Same Geek Channel: What’s Wrong With ‘Marvel’s Agent Carter?’

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoI could write your standard recap in this space. That’s what I’ve been doing most of the season. But you can find those anywhere and, right now, I’m less interested in what happened on the show the last two weeks than in why it happened.

First, know that I adore Peggy Carter with every fiber of my being. Peggy and television Jessica Jones are my spirit animals.

Peggy for so many reasons but mainly for being fearless, intelligent and compassionate; and Jessica because despite all her myriad faults, human life is sacred to her. She spends her entire season trying to make sure nobody dies. That she fails in numerous instances destroys her emotionally but it only makes her more determined to save as many people as she can. This is why I think she’s a better role model than Barry (Let’s blithely kill metahumans I don’t know) Allen and Oliver (I’ve given up killing except for all of the nameless goons who I shoot with arrows) Queen.

Here's a woman with a character arc. image via Netflix.
Here’s a woman with a character arc. image via Netflix.

Saving people means something to Jessica Jones, even if she claims it doesn’t. In the same way, saving people means a great deal to Peggy Carter. Peggy doesn’t want to kill Whitney or Dottie. Whitney earns Peggy’s contempt because she’s so cavalier with human life, while Dottie has Peggy’s sympathy because she had no choice in becoming who she is. Still, both must be stopped so innocents can be saved.

With that gushing out of the way, I can now say that the television show Peggy Carter has issues this second season. I still enjoy watching, I’m still having fun, but something is missing. I could say it’s the tonal changes from one episode to the next or the love triangle but those are symptoms of the overall problem.

Peggy lacks a proper character arc.

A character arc is what you hang your season on, it’s what gives a story structure, it’s what drives the external plots. Peggy doesn’t have one and it puts a hole in the middle of the show.

Heck, the writers are aware of this hole on some level because they put in a dreamlike musical number in which Peggy is busy wondering what she wants! I suppose it was directed at her confusion about whether to supposedly choose Sousa or Wilkes (though it was Angie and Peggy who seemed to have the most chemistry) but it could have easily been meta commentary on the season too.

Hint: Peggy wants a character arc.

In the first, brilliant season, what Peggy wanted was to be accepted and valued by her co-workers in the SSR for herself, not for her connection to Captain America, and to become a whole person emotionally again. The radio show, Peggy’s investigating on her own, and her moving to the apartment complex were all connected to this. The reason Howard made such a good antagonist is that he threatened to pull her away from the respect she wanted by respecting her already. But helping Howard will help him, not help her obtain her personal goals.

This is why Peggy slapped Howard. He was a distraction from her real goal and, worse, he’d lied to her instead of providing her respect.

Hence, the line at the end, where Peggy says “I know my value” has resonance. Yes, Thompson took the credit. But Peggy doesn’t need cheers. She’s gotten what she wanted: work that she can do that will help, and anyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter now.

In season two, what does Peggy want?

Well, Thompson may be an ass, but at the beginning he’s letting her take charge of missions, like capturing Dottie. That’s all good. Her life doesn’t have any significant issues she can’t handle. Then it’s off to Los Angeles, all well and good and a fun mystery. I thought, at first, that this season would be about Peggy opening up emotionally, having come to terms with losing Steve. That’s a decent arc, if you hit the right beats. And some were hit: her first scenes with Wilkes, including the dance and the heart-to-heart talk while they were on their date worked.

But since then? The relationship is in the same place. All that’s happened is now Peggy is perhaps interested in Sousa too and she doesn’t know who to pick. (Hey, Peg, you can date two people at once, ya know!) This has nothing to do with Peggy opening herself up emotionally. Instead, it’s a trite plot device.

Want to know what the difference is being having a character arc and not having one?

Take Jarvis. In the beginning of this season, Jarvis is kinda in love with the idea of having fun helping Peggy with missions. As the season continues, he gets more and more over his head until the point where Ana is shot, and he realizes the fun adventure he wanted isn’t fun or adventure at all.

jarvis 2
Only one of these people has a character arc and it’s not the title character. image via ABC/Marvel Entertainment.

Jarvis moved from “let’s have fun,” to “it’s good to help save the world” to “doing this work can have awful consequences and what have I done.” Peggy herself outlines this character arc to Jarvis last night herself. (A little too on-the-nose, there, writers, but I understand the point.)

Peggy has gone from “I must find the truth” and “I want to help people, especially Wilkes” to….? Do you know? I don’t. What’s her endgame? Acceptance by Thompson? She has that, though he’ll always put in his own agenda first. Romance? Doesn’t seem like she particularly wants that, either.

What does Peggy want? Yes, to stop Whitney. But what does she want with her life? Okay, to do the work she’s doing. But she’s got that. What else?

I’d have loved a character arc built on Peggy trying to help Dottie overcome her programming, with the push-pull between the two women, as Dottie would no doubt carry the attraction to Peggy of being utterly independent and able to do what she wants, while Peggy has to work under self-imposed structures dominated by men. They’re mirror images and a character arc built around Peggy realizing how much like Dottie she is (remember the torture?) but ultimately rejecting methods that violate her own conscience could have been powerful.

That’s not what this season is about though.

What does Peggy want? I have no idea, Peggy has no idea, and the writers obviously have no idea.

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Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.