Agent Carter: “The Iron Ceiling” Review

peggyanddumdumLet’s get one thing out of the way first: this was not the episode where Angie and Peggy finally kiss. In fact, Angie takes a pass altogether this week, even missing a day of work at the automat. There’s always next week.

Meanwhile, though, Peggy is finally able to do her freaking job with the SSR, Dottie’s background comes to light, and yes, there are Howling Commandos. Spoilers after the jump!

After being played by Howard Stark last week, Peggy rejects further solicitations from Jarvis, holding him equally responsible for Stark’s games. Instead of her usual double-agent work, Peggy is now freed to push her way into the latest SSR mission: a covert operation to disrupt Leviathan inside the Soviet Union. As always, Peggy has to overcome resistance from her steakhead coworkers, but swiftly meets the challenge with some quick codebreaking, and in the coup de grace, delivers the Howling Commandos to aid the mission. So Peggy darts off to Europe, while back home, Agent Sousa matches a scar on Peggy’s shoulder to the SSR’s only photo of a blonde woman identified as a Stark-friendly spy. The fallout of this discovery must wait until next week; for now, all we have is an uncharacteristic lapse by Peggy Carter, to go undercover while wearing a gown that reveals such an identifying mark.

The return of the Howling Commandos also means the return of Wartime Peggy. Once again, she is behind enemy lines in Europe and completely in her element. The emergencies of World War II shattered the barriers that keep Peacetime Peggy penned in, and the similar circumstances of this week’s mission have a similar effect. Agent Thompson is unable to deny her martial skill when seeing her in situations that would be impossible back in post-war New York.

There is, of course, a cost. The death of an agent in New York feels like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky; the death of a soldier at war is business as usual. There’s something unsettling, then, about Peggy’s comfort here. In New York, she has been permanently on edge, and grieves the lives lost around her. But at the front, she is far more at ease, even as her team again suffers losses.

I mean, look at that punim.

I mean, just look at that punim.

It is no coincidence that we see Wartime Peggy emerge in a mission striking at a Soviet/Leviathan training facility for little girls who will become spies and assassins. At the likely alma mater of Natasha Romanoff, we are given glimpses of pigtailed tweens learning American English by watching Disney’s Snow White recite her domestic skills to the seven dwarfs. Moments later, we see one girl snap her classmate’s neck, the same girl whose trust she bought with a piece of bread. Their combat was built into their training—Leviathan is training girls to murder so easily.

Peggy’s mission is intercut with Dottie’s infiltration of Peggy’s apartment. Dottie, an alumna of the facility Peggy is investigating, has proven herself to be a devastatingly effective killer. She charms Peggy over lunch at the automat, distracting her with bread while she palms Peggy’s keys. Despite killing a saboteur last week, she has yet to break her Midwestern-ballerina cover story. Worse, the parallel bread stories suggest that Dottie is the same girl we’ve already seen kill a friend and classmate; her apparent affection for Peggy could both be sincere and irrelevant to the completion of her mission.

At the end of her mission to Peggy’s apartment, she looks in Peggy’s mirror, and then imitates her accent: “I am Peggy Carter.” It’s hard not to fear that Dottie may be right; that the two women share a basic morality as well as an address. Jarvis has already warned Peggy that her work may compromise her humanity, and her ease with a machine gun this re-affirms that concern. Like Dottie, Peggy is often forced to work in complete isolation, hiding her job from her friends. Worse, she is denied any camaraderie in her professional life by the bigotry of her coworkers; as a result, she can only find authentic, human connections when she’s on war footing with the Commandos.

The United States spent the latter half of the twentieth century seeking to recapture the glory and self-righteousness it felt it earned fighting the Nazis in World War II. In so doing, it tried to turn all sorts of petty despots into Adolf Hitler, but found that its wars no longer made it the champion of democracy and freedom, but a force for chaos and destruction. Captain America is gone, and there was ever only one Steve Rogers. We know that Peggy will ultimately found S.H.I.E.L.D. and become its leading light as a force for good in the world. She will overcome the psychic damage of constant violence, and avoid the corruption of Hydra and Kissinger. But her path there will require her to adapt and grow, and learn to be more than the woman who stopped Red Skull.

As the season continues, this is going to be near the heart of Peggy’s story. How can she balance her great capacity for violence with the world’s need for justice? How can she lead those who seek more than power, wealth, or victory for their own sake?

Leaving aside the plot, there are very serious meta-conversations going on around Agent Carter aimed at the show’s diversity, or lack thereof. Up to this episode, the only named character of color was the nightclub owner Spider (the actor recognizable as Bubbles from The Wire), but he does not survive the pilot. This week’s episode at least adds to the background cast—series regulars Hayley Atwell and Chad Michael Murray are joined in the USSR by Agents Li (Eddie Shin) and Ramirez (Greg Serano). The Howling Commandos add “Happy” Sam Sawyer (Leonard Roberts). One meets a redshirt death, another’s screen time is limited to a brief hostage standoff. Tiny progress, at best.

The missing diversity in the cast is felt particularly given the themes of the show—race is painfully missing in a drama that puts sexism, ableism, and even the Holocaust into its script. All the more so with the spirit of Captain America looming over the whole thing; the man who always stands for what’s best about the United States.

In fact, the show is basically screaming for an appearance by Isaiah Bradley, the first isaiahbradleyCaptain America in Marvel Comics. As his grandson Eli points out in Young Avengers, it’s very hard to believe that 1940s America would start risky medical testing with a white kid; this was the era of the Tuskegee Experiment. It would almost be enough to get me to leave Cartinelli behind.

Further, SSR headquarters may well be in the congressional district represented by Adam Clayton Powell, New York’s first Black congressman. At a time when America’s definition of whiteness was expanding to include those with last names like “Martinelli,” “Dooley” or “Krzeminski”, the tension between SSR-NY’s staff and a Black congressional liaison should be obvious.

On Tumblr, some of the show’s fans have beclowned themselves trying to justify the Hollywood-as-usual racism (although the fan in question sincerely apologized later). It’s not a good look, and we have an obligation to resist the urge to hold the media we love above rightful criticism.

Final thought: why isn’t there a series that’s just about the girls at that assassin training school? I would watch the heck out of that show.


Not going to go well for you, Dum-Dum!

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2 thoughts on “Agent Carter: “The Iron Ceiling” Review

  1. Pingback: Agent Carter: “A Sin to Err” Review | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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