Agent Carter was cancelled by ABC this week. There were hints that this would happen. First, Hayley Atwell was recently cast in the upcoming series Conviction. And while there were hopeful murmurs that she could do that series as well as a third season of Agent Carter – since the first two seasons were eight and ten episodes each – the fact that she was finding other series work was only the first sign that there might not be a third season for our favorite SSR operative. And days ago, ABC closed the lid on any remaining hopes in their upfronts this week, announcing the cancellation, citing constantly decreasing viewership as the primary reason for their decision.
While I understand this decision, I think cancelling this series outright is a big mistake. Like the decision this week to move Supergirl to The CW for the second season, I believe a similar strategy could have been used to further the adventures of Margaret Carter. There were suggestions of moving the show to Netflix – where shows featuring second- and third-tier Marvel heroes have been thriving like dandelions in my front yard – or possibly moving it to ABC‘s website as a premium, pay-per-episode deal, much like CBS/Paramount will be doing with the upcoming new Star Trek series.
However, unless Conviction tanks, there seems to be nothing that can be done to rescue a show about a woman who has never needed rescuing.
And that is a shame. Let me tell you why. But first, a recap of her adventures.
Peggy Carter’s most famous line, uttered in the first episode of the first season, was “I know my value“.
Her character was first introduced to audiences in Captain America: The First Avenger, as Cap’s more-than-capable mentor and eventual love interest. Anyone that Tommy Lee Jones’ Colonel Phillips would trust to push tough-talking American G.I.’s to the breaking point was a formidable force indeed, whether male or female. Her heartbreak at Steve’s climactic death at the end was palpable and an emotional highlight of an already stellar film adaptation of a comic book. Cap was dead – so everyone thought – and Peggy had to go on.
Her next foray was the Marvel One-Shot short titled, strangely enough, Agent Carter. Peggy has left the military and is working in New York at the Strategic Scientific Reserve. However, given that it is the 1940’s, none of her achievements during the war mean squat now. In fact, it is stated pretty plainly that she’s only working at the SSR, in any capacity, because of her association with Cap. She files reports, gets the coffee… all the things a woman of the 1940’s is tacitly expected to do. However, when “the boys” are all out having a drink, the office gets a call that a known criminal operative has been located and needs immediate apprehension. It is recommended that five or six agents take on the task. However, the problem is, they’re all getting sloshed at a bar now. Peggy is the only agent available.
She takes the job herself. With a briefcase in hand, she strides confidently up to two goons and soundly beats them both to a pulp, using her fists, feet and briefcase, all without mussing her skirt or breaking a sweat. She then infiltrates the hideout of Zodiac, the criminal in question, and takes out four more men singlehandedly, using only a police baton, her wits and her fighting skills. When Zodiac hides behind a steel door, she strides up to it, using a pistol she also brought along, creating a circle of bullet holes big enough to throw in a canister of knockout gas. With Zodiac out of commission, she pulls a gas mask out of her briefcase, puts it on, and retrieves the object Zodiac was hiding. She then apprehends all of the men in the hideout and returns to SSR… only to be berated by her director for not only taking the job alone, but not letting the men handle it. She may know her value, but it is obviously not appreciated by anyone else she works with. Peggy, disheartened, becomes resigned to her unwanted role of glorified secretary… until a fateful call from one Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) changes her life forever.
And that is the beginning of the Agent Carter TV series.
In the first episode, Stark is framed for treason and goes into hiding, leaving with Carter his faithful and rather stodgy butler, Edwin Jarvis (played to a turn by James D’Arcy, until then not known for much more than being psychotic villains and other such antagonistic characters – he actually expressed reservations that he would do the role of Jarvis justice). Jarvis at first does not get that being the assistant to, and later full partner of Peggy Carter entails more work than just reading instructions from Stark to her over the phone before making dinner for his wife. Peggy teaches him quickly what it means to be an adventurous agent, and he learns that he does actually have a knack for it, after a fashion. What he lacks in experience in the field, Peggy makes up for; what she lacks in resources, Jarvis provides. And over the course of the first season, they develop a charming and highly entertaining repartee reminiscent of that between William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series of films. Action and plot aside, the true highlight of the show was watching their relationship – always platonic, as Jarvis is happily married, but always faithful and close – develop over the course of the eight-episode first season. At the end, Carter and Jarvis save the day, and she finally earns the respect of her peers at the SSR.
In the second season, Peggy has been reassigned to the SSR’s Los Angeles bureau, with Jarvis in tow – at the express orders of Stark, who has since recognized what a great team the two make – basing their operations both at the SSR LA office (above a low-rent talent agency front) and Stark’s Hollywood mansion. It is here that we finally meet Mrs. Jarvis – in the first season mostly only mentioned and occasionally heard offscreen. I had reservations about finally bringing out a character whose presence and appearance usually is better left to the imagination of the viewer. Good examples of this include Norm’s wife on Cheers and Niles Crane’s wife Maris on Frasier – always discussed for comedic effect, but never seen. However, the first time I saw Lotte Verbeek as Ana Jarvis, I completely understood why a man like Edwin would fall for her. She was quirky without being annoying, wise, and as resourceful in her own way as Mr. Jarvis was in his. As well as he works together with Peggy, his first loyalty is always to his wife. When she is shot during an episode to allow some bad guys to get away, Jarvis comes close to losing his center, his focus and his mind with grief; his love for his wife being that evident. (She lives, however, to his immense relief.)
The move from New York to Los Angeles gives Carter, Jarvis, and other members of the SSR carried over from Season One, a chance to shake things up with interactions with the LA and Hollywood glitterati. Also, having released some of the baggage of their associations with the New York bureau, Peggy begins working more closely with Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), a man with a leg injury he suffered during the war, but who is still a capable agent. He had moved to LA before Carter was assigned there and became the LA bureau’s section chief, and it’s revealed that part of the reason for this move was an unrequited romantic feeling for Peggy. Sousa met and eventually got engaged to a nurse, and all was going well for him until Peggy showed up. Now he must try to reconcile his new romantic life with the potential one he left behind.
For her part, Peggy, having moved on from her brief but intense romance with Steve Rogers, finds more than one possible romantic partner during the second season. To their credit, they respond to Peggy as a potential lover based on her confidence, capability and her desire to be the best at what she does. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also beautiful and charming to boot. She is not the stereotypical “weak female” portrayed both in media from the period and media about the period. If one were to describe Peggy Carter’s astounding confidence in herself in male terms, one could say she had brass balls the size of grapefruits. But comparing her to men isn’t fair to her. Peggy Carter is her own woman. As she said, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” However, as she slowly earns the respect of her male partners and peers, that second sentence starts to lose its edge.
One could say that a character like Peggy Carter is an anachronism. A woman of the 21st century transplanted to a time almost 70 years back and plopped down into the sexist, male-oriented society to show these guys what a strong woman can do. However, on viewing the show and the character, exquisitely played by Atwell, she is truly simultaneously a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. Her toughness, sometimes uncompromising nature, her willingness to practice deception and disguise, and to get her hands dirty, are all attributes that are given to male characters by rote. Seeing them in Agent Margaret Carter is revelatory. She becomes, by default, the prototype for women to follow, both in the superhero community and out. She is the one to show the way, and she does it with aplomb and an almost breezy effortlessness. She is constantly at least one or two steps ahead of her male partners, even the genius Hughes-like Howard Stark, and always willing to put herself on the line to get things done. She may not have superpowers, but she ably demonstrates that she doesn’t really need them. Maria Hill owes her career in SHIELD directly to the work of Peggy Carter.
Also, one aspect of the show that I really enjoyed was in subtext. You may have heard of something called the Bechdel Test. This test is defined as two women in a work of fiction being able to talk about something other than men – the thrust of this being that it is rather rare that this sort of thing occurs, that the vast majority of entertainment productions fail terribly at this, pointing out the inherent sexism still prevalent today in mainstream moves and TV shows. Many of these works fail the Test because the main character is male, and the females are either assistants, Gal Fridays or otherwise very secondary to the main character.
Agent Carter turned this test on its head. Instead of female characters always deferring to and discussing the main male character, this show “failed” the Test in the opposite direction: almost none of the main, secondary or even tertiary male characters can go very far without discussing the main female character. I found that refreshing. At all times, whether she is onscreen or not, Peggy Carter’s presence is always in the room.
Which, sadly, brings me to my final point.
Peggy Carter, much like Black Widow, Rey (from Star Wars – The Force Awakens) and Wonder Woman on the big screen and, yes again, Supergirl on TV, provided and represented a very strong role model for young girls everywhere. She knew her value, and so did girls across America. She represented the best a woman could be. She showed the world that even though she wore a skirt, heels and makeup, that didn’t matter. What mattered was what she did, and what she was capable of doing. When she first strode down the streets of New York City in her distinctive blue outfit and jaunty red hat, the look on her face and the way in which she walked displayed a cool confidence in herself that became proven more and more to the viewer with each new episode.
Peggy Carter was who young girls could grow up to be. If a woman of the 1940’s could have such adventures, display such courage, knowledge and intuition, and continually win the day by her wits, her skills and, frankly, her charm, then any girl of the 21st century can do the same! One may argue that the character Jessica Jones is comparable, but in truth, though I love that show as well, she is not. Jessica has superpowers. True, she doesn’t use them much, but the main plot of her show is overcoming her own demons (both figuratively and literally) to bring her life back into balance. She is less a role model for young girls as she is for older teens and young women who feel directionless, lost and traumatized. Where Jessica is a fight for truth, balance and an odd but appropriate sense of justice, Peggy represents potential, the imperative to seize opportunity when she sees it, and, most importantly, not to take guff from any man who tells her she can’t do things because she’s a woman.
Cancelling this show robs girls and young women of this icon of womanhood. In her way, Peggy Carter is the epitome of a woman who takes her life into her own hands, and does something positive and meaningful with it, against a wall of institutionalized sexism and rampant underestimation of her abilities. And what young girl who’d rather play with “boy’s” toys has not been told that she can’t measure up, simply because she’s a girl? Pretty much every single one of them.
I will miss Peggy Carter. I will miss her ability to take out an entire crew of men in a fight. I will miss her unerring focus on the job at hand. I will very much miss her absolutely sparkling partnership with Edwin Jarvis (easily the best part of the show, in my opinion). But most of all, I will mourn the loss of opportunity here. The ability of a very good actress to portray such a strong female role model, and the character herself. The chance to show that everyone should know her value. If such a man as the legendary Captain America can have such love and respect for a woman like her, she is someone very, very special indeed. And, low ratings or not, ABC is missing an opportunity to let us to continue to see why.
I leave you with this quote from the show, which sums up Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter nicely:
“Dum Dum” Dugan: What would Cap say if I left his best girl behind?
Peggy Carter: He’d say “Do as Peggy says.”