Musical numbers aside, Agent Carter has spent half of its second season in a dark, dark place. The finale, “Hollywood Ending” attempts to recapture the usual frivolity of the show, and the sunniness of this particular season, but it does so at the expense of a satisfying story.
“Hollywood Ending” essentially exists as an epilogue to the events of this season. Wilkes finishes his explosion from the closing moments of the previous episode and, hey, it turns out he’s fine and Vernon Masters is finally done flailing around as a useless villain. (Seriously, did any of his plans actually work?) Satisfied, everyone goes home and the story goes on a bit of an apology tour. Jarvis and Peggy are still falling over each other in their rush to get their relationship back to normal. It’s very “You’re the best.” “No, you’re the best.” of them, and James D’Arcy elevates the material by adding some surprising shade and depth to this interaction. He plays Jarvis as nearly a caricature of himself from the beginning of the season, happy and bouncy, trying just a touch too hard to defy the trauma that he’s endured.
Jason Wilkes, finally back to normal, apologizes for being a total idiot for the second half of the season. Peggy gives him an easy out, claiming that the zero matter warped his mind, but Wilkes isn’t that kind of guy, confessing that no, the zero matter doesn’t do that and both he and Whitney are fully responsible for their actions. It’s a noble confession, but it feels a bit too tidy. I was hoping that Jason and Peggy would have a more substantial talk about Wilkes’ actions, because both of them are in a social class that is under significant pressure to act perfectly around others, or else.
Peggy and Jason are borderline superhuman in regards to her capability and his intelligence, but both have to fight for opportunities where they are allowed to express those qualities. Peggy is much farther along in this process, which puts her in a perfect position to act as a sympathetic ear to Jason’s internal struggle. It would have been amazing to hear them jokingly trade stories of unfair treatment, or of times when they didn’t fit the expectations of others. It would have been great to hear Peggy say outright that she forgives Wilkes for pulling a gun on her, because people in their position shouldn’t be expected to be perfect all the time. Having it said outright would have given some depth to the dissolution of Peggy’s romantic feelings, as well, letting us know that she still felt obligated to champion Jason even though his pointing a gun at her had, you know, permanently killed the mood.
Agent Carter has missed quite a few storytelling opportunities in its handling of Wilkes, honestly, and “Hollywood Ending” isn’t able to rectify that. Aside from the commonalities between Jason and Peggy, the series also never quite gets around to the pairing I was anticipating between Wilkes and Samberley. At first I considered the up-jumping of Aloysius’ character as a gag–a response to an external criticism of the show’s handling of scientist-type characters–but Samberley remained central to the story and as the season wore on I began to think that there was another reason for his presence. Namely, as a foil to Jason Wilkes.
Because damn is Samberley one entitled S.O.B. He is correct to insist on his visibility within the organization, but he starts not by asking for some consideration, but by jumping straight to threatening the organization, pointing out that he has opportunities elsewhere. Samberley never offers solutions to the group, he just complains about the work he’s being asked to do even when he’s really excited to be doing that work. (That contemptuous “I can build it in two!” from last episode, for example.) Later, Samberley sells out Peggy and Sousa to Jack in an instant, only thinking of his own survival. There’s also an implication that his resentment, which he maintains throughout the season, is curdling into something dark and violent, since the only things he is inspired to invent by himself are devices that hurt people, like the memory eraser and the taser bomb.
Wilkes, in comparison, would never be allowed to do any of that. Jason says outright that he doesn’t have opportunities elsewhere. And if Jason never offered solutions to the group, or his former employer Isodyne, he’d be out of a job at best, and forever incorporeal at worst. Wilkes faces very real consequences in regards to his job and his life that Samberley simply doesn’t, all because of the color of his skin, and I can’t believe that “Hollywood Ending” didn’t include Wilkes setting Samberley straight on his entitled attitude, especially since the episode includes the overarching SCIENCE DAD! figure of Stark, who could be considered the ultimate arbiter between the usefulness of Samberley vs. Wilkes.
This season’s constant sidelining of Wilkes has contributed to an overall feeling of decentralization in Agent Carter‘s second season. The first season had a serialized plot that kept it running, but it also had two big emotional questions that it had to answer about its main character: How will Peggy get past Captain America’s death, and will her co-workers ever see her as a peer of equal status? The finale of Agent Carter‘s first season answers both of these questions in a way that is tied into the season’s adventures, but the show’s second season never quite developed those questions for Peggy, leaning on a relatively quiet “will they or won’t they” romance subplot instead.
This wasn’t quite as troubling in the beginning of this new season, though, because our antagonist Whitney Frost came out of the gate so strongly, presenting us with a story that resonated with Wilkes’ and Peggy’s. Whitney was someone who was almost superhumanly capable, but forced to hide those capabilities in order to meet the ideals of others. Unlike Wilkes and Peggy, Whitney was comfortable using the ideals of others for her own ends, and once she was granted actual superhuman abilities, it was fascinating to see how she would transition into the open use of her capabilities.
Unfortunately, we never quite got to see that. The second half of the season, perhaps detecting that its antagonist’s story was way more interesting than its protagonist’s, throttled back on depicting a three-dimensional Whitney Frost in favor of having her play a more general threat. But making sure Whitney’s story wouldn’t upstage Peggy’s didn’t automatically make Peggy’s story more interesting, and the show went too far in its effort to make Frost a more miniscule presence. “Hollywood Ending,” in fact, has to backpedal and flesh out Ken Marino’s character just to provide the motivation for getting Whitney back into the story.
And once it does, “Hollywood Ending” doesn’t use Whitney as anything other than a plot device. What is our takeaway from Whitney’s story supposed to be? That two-time Oscar-nominated actresses shouldn’t be given superpowers? That the powerless shouldn’t be allowed to use power? That restricting someone’s personal growth because of their gender and race can destroy their potential to do good? Probably that last one, obviously, but we don’t know for sure because Whitney never gets to talk to the show’s main characters beyond the issuance of general threats. It would have been great if this had been a clash of ideologies–Whitney’s worldview vs Peggy’s worldview–especially since the show took the time early on to point out the parallels between their upbringing. (Dottie even realizes this during her short time on the show.)
Whitney was the perfect character to challenge Peggy on her action and/or inaction and “Hollywood Ending” had an opportunity to ask Peggy a big emotional question: What is Peggy doing to make the world a better place? Is she preserving a diseased status quo or is she growing it into something better? This is a question that we know Peggy gets asked at some point in her life, because the answer is S.H.I.E.L.D., but the Whitney that shows up in “Hollywood Ending” isn’t capable of asking this question; having been so de-evolved by the show’s writers that she can do little more than yell at people to leave her alone and get shot.
And sure, “Hollywood Ending” is fun–we get hovercars and mustard and an endlessly dangling Sousa–but that’s like complimenting a key lime pie for being tart. Fun is what you expect from Agent Carter, but a story is what you need from Agent Carter, and “Hollywood Ending” doesn’t deliver.
- Hayley Atwell pointed out this week that her new show commitment to ABC would still give her time to film a third season of Agent Carter. Sure, I’m bummed that this season ended so poorly, but Agent Carter is still the best Marvel show on the air. To quote Dottie: “I. Want. That.”
- The second season’s ratings don’t preclude a third season. Pretty much all the dramas aired on Tuesday nights are in that ratings bracket, and Agent Carter is hardly the lowest among them.
- Let us take a moment of stifled laughter for Lunch Orderin’ Jack Thompson, who is now and forever Murdered Jack Thompson thanks to a post-ish-credits scene.
- And yeah, I think he’s dead for good. He was bleeding out pretty quickly there and even if hotel staff showed up immediately to boot him out of the room they’d still only have a few minutes to stop the bleeding. Maybe not even that.
- Seems likely that the gunman was hired by the head of Roxxon. That dude’s still around, and he must surely hate Peggy and the SSR by now.
- The list of things I don’t care about includes the file that the mystery gunman took, but if a third season was going to use it, then it’d be a good way to raise the aforementioned question of whether Peggy is actually doing good in the world.
- Did zero matter actually have a voice or was it Head Cal all along? Or is Head Cal just the form that zero matter takes in Whitney’s head?
- The theater marquee next to the SSR’s headquarters changes from “Whitney Frost in Tales of Suspense” to “Mary Kane in Midnight Nightscape” after Whitney is locked away.
- “Revealing” zero matter as a cancer that ate an entire parallel universe reminds me of the cancer storyline they gave to Mar-Vell in the now-classic Captain Marvel comics. It also makes me think that the Reality Infinity Stone would make short work of it.
- I want the third season to show Peggy and Sousa and Howard forming a proto-S.H.I.E.L.D. with Wilkes, Jarvis and, yes, Dottie as their black ops muscle. I imagine that Dottie is currently out in the world searching for a purpose, and would find a perverse thrill in being tasked with doing Peggy’s dirty work.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Alan Brown return next week! Wouldn’t it be cool if they did a crossover episode where Coulson (only Coulson) gets thrown back in time to meet Peggy?
- Finally… you and me both, Sousa.
Chris Lough writes about superheroes and fantasy and stuff for Tor.com.