Review: Agent Carter “Smoke and Mirrors”

In which we learn more about our hero, our villain and...a koala?

WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Agent Carter Season Two, “Smoke and Mirrors”

Peggy Carter’s past has never been explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This week, Agent Carter takes steps to change that while also delving into the history and motivations of its villain. It makes for a fascinating episode where the origins of two women are contrasted, even though they never occupy the same space onscreen.

“Smoke and Mirrors” is full of flashbacks. We open with Peggy as a young girl, playing the fairy tale knight, rescuing the princess. When her brother snatches the wooden sword from her hand she tackles him to the ground and receives the expected lecture from her mother about how she needs to act more like a lady. For Whitney, she’s fixing a radio in the kitchen and is told to smile for her mother’s boyfriend. She won’t, because, as she says, “I’m thinking”. In the next, Peggy is working as a code breaker, engaged and being recruited by the Special OperationsExecutive. Whitney is rejected from the University of Oklahoma and told, by her mother, that the only thing that matters is her face. Peggy’s brother, Michael, meets her uptight fiancé and disapproves that she turned down the SOE jobaagent-carter

All the flashbacks offer valuable information but must pack a lot into a short span of time. As such, they lack nuance. The dialogue suffers as well: so full of explanation it can’t be subtle or elegant. The flashbacks do, however, build a clearer picture of the two women at the season’s center. Peggy dreamed of being a hero but, over time, bowed down to societal expectation based off her gender. Whitney is told time and time again her mind doesn’t matter. She’s asked to smile. She should be pretty, not thinking. Both women have struggled through similar muck and mire to get where they are today. Yet Peggy comes from a clearly affluent home while Whitney comes from a poor one. The show is laying down differences while building the connections between the two women. It’s adding layers and depth to its hero while building an equally layered villain, which is an amazing thing to see with two female characters

In the present, Peggy continues to investigate the Arena Club with Jarvis’ aid. Though only together for the first act, it is a joy to see them working together again. As ever, the chemistry between Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy is second to none. Together, they capture Rufus Hunt, the man who tried to kill Peggy last episode, though Jarvis gets shot with a tranquilizer dart in the process, putting him right back into the comedic relief role. It’s a part Jarvis is playing more and more this season and it might be frustrating if James D’Arcy wasn’t just so very good at it.

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Sousa and Peggy: they’re a team.

The focus then moves to the dynamic between Peggy and Sousa. When Sousa discovers Peggy has kidnapped a man and stashed him in her trunk he’s furious, not because she did it without authorization, but because she didn’t call him for backup. They interrogate and trick Rufus together, ably prying information out of him. It’s a reminder, both for the viewer, and for Peggy, what a great team she and Sousa make.

Meanwhile, Whitney does what any good genius scientist granted supernatural abilities by a mysterious substance would do: she tests them out on rats, the strange black scar at her temple growing every time she taps her abilities. She writes the results in a notebook and by episode’s end reveals her ability to her husband as she embraces her power, putting aside pretense and façade.

The scar continues to grow
The scar continues to grow

As ever, Agent Carter does not meander, and the pace continues to be one of its best elements, letting the plot move forward swiftly while introducing new factors every episode. Ultimately, however, the most important moments of “Smoke and Mirrors” are still in the past, in the final two flashbacks.

Whitney goes to see a picture and encounters a producer outside the movie theater. He offers her a chance at Hollywood stardom. He tells her that, in Hollywood, you can be whoever you want to be. He asks her to smile. She smiles, but she’s also thinking. Wynn Everett’s performance is subtle and spectacular as the pieces fall together in Whitney’s head and she uses her face as a tool to get what she wants, all the while exercising the greatest weapon at her disposal: her own mind.

Peggy is in her wedding dress when soldiers arrive to report her brother’s death. Hayley Atwell conveys the grief and physical impact of this moment beautifully, her stuttered sob of “Michael” is truly heartbreaking. And then we fade to later, where she’s taking off her engagement ring and walking off to join the SOE. It’s a fantastic moment on multiple levels, the most important of which is having a superhero (because let’s be honest, that’s what Peggy is, even if she lacks superpowers) who is motivated down her path by the death of a man (and not a romantic interest, but her brother). It’s a refreshing breeze in a genre of TV, film and comics that is filled to the brim with women suffering and dying for the sake of male hero motivation. It’s a perfect example of what makes Agent Carter so good, and makes it so sad that as the show continues to evolve and improve, its ratings continue to go down.

Other thoughts:

Yet again, Rose and Ana are absent from an episode. Hopefully they return soon because, as amazing as Peggy and Whitney are, the show should not be ignoring its supporting female cast in this way.

No Jack Thompson in this episode either. I’m actually okay with that.

Sousa: “I thought we were a team.” Peggy: “We are a team. A wonderful team.” Sousa: “No. We are not a team. If we were a team and you were thinking about pulling a stunt like this you would’ve called me for backup.”

“I’ll sleep better if you stop pushing me away.” Seriously, Peggy. Please stop pushing Sousa away.

Another Sousa note: love that when dirty government official Vernon Masters arrives to put a stop to the SSR investigating the Arena Club he threatens Sousa to get at Peggy. He may be crooked but he ain’t dumb!

“You gave him a cold?” “An intense cold.”

Jarvis: “I trust you’ve operated a tranquilizer rifle before?” Peggy: “I can’t say that I have. Why on earth have you?” Jarvis: “On occasion, wrangling Mr. Stark’s animal preserve requires a ruthless hand.” Peggy: “Not the flamingo.” Jarvis: “The koala. It’s adorable appearance belies a vile temperament.”

Once again, no Bernard the Flamingo, which is very upsetting.

“Jarvelous!”

Next Week: “The Atomic Job” 

EDIT: Read the season two reviews from the start!