The Death and Life of Jarvis. Agent Carter: “The Edge of Mystery” & “A Little Song and Dance”

We just got the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first musical number!

That it happened in Agent Carter is a testament to the vibrancy and flexibility of the show. An extended Busby Berkeley dream like the one Peggy has in “A Little Song and Dance” couldn’t happen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Daredevil, just Agent Carter. (It could maybe happen in a Jessica Jones flashback, probably one centered on “It’s Patsy!”). It is rare for any television show to be so playful and at ease with itself in only 17 episodes. More people should be watching Agent Carter.

Although…maybe skip “The Edge of Mystery,” as it’s the worst episode the show has ever done.

When moving characters through the plot of a story, be it in movie, television, or written form, one of the big no-nos of the craft is forcing a plot by having a character hold what is (affectionately?) dubbed “the Idiot Ball.” Simply put, this is when an actor is forced to act out-of-character in order to further the story. It’s a no-no for a variety of reasons: the Idiot Ball dismantles a character’s growth by having them ignore previously demonstrated competence or learning, and in doing so it throws the viewer or reader out of the story by making the script too apparent.

The Idiot Ball curses several of Agent Carter‘s characters in “The Edge of Mystery.” First, Whitney Frost agrees to a deal to trade Wilkes for the uranium, even though Wilkes is far more useful than the uranium in regards to her studies in zero matter, and even though Whitney knows that Peggy Carter will come for Wilkes eventually, giving Whitney a second opportunity to take back the uranium.

Jetlagged’ Jack Thompson is next, flying to London to wheedle out Peggy’s S.O.E. file, which he thinks claims that Peggy was involved in a massacre of…something. We never see, because it was obviously planted by the Council, and Redactin’ Jack Thompson is holding the Idiot Ball so tightly that Peggy herself points it out.

Peggy Carter pities Jack Thompson

PITY BOMB

If this were the only instance of Idiot Ballin’ in the episode, it would be fine, because A.) It’s well within Jack’s previously demonstrated competency. and B.) Jack learns something from the experience and his reassessment of his situation organically furthers the plot. Unfortunately, Agent Carter has a couple more out-of-character moments to toss our way.

Jason Wilkes is up next. Peggy trades fake uranium for Wilkes–and gets away with it, too–but Wilkes suddenly has a change of heart and holds a shotgun to Sousa, demanding to know where the real uranium is and…why? Wilkes never actually explains! Presumably it’s because Wilkes would also like to Do Science with Whitney and figure out the whole deal with zero matter but also if he really needed uranium to do that then why didn’t he just wait for Sousa or Peggy to tell him naturally…? They totally ask him to build gadgets all the time. All he’d have to do is propose one and tell them he’ll need the uranium for it. They would bring it right to him.

Wilkes’ out-of-character heel turn is a very, very special scene, because it also contains Sousa’s crowning moment of Idiot Ballery. When Wilkes threatens to shoot Peggy, Sousa immediately cracks and tells Wilkes that it is located in the SSR office. This is so out of character for, you know, an agent practiced in espionage, that I thought he had given Wilkes a false location and that Peggy had played along. Except then it turned out Sousa had given him the real location. I was certainly…surprised…just not good surprised.

Clearly the show’s writers knew the episode needed to end with Whitney and the Council in the desert with the reconstructed bomb, and Jack, Sousa, and Peggy working together again. And it does, but these were foregone conclusions for the viewer. We knew that both of these events would eventually occur in the story because otherwise there would be no story. The band has to get back together. The bomb has to go off. The only interesting part, the part that Agent Carter usually excels at, is seeing how the characters move towards these conclusions. In this “The Edge of Mystery” fails spectacularly, shoving characters forward with all the grace of a rhino playing chess.

What makes it worse is that “The Edge of Mystery” also contains an emotionally powerful storyline without a foregone conclusion: The “death” of Jarvis.

Agent Carter The Edge of Mystery

“The Edge of Mystery” picks up where the previous episode left off, focused on the fate of Ana Jarvis, whom Whitney shot through the gut. Ana survives, but it is a long, dark haul for Jarvis, and the scenes of him by Ana’s bedside are achingly powerful. “The Edge of Mystery” unfortunately puts Jarvis on the periphery after these opening scenes, echoing Peggy’s own neglect of Jarvis. (Seriously, at one point she leaves the hospital, promising to get Jarvis his toothbrush, some fresh clothes, and a working radio, and then she never comes back.) Jarvis stews in his neglect, and this story should have been central to the episode. Jarvis’ character undergoes a massive change here, turning from subservient to murderous, and this change comments further on the consequences that are borne from Peggy’s neglect of those she cares about. Agent Carter had a real opportunity here to re-focus back on Peggy through Jarvis, but it’s an opportunity that is completely missed. This is Jarvis’ episode, and everyone else should have been on the periphery, losing uranium and building gamma cannons and all the other goofy shit that occurs. Whether Jarvis will actually shoot Whitney is a perfect question. He has understandable motive, but he’s also an intrinsically merciful being. We have no way of knowing what he will actually do until he does it, which makes Jarvis’ story a rare instance where the destination is just as interesting as the journey. Unfortunately, “The Edge of Mystery” never lets us go on that journey.

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” the show says, and puts the MCU’s first musical number at the opening of the next episode, “A Little Song and Dance”. Angie’s back! And both Wilkes and Sousa (who can REALLY sing!) make their case to Peggy as Best Romantic Interest. Dottie is there too, but she doesn’t try to woo Peggy. She doesn’t have to, of course. “Oh Peggy, I’ll always be in your head.” Yes, Dottie, but JARVIS IN A TOP HAT.

Jarvis top hat

Then Rose punches her awake and the episode continues its apology for “The Edge of Mystery”. Jarvis and Peggy have a big scrap over Jarvis’s justification for shooting Whitney point-blank, and Peggy is so certain that she is correct to reprimand him that she is stunned when Jarvis suddenly wins the argument. Peggy insists she isn’t a murderer, like Jarvis now is, and yet “everyone around [her] dies.”

God this scene though. Peggy has not even begun to nuke from orbit, and she rallies, pointing out that Jarvis has considered her missions as “larks” until he finally had to face a consequence. And when that finally happened, what did Jarvis do? Attempted murder! Congratulations on having to feel the pain of loss for a day.

Having now torn each other apart, the two quickly rush in with apologies. Jarvis reveals that Ana can’t have kids anymore, and that he hasn’t told her, and feels like a coward. I’m glad that the show is spending some time on unpacking this development, because it was a bit weird when it first appeared in “The Edge of Mystery”. It’s sad, obviously, because Ana and Jarvis would have the cutest, kindest children with the weirdest accents. And we know that Edwin at least will pour his fatherly instincts into Tony’s upbringing. But the implications of this plot development deserve careful attention. Is Ana being framed as less of a person because of this? Is Edwin crossing the line in keeping information about her own body away from his wife? That Jarvis feels shame at not telling Ana seems to indicate in the affirmative. Because Jarvis has this information and Ana doesn’t, their relationship is no longer equal. Jarvis wants to preserve his wife as she was, instead of accept how she is. Honestly, Edwin, if that’s how you act when put under pressure, as noble as the intent seems, then maybe it’s a good thing that you’re not raising children? As Ana says later, “It does you no good to protect me from the truth, Edwin.”

Everyone’s time in the desert changes them. Whitney succeeds in re-opening the zero matter rift and it sucks Wilkes into it, leaving Whitney behind.

Agent Carter zero matter

Whitney is PISSED, she thought the Black Language of Mordor that she’s been hearing all season liked her better, so she bundles up Wilkes, who pops back out of the rift now chock-ful of zero matter, and sticks a huge needle in his heart so she can slurp out all of the zero matter.

Meanwhile, Schemin’ Jack Thompson reasserts his control over the SSR, playing Sousa, Vernon, and the looming spectre of Whitney against each other so well that they all end up on the same side: against Whitney. Even Peggy is forced to work with Vernon for the greater good. Jack is so excited that he did something right for a change that he just keeps going and heads over to Whitney to tell her the SSRs entire plan, which is…also a part of the SSRs plan. Pretty much everything at this point is part of a plan, so Plannin’ Jack Thompson hatches another plan, which is: turn the gamma cannon into a bomb and blow up all the plans.

This naturally leads to a guns-pointed stand-off between Detonatin’ Jack Thompson and Peggy, but Jack succeeds because, unfortunately, Samberley is the only actual obstacle between Jack and the detonation of the gamma cannon.

Except then Wilkes shows up, sort of apologizes to Peggy for holding the Idiot Ball episode, and explodes first.

 

Thoughts:

  • The show actually treats Ana’s gunshot trauma somewhat realistically. The bullet went into her lower left abdomen, missing the liver and stomach, and while Ana would still have a tremendous amount of internal damage, she wouldn’t be in danger of bleeding out. Since she gets to emergency surgery in time, Ana’s biggest dangers are basically shock and infection, which the episode mentions Ana nearly succumbing to the former before she stabilizes.
  • Ken Marino gets a scene in “The Edge of Mystery” so heavy with Italian stereotypes that I wish the show had just run this skit from The State in its place.
  • The episode’s composer put in the tiniest xylophone scale as Jarvis swung around to Ana, all fake smiles, after learning she can’t have kids. Brilliant touch.
  • “Piccadilly Commandos” was a term used for GIs that frequented and/or got the clap from prostitutes in Picadilly Square during World War II, which makes that scene between Jack and his British pal so much creepier.
  • “Oh crap indeed.”

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