It’s 1946. The war has ended and the men who fought have returned home to replace the women that were doing their jobs perfectly well whilst they were away. Peggy Carter, agent extraordinaire, leader of the Howling Commandos (as seen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and general badass, suddenly finds that she is relegated to the position of “the girl that answers the phones and makes the coffee,” despite the fact that she was an integral part of the team that defeated the Red Skull during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger.
In this new world she is stripped of the respect that she earned whilst serving under Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and dismissed by the majority of her male colleagues. A quick series of flashbacks illustrates her relationship as the main squeeze of the one and only Captain America, just in case there’s anyone who might accidentally start watching Agent Carter without having seen The First Avenger, and then it’s straight into the story.
Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, writers of both previous Captain America features and the upcoming Civil War, the opening episode Now is Not the End establishes that Howard Stark (Dracula Untold’s Dominic Cooper), much like his son Tony (Robert Downey Jr), is unable to curb his inventions. If he can conceive it, he can make it, regardless of the purpose to which the resulting creation could be used. Howard, however, knows his creations can be used for nefarious purposes and hides them away from the preying eyes of governments that might wish to use them for their own agendas but is forced to call for the assistance of Agent Carter after his “bad babies” are stolen and he is accused of treason.
Judging from the first two episodes, premiered back to back, Marvel is on to another winner with Agent Carter. Hayley Atwell exudes the style and sexuality of icons like Rita Hayworth whilst employing the same lethal skills as Black Widow; her talents with a stapler, for example, are second to none. Atwell clearly has a handle on Peggy Carter, managing to be (as the situation demands it) submissive, violent, flirtatious and sarcastic. She is her own woman, but the spirit of Steve Rogers runs through both her and the show.
After being sidelined by the men returning from war, who see the women that kept the country running in their absence as little more than the babysitters of their domain, Peggy grabs the new purpose in her life with both hands. Proving Howard Stark not guilty of the accusations laid against him becomes her mission, whilst trying to develop some sort of a life outside of work.
The plot of the first episode itself isn’t particularly original; Stark fears that one of his inventions, nitramine, is going to appear on the black market and Peggy is charged with preventing it falling into the wrong hands, but using a MacGuffin as a plot device is a trope littered throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe: In Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers it was the Tesseract, in Thor: The Dark World it was the Aether, in Guardians of the Galaxy it was the Infinity Stone. A MacGuffin is just a plot device to move the story forward, but it’s difficult to criticise Marvel because what they do around the MacGuffin is generally impressive enough and done with enough style to make the audience overlook the cliché.
The cast is rounded out with Peggy-sympathisers and Peggy-antagonists. Of the former it should be noted that not all of the men in the series are misogynists; whilst the relationship between Peggy and Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger was flirtatious (at least from Howard’s point of view) here it is presented as a true friendship. Stark senior might be known as a womaniser to the public but his opinion of Peggy is that she’s wasted in her current role and that he knows she is the one person he can trust to clear his name in the United States.
Dominic Cooper’s role (so far) is confined to a few scant minutes in the first episode, but his presence will be felt throughout the series, most notably in the form of his butler, Edwin Jarvis (Cloud Atlas’ James D’Arcy). Jarvis first meets Peggy in a badly scripted encounter in a dark alley, which results in Ms Carter knocking him out. Approaching with the phrase “you’re coming with me” may not have been the best idea, but Jarvis is loyal to Stark, and therefore loyal to Peggy.
The banter between the two hasn’t been quite perfected by the writers at this stage, but should things continue the relationship between them may become the highlight of the series, with Jarvis attempting to get the espionage shenanigans out of the way by nine o’clock so he can be tucked up in bed with so far unseen Mrs. Jarvis.
The ever-welcome Enver Gjokaj (Dollhouse) plays Daniel Sousa, another returnee soldier and fellow agent for Strategic Scientific Reserve, but one who appreciates the skills and dedication of our heroine, even if his public defence of her does result in being berated by Peggy for coming to her aid. Quite frankly, she doesn’t need it or want it. Gjokaj is the sympathetic male character, complete with a damaged leg and a sense of humour about it; he will no doubt be quickly pinned by the fans as the man Peggy Carter will eventually marry.
Reflecting Marvel’s continued reticence to have a female superhero lead her own film, with Captain Marvel not scheduled to debut until July 2018, the onscreen male / female cast ratio isn’t entirely equal as there are only two other female characters that make a significant impact on the plot, however that is balanced in the production office where showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas bring their experience of working as a team on Reaper, Dollhouse, Terra Nova and Resurrection.
Despite being forced to lie about her life, Peggy has found a confidante of sorts in a local waitress, Angie Martinelli (Kick-Ass 2’s Lyndsy Fonseca), who thinks she works for a telephone company. Peggy complains with veiled insights into her life although, despite the apparent bond between them, she cannot tell Angie the truth.
Also kept behind a veil of disinformation but eager to see Peggy settle down and find herself a man because that’s just how things are is Peggy’s roommate Colleen O’Brien (Chronicle’s Ashley Hinshaw), who seems more at ease resuming her pre-war life despite complaining of having to teach a man how to do her job.
Too often missing from modern television, it oozes class and style, so much that at times there is more of that than actual substance to the pilot, but the former more than makes up for the latter. The music is well chosen and the framing of certain scenes is often beautiful. There’s an early tracking shot of Peggy walking to work wearing a vibrant red hat surrounded by dark suited men that really stands out and the action scenes are well staged for the most part.
There are some clunks in the dialogue and, as mentioned, the plot is hardly layered or insightful, but what is here is the sense of fun that the Marvel Universe does so well, notably absent from the early episodes ofAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The second episode Bridge and Tunnel does not quite manage to hit the bar set by the opener, though tellingly it emphasises the impact Steve Rogers has had on public consciousness, but as an eight episode mini-series telling one story, from what has been broadcast so far, this is apparently going to be a seriously entertaining journey.