About this time last season we got the creepy backstory behind Dottie, Agent Carter‘s Black Widow-esque villain, while re-connecting with Peggy’s past through a team-up with the Howling Commandos. This week’s episode, “Smoke & Mirrors,” follows that same structure, and while it’s still interesting, Agent Carter‘s peek into the past isn’t nearly as successful the second time around.
We begin in the smeary-lensed past in England, where a tiny Peggy Carter has read “Saint George and the Dragon” in her backyard and become inspired to slay the dragon, also known as her twerpy brother Michael. (Or she wants to convert him to Christianity. Either way, Li’l Peggy is a brave knight and Michael’s getting a smack.) Peggy and Michael’s mom rushes in before Peggy can deliver the smiting blow and, wow, too late Mummy Carter, way too late. Look at that face on little Peggy. That is a face that already knows it doesn’t want to be told who not to punch.
Our episode this week parallels the story of how Peggy grew up with the story of how Agnes Cully ultimately became Whitney Frost. While little Peggy was enjoying a nation that just got off of war rationing, little Agnes was trapped in poverty in what appears to be a cross between the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, but is actually 10 years before all of that happened. So if Agnes and her mom are living like that during a relatively prosperous era then…well, you get the picture.
Actually, here’s a picture.
We find out that Agnes’ mom is unwed and unskilled, and thus forced to barter sex for housing and security. Little Agnes doesn’t want to think about that and instead plunges her attention into the unseen details of the world around her. While Mom keeps a roof above their heads, Agnes passes the time disassembling and re-assembling their radio. She doesn’t like what’s around her, so she digs and digs until she finds something she does like.
In the present day, we find out that what Agnes likes tends to be engineering technology that is centuries ahead of her time. Team Peggy finds out Agnes has been Tony Stark-ing it all this time, building “fast neutron reactors” (are there…slow…neutrons?) while everyone else is fumbling with nuclear. As Whitney Frost, Agnes takes pains to hide her scientific skills, only allowing herself the comfort of their ease when she is alone. As her husband’s Senate campaign ramps up, Whitney ducks out of the spotlight so she can research and test the alterations that zero matter has made to her face. A case full of lab rats arrives and oh no Whitney don’t eat that rat don’t eat that rat don’t eat that rat…
She doesn’t eat the rat. Until the rat bites her and her zero-matter-blood eats it for her. I’ve absorbed worse, she probably thinks, at least the rat was clean, and continues gathering data.
There’s more to this episode’s present-day plot than just experiments, although I would happily watch Whitney Frost’s Smile-Time Science Hour if given the choice. Elsewhere, Peggy and Jarvis decide to tail and ultimately kidnap Mr. Hunt, the ineffective assassin from last episode. Hunt continues to be less capable than he believes himself, boasting of his generally indestructible nature then cracking as soon as he gets the sniffles. (“Intense” sniffles, we are told.) During a broom-closet interrogation, Hunt tells Peggy, Sousa, and Jarvis that they’re really hunting The Council of Nine, which meets at the Arena Club. The Council is powerful, Hunt warns. They had McKinley assassinated in 1901, and they caused the stock market crash in 1929. They also don’t seem to have done much since then, and record all of their meetings on tape, so they seem to maybe be in a lull? Sousa and Peggy seize on the tremendous stupidity of taped secret meetings and arrange an SSR raid on the Arena Club.
Sousa himself makes a dumb mistake in sending out for a warrant first, however, which obviously alerts The Council. (Peggy is kind to him about this afterwards, telling Sousa not to apologize “for believing people have ethics and morals.”) Vernon Masters shows up, stops the raid while stifling a cackle, and threatens to lump Peggy and Sousa in with the Hollywood Ten, who just recently got blacklisted during a witchhunt for Communists. It’s a believable threat, and one I’ve personally been waiting to see come up, but Masters is… not subtle about it, delivering such a glowering and unctuous speech to Peggy that he may as well be hosting a Reddit AMA for the Council.
1947 Peggy feels like a completely different person than the Peggy we see in 1940, working with the girls in the British military’s code-breaking office and giddy about being engaged to a boring soldier named Fred. “Dig this!” Peggy’s boss comes in and says. “Churchill is looking for field agents to engage in Irregular Warfare and this new department, the S.O.E., wants you!” Peggy is kind of confused at the offer, because for decades her mother and society have told her not to beat people up and now they want her to beat people up. It’s too good to be true, so Peggy asks for some time to consider this gift horse in places other than its mouth.
Peggy doesn’t turn the offer down, but she doesn’t take it up, either, and even though we the viewer know what choice Peggy is going to make, we still recognize the quiet despair of letting the expectations of others float you along through life, and we sympathize with Miss Carter. Peggy’s view of herself and everyone else’s view of Peggy won’t reconcile. Her brother Michael, now a grown-up soldier himself, suddenly proves vital. He knows Peggy is a scrapper at heart, which is why he suggested her to the S.O.E. in the first place. Peggy needs some time to process this like right now okay but as soon as Michael grabs her arm the real Peggy comes out. She cocks her free arm to punch Michael, then stops herself. It’s a momentary flinch, but it’s enough. Try as she might, Peggy can’t deny the comfort of expressing her natural skills.
An 18 year-old Agnes has no such familial support. The University of Oklahoma rejects her application and her mother can no longer support them both, having been rejected by the john she was relying upon. No one cares how smart you are, she tells Agnes, all the world cares about is how pretty your face is. This sounds wrong to Agnes, but after getting her own intelligence rejected Agnes wonders if there is, perhaps, some truth to her mother’s words. Agnes is always digging past the surface to find out how things work, but she’s ignored that the surface–the expression of how things work–has value as well.
Also how did I not realize until now that Whitney Frost is Don Draper, but for science.
Considering how heavily Agnes’ mother plays into her upbringing, it’s astonishing how absent Peggy’s mother is. We see her only twice, and both times she’s in the periphery, unaware that Peggy has long considered her mother’s opinions to be congenial but lacking in substance. Both mothers represent a particular stance on femininity, but it seems as if only Agnes’ mother truly has any impression on her child. I gather that the episode is attempting to draw parallels between the upbringing of Peggy and Agnes to illustrate how brilliant minds can become thwarted by gender expectations, but those parallels aren’t quite present. Both women want to be considered for who they really are, but their backgrounds are so different and so hastily sketched that the parallels and common themes don’t get a chance to land.
For example, Peggy deciding to break off her engagement and become an agent of Irregular Warfare (I love that phrase. Can you tell?) should be a hefty scene, perhaps the linchpin of the entire episode. Instead, it’s done away with so rapidly it’s nearly a montage. Peggy’s in her wedding dress when a car pulls up outside an oh my god ABC are you kidding me?!?
Did anyone else experience this with their particular network’s airing? Or was How to Get Away with Murder tastefully advertised elsewhere in the episode?
Anyway, Peggy’s decision to join the S.O.E. is made rapidly upon the news of her brother’s death in action. Peggy never leaves her bedroom during the entire scene and doesn’t interact with anyone. She sees her mother’s reaction to the news, picks up the S.O.E. envelope from her dresser, than puts down her engagement ring. It’s all kind of glossed over, and I was disappointed that we weren’t getting more to Peggy’s story.
Agnes’ backstory is more developed in the episode, but the satisfaction of seeing how the world shapes Agnes into Whitney essentially brings up the same issue: You want more than you’re being given. Agnes’ narrative jumps from her mother telling her that only a pretty face matters, to Agnes getting immediately discovered outside a movie theater. A creep by the name of Neil Silver tells Agnes that he can do wonderful things for her, and Agnes realizes that not only was her mother right, she’s now become her mother, bartering her face to get what she wants.
“Smoke & Mirrors” belongs wholly to Whitney, and while it doesn’t give the viewer as much as it should in regards to Whitney’s backstory, it’s still just enough to make the final scene an exciting one. Peggy and Sousa, realizing that the Council has them cornered, let Hunt escape so that he’ll go running to whatever member of the Council directly gives him his orders. They plant a listening device on him and hear as Hunt is greeted by Whitney Frost and her husband. Chadwick and Hunt blather on for a little while, but Whitney only has one question…what did Hunt tell the SSR?
The posturing between Hunt and Chadwick continues, but the camera follows Whitney as she closes the curtains in the parlor one. by. one. It seems that her experiments have now reached the human trial stage.
Whitney cuts in and a confused Chadwick soon becomes a terrified Chadwick as his wife absorbs Hunt right in front of him. “What are you?” Chadwick wonders, and Whitney considers. Agnes is a poor girl from Oklahoma, a brilliant scientist shamefully unrecognized by the world, a OH MY GOD ABC SERIOUSLY WITH THE ADS.
Whitney is a marquee actress, a Senator’s wife, a font of power. She is all of these things; truly a madam of masks. What is she?
“Whatever I want.”
Special Jarvis Is Hilarious Section:
- “The koala. Its adorable appearance belies a vile temperament.”
- “Ahm gonna start squirtin’ lead!”
- “Oh mummy it’s the biggest horsey ever!”
- And finally…
- Oh hey Wilkes is in the episode, too. There’s now a crack in space with twinkly ominous stars behind that only he can see and which beckons to him endlessly. Neat.
- It’s kind of odd that Roxxon hasn’t played a larger part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up being the organization behind Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’ powers.
- Can someone check on Ana Jarvis? I’m worried she doesn’t exist anymore.
Chris Lough writes about fantasy and superheroes and stuff for Tor.com.