Monday, February 16, 2015

Why I'm Watching Agent Carter

Agent Carter is one of the best shows on television right now and certainly one of the best arguments for a feminist critiques of culture. Whenever I get really interested in a show, to the point I start structuring my schedule around it, I have to wonder why. Why this show? What is it that appeals to me?

Agent Carter Promo Picture
The actress playing the title role, Hayley Atwell is a big part of that. She was a highlight of the surprisingly entertaining if flawed first Captain America movie and, in preparation for the Agent Carter mini-series, appeared in a couple of cool vignettes during the first half of this year’s Agents of Shield. In all of these, Atwell portrayed Agent Carter as an extremely capable and stylish agent, unafraid to use her keen wit or powerful right hook to get the job done. In a one-shot filmed by Marvel and tucked into the extras of the Iron Man 3 DVD, Agent Carter is coping as best she can with the aftermath of losing Steve Rodgers, and the contempt of her male co-workers. Despite these impediments, Carter finds a dangerous McGuffin and impresses Howard Stark sufficiently that he places her in charge of the new “SHIELD” organization. 

Those basic elements are still present in the Carter mini-series but elaborated on, and fleshed out. Carter is still obviously, unabashedly better than any other operative in SSR - smarter, faster, stronger, and more resourceful - and still gets zero respect. Instead, her presence in the office is denigrated as a pity case due to her relationship with Captain America. So, when her war-time friend Howard Stark contacts her on the run from suspected treason, she jumps at the chance to safe-guard the billionaire inventor’s lethal devices and clear his name. Throughout all of this, Atwell adopts the pose of the “happy warrior,” clearly outraged and frustrated by her treatment by the men of SSR but unafraid to take action to do what she knows is right. Part of the actress’s charm comes from how much of this inner turmoil is not expressed through fist-pounding or shouting but the simple flicks of her eyes. Listening to one buffoon after another, Attwell’s eyes are always framed prominently in the scene, scanning through the possibilities of the clues she unearths, gauging the usefulness of the rogues she encounters. I've included a fun gag video below to give an exaggerated example of Atwell's work. 


There is a barely constrained physicality to her portrayal of Carter that I find convincing and powerful. Beyond the timely reversal of  ‘smartest-man-in-the-room’ trope, Atwell mines some deeper level of star-power. Somehow she’s able to find a way to bring across how smart and tough this character is, while preserving an outer charm and control.

Certainly there is a strong element of fantasy to all of this but that’s what super-heroes are all about, ultimately; bringing to life some wish-fullment of power and heroism. But the details of a fantasy matters. It matters that the hero is this case is a smart but fallible woman. Peggy Carter gives us a diesel-punk Athena, beautiful and cultured, but also ready to kick ass. And like an Olympian, the importance here is not whether it’s realistic that Carter could do what she does, but that viewers have an image inspiring wonder about what they could do.

From the Iron Man 3 One-shot
Also like Greek drama, the conflict of the story is created through a violation of ceremony, of human ritual. And I’m not referring to Peggy’s work as an agent in a traditionally male job. The violation here is that Peggy Carter, so clearly shown as capable and effective is relegated to a menial status within the SSR. This mirrors the millions of women in post-war America who were thrown out of good-paying factory jobs as the culture sought to return to some idealized sense of normality. Because of this basic trauma, various other transgressions are permitted. Agents with poor work ethics are promoted above those with talent, wounded veterans are ignored, lies are allowed to continue, and the entire agency is shown to be remarkably incompendent in dealing with its basic responsibility, stopping bad guys. In a patriarchy, women are not the only ones who suffer. Men living in such as  system as well must constantly be reminded that to show emotions is female, that to show a moment of vulnerability or injury is feminine. If women are people that need to be rescued, then men are people who can never be saved. When Carter rescues the arrogant and high-handed Agent Thompson after a raid on a Soviet compound, this doesn’t come of as a final vanquishing of Thompson, the destruction of his value as a human being, but rather a moment where he achieves a kind of catharsis, and is able to admit to guilt over his war-time actions. This catharsis, at least briefly, brings Carter into the fold as an acknowledged and respected member of SSR.

What further complicates this scenario is the fact that Carter is working to clear the name of a lethorio like Stark. Stark, through his duplicitous business dealings and serial promiscuity represents its own violation of social norms, at least within the confines of the show. Carter acts as the moral center of a universe profoundly off-kilter, forced to fight shadowy conspiracies outside the rules and procedures of the law. In Greek tragedy, the problem always stems from some basic violation of the ceremonies of society. In the case of Agent Carter, we’ve learned that the basic violation was first committed by Stark in fraternizing with the wrong Leviathon agent. That error begets all of the rest of it, Stark’s hounding as a public enemy, the spread of weapons so perniciously powerful they could be considered war-crimes in themselves, and the lies. Eventually Carter wises to all of this and all but cuts her ties to him. I’m curious where this is all going to wind up as the one-shot (still officially described as canon) shows Stark with enough standing to raise Carter to the director of SHIELD.

One final winning attribute of this show is its luminous, effortlessly stylish production. It’s Mad Men for Avengers fans, with careful attention paid to details and cinematography.

Agent Jack Thompson (center) with Agent Ray Kryzeminski (left) in a fairly good representation of the Noir style of the show.
Yes, there are plenty of fist-fights, it is a Marvel property.
I couldn't find the shot I really wanted of this scene showing a reactor covered in a layer of asbestos, but this shot gets at the weird cross-genre elements of the show.
I’ve praised the choreography of Agents of Shield this season but Agent Carter takes it to another level. On the last episode in particular, attention was paid to make the action of the scene flow naturally from the conflict. Watch how the snappy dialogue between Carter and Jarvis flows seamlessly into the first pan to the face. The editing is kinetic while preserving a sense of the automat in which the fight occurs. The viewer is always oriented in the scene, able to follow who is being hit and where the action is heading. 



Agent Carter does an excellent job using action build and support characterization. During the second episode, many reviewers have noted the near-genius of editing Carter’s fight scene with a radio play featuring a humiliatingly fragile version of herself needing rescue. Fight-fights and car-chases are not everyone’s cup of tea, but done well, punches and kicks are just one more component to the essential struggle of a television show. I guess another way of saying this is, sometimes and uppercut isn’t just an uppercut when it’s a powerful female throwing the haymakers.

Unfortunately, as awesome as this show is, the ratings haven’t really kept pace. 

Some fatalistic hipster component of my brain says, “Don't like the show? Fine, you’re just not cool enough to get it.” But really, Agent Carter should be a massive hit and the fact that it isn’t says a lot about where our culture is right now. Gamergate is only the latest example of what Susan Faludi once called Backlash, the tendency of culture to react to perceived gains by women as some kind of existential threat. When women move into roles and power traditionally reserved for men, a certain type of individual grows threatened, much like Agent Thompson. They lash out, either physically or through social pressure, striving to shore up once more the crumbling edifice of gender roles. 

As this country gears up for another Presidential election almost certainly featuring an experienced, smart, capable former Secretary of State and Senator matched against a guy with considerably fewer achievements, it might be interesting to reflect on how this show comes to be perceived in years to come. 

Still, if you're like me, snowed in again this week, catch up on this show if you haven't. And watch tomorrow's episode. There are only a few episodes left and a show this good should be able to finish with style.

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