If you look at the full scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are few characters whose lives we know more about than Peggy Carter. In the early 1940s of Captain America: The First Avenger, we met her as the military woman who first saw potential in Steve Rogers. We spent Agent Carter's first season watching her adjust to postwar life as an S.S.R. agent in New York City. A Marvel "one shot" short, which was included as a bonus with Iron Man 3, reveals that she turns out to be one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. And, thanks to the 60-year jump between The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, we know the broad strokes of the rest of her life: a decades-long career as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, a husband and two children, and, eventually, a retirement home, where she finally reunites with Steve at age 92.
But for all the time the MCU has spent on Peggy, we've been told surprisingly little about her background. This week's "Smoke and Mirrors" slows down the ongoing narrative to fill in some of those gaps. We finally get to see the various incidents, from childhood to young adulthood, that turned Peggy into Agent Carter.
It starts with a childhood flashback, where young Peggy plays the knight in a medieval fantasy about dragon-slaying. (True to form, she's never the damsel in distress.) It's a game that elicits some friendly teasing from her brother Michael, as well as an impatient tsk-tsk from her mother: "One of these days, you're going to have to start behaving like a lady."
Cut to Bletchley Park in 1940, as Peggy — now a young codebreaker — shows off a sparkling engagement ring to her admiring colleagues. Her fiancé, Fred, is a high-ranking officer in the home office. When Peggy reveals that she has also been recruited for a job as an undercover field agent, he snorts. "Can you imagine risking life and limb behind enemy lines, doing God knows what?" Fred laughs in the midst of their engagement party. "That's not our Peg."
And that's probably where the matter would have been settled if not for Peggy's brother Michael, who immediately recognizes how much Peggy has sacrificed for the life she's been told to want. Michael is a soldier on the front line, and his recommendation led to the field-agent offer in the first place. Even so, it's not until Michael is killed in action that Peggy trades her wedding dress for a military uniform, breaks off her engagement to Fred, and joins the war effort.
It's an intriguing piece of Peggy's history, though I wish it didn't come at the expense of her own agency. Then again, it might be too much to expect anyone to rise to the heights Peggy has reached without a little push from someone who knows and loves her. Heroes rarely emerge fully formed.
And neither, as "Smoke and Mirrors" reminds us, do villains. If last week's "Better Angels" teased the parallels between Peggy Carter and Whitney Frost, this week's episode makes them explicit. In a series of elegant flashbacks that play like a mirror version of Peggy's, we discover Whitney's unhappy childhood as Agnes Cully, a brilliant and ambitious young woman who was pushed to fit a mold that simply doesn't.
We first see the young Agnes as she fixes a radio, showing early flashes of the brilliant technical mind that will eventually spawn Isodyne. But the radio also serves a practical purpose: It blocks out Agnes's mother's trysts with her creepy boyfriend, Bud. Bud is the first person to utter a command that will haunt Agnes for the rest of her life: "Smile."
"Smile" is a message reinforced by Agnes's mother, who bitterly warns her that a pretty face is the only asset she possesses. It's the message reinforced by the men who reshape her into Whitney Frost, silver-screen icon. And it's the message pushed by her husband, the would-be senator Calvin Chadwick, who says she'll be "the most beautiful First Lady this country has ever seen" — as long as she shows up to smile for the cover of Life magazine.
"Smoke and Mirrors" gives us one more key flashback, at the precise moment Agnes Cully becomes Whitney Frost. Outside a movie theater, she's approached by a sleazy talent agent who says she could be a model or an actress. "You know, I bet you're real pretty when you smile," he says. And this time, she does.
The dueling Peggy/Whitney arcs in this episode offer Agent Carter's CliffsNotes version of how a bright, young woman becomes a hero or a villain. It's no accident that the advice Michael once gave Peggy applies just as well to Whitney. "Stop trying to be something you're not," he urged his sister. That's a message Agnes Cully surely could have benefited from hearing, too.
Now, many years and a full continent away, Whitney's encounter with Zero Matter has pushed her down a similar path — and as much as she represents a threat to our heroine, it's hard not to feel a thrill about her new step toward self-actualization. "What are you?" her cowering husband asks after she reveals the full extent of her strange powers. "Whatever I want," she replies.
- "Smoke and Mirrors" also marks Peggy's first encounter with Vernon Masters (Kurtwood Smith), who openly threatens to have her deported if she continues down this line of inquiry. Sure, that'll definitely stop her.
- As several readers noted last week, Whitney Frost's arc is suspiciously similar to the real-life story of Hedy Lamarr, the famous actress who developed a groundbreaking radio-guidance system to help the Allies during World War II. "Smoke and Mirrors" explicitly tips its hat to Lamarr, citing her third divorce — there would be six in total — and revealing that Jarvis has a bit of a crush on her.
- And while we're on the subject: Two straight episodes without Jarvis's better half? I'm sure Lotte Verbeek is plenty busy with Outlander, but more Ana, please.
- The "smile" command plays a similar role in Netflix's Jessica Jones, which takes place in the same universe, though many decades years removed.
- Agnes's creepy "uncle" Bud is played by character actor Chris Mulkey. He's probably best known for playing the similarly creepy Hank Jennings on Twin Peaks.
- I can only imagine the number of "JARVELOUS!" GIFs that will be floating around the internet this week.
- Next week: The action heats up again as Peggy races around Los Angeles to stop a nuclear explosion.