Agent Carter: Season 2, Episode 4 – “Smoke and Mirrors”

Delving into the pasts of both Peggy Carter and Whitney Frost deepens their already strong characterizations.

Marvel’s never shared SSR agent Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) origin story. She just appeared in Captain America as recruiter, confidante, and love interest to Steve Rogers. We know much about her future, as she’s the only character to appear in her youth (Captain America), in middle age (Ant-Man), and in old age (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

“Smoke and Mirrors” gives us the Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story Peggy Carter deserves. We see her first in the yellow-tinged nostalgia of ’30s Britain, in which being a tomboy out to save those in distress was looked down upon.

The scene moves to Peggy at Benchley Park, home to code breaking and Alan Turing. Carter finds herself recruited for the SOE (Special Operations Executive), a new war division run directly by Winston Churchill. Carter’s torn between wedded life and field work/irregular warfare: sabotage, guerrilla tactics, and espionage. Conformity is uncomfortable.

We then find Carter in ’40s Hampstead, England, at her engagement party where her brother and husband meet. Her brother challenges her to “toss one back,” and Carter plays the innocent before her intended, and Peggy reveals her recruitment as a spy. Her fiancé waxes not so poetically about the want of a boring life, while her brother Michael (Max Brown) reveals he was the source of the recommendation. Carter wants, she’s reminded, a life of adventure. Carter has been beaten into British feminine submission, but…

Finally Carter, being fitted for her white dress, and working with her mother (Carole Ruggier) to prepare for her wedding, hears a car honk. Her mother leaves to see who it is. Peggy looks out the window as her distraught mother collapses after being informed by War Department representatives that Michael died. After that, the dress is hung on the mannequin, the ring placed atop a bureau, and the business-dressed Carter leaves to accept her SOE appointment.

Time and again, the writers cleverly bring us back to a moment that illustrates that the characteristics of youth were not charm-schooled out of Peggy, but remain defining attributes of her character. Following her recruitment scene, in which she says she’s “simply not cut out for that sort of work” we’re transported in back to the main plot as she forcibly injects bodyguard and Arena Club thug (and former backyard assailant), Rufus Hunt (Chris Browning), in the neck with a “virulent strain of malaria” (which, it turns out, is just a rather nasty cold, but the ruse works).

Origin stories on television are often delivered through flashbacks and filler. Carter’s childhood, however, is interwoven with the plot in self-reinforcing ringlets. Besides the unrequited love interest of Dr. Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), and preparation for raid and revelation at the Arena Club, we also learn Whitney Frost’s (Wynn Everett) origin story.

Unlike Carter, Frost, nee Agnes Cully, the beautiful but consumed actress and scientific genius, was the product of a harsh upbringing. Reared by a single mother who seemingly made ends meet through her liaisons with men, Agnes was always precocious. We first find Agnes in Broxton, Oklahoma. repairing a radio. Her mother, Wilma (Samaire Armstrong), complains about the mess and admonishes her to clean it up. When Wilma hears “Uncle Bud Shlutz” (Chris Mulkey) arrive, grabbing and kissing in front of Agnes, Wilma and Bud trek upstairs, apparently to satiate Uncle Bud’s earthly desires. Agnes seems less tortured by unrequited love, as Peggy is, but rather unrequited ambition.

When Bud announces he’s found another, younger woman, he cuts Wilma off, evicting both mother and daughter. Fault quickly rains down on Agnes, who’s accused of not being nice enough. Her mother pushes a rejection from the University of Oklahoma in Agne’s face, then lifts Agnes up and shoves her in front of a mirror. Her only ambition, Wilma tells her, her only means to success, is her looks.

We catch up with Agnes in Hollywood, starring at a theater billboard for Teresa Montgomery in “The Spanish Tower”, with no money, and is offered a kindness of a ticket by the agent, “just this once”. As she strolls toward the door of the theater, she’s intercepted by Ned Silver (Andrew Carter), who’s clearly intrigued by this beautiful young woman. He gives her his card, “bets” he can get her some work as a model or an actress, and asks for her name. When she tells him it’s Agnes, Silver replies that she needs a name as pretty as she is. “That’s the beauty of Hollywood,” Silver informs her, “You can be whatever you want.”

As the images of the past dissolve, we find Hunt running to the Chadwick home and to Whitney, where he shares his ordeal with Carter and Sousa (Enver Gjokaj). Hunt feigns innocence, then shares what he has shared. When Frost dispatches Hunt in front of her husband Calvin Chadwick (Currie Graham), he asks, “What are you?” Frost replies, “Whatever I want.”

Paralleling Frost and Carter’s origin stories highlights their significant differences. While Carter perseveres and leaves the possible regret and bifurcation of herself in the past, Frost fully embraces her dual personality of Hollywood star and secret scientist. The crack Zero Matter opens down her face serve as a possible metaphor for the fractured soul within.

Current popular culture discussions often suggest that strong female characters are difficult to find, and that as women age, they are offered fewer and less varied roles. Marvel has always appreciated strong female characters. While many of these characters are perhaps modeled on the voluptuous male ideal, they are nonetheless seldom vacuous or servile. Marvel, to be fair, renders its men similarly, with ideal physical attributes. In strength, intelligence, and fortitude, Marvel’s women are equal to any man they encounter. Peggy Carter remains an excellent representation of this tradition. Similarly, Marvel villains also avoid most stereotypes; this episode offers Frost as a good example of this as well. While there’s fun to be had if you just go with the Agent Carter action, the real beauty of the show is in its respectful storytelling and its well-rendered female characters.

RATING 8 / 10