This review contains spoilers for Season 2 of Agent Carter. If you have not yet seen this show, and you care about being spoiled, please do not read this review.
Last year, when the first season of Agent Carter was airing, I made it my civic duty to try to get as many people as possible to watch this show. It was a big deal! It was well-written, enjoyable, the characters were complicated and interesting, and, most importantly, it starred a female protagonist who was progressive in ways that we rarely see. When it looked like the show was not going to be picked up for a second season, I joined the army of supporters that petitioned, tweeted, tagged hashes, and furiously blogged to try to get the show to be picked up. And we won! So I have just finished watching season 2 of Agent Carter, and… I have mixed feelings about it. I really enjoyed this season by the end of it, and I will still gladly recommend it to people, but I feel like, in a lot of ways, this season failed to make good on the promise of the first season and was plagued with some bad decisions on the part of the showrunners that could very well lead this show to not getting a third season.
When further seasons of Agent Carter were originally being discussed, a lot of the discussion talked about doing major time jumps in Carter’s career in between seasons. We know she lives a long time and is involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. and much of the history of the MCU throughout that career. So, people involved with the show often talked about the possibility that, for example, season 2 could be in the 50s or 60s. This, in my opinion, would have been a strong decision. We know from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ratings that the times when that show is most successful is when it has episodes that tie into current MCU releases. Agent Carter could have easily accomplished something similar by covering periods in time that closely tie to the historically important events in the MCU. Show her founding S.H.I.E.L.D. with Howard Stark, have her encounter Hank Pym, heck even just showing a young Tony would be beneficial to the series. One of the huge advantages of setting a series in the past is that you already know how things will turn out, and so there is no worry that something that shows up in Agent Carter will dictate the future of the MCU.
However, that’s not what happened. What happened was that this season picked up a few months after the end of season 1 in what is a GREAT scene with Peggy Carter and Jack Thompson taking down Dottie Underwood. This scene is shot and choreographed beautifully. Right out of the gate, it reminded me of how strong the early parts of season 1 of Agent Carter were. I want to make it clear how much I loved this scene, because I still think this show has a lot of promise, and I still think it’s a great show, but I think that there were some bad decisions made this year, and one of them was not moving significantly forward in time, because after Dottie is captured, this show really has nowhere to go.
What happens next? Peggy is transferred to L.A. so that Jack Thompson can take over (and proceed to totally mess up) Dottie’s interrogation, and then get seduced to the dark side by Vernon Masters who promises him political power once the SSR is no longer needed. This was a big problem for me and consistently bothered me for the first half of this season. Let me be clear. Jack Thompson is not a nice guy, but he is a good guy. He was one of the most interesting characters in the first season, precisely because at first he just seemed like a selfish jerk. It turns out, though, that he’s not that simple. He knows that Carter is a good agent, but he also knows how the world works. He’s a guy who is a jerk, but is also able to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult. The Jack Thompson we knew at the end of season 1 would never have turned Dottie Underwood over. And he would especially never have ruined an SSR investigation into something that looked like it could end the world like zero matter (or darkforce as it is later called in the comics and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), which he does. This backpedaling of Jack’s character development really bugs me, and it feels like it was just put in place, because they didn’t know what else to do with this character. So, they had to move him back in order to show him making progress. Eventually, Jack turns around and becomes one of the good guys again. I appreciated that, but it still felt like ignoring the development we saw in season 1 and pretty much just ending him in the same place.
As for the rest of the plot… it’s focused on stopping Whitney Frost (Madame Masque in comics) from a mass-murdering spree that would eventually lead to her opening up a portal to let more zero matter to earth so that it can consume the planet. It’s not that this plot is bad, it just feels inconsequential. It only ties into a minor, long-resolved subplot in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is seen nowhere else in the MCU (at least not yet), and we already know that Peggy succeeds, since the MCU exists in the first place. It’s possible this will tie into a larger plot in a later movie (Maybe Doctor Strange or Captain Marvel or Guardians of the Galaxy 2?), but by the time it does, the impact that will have on this show’s ratings and the decision on whether or not to renew it will be long gone.
All of those complaints aside, there’s a lot of positive elements to this season. Hayley Atwell’s acting as Peggy Carter is still top notch (to the point where I am consistently surprised that ABC is still able to sign her on to television shows, because she has the caliber of acting that is often seen in actors who exclusively do movies), and while her character got an annoyingly cliché love triangle subplot, everything else about Peggy Carter remains strong, cool, fun, and progressive. Additionally, the show worked to spin the sexism subplot on its ear this season by including Reggie Austin in the cast as Jason Wilkes, an African-American scientist living in the late 40s and dealing with racism. While Peggy totally understands her own struggle with sexism and has long resolved herself with how to deal with it by, as she says, knowing her own value, she has a hard time reconciling herself to the racism that Wilkes deals with on a daily basis. All of this is fantastic, and it plays beautifully.
The acting all around is just as good as it was in season one, but far and away the most pleasant surprises are Lotte Verbeek as Ana Jarvis and Wynn Everett as Whitney Frost. Verbeek’s chemistry with James D’Arcy is enchanting, and Everett plays a terrifying and intriguing villain throughout the series who gives us an advantage we really didn’t have in season 1: We really get to see the creation and evolution of a villain (we got a little bit of that with Dottie Underwood in the first season, but she was not really the ultimate villain of that season, whereas Whitney is). That kind of focus reminds me a great deal of the way that Kingpin and Kilgrave were handled in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and it’s a direction I appreciate.
While I’m not terribly fond of the zero matter plot-focus, the way the plot unfolded was extremely engaging and interesting. All of the villains came across as more complex than you would expect, there were moments of genuine shock, and some really exciting action sequences that really sold this as a comic book show. As a stand-alone season, this is actually extremely well done. It could actually pretty easily have been season 1 of this show (this is actually part of the problem, because it doesn’t feel so much like things are moving forward in interesting ways, but that also means that the plot we have is very tight), and apart from some reveals in the last couple episodes, it doesn’t necessarily need a third season to feel complete, either.
That said, in a lot of ways, if this show were guaranteed to get a third season, this would have been an even stronger sophomore season for it. It handles a lot of set-up for larger mysteries very well. We see hints of larger, more threatening villains than what we have seen in either of these first two seasons, and we are starting to explore more of Peggy’s origin as well. The problem is that I feel, perhaps, the showrunners were too sure of themselves going into this. The first season’s ratings had almost every expert calling it sunk. It was a minor TV miracle that this second season exists at all, and, while I would love nothing more than to see four or five seasons of this show, I really think that the amount of set-up that they did at the tail end of this season is in serious danger of never being followed up on. Hopefully, a third season comes along and we can see the fruits of what this season established, but I still believe that it would have been a stronger move to ground this season more solidly in MCU history to guarantee a wider viewership.
This was not as good as the first season, but it is still a strong season of television blessed by talented actors and tight writing. It has a bit of a shaky start, and some of the showrunners’ decisions this season are questionable. Nevertheless, I very much hope that we will see a season 3, I just find the chances of that happening pretty unlikely. This season received even lower ratings than the first one, which was only saved by the overwhelming demand from the internet to save Agent Carter as evidence that comic book shows with female leads CAN be successful, and SHOULD be on the air. I was amongst those people who fought for its return, and I will do it again, if the opportunity presents itself, but I feel that with the existence and success of Jessica Jones and Supergirl, people are probably less likely to take up arms in defense of Agent Carter this year. Regardless, we will see what the verdict is after the upfronts in May.
I do wonder why it’s so hard to write plotlines that don’t involve the possible end of the world. I understand it more for the movies, it can still be a bad habit but there’s natural escalation. It seems like that trap should be easier to avoid for TV but series seem to get stuck in it often enough anyways.
I should say, I understand it more for movies with sequels or shared universes or the like.
There’s actually a joke about that in Arrow. I think in the season 3 finale. After already having dealt with the whole city being under attack for the season finale of the first two seasons, Quentin Lance says something like “Let me guess. The city is under attack? It must be May.”