Agent Carter Season One, Episode Eight
Agent Carter wrapped up its first season on Tuesday night with “Valediction” — an episode title that means “the action of saying farewell.” Let’s just hope that title doesn’t develop a meta meaning — a farewell to this sometimes flawed, but always important and usually thoroughly entertaining series rather than just to its first eight-episode season. Agent Carter was announced as a “limited series,” but everyone knows that — if ABC and Marvel want to bring it back — they can. Given the mediocre-to-poor ratings, Agent Carter’s future is uncertain. What is certain? That, despite its habit of getting distracted by the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in this final episode, Agent Carter was something special.
There is no universe where I will not be moved by Peggy tearfully dumping a vial of Steve’s blood into the Hudson while “The Way You Look Tonight” plays in the background. That’s just a fact.
However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the focus Peggy’s grief got in this ending. In watching this episode, it felt a bit like the showrunners (or, perhaps, it was interference from Marvel?) thought I cared more about Peggy’s grief over Steve and Agent Carter’s place in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe than I actually did.
I do care about these aspects of Agent Carter, but I have loved this story and its main character for the way it moved beyond its MCU context. Because of this narrative tie-back to the MCU, many of the themes addressed in this episode felt somewhat incongruous to those chiefly explored in the rest of the season. Sure, Peggy’s grief over Steve’s death has been visceral at times, but it has never felt like her primary motivator or this show’s main theme. For me, Agent Carter’s main theme was the complexity of Peggy’s struggle to transition into a post-war world where she is seen as nothing more than a secretary. That is the thematic, emotional journey I have become most invested in, even if it hasn’t been the only reason I watch this show. (Because there are so, so many reasons to watch this show.)
(The first eight on that list are Peggy Carter.)
“Valediction” felt like an endnote to an alternate reality first season of Agent Carter. Sure, it had all of our favorite characters, but rather than center the emotional climax around Peggy, it was Howard who found resolution through the suspenseful climax.
Peggy was integral to that resolution, but her emotional lesson felt shoehorned into Howard’s, rather than organic to this character’s Season 1 story arc. Peggy was made to verbally express a need to let go of Steve and move past his apparent death. I would have been more than happy to go along with this thematic through line for the entire season — it is less ambitious in many ways than the one Agent Carter actually set about exploring, but still worth watching. As the season stands, however, I never really thought of Peggy’s grief as an obstacle. And that’s what it needed to be if Agent Carter was going to sell me on this ending. For me, Peggy’s grief is a part of her, but works as a motivation rather than something to move past. Her grief is something that reminds her of the sort of person she wants to be when it might be easier (or, at least, less tiring) to accept rigid identity of the role society is constantly trying to force upon her.
For a show that was trying to make a point on both a thematic and meta level about the necessity and validity of women in the world and in our media representations of the world, this finale gave men the spotlight.
It made Howard Stark the agent and the character to be changed by his actions and the actions of those around him. As nice as it was to see Peggy as such a badass — both emotionally and in her epic fighting skills — she wasn’t changed by it. Well, unless you count dumping Steve’s blood into the Hudson to probably create some kind of super powerful mutant fish people. But, as I have already outlined, I don’t.
On a related narrative note, I needed Howard’s flight to have higher stakes. This might sound ridiculous given that the stakes were half of NYC tearing each other to pieces and/or Howard dying at Jarvis’ hand, but anyone familiar with the MCU knows that Howard Stark can’t die in this moment. He needs to get married, have Tony Stark, and presumably die in a tragic car accident. The show had a good instinct in making the final climax about the exploration of the complex power and emotional dynamics between Peggy, Howard, and Jarvis, but they never quite pulled it off. Throwing Steve into the mix was a distraction from the relationships these characters have in their own right. Yes, Howard and Peggy both loved and lost Steve, but their relationship is based on more than that.
The best emotional moment for me in tonight’s episode? When Jarvis entrusts Peggy with Steve’s blood. In this moment, he chooses to honor his relationship to Peggy over his commitment to Howard.
This scene made me feel something because it was a logical, moving cap to an emotional journey this show has taken us on. It gave closure to the decisions Jarvis had made a few episodes prior, when he chose not to tell Peggy about Steve’s blood out of loyalty to Howard. This caused a rift in their partnership that, though somewhat healed in the subsequent episodes, was never balanced until this moment. This emotional resonance was missing from some of the other dynamics. For example, how great would it have been if Peggy and Dottie had actually become friends before Dottie’s reveal as a Leviathan agent? What would that final showdown have been like if Peggy were somewhat emotionally compromised by affection for the person she thought Dottie was?
Many of these emotional through lines played out in the previous episode when Peggy was confronted by her fellow S.S.R. agents. They felt as though she had betrayed them, while she tried to explain how they betrayed her everyday by reinforcing a patriarchal system. The thematic closure happened in the penultimate episode, leaving less to explore in this final installment.
What did I want this finale and/or show’s conclusion to be about? While there was a lot in there I liked, I wanted it to be more about Peggy’s relationship with Angie, about what she does and doesn’t get from her interactions in all-female spaces. I wanted it to be more about the ways in which Peggy hasn’t won because overcoming sexism isn’t as easy as taking down Dr. Faustus. And I kind of wanted the entire thing to be an angsty buddy cop drama about the unlikely duo of Peggy and Jarvis? Then again, this is what I wanted from the show, which is different from the next viewer and the next and the next. Perhaps Agent Carter accomplished exactly what it needed to, given the immense diversity of subjective storytelling needs each viewer has and the relatively short period of time it had to do it. (Another season, please! We didn’t even get into how Peggy’s class background affects her identity and social power! Intersectionality!)
Agent Carter’s sense of stylish fun was simultaneously one of its best and worst qualities. When it was the icing on the cake of great character development, theme exploration, and unexpected plot progression, this show was one of the best on TV. However, when it was applied to the storylines that were more distraction than development — i.e. the Howling Commandos mission, much of the aimless chasing that happened in these last few episodes — it gave those scenes (and episodes) the illusion of a substance that wasn’t full there. In this final episode, this show seemed afraid to wander off too far into its own territory, which is a shame because that is where it really found it’s stride: In the figurative spaces that chiefly belonged to Peggy Carter. There were hints of greatness in this season, and — overall — I really enjoyed the ride, but it was at its best when it let go of its MCU context and tried for something different, something Captain America and other MCU properties can’t do.
I don’t want to end this recap series on a disappointed note because, overall, I have enjoyed Agent Carter SO much. It is unlike anything on television, and has had moments of brilliance that transcend the presumed limitations of a MCU property on network TV. Much of that has had to do with the brilliant Hayley Atwell and her ability to inhabit this character so fully. In a cast full of amazing, charismatic actors, Hayley stood out. She was vulnerable and strong and empathetic and funny and driven and stubborn and clever all at once. Some of this, of course, was owed to wonderful writing, but — in lesser hands — Peggy Carter could have been so much flatter. And, for Agent Carter to succeed at all, Peggy needed to be real.
I think Peggy’s brilliance was part of the reason why I was partially disappointed in this final episodes and in other less Peggy-centric episodes of the season. Because all I ever wanted to do was hang out with this super cool, super competent, super relatable lady. I didn’t care who else was there or what she was doing as long as she was being changed by the world as she moved through it. The moments when Agent Carter failed for me were the moments when this wasn’t happening, the moments when Peggy was playing a part in someone else’s story.
This show is important. Agent Carter may not always be answering questions about oppression and patriarchy in the most complex ways, but it is asking. And, though I think there is an even more complex portrayal of class and gender and race and, you know, America in general, possible in its telling, I was continually impressed at the level of complexity Agent Carter did aspire to — especially for a MCU network show. Agent Carter is important because, even though Peggy Carter is one of the most competent, cool, classy, caring woman you would ever meet, it isn’t always enough. Her skills and sass can only do so much within a patriarchal structure. This is why Peggy so often needs to step outside of that structure, but what’s especially admirable and thematically complex about this character and show is that Peggy also works to change that structure from within. Peggy may work outside of the S.S.R. to get shit done, but she has not completely given up on changing a flawed system. When she is caught by the S.S.R., she faces their questions and — when Leviathan becomes an even larger threat — she works with the S.S.R. to take them down. Peggy may have her hands full facing off against Leviathan, but it’s nothing compared to her attempts to challenge and dismantle patriarchy. This is a seemingly impossible foe that, in their current cinematic form, The Avengers never have to face. This is why we need Agent Carter.
We’re in, too, Peggy!
What did you think of Agent Carter’s season finale? What did you think of the season overall? Do you hope Agent Carter gets a second season? Share your thoughts and feels in the comments below!