Agent Carter Season One, Episode 4
“The Blitzkrieg Button”
Some showrunners might not take time in the midst of an eight-episode run to introduce us to the chicken pocket, subvert rock solid alliances in subtle, emotional ways, and give a treatise on the mirage that is the American Dream, but Agent Carter did just that this week with “The Blitzkrieg Button.” And it was awesome. I may sound like a broken record at this point, but this show continues to exceed my expectations when it comes to nuanced storytelling that delivers both on the fun, spy thriller front and in exploring its central theme of sexism in an American trying to figure out what it wants to be in a chaotic, post-war period.
I took a class in college called History: Stage and Film. As you may have already guessed, we watched history plays and films (yes, it was as awesome as it sounds), and the underlying theme to the study of each work of art we watched was this: historically-based art will always be more about the period in which it was made than the period in which it was set. This may seem a simple revelation, but it is an important one — especially when dissecting shows like Agent Carter. Peggy Carter may be dealing with displays of sexism more overt (in some ways) than what goes down in modern-day America, but this is a show about now dressed in the trappings of post-World War II America. This was never more apparent than when Howard Stark made his speech about the American ladder, both in its impossibility for most people and the way with which he compared his class background to Peggy’s gender, despite the complex distinctions to their situations.
“Let me tell you, you don’t get to climb the American ladder without picking up some bad habits on the way. There’s a ceiling for certain types of people based on how much money your parents have, your social class, your religion, your sex. The only way to break through that ceiling sometimes is to lie so that’s my natural instinct. To lie. I shouldn’t have lied to you. For that, trust me, I am truly sorry.”
This was my favorite scene of the episode, even if it was a bit on-the-nose and failed to even mention race in what seems to be developing into an unfortunate theme for Agent Carter. Howard is an ally to Peggy in some ways, but that didn’t stop him from lying to her, then using the excuse that he did it to spare her feelings. Howard didn’t tell Peggy about the vial of Steve’s blood not because he didn’t trust her, but because he was afraid that she couldn’t handle it emotionally, which is such a characteristically masculine decision to make because it is not only based on the assumption that Peggy’s feeling would overwhelm her (when Peggy has already proven that she is able to operate in the midst of terrible emotional agony), but the assumption that reacting emotionally is a sign of weakness rather than strength.
The last decade has seen a rise of strong female characters on television: the Starbucks and the Sarah Connors and the Aeryn Suns of the world. The next step in this feminist female character progression needs to include the representation of women who are strong not because they exemplify traditionally masculine qualities such as stoicism and physical strength, but because traditionally feminine qualities such as empathy and emotional intelligence are seen as primary strengths. Peggy Carter exemplifies these qualities. It’s the fact that she is able to do 107 one-armed push-ups that is the aside. (Though that physical strength does come in handy when taking out all of those goons, and these two forms of strength are not mutually exclusive.)
Anyway, back to the plot! Agent Carter subverts our conditioned expectations again with the Howard Stark storyline. Not only does Howard prove guilty of the same gendered expectations as Peggy’s co-workers at the S.S.R., Peggy doesn’t let him off the hook for it. She doesn’t back down when she realizes that he has lied to her and used her. The episode has that back-to-back scene juxtaposition when Howard and Thompson are presented as two sides of the same sexist coin. In their own ways, they admire Peggy, but always with a gendered asterisk. These male allies Peggy has aligned herself with may be assets — both professionally and personally — but even the seeming best are products of their time, and therefore run up against their socially-constructed understanding of the opposite sex. That is depressingly realistic (both for the time period in which Agent Carter is set and the time period it is really about, i.e. now), but it is also totally refreshing to see portrayed with such nuance on a broadcast show — or, you know, any show.
The lack of Jarvis.
Howard Stark’s appearance in this episode didn’t give as much time for our most beloved characters — i.e. Jarvis and Angie — and their lessened presences were definitely felt.
But while Angie’s main purpose in this episode was to gather all the Griffiths House girls for dinner and demonstrate the proper technique for smuggling and storing dinner rolls, Jarvis was given the unenviable task of being in on Howard’s betrayal. Sure, it was Jarvis’ terrible, terrible tell that clued Peggy into the fact that there might be more to Howard’s desperation to retrieve the Blitzkrieg button than he was sharing, but he still lied to Peggy. It was relatively heartbreaking to see Peggy and Jarvis’ dynamic go from this at the beginning of the episode…
Up until this point, Jarvis has been Peggy’s most trusted ally. Unlike her other relationships, Peggy had no reason to lie to Jarvis and, presumably, the feeling was mutual. However, Howard’s choice to lie to Peggy meant Jarvis betrayed her trust, as well. This is somewhat mediated by Jarvis’ expression of disappointment to Howard at the end of the episode, but Peggy is understandably unforgiving of Jarvis. He stood with his boss on this one, and that hurt his relationship with Peggy. It will be interesting to see him try to win back her trust in future episodes, and that lack of conversation or confrontation did feel absent in this episode given that the friendship between Peggy and Jarvis has, thus far, been the heart of the show. Still, I trust this show enough to address it with more intensity going forward and perhaps to even have this division of Jarvis’ loyalty between Howard and Peggy come up again — but with different results. As Peggy and Jarvis continue to work together, I predict it will become harder for Jarvis to betray her trust again — even if it is Howard who asks him to.
Side note: Is it possible that Jarvis used his tell on purpose to tip Peggy off? It was very obvious. Though, he did break it out while being, ahem, extorted by the Howard Stark smugglers at the beginning of the episode. We’ll have to look for it in future episodes.
Meanwhile, at The S.S.R.
I’m going to be honest: I didn’t love the Dooley-goes-to-Germany storyline. It felt like a distraction in an episode that could have used those minutes elsewhere. Sure, it was well done and gave us some time to get to know Dooley’s character better, but the same could have been done much more efficiently. This could have been a way to make the viewers more comfortable with popping over to Europe so that, in the next episode, when Peggy and Thompson team up with the Howling Commandos in Russia, it won’t feel as jarring. For the record, I am worried about that development, too. As cool as it will be to see Peggy’s old wartime friends, this feels more like a Marvel Cinematic Universe stunt than a good storytelling decision. Then again, there’s no reason it can’t be both! And this show hasn’t failed me yet.
With Chief Dooley gone, we had the chance to see different sides to both Sousa and Thompson. And, as in other arenas, Agent Carter pleasantly surprised by setting up a familiar structure, and refusing to take the well-trodden trope. Sousa gives an impassioned speech about his difficult return from war to appeal to the homeless veteran he’s trying to get some information out of. But Agent Carter doesn’t allow Sousa’s touching story to sway the potential witness. The vet opts for the burger and scotch Thompson offers instead.
Thompson had a brief moment of empathy in this episode, wondering what it must be like for Peggy to work in such a thankless position and mildly impressed with her perseverance, but so obviously limited by his own narrow perspective, by a perspective apparently unchallenged — even by his wartime experiences — during his time on this Earth as a white man. Though I am hesitant about the setup for next week’s episode, I think we may get the chance to get to know Thompson better as he will be going with Peggy on her mission with the Howling Commandos. Is there more to this obtuse tool of a golden boy than meets the eye?
The Dottie reveal.
The further we get into this show, the more it reminds me of Dollhouse in its reveals of secret agent assassins hiding in plain sight. Showrunners Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters worked with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheron on the latter episodes of Dollhouse (aka the best ones), and the epic reveal that Dottie was a crazy ninja lady straight out of the Black Widow program felt a lot like some Dollhouse reveals — especially that time Mellie was revealed to be a doll. (Spoiler!) But maybe it’s just the Victor throwing me off?
I was very happy with the Dottie reveal because it addresses my concerns that all of the other characters in Peggy’s spy world — especially the baddies — were men. The ending scene that saw Dottie admiring her reflection in the mirror with her new automatic pistol with Old Peeta (seriously, that villain looked like an older version of Movie Peeta) lay dead under her bed while Peggy sledgehammered a hole into her wall to hide Steve’s blood was THE BEST. Guys, this show needs another season. We’re only halfway through this one and I already know it won’t be enough.
Jarvis’ wife update.
In this TV Line article, the showrunners confirm that Jarvis’ wife is a real person whom he adores. In this episode, there was also Howard Stark’s line about Anna’s goulash in this episode, suggesting that the crazy theory that Anna is an early version A.I. like Jarvis will one day become is just that: a crazy theory. OK, I may have to accept this to keep my heart from breaking with my futile Carvis shipping. However, it does seem ill-advised to prove the platonic nature of a television relationship by comparing said characters to Mulder and Scully. (For future reference, Butters). Also, James D’Arcy continues to be dodgy in interviews about the question of whether we will ever see his wife in the flesh.
The chicken pocket.
I think we all know who the real star of this episode was: the chicken pocket. Seriously, spend any time on Tumblr or Twitter, and it’s all about that thing, and I think we all understand why. Forget any of Howard Stark’s inventions. A Pokeball for storing Captain America’s blood? Boring! But a secret pocket designed specifically for smuggling chicken? That is innovation. Take notes, Howard.
The tonal balance of this show.
Can we talk about how well Agent Carter manages to balance some pretty discordant tones — violence and tragedy and social exasperation with straight-up humor? Think of that moment after Agent Krzeminski’s death in the last episode when, following an entire scene of grieving agents (including Peggy), Thompson delivers the line: “I’ll call his girlfriend.” And it’s legitimately funny. It’s the same kind of cognitive dissonance that we need to survive in the real world — not just as a human being trying to balance the tragic with the silly or the heavy with the mundane, but the cognitive dissonance women (and other oppressed groups) use every day in interacting with the social structure that oppresses them. The same skill — or should we say survival instinct? — that Peggy uses to work and empathize with the men who routinely disrespect her, and rarely give her the same courtesy of working with or empathizing with in return. Even those white, powerful men who have reason to pause and empathize — the Howard Starks of the world, who climbed up the American ladder from a working class background and therefore glance down every once in a while — have had to become the same system that once oppressed them in their efforts to manipulate it.
James D’Arcy being awesome.
Since we didn’t get enough Jarvis in this episode, I’ll leave you with this response James D’Arcy gave to IGN on how he feels about playing a character who is so supportive of women:
“I feel fantastic about it. It’s one of the things that I love about it. In a world where we frequently have the conversation about sexism, I love the fact that it’s a part of the show. It’s part of the social commentary of 1946. I think what’s so brilliant about it is that… we have this fantastic, strong female role model, front and center, but we also have two female showrunners; we have lots of women in various departments on our show.
“This show is an equal opportunity show in the way that life should be equal opportunity, and it’s just our quiet response to that conversation. I love it. I think it’s beautiful. And I really love that I get to play the person who truly sees these women as fully rounded, three-dimensional human beings, at a time when women weren’t really seen that way. I love that Jarvis is a truly modern man in that regard. Honestly, it makes me so happy that I get to be that person.”
(Kim: Also our main response to every episode of Broadchurch involves some form of “GET IT JARVIS!”)
What did you think of “The Blitzkrieg Button”? Share your thoughts and feels in the comments below!