The Danger in Underestimating the Women Around You. Agent Carter: “The Iron Ceiling”

I appreciate a TV show that goes to great lengths to explain why we’re about to see little girls stabbing people.

This week, Agent Carter starts by moonlighting as The Dottie Show, opening in the 1930s at the Russian School For Girls Who Are Killing You and showing the indoctrinational and educational process for the vacant-souled assassins that we know as Dottie and, eventually, Black Widow. It’s the absolute creepiest sequence, one that is unflinchingly committed to the brutality that it’s depicting. It’s so strong, in fact, that I think it overwhelms this week’s main story: Peggy reuniting with the Howling Commandos and kicking ass.

Although in the end, both stories ask the same question of its characters: How much danger are you putting yourself in by underestimating the women around you?

This question motivates nearly everyone’s story this week, and while “The Iron Ceiling” is dominated by male characters, Peggy is nevertheless the first person we see being tested by this assertion. Angie’s got a bad case of ennui lately, so this morning Dottie and Peggy are the ones having breakfast at the automat. What should Dottie see in New York City, Peggy? Peggy, do you want some bread? How should Dottie get to Brooklyn, Peggy? And how much do you like your neck unsnapped, Peggy?

Dottie is testing Peggy and our good agent is failing. Peggy doesn’t see a capable, intelligent person across the table, she just sees a floaty girl who really wants to go to the Statue of Liberty. Peggy sees Dottie the way Peggy imagines her SSR co-workers see her even though the “reality of Dottie” is far different. That dismissive mindset is already putting Peggy, and as learn later probably also the world, in mortal danger.

Agent Carter: The Iron Ceiling

It just occurred to me that we only know Angie is pining alone in her room (For Peggy, obvs. Angie and Jarvis should start a club.) through Dottie and since Dottie is the most unreliable narrator ever maybe someone better check that Angie is still alive?

Peggy fails her test, but Shootin’ Jack Thompson doesn’t. Here is a man who is not afraid to tell a woman that she’s useless, not afraid to be on the front lines of a mission that he demonstrably wouldn’t have without Peggy’s mic-dropping codebreaker skills, not afraid to shoot anyone who…it turns out is coming to surrender.

Agent Carter: The Iron Ceiling

Jack gets the blinders torn from his eyes in “The Iron Ceiling.” The character has previously told us that he views women as an inferior and singular entity, but he’s never given a reason for his views beyond claiming that those views are the general consensus. You get the impression that Jack has probably never bothered to research the reasons for his stance. Instead, he just insists that if his views are part of a consensus, then that consensus must be reality. No one ever questions him about this (or about anything, really), so over time, Jack’s head has simplified this all down to My Views = Reality. Ease triumphs over critical thought.

An easy conclusion doesn’t necessarily equal a correct conclusion, though. Peggy has put herself in danger by drawing the easy conclusion regarding Dottie, and Jack puts himself in danger by drawing the easy conclusion regarding Peggy. Both of these conclusions fall apart in “The Iron Ceiling” when tested in the environment that birthed them.

Jack and Peggy head to Russia to infiltrate a Leviathan compound and Jack finds himself immediately on the outside as the SSR links up with the Howling Commandos. Dum-Dum Dugan and company have been through the shit with Peggy and they know her capabilities. Skills are skills, and their survival has repeatedly relied on acknowledging that as reality and discarding societal gender norms as irrelevant. In war, whatever gets you killed has to go. And underestimating anyone around you, female or not, is something that can get you killed.

The Howling Commandos pass this test as far as Peggy is concerned, but fail when it comes time to infiltrate the Leviathan compound. There they find a cartoon film strip that instructs its viewers to “instill fear” but disregard that ominous evidence when presented with a little girl weeping alone. It’s a tense moment for the characters and the viewer. The Commandos put their guard down in order to help what is obviously a little girl caught in the middle of a deadly situation. We the viewer know that the little girl has been trained as an assassin, however, and that…well…at this point the show puts its own viewers to the question. Are we underestimating this girl? If we’re not, what do we want to see the characters do? Surely we don’t want to see our heroes corner a little girl at gunpoint?

Agent Carter: The Iron Ceiling

It’s a question that requires the viewers to not put ease before critical thought. The episode has been warning us repeatedly not to underestimate the women around us, and now it’s boiled down to this moment. One of the Howling Commandoes will be killed as a result of this underestimation.

But it’s not at all fair to say that Pinkerton dies and Dum-Dum gets stabbed because they understimated the girl. They would help any crying child in a war zone, regardless of their sex, nationality, race, etc and their actions are not to blame for the calamity that ensues. Rather, we have to look deeper. The person who kills is the little girl, yes, but remember the handcuffs from the opening scene. These are not girls who are capable of resisting their training and asserting their own choice. The fault lay with the organization taking advantage of them. The fault belongs to Leviathan for weaponizing the underestimation of women that people like Jack Thompson take as the general consensus.

This is where we arrive. Jack underestimates Peggy. Leviathan takes advantage of that on a larger scale. And this creates a disconnect between what is perceived and what is real. Leviathan has been filling the void of this disconnect with dangerous, murderous weapons.

Finally, Jack sees this and makes a stand. He’s in Russia because he couldn’t acknowledge Peggy’s work. He has a Navy Star honor because he shot six Japanese “assassins” who were actually coming to surrender themselves. The disconnect between what he perceives and what is real is now too much. Something awful is growing in that space and Jack doesn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

As the story concludes, Peggy finds herself on a more equal footing with her co-agents at the SSR. The general consensus is changing. She’s not nearly as underestimated as she was by Chief Dooley and Jack.

Or Agent Sousa. He’s stopped underestimating Peggy, as well, and has finally realized that she is a double agent. So let’s enjoy the harmony amongst the SSR while we can. It will be gone by next week.

Agent Carter: The Iron Ceiling

 

Thoughts:

  • Agent Carter has really turned the SSR around on me. Dooley has been doing the hard work on the case with a really appealing sly ease and it’s going to be exciting to see all of the agents compare notes on their investigations.
  • Going from the bread offering in the opening scene to the bread offering in the automat was a nice touch, I thought. I almost found myself yelling “Don’t take the bread! It’s murder bread!” as if that would have been at all useful.
  • I find Black Widow fairly boring as a character (in the comics or the movies) but after this episode I really, really want to see a Black Widow movie showing how she escaped the training school. Not only that, but if the training school survives until the 1990s, then where are the other assassins? Did Natasha break free of them then realize she was the only one who could take them down? You can’t really ask the Avengers to dismantle that kind of thing. Too much black ops blood. She must have had to do that herself. Imagine a Black Widow movie where she has take out her entire school of assassins. How is this not being made?!?
  • Is Leviathan actually trying to build a giant laser? Dottie’s creepy rummaging through Peggy’s apartment plus the Russian scientists’ “photonic” plans make me curious.
  • I’m curious to see if or how the Tesseract may play into this. All we know is that Howard Stark recovers it separate from the discovery of Cap in the ice and that he possibly reverse-engineered it to create the prototype arc reactor and the element from Iron Man 2. Has Howard already found it? Or is that yet to come?
  • Fox owns the rights to the Fantastic Four, but does Marvel own the rights to the World War 2 Human Torch? Wasn’t there a glimpse of him in Captain America: The First Avenger while at the World’s Fair? It’d be cool to see him pop up.

Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and like the wind recaps Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then like the wind is gone.

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