Better Infrared Than Dead. Agent Carter: “Better Angels”

It’s the first episode after the premiere and it’s already party time down at Peggy Carter Central. Now that we know what the threat is, and now that it has taken a life, Peggy and Jarvis waste no time in calling in the experts, and also Jack Thompson. With everyone back in the mix (well, except Angie but presumably Peggy doesn’t need a sad automat in L.A., sorry Angie) the plot moves forward pretty rapidly, and some surprising drama emerges. Agent Carter is done goofing off, but “Better Angels” still manages to be a ton of fun.

Peggy Carter knows that the now-deceased Professor Handsome (Wilkes) is an innocent, but no one else does, so Peggy and Sousa and the SSR head immediately to his house, which I feel safe declaring is probably nicer and cleaner than all of our houses, to look for clues and conduct some due diligence. Peggy’s Sensible Heels sense Wilkes’ secret floorboards immediately, under which is hidden a secret Russian passport corroborating other evidence in the house that proves that Wilkes is a Communist spy.

“Noooo!” I cry, because Wilkes being a spy is too interesting a plotline to immediately dismiss, but Peggy isn’t buying it. She knows Wilkes personally and while he is surprisingly quick on his feet in tense situations, he is too good, too pure to be a spy. “Better Angels” introduces an interesting angle to Peggy’s character here, hinting that even though the SSR and the viewers at home currently think of Peggy as perfect, she is still perfectly capable of letting her insecurities (EVERYONE I EVEN THINK ABOUT LOVING DIES) cloud her analytical judgment. The show adroitly sets up a situation in Wilkes’ house that allows the viewer to doubt Peggy without denigrating her. It really looks like Wilkes is a spy, but we can also sympathize with why Peggy would want more conclusive evidence before she believes that. Also, if Wilkes let himself die in an explosion–that only he would realistically know how to cause–then he would be kind of a terrible spy.

It isn’t long before we find out that that the evidence tying Wilkes to Russia was indeed planted, and Peggy is correct to keep digging for the truth. Whitney Frost’s husband Cal bursts into her parlor grinning from ear to ear about how well planting the evidence worked to fool the press and shift the blame away from Isodyne. Look honey! We framed a black man for a terrible crime! It was so much fun! Let’s do this for the next 70+ years!

Agent Carter Better Angels

Meanwhile, Peggy knows that she also has a bit of a Unknown Substance That Shouldn’t Exist In This Universe problem on her hands. She could go to the scientists at the SSR, but as we’ve seen, they’re not all that great at their jobs and when you invite them out for drinks they do that thing where they start off with heavy liquor immediately then sit silently outside the circle of conversation. Sure, the SSR boys could open up the conversation circle a little more, but are we here to play the blame game or to build bridges? Making friends takes work, scientists, so…

…wow, that got off track, and fast.

Peggy needs someone so smart they can turn a tiny Chris Evans into a gleaming slab of non-judgmental meat, so Jarvis takes her to the set of Howard Stark’s latest movie: an adaptation of the Kid Colt: Outlaw comic book. It turns out Howard is totally serious about making movies, and not just having another excuse to Hugh Hefner women, and Peggy and Co. end up ruining a shot of Kid Colt’s big showdown with the sheriff.

Agent Carter Better Angels

Howard is suitably impressed with the footage of zero matter in action and immediately snaps into Howard Stark: Boundary-Pushing Scientist mode. It’s a good imperative for Agent Carter to prioritize, as thus far in the show Howard has largely come across as an irresponsible fugitive and lecherous goon. We haven’t seen the more inspiring and bright-eyed side of Howard Stark in a long time, not since Captain America: The First Avenger, and it’s good to have a reminder that Stark’s noble qualities emerge when he has something that can suitably occupy his impressive mind. Zero matter is a perfect mystery for Howard Stark.

It also helps if you take his Bloody Mary away.

Agent Carter Better Angels

Howard isn’t the only bobbling head to jump into this season’s main plotline. The California branch of the SSR soon makes way for Scowlin’ Jack Thompson, who claims that he’s there to check on their progress but mostly is there at the urging of Vernon Masters, the guy who has some kind of connection with the FBI and who is trying to recruit Jack out of the SSR before he shutters it. Jack is taken in by the evidence that Wilkes is a Communist spy and is wondering why Peggy and Sousa are insisting otherwise. Peggy is immediately irate. She sees Jack using the same kind of bias against Wilkes that he used against her in season one. Peggy is female, Wilkes is black, and it takes tremendous effort to get Privileged Jack Thompson to not see anyone who isn’t, well, himself, as a lesser person. Peggy had to take him into a war zone. Dottie had to literally flip a table in rage. Wilkes…well, Wilkes has no one to speak up for him except Peggy.

Still, Peggy needs evidence that Wilkes has been framed, and her only lead is the pin she found at the scene. It was important to Dottie, and Howard recognizes it as belonging to the Arena Club. Peggy knows she needs to quietly investigate them without word reaching Jack, but there’s just one problem. The Arena Club doesn’t allow women inside.

No Girls Allowed

This is just one the many reasons Howard dislikes the Arena Club (their bartender is slow), so Howard is all too happy to help Peggy infiltrate its inner sanctum by pretending that he wants to join, then forcing the club to let in a cavalcade of young starlets as a distraction. NO ONE STOPS HOWARD STARK. NOT EVEN SCIENCE.

Agent Carter Better Angels

Peggy plants listening devices all throughout the club, but the SSR must not be the first group to try infiltrating the club, because there’s some kind of interference making the listening devices short out. (Probably all the rich mahogany and many leatherbound books.) The trip isn’t entirely a loss, however, as she spots mocked-up front pages of the L.A. Times that announce that Isodyne Cal’s political opponent will be dropping out of the race. Mind you, this is well before Cal’s political opponent has actually decided to drop out of the California Senate race, but the Arena Club has prepared for that, as well, mocking up a front page that accuses Cal’s opponent of a sex scandal. The mock-ups are all the evidence Peggy needs to tie Cal to the Isodyne explosion and not Wilkes, but before she can grab the paper A Huge Guy comes wandering in to check if anything is amiss.

Huge Guy’s name is Mr. Hunt and Peggy deftly manages to slip out of an enclosed room without him noticing, thanks to a flaming flower ornament, a coincidental Jarvis, and an amazing “I get really confused around books!” done with a terrifying California accent.

Agent Carter Better Angels

Peggy reports back to Jack, but Vernon Masters has already gotten to him. With the listening devices all fritzed out, Peggy has no tangible evidence, just her word that tomorrow’s newspaper will say “Anderson Ankles Election.” Peggy is accusing Cal Chadwick and the Arena Club of election fraud, but Jack’s willing to listen, but Peggy hasn’t brought him any evidence except her word, and with someone like Vernon Masters offering Jack a leg up, Jack can’t afford to do anything risky that would jeopardize his career advancement.

He doesn’t say that, of course. Instead, he accuses Peggy of letting her emotions about Wilkes cloud her judgment. Which activates…

Agent Carter Better Angels

Peggy fires both barrels, accusing Cowardly Jack Thompson of being a coward and telling him that he loves doing this kind of thing, doesn’t he? “Burying an ugly truth and hoping someone will pin a medal on you.”

Jack feels that burn so deep. Peggy knows that Jack has only ever gotten medals for letting others ignore his fuck ups. And Jack knows that Peggy knows. Even I gasped when she said it. Jack trusted Peggy with that information and now she’s using it to point out how he’s making the same mistake again. It’s emotion versus emotion in the chief’s office, and Jack brought a rubber ducky to a sword fight. All he can do is tell Peggy to go back to New York.

The fight is short, but interesting on a variety of levels. It says a lot about Jack’s character, his own failings as a person, and the traps that he’s tangled within, but it also reminds us that Peggy is letting her emotions guide her in this case. She’s correct to do so, but only because the circumstances of this case agree with her emotional reasoning. It brings up interesting angles in regards to the societal view of how women are expected to act in the workplace. Jack is obviously basing his decisions on the stereotype that women are “emotional,” and Peggy is letting emotions inform her actions, but there are degrees of separation present. Peggy is utilizing her emotions as an asset but otherwise keeping the larger goal in mind, while Jack is actually entirely motivated by his emotions regarding the status of his job and what Vernon Masters will think of him. Peggy’s control of her emotions makes her an intuitive agent, but does this simply put Peggy in another stereotypical box? That she succeeds because of her “women’s intuition”? This is just a hint of how difficult it can be to be a woman in the workplace, the show tells us. In Jack’s eyes, Peggy just moves from stereotype to stereotype. It’s a lot to say in such a short scene, but Agent Carter absolutely pulls it off, because it’s just that good of a show.

As if all of the above weren’t enough, a new problem arises. Peggy is making things float and as awesome as it would be to give Peggy some superpowers, in this particular case it means that she’s absorbed some zero matter and will will turn into a popsicle soon. She and Sousa rush off to Howard’s place and oh man, having someone Howard respects in trouble because of weird science are moments that Stark absolutely lives for. He quickly gets to work seeing what kinds of things Peggy can float (not wine) before revealing that he’s not goofing off (okay he is a little), he’s measuring the temperature and physical space that Peggy’s zero matter powers generate. He’s getting data, because if zero matter is having an effect on the physical world then it can be tracked and visualized, just like light on film.

And while the episode didn’t have to do this, I very much adore that “Better Angels” then shows Stark actually doing the work, becoming Science Bros. with Jarvis and walking us through what actually fascinates him about movie-making: capturing light through film. Stark wants to do more than just make movies, though. He wants to command the entire spectrum of light, from gamma rays (ERHEM) to the infrared, and beyond. He tells Jarvis to pick up heavy metals and Velveeta in the same sentence. (Don’t eat one of those things, Howard. Actually, don’t eat either of them.) He puts together a chemical spritzer that will capture the zero matter particles during their progression from mass-less to mass-full. (It’s a clever deduction. Where everyone else sees people being turned to ice, Howard sees impossible particles adapting to our universe and picking up mass as they undergo Brownian motion.)

We’re so distracted by Howard and Jarvis doing science that we don’t see that Peggy isn’t actually affected by zero matter, she’s just being followed around by it in the form of Wilkes’ ghost.

Agent Carter Better Angels

I LOVE THIS. We knew that Wilkes wasn’t dead, but this is still such a great reveal. I would certainly follow Peggy around as a ghost. And not just because she kissed me in a phone booth, but because she’s the only one who seems to care enough to actually help! Peggy’s “emotions” again strike true, and the episode comes down firmly in support of Peggy’s intuition. Because she cares about Wilkes, he is restored to the visible world, and now they may have just what they need to take care of zero matter and the conspiracy supporting it. Peggy fits into the stereotype of the emotional, intuitive woman, yes, but focusing on the stereotype, like Jack does, ignores the greater good that can be accomplished by selective use of emotion and intuition as deductive tools.

The Arena Club seems to have some idea of the forces arraying against them, but their rigid worldview is causing some serious stumbles. It turns out that Vernon Masters is one of the Arena Club masterminds and that he’s attempting to fashion Jack into a protege. He underestimates the SSR, however. When Jack sees the headline that Peggy prophecied to him earlier, he knows that something is up. Peggy’s intuition was correct once again, Jack knows, and he wisely decides to follow that intuition down the rabbit hole. He puts on his best Privileged Jerk face as Vernon and Cal grin at him stupidly. Agent Carter has now weaponized Jack’s privilege, and I am excite. God, just look at that face he’s making.

Agent Carter Better Angels

At the urging of Whitney Frost, Cal also sends Mr. Hunt to off Peggy before she can deduce that Whitney has encountered the zero matter and lived. Hunt is a creature of the Arena Club, though, and it’s hard to imagine how he could have underestimated Peggy even more hugely than he does. The goon attacks Peggy while she’s kickboxing, with Jarvis in the next room. It very quickly doesn’t end well for Mr. Hunt.

Agent Carter Better Angels

It’s hard to see how the Arena Club is going to triumph over its own ignorance, but in the same regard, it’s hard to see how Peggy and the SSR are going to triumph over Whitney Frost, a woman whom everyone seems to underestimate. Under the guise of an “aging” actress Whitney has wrought an impressive amount of havoc in only three episodes: exploding her husband’s factory, manipulating the Arena Club into killing Peggy, and now: using her new powers to devour her sexual predator of a director.

Agent Carter Better Angels

By the end of “Better Angels,” Sousa has only barely figured out that Whitney Frost is a cover for one of the brightest scientific minds of World War 2. The SSR will be on the hunt in the next episode, that’s for sure, but even they don’t know about the terrifying power they are about to encounter.

 

Thoughts:

  • Jarvis: “I have no desire to spend the rest of time as a disembodied voice.” Aw, my heart!
  • Stark has…encountered…Eleanor Roosevelt’s “threshold.” Ugh, my heart!
  • Kid Colt: Outlaw was a very real Western comic published by Timely Comics, Marvel’s predecessor, and enjoyed a nearly 20 year run of original stories. Hilariously, Howard Stark is shooting a movie adaptation of a comic that won’t be published for the first time until next year, 1948. But then, Stark has always been ahead of his time.
  • Kid Colt was briefly revived in the year 2000. As a horse-person.
  • The brief scene between Jack and Sousa was really nice. I’d love to see more.
  • I adore how Wynn Everett, the actress playing Whitney Frost, seeds her dialogue with the lightest touch of what is known as the Mid-Atlantic Accent, a very affected style of speaking that was prevalent in the movies and radio dramas of the 1930s and 40s. It makes sense that Frost doesn’t actually speak like that, but that decades of movie work would seed it into her everyday speak regardless. It’s a lovely, subtle touch on the part of the actress.
  • This has only been lightly touched upon in the show so far, but Peggy and company are about to enter a decade of Red Scare. We’re seeing it already in how just attaching the word “Communist” to Wilkes makes him untouchable, and I suspect we’re also seeing it in the machinations of Vernon Masters, who seems like he’s meant to evoke J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure at the FBI in the late 1940s and early 50s. Dottie’s return and Whitney’s backstory may bring this situation to the forefront.
  • Sorry for the extreme lateness of this recap! My school semester has kicked back up and significantly shortened the time I get to write.

Chris Lough writes about fantasy and superheroes and things for Tor.com. He has other fun things to read on his website, and things to say on Twitter.

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