This is a spoiler-free review. Read on at the bottom for additional, spoilery analysis.
At risk of repeating myself, the upswing of Agent Carter’s expanded episode order for Season 2 has resulted in a more detailed, if more leisurely story, than we got the first time around. While last week’s episode felt unusually low on incident, Smoke & Mirrors finds time for a long overdue look at what Peggy’s life was like before joining the SSR and the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, while continuing to develop arch-villain-in-waiting Whitney Frost.
The plot moves forward in 1947 – Peggy and Jarvis get into an adventure with tranquilisers, as they close in on Rufus Hunt, her would-be assassin from Episode 3, while Whitney starts to test the extent of her powers and Vernon Masters brings the might of the war department down on the SSR by auditing their cases at a pivotal moment. But for the most part, we want to talk about the flashbacks.
Young Agnes Cully comes from a hard life in Broxton, Oklahoma and ascends to become a master scientist and a Hollywood actress. Repairing radios in the kitchen, her mother (Samaire Armstrong) repeatedly scolds her for thinking she’s so smart and not being nice enough to “Uncle Bud” (Chris Mulkey) and ultimately telling her flatly that her beauty is the only thing that’s ever going to get her anywhere.
“You know, I bet you’re real pretty when you smile,” is a repeated refrain in Agnes/Whitney’s story, which feels almost like a direct quote from Kilgrave, the villain of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, but where he was a creepy control freak, this comes in a setting of high patriarchy and Whitney hears it at opposite ends of the episode. This counters her present-day scenes nicely as she begins to test the terrifying extent of her zero matter powers and literally starts to lose face in the process – while her beauty has given her the power to become what other people want, her burgeoning powers can make her whatever the heck she wants.
Meanwhile, it’s no surprise to find a young Margaret Elizabeth Carter playing as a knight and fighting a dragon in her back garden in 1921. Flashing forward to 1940, she’s working at Bletchley Park, on the front line of the Brits’ code-breaking operation, when she’s head-hunted by the Special Operations Executive. At this point, Peggy is torn between the opportunity to serve her country and her recent engagement to Home Office employee Fred Wells (Kevin Changaris), who meekly assures her that “a boring life is a privilege”.
Her brother, Michael (Max Brown), is more encouraging and pushes her to pursue the adventure she’s always wanted; they already come from privilege and he suspects (rightly) that she won’t be content to wallow in it when she’s needed for better things. While Agnes started from nothing and became Whitney Frost, Peggy rejected a boring life and became Agent Carter.
Aside from the wealth of backstory to be gleaned, the show never fails to astonish with its production value and across several different time periods, this might be the best-looking episode of the season so far. Between LA noir and wartime Eng-er-land, it’s another visual feast. Special mention should go to costume designer Giovanna Ottobre-Melton, who has truly gone above and beyond in the last couple of weeks.
Inevitably, we learn more from Whitney’s story than Peggy’s. There are lots of unknown developments in the latter, but we don’t know the villain as well and the result is something else that’s reminiscent of a Netflix series – specifically, Daredevil’s Kingpin-centric episode Shadows In The Glass, which similarly went back to the character’s childhood for clarification on his beginnings. Presently, there’s a shout-out to the clear real-life inspiration for the MCU version of Whitney, Hedy Lamarr (who essentially gave us wi-fi and Bluetooth – look her up!), that loops back into the representation of a brilliant woman who was more publicised for her personal life than her achievements at the time.
There’s some other interesting stuff going on in the present too. James D’Arcy delivers another great comedy turn, as Jarvis transfers his zookeeping skills to dangerous assassin Hunt (“Jarv-ellous!”), Enver Gjokaj excels, as always, as the loyal but bewildered good-cop to Peggy’s bad-cop, with a little more to do this week into the bargain, and Kurtwood Smith is as unctuous as ever, bringing talk of the Red Menace into his obstructive oversights.
Smoke And Mirrors is really a story of two halves, neither of which is actually going on in the story’s present. Secret Origins is more DC Comics’ territory than Marvel’s, but both sides feed into the show’s ongoing drama and both of the leading ladies are substantially more developed by the end than they were at the top of the hour. Season 2 is hardly galloping along in its main arc, but as Whitney’s growing supernatural wrinkle will attest, Agent Carter is perfectly absorbing in its stride.
Agent Carter Season 1 and 2 is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial. It is also available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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Spoilers and further consideration
– We like Jason Wilkes, but since his dramatic and romantically charged evening with Peggy in Episode 2, intangibility hasn’t really given him much chance to shine. His only real role in this one is to tell her that Whitney’s more of a genius than he is, which the episode goes on to show with bells on. Here’s hoping he gets more good scenes in weeks to come.
– Through cruel and unusual (but sort of funny) punishment of Mr. Hunt, Peggy learns that the Arena Club is the base of the Council of Nine, a group that wants to seize control of the United States and was behind both the assassination of President McKinley and the Wall Street crash of 1929. Given what we eventually learned about HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s easy to imagine them as a nascent form of the organisation’s mass infiltration of world infrastructure.
– Hunt was rightly reluctant about giving them up, because Whitney ruthlessly dispatches him as she “comes out” to Chadwick about her new-found powers at the episode’s end. Both her husband and Peggy’s crew, who are listening in on a bug they planted on Hunt, are flabbergasted and it seems that Whitney’s ready to really make her mark.
– Still no sign of Ana, Rose, Violet or Angie this week – we’ll keep you posted, as the shocking absence of these supporting characters continues. If this goes on much longer, we’ll accept nothing short of an episode like Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s The Zeppo, showing what they all get up to when they’re not around Peggy.