WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Agent Carter
Non-superhero characters don’t get a ton of featured moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or its television offshoots. There’s Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the Iron-Man films, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) in The Avengers, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in the Thor films, but most of the time, those characters are just part of the larger ensemble—even if, as in the case of Coulson, they get their own TV shows.
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is the exception. After making her debut as a mentor and love interest for Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy turned up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ulton, and Ant-Man. But it was her (sadly) short-lived ABC show, Agent Carter, that truly let her talents—which generally included being smarter and more capable than almost anyone else—get the attention they deserved.
And unlike the overly-action-packed installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agent Carter kept things intimate and simple by putting the idea of a limited comics series—one story told over a finite number of issues—on TV. The first season is a pulpy sci-fi detective story that establishes Peggy’s post-WWII life in New York at the fledgling would-be S.H.I.E.L.D. (then known as the Strategic Scientific Reserve), where she’s continually shoved aside by sexist bureaucrats. Then the second season moves the action to Los Angeles, where the tone shifts to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-style noir and embroils Agent Carter in a whole different mystery.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the longer-running show that ties in with the Marvel films, and Jessica Jones and Daredevil have a parallel street-level universe on Netflix, but it was Agent Carter that successfully combined the consistent tone and wit of the MCU with other established TV genres. It may be over now, but Peggy Carter’s ABC show left behind two great seasons of TV to enjoy. Here’s how to binge your way through it.
Number of Seasons: 2 (18 episodes)
Time Requirements: Under 13 hours, meaning you could watch the entire series in a weekend, or even one day if you felt very committed to a marathon.
Where to Get Your Fix: Hulu Plus
Best Character to Follow: She’s right there in the title. Peggy Carter is a criminally underutilized character in the MCU, since she cannot be preserved like Captain America in order to coexist alongside the Avengers in her prime. But that’s OK, because it means she gets to stand out among men who cannot hope to compete with her on any level as an agent. She doesn’t necessarily progress over the course of the series, but in the first season she copes with the loss of Steve Rogers, who was presumed dead at the end of the 1940s section of Captain America: The First Avenger. Her formidable resolve and drive to keep completing meaningful work when her bosses won’t hand her a well-deserved field assignment never gets old. And she does it all with great instincts, a sharp wit, and impeccable style—notably without any special powers, which has been a part of nearly every other facet of the Marvel Universe on the big and small screen.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Since there are only 18 episodes, and each season features a serialized plot, you shouldn’t be skipping any of them. That said, look to the next section for the true must-watch episodes.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “Now Is Not the End”
Louis D’Esposito, who directed the original Agent Carter one-shot, also directed this pilot, set in 1946 with Peggy at the SSR in New York City. The agency wants to investigate Howard Stark (Preacher’s Dominic Cooper) for allegedly selling weapons to enemies of the United States, but Stark covertly reaches out to Carter in order to help clear his name. As a historical Easter egg, this episode also features Anton Vanko, the Stark Industries scientist and father of Ivan Vanko (Mikey Rourke), the villain in Iron Man 2.
Season 1: Episode 4, “The Blitzkrieg Button”
Much of Peggy’s emotional journey over the course of the first season involves her grieving the loss of Steve Rogers. She throws herself into the covert operation clearing Howard’s name because she doesn’t want to deal with the pain—but when she discovers the weapon Stark has been keeping from her, everything goes haywire. Being the midpoint of the season, this is of course where the plot must take a turn. Peggy uncovers what Howard is really trying to hide—the last remaining biological samples related to Captain America, the only successful super-soldier—and her neighbor in an all-female boarding house turns out to be more than she appears.
Season 1: Episode 5, “The Iron Ceiling”
The Howling Commandos are one of the best parts of Captain America: The First Avenger, so naturally their reappearance makes for one of the best Agent Carter episodes. Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) is always a great guest star, and he works perfectly as a wisecracking military veteran.
Season 1: Episode 8, “Valediction”
Peggy’s boss Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) is a stodgy sexist at the beginning of the series, choosing to give plum assignments to Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) while sticking Peggy with menial office work. But by the end of the season, after Peggy’s conspiratorial efforts with Jarvis (James D’Arcy) and Stark come to light, and the greater threat becomes more apparent, Dooley makes a great sacrifice and does seem to understand that he underestimated Carter. But what makes this finale so disheartening is that even in the face of temporary victory, Peggy is Sisyphus. A man gets credit for her accomplishments, she pushes away her best ally and love interest Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), and only the audience truly knows just how much she has done to protect the world.
Season 2: Episode 1, “The Lady In The Lake”
The second season moves the action to Hollywood, and contrasts Peggy’s under-appreciated existence at the SSR with “aging” actress Whitney Frost, a Hedy Lamarr-esque star who got her start as a prolific inventor and is now married to an uninspiring candidate for Senate. Jack Thompson now leads the SSR, while Sousa heads up the west coast office, and Peggy arrives in California to help with a mysterious case of a frozen lake in the middle of a heat wave.
Season 2: Episode 4, “Smoke and Mirrors”
Flashback-heavy origin story episodes can be tough when they focus on one character. But this hour manages to deftly tie together the origin stories of both Frost and Carter, showing how their respective childhoods created the adversaries in the show’s present. Frost grew up with a neglectful mother who insisted her looks would do more for her than her engineering genius, while Carter started as a headstrong young girl who got lost in an engagement she didn’t truly want, only readjusting her career path after her brother’s tragic death in World War II. It’s a poignant, well-written episode that contains all the thematic material of the season.
Season 2: Episode 10, “Hollywood Ending”
The second season of Agent Carter features an incredible cast, from Wynn Evertt’s Whitney Frost to Kurtwood Smith’s Vernon Masters and Ken Marino’s Joseph Manfredi. But the unsung hero of the season is Reggie Austin as Jason Wilkes, the talented black scientist who literally becomes the Invisible Man for stretches of the season. There’s a lot of self-aware commentary on the state of female and racial minority characters in comic book properties throughout the season, and even in the face of increasingly ludicrous and fantastical plot elements, like Zero Matter and dimensional rifts, it’s still an impressive achievement that more followers of the films should watch.
Why You Should Binge:
The 13 films in the MCU take over 27 hours to watch back-to-back, and some audiences endure that day-long stretch of films to catch up before the latest installment. Agent Carter isn’t nearly as time consuming, and it doesn’t get spliced up by the requirements of too many heroes, or introducing too much backstory. It’s just a fun genre romp, one that benefits from stacking episodes together, like devouring a beach read and refusing to stop until completing one more chapter.
Best Scene—Peggy Gets a Mission:
In “The Iron Ceiling,” Peggy has the opportunity to argue for her own inclusion on a secret mission to Russia. Jack Thompson obviously disagrees. Chief Dooley hears them both out—and does some sensible thinking about why he can’t let Peggy die or be responsible for another man’s death. But ultimately the confrontation comes down to one thing—can she get the Howling Commandos to participate in the mission? The men think she’s a joke who couldn’t possibly pull that off, but in less than a minute, in the background of the scene while on the phone, Carter gets the unit to agree to the mission and meet them in the most obvious location, which Thompson is just getting to while laying out his idea. It’s a perfect summation of how much her colleagues in New York, and by extension the rest of the world, underestimates her abilities at their own peril.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has pitifully few significant female characters, and there’s no upcoming film that would improve the recent track record. But Agent Carter does deliver nearly 13 hours of Golden Age comics storytelling with a modern stylistic flair. Marvel Studios must find a way to make its female characters more significant, and how to make its characters without superpowers more relatable. Agent Carter offers a blueprint for both.
If You Liked Agent Carter You’ll Love: Pretty much anything that Marvel has developed for television, including, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Luke Cage.