Last week’s premiere left Agent Carter with a lot questions to answer, so it’s fitting that “Better Angels” begins with Peggy and Sousa dodging a gaggle of breathless reporters as they investigate the home of alleged dead-guy Jason Wilkes. They might not get their answers, but we do.
Unfortunately, those answers aren’t always satisfying. As Sousa wryly remarks, they work for the Strategic Scientific Reserve — but the pseudoscience in “Better Angels” is so goofy that even the word “pseudoscience” might be too generous. The episode’s not-that-surprising surprise is the one we all saw coming last week: Jason Wilkes isn’t dead. He was simply pushed into another plane of reality, which exists outside the normal visible spectrum. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) As it turns out, Jason’s physical presence is stuck in phantom land, but he can be seen and heard when Howard Stark sprays him with a special liquid.
This explanation is as unconvincing as it sounds. I don’t actually care if the science in Agent Carter is grounded in any kind of reality; I just want it to feel organic to the show’s world. However, the sudden reemergence of Jason Wilkes is the rare development that feels like writers cutting corners to get to an outcome they desire as quickly as possible. (In this case, getting Peggy and Jason back in the same room so they can keep flirting). Before long, Wilkes’s list of admirers also includes Howard Stark, who vows to find a way to bring him home. I’ll be happy when Wilkes can rejoin the gang in earnest, but I wish Agent Carter had found a more elegant way to reintroduce him into the mix.
In the meantime, Peggy focuses on going after her new enemies at Isodyne, as well as the greater conspiracy beyond them. It’s no surprise to learn that the Arena Club’s Council of Nine, that shadowy group we met last week, is pulling strings to ensure that Calvin Chadwick (Currie Graham) wins his senatorial campaign. Wisely, “Better Angels” spends the greater chunk of time on Peggy’s much more interesting adversary: Chadwick’s wife Whitney Frost, née Agnes Cully, the famous actress who also happens to be the genius truly responsible for Isodyne’s success.
Frost may be a villain, but her character fits neatly into a lineup of compelling, multidimensional female characters. Agent Carter takes place in a fundamentally sexist world, but the perpetually underestimated women of the show are savvy enough to find advantages. It’s how Dottie the Soviet killing machine was able to pose as a cheery girl from small-town Iowa. It’s how Angie Martinelli was able to distract the men hunting Peggy by pretending she was a doofy airhead. And it’s how Whitney Frost can affect an air of bland, snooty upper-class complacency to disguise her ruthlessness and brilliance.
It’s even a strategy used by Peggy, when she slips into the Arena Club as one of the many beautiful women entering under Howard Stark’s largesse. As she collects evidence and plants listening devices, she walks the halls confident that she can simply play a giggly ditz if a security guard finds her. That’s exactly what happens — and Jarvis arrives just in time, pretending to chide her like a misbehaving child, to ensure that the security guard won’t dole out his own punishment.
Of course, Peggy knows that dealing with someone like Whitney Frost requires an entirely different skill set. As the old saying goes, you can’t kid a kidder. After marching into Frost’s dressing room, she decides to go for the direct approach. Frost plays dumb, disavowing any knowledge of Isodyne’s work and lamenting Wilkes’s purported treason, but Peggy refuses to play along. “I trust my instincts,” she says. “They’re more reliable than what I’m told to believe.”
The seeds of a potentially fascinating conflict are being sown here. In principle, Peggy and Frost have a lot in common — they’re both women at the absolute top of their respective fields, dismissed and ignored by the sexist and inferior men who coast alongside them. Frost’s entirely justified sense of injustice has curdled into something darker, though, and her ruthlessness makes her the kind of person Peggy has devoted her life to stopping.
Also, the threat posed by Frost is growing rapidly. As the episode ends, the director of her latest movie enters the dressing room, casting himself as a knight in shining armor who threatened to quit the film if the studio fired Frost in favor of a younger actress. Unfortunately, this alleged generosity comes with a big string attached: When Frost hugs him in appreciation, it quickly becomes clear that he expects something more.
And that’s when Frost’s brand-new Zero Matter power kicks in. The director collapses in agony, his body consumed by the dark energy. When he disappears altogether, the black scar on Frost’s forehead grows a little bit bigger. It’s a frightening power that comes with a potent metaphor. However unjustly, Frost’s beauty has been the key to her fame and fortune; she’s more valued for her looks than her brilliance. Now, she’s more powerful than any of her would-be admirers could ever understand. How’s that for a kind of grim cosmic justice?
- This week’s Marvel Comics tidbit: Agent Carter showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas told Entertainment Weekly that the Council of Nine is their version of the Secret Empire, a shady group with ties to Hydra. In a particularly memorable story line that ran during the Watergate scandal, the Secret Empire’s evil leader was strongly implied to be then-president Richard Nixon, who committed suicide after being unmasked by Captain America.
- In another subplot that hints at a larger story to come, Jack Thompson turns over the Zero Matter film reel to his sketchy government buddy Vernon Masters (Kurtwood Smith), but lies about whether or not he watched it himself. As a reward, he gets to hang out at the Arena Club, where he learns that Peggy’s intel was right all along. What he’ll do with that knowledge, however, is an open question.
- I know Howard Stark’s thing is sleeping with starlets, but his implied dalliance with Irene Dunn is a bit edgier than the show’s usual winks to real-life Hollywood. In 1947, Dunn had already been married for 19 years, and remained so until her husband’s death in 1965 — though their unconventional bicoastal marriage inspired gossipy rumblings.
- And while we’re on the subject of Howard Stark: Between his big empty mansion, his penchant for flying, and his big movie studio, the Howard Hughes parallels are getting pretty thick. How long before he stops cutting his nails, starts bottling his urine, and becomes inexplicably obsessed with Ice Station Zebra?
- “They’re ready for a movie based on a comic book? Sounds like a dreadful idea,” Peggy notes. Poor Howard. Always ahead of his time.
- “I have no desire to spend the rest of time as a disembodied voice.” Okay, Agent Carter — now you’re getting a little too cute.
- Next week: Peggy digs deeper into the real story behind Whitney Frost, as Whitney adjusts to her new powers.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.