There's a good reason why Hayley Atwell's performance tends to dominate discussions about Agent Carter. She's so reliably magnetic that she both smooths over the narrative's rough patches and reinforces its stronger bits. Sometimes, she'll even overwhelm the material.
But there's an unfortunate side effect to Atwell's consistently great performance: It can make you overlook the terrific work done by Agent Carter's supporting players. This dual serving of episodes is a welcome reminder that the show's roster goes deep, as character after character steps up while Peggy is sidelined due to stomach injury. (Well, kind of. Watching "Life of the Party" and "Monsters" back to back highlights how superficially Agent Carter treats Peggy's stomach wound; it drives the entire story in the former episode, and is basically ignored by the latter.)
And refreshingly, most of the characters who get a chance to shine are women. "Life of the Party" begins with Wilkes theorizing that a sample of Whitney Frost's blood might permanently bring him back to corporeal form. Peggy suggests that a big political fund-raiser for Frost's husband, Calvin Chadwick, will be the ideal chance to snag a vial of blood. But for once, Peggy is wrong for the job. Even if she didn't have a bloody hole in her stomach, Frost would recognize her. Unfortunately, there's no obvious backup agent — the S.S.R. is compromised, and the mission is too dangerous for a civilian like Jarvis.
Enter the contrived (but crowd-pleasing) solution: Dottie Underwood, the Russian sleeper agent played by Bridget Regan. Peggy disguises herself as a prison psychiatrist, fools the (very credulous) guards, and breaks Dottie out on the condition she'll lend a hand. Dottie has both the skill and the low profile to accomplish the job. Sure, she's also a well-trained, exceptionally untrustworthy villain of questionable sanity — but why let that get in the way of a top-secret mission?
The ensuing scene plays like a darker riff on Peggy's infiltration of the Arena Club in "Better Angels," and the parallels between Peggy and Dottie could hardly be more explicit. Like Peggy, Dottie crashes a party during a meeting of the Council of Nine. Like Peggy, Dottie sneaks into that meeting room and discovers key intel about what's really going on. And like Peggy, Dottie completes her mission by passing herself off as a bubbly ditz.
The key difference between their missions is the opposition they face. When Peggy crashed the party, the complacent, self-satisfied Council of Nine were in charge, and it wasn't particularly difficult to slip out of their grasp. Not anymore: Dottie witnesses the regime change firsthand.
When Frost asks the Council of Nine for their support — and demonstrates her powers by absorbing a rat — she's shocked to discover that the Council, with the help of her husband, intends to capture her. As with every other stage of her life, Frost has been underestimated, and she again uses that to her advantage. She absorbs her captors as easily as she absorbs the rat, along with five members of the Council, including own duplicitous husband. "I'd like to call this meeting to order," she tells the survivors, who agree with varying degrees of reluctance to accept Frost as their new leader. It isn't long before Frost's rule bears fruit; Dottie ends up bound in the basement of a secret compound, where Vernon Masters — acting on Front's command — is ready to do whatever is necessary to learn everything Dottie knows about Peggy.
It's here that "Monsters," this week's darker second hour, picks up the thread and runs with it. Frost has already put her acting talents to use, explaining away the disappearance of her husband and his buddies by claiming that their ship capsized off the California coast. "I will not be broken by this tragedy. I will come through this stronger than ever," she says. Peggy and Sousa, who are attending alongside a gaggle of paparazzi, pick up on every implicit note of her confident contempt.
Fortunately for Peggy, Dottie proves the strength of her assassin training by refusing to crack. As Vernon Masters boasts about his skill with implements of torture, she all but laughs. "I've pulled out my own teeth. My own nails. My own hair. I've burned my own flesh with a blowtorch," she boasts, before shrugging off his syringe of truth serum as "mother's milk." On paper, the scene could hardly be more cliché, which makes it all the more impressive is that Regan sells it so well with a nervy, committed performance.
But there's one wild card Dottie can't anticipate: Whitney Frost's life-sucking powers, which seem to be exponentially worse than any earthbound pain. As Frost begins to drain Dottie, she cracks, revealing the plot to steal the blood sample, as well as the fact that Jason Wilkes is still alive.
Frost recognizes an opportunity to set a trap. Peggy, having used the sample of Frost's blood to tenuously restore Jason Wilkes to the solid world, resolves to save Dottie. (And once she does that, she'll put her back behind bars.) Frost lays a trail of breadcrumbs right to Dottie's location, and though Peggy knows it's a trap, she can't resist the bait. However, Peggy fails to grasp Frost's real target: Jason Wilkes, the only other person who shares some aspect of her powers.
Peggy and Jarvis recover Dottie, but the real action is happening back at Howard Stark's mansion, where Frost and her eager toady Joseph Manfredi confront Jason Wilkes mere hours after his return to flesh and blood. When Frost tells Wilkes she wants to change the world, he says the world is fine as it is. "Has there ever been a day when you felt like a real man in this country?" she asks, almost convincingly, as she paints an image of a future where her superpowers enable women and people of color to have as much opportunity as the white, wealthy robber barons in the Council of Nine.
It's as openly political as Agent Carter has gotten all season, confronting cultural and historical tensions that the series has either hinted at or elided altogether. (It's sad to say, but it seems very unlikely that no one has objected to Peggy and Wilkes's interracial romance. Maybe the postwar America of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was more tolerant than our actual universe.) And though she has a point, Agent Carter can't really escape the fact that this argument doesn't come from a rational or trustworthy source. When Wilkes pushes back, she knocks him out and kidnaps him. And when Ana Jarvis attempts to intervene, Frost shoots her, correctly assuming that the urgent need to rush Ana to the hospital will slow Peggy down.
Both "Life of the Party" and "Monsters" play up Peggy's romantic dilemma: She nearly kisses Sousa after he reveals why Violet broke off their engagement, and actually kisses Wilkes moments after he regains his corporeal form. But the most important relationship in her life is the platonic one, and she ends the episode in a rare and poignant moment of silence, holding hands with a teary-eyed Jarvis while they wait for Ana to get out of surgery.
Unfortunately, the fate of Ana Jarvis isn't the only problem casting a grim shadow over our heroes. By the end of "Monsters," Vernon Masters successfully maneuvers Daniel Sousa out of a job, and takes over the S.S.R.'s Los Angeles office. Meanwhile, Dottie took advantage of the chaos at the hospital to kill a police officer and flee into the night. That's a lot of loose ends, and with just three episodes left, Agent Carter has a dwindling amount of time to ensure they're all tied up.
- Let's get the unpleasant business out of the way: Agent Carter's future is not looking rosy. Last week, Deadline broke the news that Hayley Atwell has been cast in the upcoming legal drama Conviction, which is set to premiere on ABC next fall. While Deadline reports that it's theoretically possible for Atwell to star in both shows, Agent Carter's ratings have declined every week, and the decision to air back-to-back episodes this week and next week reeks of a burn-off. I'll hold out hope as long as we have it, but realists should probably start saying their good-byes.
- Agent Carter draws an intriguing (and unresolved) parallel between its roster of underestimated women and Jack Thompson. It's been a weird season for Jack, who has spent most of his time thousands of miles away from the office he ostensibly runs, pushed around by Vernon Masters. Jack, like Whitney Frost, draws unwanted attention for his matinee-idol good looks; a strange woman even suggests that he smile more often, in an echo of the instruction that has dogged Frost for her entire life. Despite some obvious misgivings about which side is the right one, Jack has so far played along with the old white patriarchy. He has three episodes to reestablish himself as one of the good guys.
- There's a strange moment in "Monsters" when Wilkes snaps at Peggy about the very real possibility that he faces a fate worse than death. It's possible that the scene was merely written to indicate that Wilkes is under pressure, but I can't help but wonder if the Zero Matter in his blood is beginning to turn him toward villainy, as it did with Whitney Frost. Or, what if Wilkes is already a villain, feigning goodness to get Peggy's help with his ultimate scheme?
- The Zero Matter is "some dark force we have no understanding of," says Wilkes, inadvertently rechristening it with the name that will be used in Doctor Strange.
- Shipping is one of the great joys of any superhero drama … but I wish Agent Carter hadn't literally screeched to a halt mid-mission so Peggy and Jarvis could debate the relative qualities of Wilkes and Sousa. The Peggy I know saves those questions for the rare moments when she's off the clock.
- I was thrilled when Agent Carter cast both Kurtwood Smith and Ken Marino, but neither actor has been given much to do yet. Smith's Vernon Masters is a textbook shady government guy; Ken Marino's Joseph Manfredi is a testy gangster cut from the Sonny Corleone template. Here's hoping they both play a few more dimensions before the end of the season.
- "I won't believe any stories about [Dottie's] demise until I see her dead body in front of me," Peggy says. "Even then I might not believe it," Sousa replies. Sounds like someone's been brushing up on his comic-book tropes!
- True to form, Howard Stark's secret passwords double as an opportunity for some classic male chauvinism: 34-24-34, the measurements of My Man Godfrey star Carole Lombard, set off the "Jitterbug" device; 33-23-33, the measurements of Double Indemnity star Barbara Stanwyck, set it off on a time delay.
- Next week: In another two-hour block of episodes, Peggy attempts to track down Whitney Frost and save Jason Wilkes.