The final episode of Marvel’s Captain America spinoff Agent Carter airs tonight, and statistically, you’re probably not going to be watching it. Not a lot of people have been: despite a significant Marvel PR push, Agent Carter kind of flew in under the radar. I’ve been talking to my hardcore Marvel nerds I know, the history buffs who can tell you where and when and how the Howling Commandos made their debut, the die-hards who gritted their teeth and held on until Agents of SHIELD got good; and half of them never even bothered with the pilot.
And that is a goddamn shame, because Agent Carter is superlative television. It’s the type of period spy piece genre fans live for: clever gadgets and brutal fights, double-crosses and the kind of costumes and dialogue that tell you everyone involved really did their research. It’s accessible even if you’ve never cracked a comic in your life and skipped all the Marvel movies and Agents of SHIELD (though it’s full of easter eggs for the rest of us). Agent Carter is smart and funny and tense and heartbreaking, expertly directed and beautifully shot, and the casting is pitch-perfect, and I love it all: the knock-out spy lipstick, and the mad science, and the grappling on top of cars, and the occasional and unexpected moments of slapstick. I love Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and Angie the waitress (Lyndsy Fonseca), and the shy small-town girl who turns out to be something else entirely. Hell, I even love the crunchy vets at the Strategic Scientific Reserve — SHIELD’s precursor agency — who call Peggy “sweetheart” and relegate her to taking lunch orders and filing reports.
If all of that were all Agent Carter brought to the table, it would still be more than enough. But it’s so much more. Agent Carter is a quiet revolution, and throughout all of those fights and heists and car chases, it is quietly and continually subverting what it means for a woman to be an action hero.
The first scene of the first episode of Agent Carter — once they’ve gone through the obligatory Captain America death footage, in case you’d forgotten — is actually two montages, intercut. One is in the past, and that one you’ll recognize, because it’s mostly more footage from Captain America: The First Avenger: Peggy firing guns, taking down an opponent twice her size, stealing a plane with Howard Stark and Steve Rogers. The other is in the show’s present, quiet and domestic: Peggy in her cramped apartment, checking on a whistling kettle, ironing a blouse, rolling up stockings. Their intersections are uncomfortable, removed: a newspaper headline about Stark; Peggy pausing at the mirror in a silk robe to examine the now-old bullet scars in her shoulder. (Of course, the whole thing is set to “That Man,” by Caro Emerald; which seems too pointed not to be a wink and a nod.)
The dichotomy executive producers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas are setting up seems obvious, right? On one side, she gets to save the world. There’s excitement, camaraderie, action. On the other, ironing and silk stockings. Peggy Carter is an Action Chick, that opening tells us. She’s clearly better than this bullshit, this purgatory of the feminine and the domestic.
See, that’s the thing about Action Chicks. Even when they get headline status, they’re occupying a genre assumed to be By The Guys, For The Guys and that means that as a rule, Action Chicks — especially high-budget Action Chicks — prove their value by internalizing misogyny. I’m used to Action Chicks who make a point — overt or coded — of rejecting the feminine sphere and everything it represents, by being the only girl; or the girl who’s not like the other girls and will do anything to prove it, while still staying sexy enough for the male gaze. The femininity they cling to — the vanities, the romances — almost always end up liabilities.
So: I’m watching Agent Carter, and I assume I’m in for more of the same, which isn’t surprising, really. I figure, I’ll turn off the critic filter and enjoy the fights and the fashion, and maybe I’ll watch episode two, but probably not.
But the thing is, Agent Carter has my number, because the first thing that happens after that montage is that Peggy’s roommate walks in the door. And even though they don’t know each other very well, despite the inconvenience of an opposite-shift roommate and the secrets she’s keeping, Peggy clearly likes Colleen. There’s genuine affection and camaraderie — and again, when she greets the woman at the fake switchboard that serves as a front for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, and the waitress at the automat.
And all of a sudden, I’m paying attention. Because I know the Action Chick rules, and Action Chicks aren’t allowed to like other women. Other women can be rivals, or foils, symbols of what they’ve given up or failures for the Action Chick to transcend; but never friends.
Don’t get me wrong: She kicks ass. In the first episode, I watch her fell a towering thug with a teakettle and stove burner; and another with knock-out lipstick; and a third with a stapler. I watched her get classified information from a meeting over her clearance level by bringing coffee to her male colleagues. I watched her defuse a bomb with chemicals scavenged from her kitchen and vanity and mixed in a perfume atomizer. Do you know what all those things have in common?
They’re coded heavily as feminine. Even the stapler: remember Peggy spends most of her time in S.S.R. relegated to secretarial work.
Now, there is a subset of Action Chicks who use feminine accessories as weapons. They’re femmes fatale, grifters; morally grey and usually doomed as hell; and those feminine weapons are coded as sinister and deceitful. There is a femme fatale in Agent Carter, and she is subversive and wonderful and terrifying and very, very sad: not because she is relegated to the feminine, but because of how violently she has been stripped of her agency and identity.
But Peggy knows who she is. She’s not a femme fatale or a grifter. She’s a secret agent, and she’s more than a little bit prim, and she makes her own calls and messes up — sometimes catastrophically — on her own terms. Peggy Carter’s femininity isn’t a trick or a trap, nor is a mask she wears for the benefit of the men around her: when we finally see her stripped of those cultural expectations, fighting and drinking alongside comrades who know her value, she has shockingly little pretense to shake off.
Peggy knows who she is, and that knowledge allows her to use and embrace the tools she has on hand. She’s not a badass because she rejects the feminine. She’s a badass because she’s capable of recognizing its value.
And that changes everything.
In writing about Agent Carter, it’s natural to compare the show to the character: overlooked because it’s so wholly unexpected, because it refuses to fall neatly into the categories and expectations we’ve spent our lives lining up. Because, brilliant and brave and groundbreaking in its own right, it never quite got out from under the long and broad shadow of those Captain America films — which are of course terrific, vindication of both comic-book cinema and, in The First Avenger’s Joe Johnston, one of the best overlooked directors in the business.
But you’ve seen movies like Captain America. There are no shows like Agent Carter — The Bletchley Circle comes close, but Agent Carter is still something new and revolutionary, something that not only subverts gender and genre; but, like its hero, changes the world left in its wake. Captain America sets a strong foundation. But Agent Carter…
Agent Carter soars.
Rachel Edidin is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She hangs her Internet hat at racheledidin.com; X-plains X-Men at rachelandmiles.com; is vaguely Internet Famous as @WorstMuse; and lives in Portland, Oregon, with a nice system administrator and a terrible cat.