Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review: Agent Carter "The Iron Ceiling"

I’ve spent more than half the first season of this show examining feminism as it pertains to Peggy Carter’s quest to prove her worth in the ridiculously sexist 1940s. I’ve noted time and again that Peggy Carter is a capable agent with a plethora of useful skills under her belt.

So after covering this episode, I think I’ve “earned” the right to briefly indulge in a... shall we say, “shallower” analysis of her.

She is really hot with her hair up and dressed in tactical gear. Like, yowza. That is all.
Plot
It was only a matter of time before the Howling Commandos got involved somehow. Luckily, they managed to craft a really good episode around this fanservice by giving Peggy a good reason to suddenly leave the country; her falling out with Stark and Jarvis last episode gives her a good reason to want to get away from New York for a bit.

It's the one place Jarvis can't follow her.
Themes
This episode is all about truth.

Not only do we learn the truth about Dottie, but both Dooley and Peggy find themselves on quests for the truth. Dooley wants to know the truth behind Stark and Finow, while Peggy knows that Howard Stark isn’t involved with the deal in Belarus, so she wants to join the team in order to sniff out the truth. Even Agent Thompson gets in on the action with his twice-told tale about earning a Navy Cross.

Characters
Chief Dooley
Okay, let’s talk about Dooley’s hesitance to put Peggy on the team to Belarus.

It’s easy to chalk his statements up to sexism. But if I might play devil’s advocate here… he has a completely valid point. And in all honesty, it’s a very important point when you consider the show’s central theme.
At no point does Dooley tell Carter that he doesn’t think she can pull her own weight out there. That’s Thompson’s thing. Dooley’s more concerned with how the decision will reflect on him.

Selfish? Maybe. But Dooley has a point.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether or not Chief Dooley decides to be progressive and put Carter out on field missions. Because if something bad happens, his bosses won’t have the same mindset. Their first and primary thought would be “What the hell is a woman doing out in the field?”

Higher ups will be wondering why a delicate woman was sent on a field mission into enemy territory, accusations of gross negligence abound, all sorts of bad stuff. And the last thing the SSR needs in the middle of investigating Howard Stark is an internal investigation into the circumstances behind Agent Carter screwing up a mission.

Even if she doesn't screw up the mission, the blame for any failure will still be placed on her. And therefore, the guy who put her out there in the first place.

As much as Peggy wants to prove herself to both her colleagues and the world, the fact of the matter is that not only does her death set her cause back by making it look like a woman was in over her head, but that same institutionalized sexism will criticize the decision to send her out there in the first place, launching inquiries and investigations that the SSR cannot afford right now.

It's not that Dooley is sexist in the same way that Thompson is, it's that he won't be able to defend his decision from people who are sexist like Thompson if the worst should happen. Which means that as capable as Carter is, it just goes to show what an obstacle she has to hurdle here. Simply being the best is not enough if she doesn't get a chance to prove herself, and she'll never get a chance to prove herself because of the risk of her not being good enough.

As much as Peggy wants the chance to prove herself, the situation seems too dire for Dooley to take a chance on the consequences of Peggy failing. In the same way that an untested rookie saying "Put me in, coach!" probably isn't going to get to pitch when the team is down by two in the ninth. As good as the might conceivably be, it's going to look worse for everybody involved if he fails to deliver. The coach looks like a fool, and the rookie looks useless.

So basically, Dooley’s hesitance to put Peggy on the team serves to remind us that even if Peggy manages to win over a select group of people, the war for respect is far from over. And that’s important to keep in mind since Peggy does win over a select group of people here.

But Dooley is also growing out of the witch-hunt he started in the first episode. He knows that there’s more going on than meets the eye, and he’s finally softening up to the idea that perhaps he was wrong about things. And at this point, it’s clear that what matters most to him is finding the whole story, no matter what that might be.

Dottie Underwood
Dottie is a Black Widow. And I knew it from her very introduction in “Time and Tide,” as did many other sharp-eared viewers.

One word: Ballerina.

That’s the classic Black Widow cover. It was even mentioned in “Natalie Rushman’s” profile in Iron Man 2.
But finally, Dottie’s backstory is revealed, along with glimpses of the Red Room and its Black Widow program. And now I want a Black Widow movie even more than I already did.

Still, it makes you wonder why the Howling Commandos seemed to gloss over the discovery of child soldiers. But I guess that can be explained.

“It’s Russia, man.”

While the flashbacks didn’t really teach us anything about Dottie’s actual personal history, a couple of details in the episode tell us everything we need to know about her personality. Handcuffing herself to her own bed, while probably necessary for her to get to sleep, symbolically shows that she’s now a willing addition to whatever cause she was raised for. And imitating Peggy in the mirror shows that there’s some kind of attraction/obsession there.

"I shall become you."
New York Times Reporter (John Glover)
What a waste of the man who played Lionel Luthor in Smallville. And the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series. And Dr. Jason Woodrue in Batman and Robin. I mean, seriously. He never shows up again.

I can't help but wonder if there were no plans for the character, or if Glover prefers to play DC villains.
Agent Peggy Carter
For the very first time, Peggy Carter is relaxed.

When she talks to Dum Dum Dugan, she drops all of her acts and simply becomes who she really is. For the first time, the only expectation of her is to just be herself. And that’s very refreshing to see.

Unfortunately, Peggy cracking the code is one of the worst moments in the series. Sorry if you disagree, but out of all the moments where Peggy proves herself, this felt the most forced. Even when you discount the fact that breaking the code the way she did is literally impossible, Peggy is only able to prove herself by making another character ridiculously incompetent.

Still, everything she does in Belarus is made of awesome.

Agent Jack Thompson
The jerk’s backstory revealed.

Thompson’s story puts everything we’ve seen so far into question. How much of his behavior is an act? How much of it is because he’s had this secret since the war? And how much of it is because he got his personality shot off in Iwo Jima?

It makes me wonder, if Sousa had been more willing to accept Thompson’s understanding over the ordeal with the homeless guy in the last episode, instead of walking out with a snarky comment, would Sousa have been the one to hear the truth from Thompson’s mouth?

Maybe if he'd kept his feet off the table, Sousa would have stayed.
Howling Commandos
It was wonderful to see Dugan again, even though the other members were a little flat.

But what do you expect when you replace 80% of the team?
Happy Sam Sawyer (Leonard Roberts) got a racelift for little reason other than to replace Gabe Jones, Pinky Pinkerton (Richard Short) is the replacement for Montgomery Falsworth (ironic, since Montgomery Falsworth wasn’t originally a Howling Commando, and was only included to fill Pinky’s niche), and Junior Juniper (James Austin Kerr) is the only new guy with a personality. Shame he dies, just like in the comics.

But I guess the replacements don’t really matter. After all, there isn’t enough time in the episode to do each character justice, which is why the new characters are barely fleshed out.

Agent Sousa
Finally, Sousa has made a breakthrough in the case. He has a solid lead… and it will betray his best friend in the SSR. Things can only escalate from here.

Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown)
I’m sure this new guy will be a welcome ally in the fight against Leviathan. Although Dottie was the last character added before him, and we know how that turned out….

But the character seems like such a nice guy!

…Just like Dottie.

Uh oh.

Visuals
The use of Disney cartoons to re-educate little Russian girls was a nice touch, taking advantage of Disney’s ownership of Marvel. Though if I had to criticize this episode’s look, some of the forest scenes with the Howling Commandos look a little… soundstagey.

Peggy Punches: 0
I am disappoint.

Final Thoughts
Agent Carter has shown a lot of promise, but five episodes in, the show is really starting to deliver in every regard.

Suspense. Mystery. Action. Drama. Humor.

It's kind of a shame that an episode this good had to wait so long to happen. Quite a few viewers weren't willing to give Agent Carter a chance after the first couple episodes. And for other viewers, it was a case of too little, too late. The show's pacing and focus issues put them in enough of a bad place with the show that one really good episode wasn't enough to keep them interested at this point.

But next time, Peggy goes on the run from the SSR and finds herself having to clear her own name, as well as Stark’s. I knew Agent Thompson’s respect couldn’t last long.

See you then!

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