Caution: This review contains spoilers.
Rather fittingly, Agent Carter opens with a gender reversal of one of genre’s most well-trodden tropes: the fridging of a lover — in this case Steve Rodgers/Captain America — to perpetuate the hero’s story. As the Pilot kicks off, our protagonist Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is by no means incapacitated by Steve’s all-but-dead state; however, he is at the forefront of her mind as she does her best to make herself relevant to her post-war employer, the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR).
Unfortunately, predictably, her all-male cadre of colleagues have little time for her, treating her as something akin to a secretary and not so subtly implying her role in the war was primarily as Steve’s “liaison.” It is this misuse and dismissal of her skills, combined with her personal history with Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), that leads her to take on the extra-curricular assignment of clearing his name after one of his inventions falls into the wrong hands and he is branded a traitor by the US Government. This mission is made especially difficult for Peggy as her employer, the SSR, is on the opposing mission to indict him. Not only must she battle the baddies who are actually at fault, but she must also stay one step ahead of her colleagues as they attempt to chase down Stark’s alleged conspirators and fit him for the crime.
To help Peggy on this mission, Stark offers up the services of his butler Jarvis (James D’Arcy), who becomes Peggy’s on-call support-staff, offering everything from chauffeur services to stitching up wounds to emotional counseling. It is another gender role-reversal that works to great effect without ever being too soap-boxy. Jarvis’s married state is emphasized at the outset, making clear theirs will become a close friendship, rather than a romantic affair. (Although frankly, their chemistry leans more towards a destined-to-be-unrequited attraction, if you ask me)
Although it is a bit too early to tell for sure, the role of love-interest seems to belong to fellow SSR Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), a man disabled in the war who seems to have a more enlightened attitude towards Peggy than most of her other co-workers. However, it is clear romance is not at the forefront of this series, nor should it be. Peggy Carter is a spy, first and foremost, and her missions are indubitably what get her out of bed in the morning.
What is wonderful about the series, at least so far, is that it seems to have all the right elements in just the right amounts. Quippy dialogue, good pacing, well-plotted storylines, exciting fight scenes, old-school spy gadgets, interesting characters, and a leading-lady with enough screen presence to rival classic Hollywood sirens like Veronica Lake or Rita Hayworth. Hayley Atwell is positively marvelous in the lead role, and she easily could carry a show half as well-written as this one. Fortunately, she does not have to, and her performance shines all the more for being grounded in such good material.
The series is also nothing short of a masterpiece stylistically. The 1940s costumes, hairstyles, props, sets and music give the piece a lushness that is visually and aurally decadent. Seriously, there were moments when I was briefly distracted by the sheer production quality of the thing, which could easily be mistaken for a big-screen blockbuster.
Finally, what I think is perhaps most appealing about the story so far, and Peggy as a character, is her emotional hero’s journey is not weighed down by the self-induced isolation and self-pity so typical of classic superheroes like Batman. Although Peggy does go through a brief bout of this, after her roommate friend becomes an early casualty of her line of work, Jarvis is quick to call this out as misguided, and Peggy is quick to take the advice. By the end of the second episode, she has moved down the hall from her waitress pal, a slightly brash New York native named Angie, played with colorful spunk by Lyndsy Fonseca. Their friendship is destined to be a trove of character moments so vital to a series that could otherwise get weighed down by over-blown fight scenes and over-the-top doomsday plots. (And she calls Peggy “English” which I absolutely love)
I would recommend people watch this series if for no other reason than it is the only solo female-led Marvel franchise currently in existence, and getting more of them depends heavily on this one being a success. But it is such an enormous relief to be able to recommend the series based on its quality as well, which is absolutely top-notch. Agent Carter is a credit and a gift the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to audiences everywhere who enjoy a good old-fashioned secret agent yarn, not to mention 1940s fashion.
Ultimately Peggy Carter is James Bond in better shoes, and believe me, 007 should be grateful for the comparison.