Agent Carter Recap: The Origin of Black Widow

By
Photo: Matt Kennedy/ABC
Agent Carter
Episode Title
The Iron Ceiling
Season
1
Episode
5
Editor’s Rating
4/5

Agent Carter has been, in a way, Marvel's small-screen attempt to assuage its well-documented diversity problem. Before this show debuted, there was one lone exception to the superhero-blockbuster factory's years-long parade of white, male leads (if you don't count Anthony Mackie's brief moment becoming Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier): Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. Black Widow, the defected Russian spy turned Avenger who has co-starred in several movies so far but has yet to get her own. Marvel president Kevin Feige’s favorite pastime is “hoping” to see the movie made.

This week we get a taste of what that movie would look like, and it’s completely unlike anything we’ve seen recently:

A bunch of young girls wake up chained to their beds in Russia in 1937. A blonde secretly shares a piece of bread with a brunette. The girls watch Snow White, reciting the words along with the movie, and spar outside. The blonde wrestles the brunette into a headlock — and then, at her teacher’s nod, snaps her neck. 

We return to the show’s present to find Dottie doing crunches, because of course, you all had it right: Dottie is a spy! At breakfast with Peggy at Angie’s café, she asks what the word ennui means and tries to figure out where to visit around New York, naming Central Park, the Empire State Building, Trinity Church, and the Statue of Liberty. What about a museum, Dottie? Bridget Regan plays Dottie so well that I wonder, because these girls have been trapped and brainwashed, if she actually does want to travel around the city and see the sights. Peggy talks a lot about the people, to which Dottie responds, “Wow, you sounded just like Captain America just now!” Peggy takes the compliment without flinching. Progress! Then Dottie steals her room key.

Peggy also enjoys some progress in her work life when she trumps an Arlington cryptographer’s attempt to break up the code. (While he did account for the onetime pad system, he didn’t realize the instructions would be in Russian. Uh, what kind of codes was he breaking before now ...?) The message: map coordinates to Belarus and the confirmation of a purchase at 8:00, April 27. “Leviathan to acquire prototype 'Havoc Reactor' for $100,000, payable to Howard Stark.”

Turns out Dooley’s heard of Leviathan but had always taken it for a postwar spook story. He orders a team be sent to Russia immediately: Lee, Ramirez — “and Carter,” butts in Peggy. Lean the hell in, Peggy! Peggy tries to leverage her good work and European theatre experience into a trip to Russia; Thompson mocks her until Dooley explains his reasoning (either he gets a woman killed or he gets a man killed because of a woman) — that is, until Peggy promises the 107th, the Howling Commandos! When she leaves the room, Dooley again calls out Thompson’s posturing and his crush on Carter (ugh, he’s awful) and says he’s running an investigation, getting calls from the vice-president. Who, exactly? There was no American vice-president between 1945 and 1949.

They all change in the locker rooms (if there’s only one locker room, why is labeled "Men’s"?) and then trick Sousa into walking in on Peggy, who is luckily wearing a crap-ton of underwear. That’s where he notices two small dots on her shoulder. 

They meet the Howling Commandos in the woods: Dum Dum Dugan, Junior Juniper, Pinky Pinkerton, and the stoic Happy Sam Sawyer. Aw, whither Gabe Jones and Jim Morita? The latter was in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I guess the members rotate, like the U.N. Security Council. Peggy has a rapport with Dum Dum, and it's the first time she looks genuinely happy in a while. It makes sense, since for the first time, Peggy can relax.

But not for long: She and Thompson split up and go into the contact point, which turns out to be Dottie’s old school. All the soldiers are pretty unsettled, even more so when they come across the words “Instill Fear” in a cartoon strip. They follow the sounds of a little girl crying, which is obviously a trap, but Dugan doesn’t heed his own words (“It’s always a damn trap!”) and gets stabbed in the chest by the girl, who grabs a gun, shoots and kills Junior, does some flips, and scurries away into a vent. They move on to find prisoners: the scientist Nikolai and his psychiatrist Ivchenko, who were captured to build a weapon based on Howard Stark’s stolen schemata. I’m not sure how Leviathan thought one man could build a machine, no matter how much general science he knows. Even Tony had Yinsen. 

They get caught in a firefight in which Lee dies immediately (he had lines, of course he did), and Nikolai tries to make a gamble for freedom by giving them Americans. Ivchenko shoots him to prevent him from going through, which leaves me suspicious. Yes, that was a terrible plan, but did he have to kill him? Is he Sin Rostro Hydra?

Peggy takes the lead in defense until Dugan can blow a hole in the wall and get them out, Peggy dragging a whimpering Thompson along with them. “Not bad,” says Ivchenko, “for a girl.” Whatever, jerkface. “I hate you all,” Peggy grumbles. Peggy is all of us.

Dugan suggests Peggy stay behind as “Miss Union Jack,” but Peggy’s busy — she's got to prove Howard’s innocence, and takes the sexist psychiatrist and the bourbon with her. I hope Dugan does return (maybe if the show goes to series; it's supposed to be a limited run, but who knows?), simply because he’s so much fun.

On the plane back, Thompson reveals that the previous story of his bravery was laced with lies, as he won a Navy Cross for killing Japanese soldiers who were trying to surrender. The music gets very sympathetic here, but it’s a sickening story, one the reveals Thompson’s bullying mask. I know the war, like every war, is filled with disturbing and grey stories (Phil Klay and Kurt Vonnegut could tell you terrible stories), but his story is nevertheless hard to stomach. Peggy is sympathetic, though, which works in her favor when Thompson gives her credit and offers to buy her a drink, while Dooley compliments her work. 

Thompson is still gunning for Howard, but Dooley is slow to take the bait. The latter meets with an old friend, a Times reporter (played by Smallville’s Lionel Luther, John Glover!), in order to get more information on the Battle of Finau. The reporter tells him that Howard got into a fight with an army general who retired soon after and died recently. Howard turned down an Army contract after that. Considering the Army started coming after him after that, the reporter tells Dooley that he needs to find the other side of the story, so Dooley contacts Jarvis to let him know he’s willing to listen.

Dottie, meanwhile, walks straight into Peggy’s room (lucky for her, Peggy had to leave immediately) and begins rifling through her things, finally finding a tiny jewelry case full of photos. She plucks the one that says “Stark” prominently on a box and goes to leave, but not before happening upon the photo of Steve Rogers at Peggy’s vanity. Smiling, she sits down and mocks Peggy’s accent into the mirror, “Hello. I’m Peggy Carter,” before sniffing Peggy’s lipstick. Can we all agree that Dottie is the creepiest person ever? It makes her incredibly compelling, though — like a woman out of a Shirley Jackson or Daphne du Maurier novel. Indeed, the episode ends with her chaining herself to her bed in order to get a good night’s sleep. 

Turns out I was correct in that Sousa’s personal investigation would lead him to Peggy after finding her bullet wounds on the blonde’s shoulder. He sits on the information this episode, but next week Peggy will be a fugitive, so that won't last for long. 

Assorted Notes:

  • “Go on, I can never finish my baguette.” I know this is paralleling the previous scene, but it really gives me the sense that Dottie is unconsciously wired and possibly depersonalized.
  • Peggy suggests that Dottie find “real people with real jobs” to talk to. I would really love to know where Peggy draws the line between “real” and “fake.” She suggests Dottie go to Brooklyn. Dottie asks Peggy how exactly she would get to Brooklyn. According to the New York Public Transit Museum, much of the subway we know now was built by 1931, but I’m not even sure where Angie’s café is supposed to be. Ah, the perils of soundstages.
  • Yay for people of color this episode! It would be great if Lee and Ramirez got some background, since I know they would be facing similar problems as Peggy, but this show’s just our Black Widow replacement, so it’s either white women or men of color. Women of color don’t exist! I am a ghost, as we all know.
  • THIS LINE, THOUGH: “What would Cap say if I left his best girl behind?” “He’d say do as Peggy says!”