TV Review: Agent Carter Series 2 Episode 4: ‘Smoke & Mirrors’

Through two paralleled backstories, this episode of Agent Carter shows that heroes and villains may not be so different after all, says

★★★☆☆

Image: Marvel/ABC/Kelsey McNeal

Image: Marvel/ABC/Kelsey McNeal

Well that’s more like it.  Agent Carter has actually baby stepped over the line from being solid to being memorable.  This was the first episode of this series that I would watch again happily.  I would not go so far as to say that it was a brilliant episode, and I can totally see why others might not like it, but I feel that this episode managed to provide more than just a small amount of entertainment value. In the little league of Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, I guess this would be at the top end, but as I keep saying, I know that the show can and should be doing better.  However, the fact that I don’t have anything about the episode I specifically disliked should be seen as a step in the right direction.

I really liked the exploration of both Whitney Frost and Peggy’s pasts.  As characters, they are both really interesting and their story shows how they became the people that they are today.  It is a testament to the character of Whitney Frost and how interesting she is that I found myself invested in her past.  That makes for very good characterisation, and it is especially crucial in a good villain.  In Agents of SHIELD Series One, Garrett was such a bad villain that even when they revealed what should have been his life-changing moment in the Balkans, I found myself not caring in the slightest.  However, with Frost you see an incredibly smart person, a genius at a young age, fixing radios and writing mathematical formulae, being suppressed, not only by the standards and norms of her time but by her mother who actively discouraged her curiosity and told her to focus on looking beautiful.  In her past you can see why Whitney became the ruthless person she is today. She had been discouraged, forced to use her looks and pretend not to be smart, while she was the most intelligent person in the room.  She never got ahead with her brains, she had to act, she had to use her looks and that has created resentment, which is now turning to hunger for power: power that she can gain with the Zero Matter.  Exploring her past enforced why she was so driven, and it contrasted nicely with Peggy’s past.

It did not surprise me in the slightest that Peggy, as a child, liked acting out and being different, but what she had to encourage her was her brother, Michael.  While her mother encouraged her to be a lady, her brother saw the true potential in her and pushed her to be her best (also his line about the frontlines having ‘a lot of Nazis who tend to shoot at you quite a bit’ had me in stitches).  Peggy could have easily gone down the expected path of marrying a nice, but uninteresting person and settling down, and that path is not even painted badly, but her brother points out that she can be better and should not accept being anything other than her best.  This grit and determination is exactly what makes Peggy the character she is now.  In the first Captain America film, she is already presented as a driven individual and in Series One, the show was about her looking at the future, so it made sense not to dwell on the past, but now that she has moved on from Steve Rogers, it is nice to look back upon it.  The contrast between the pasts of both Peggy and Whitney was great as it would have been so easy for each of them to live the other’s life.  If Whitney had a brother like Michael or a mother who encouraged her pursuits, then she may well have become less power hungry, less ruthless, warmer.  On the other hand, if Peggy had been brought up like Whitney, she would have been more resentful of life.  The two characters are two sides of the same coin, and that makes for a good story.

I also really liked the scene where Whitney demonstrated her powers to her husband.  From the start we found that she was the brains in that marriage, helping him clear up his mistakes.  However, even her husband was unaware of her true intelligence.  Those scenes where she had to act to manipulate him or go behind his back showed that he was not truly aware of his wife or what she could do.  Her reveal, by absorbing Rufus Hunt, showed that she is not going to be working in the shadows anymore, but she is going to be a lot more confident about using her powers openly, and that makes for a very good change.  It also shows how different this series is.  Last series the villains were all about subterfuge, not revealing themselves until quite late in the series (the first half we did not see Fennhoff at all).  However, Whitney does not do that, she is far more open and it will be nice to see how Calvin and that Council react.  If the Council is connected to HYDRA that will be very interesting and might explain how they were able to control that Zero Matter/Darkforce in series one of Agents of SHIELD with that Blackout guy.

The best scene by far in this show was the scene at Peggy’s engagement party with her brother Michael (who was obviously going to die at some point).  In that scene we saw Peggy move from the path that society dictated she take toward the road to becoming the unconventional and powerful person we see now.  The reveal that her brother had recommended that she become a spy and that it was his death that had spurred her to take a frontline role was a nice touch and was consistent with her character.  Peggy fights for those who cannot fight anymore, for Steve and for her brother, two transformative people who changed her life for the better.  She sees the good in everyone because she knows that anyone can be great.  That scene showed that Peggy’s characteristics came from the support and love she got from others and that she is not a lone wolf or a Mary Sue, but a human, who is shaped by other humans around her.  That makes for a good character.

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