For the second week in a row, ABC has aired back-to-back episodes of Agent Carter. While I'm sure that decision makes sense from a scheduling perspective, it certainly hasn't done the show any favors. This week's double dose makes a mess out of things in the first hour, then spends the second hour righting the ship.
Let's start with the Ana Jarvis situation. Last week's "Monsters" ended on a cliffhanger: Whitney Frost, having kidnapped Jason Wilkes, shot Ana in the gut in an attempt to slow Peggy down. The plan worked. As Frost prepared to experiment on Wilkes at a secret compound, Peggy and Jarvis sat in a hospital waiting room, anxious to learn whether Ana would survive.
"The Edge of Mystery" toys with us before revealing Ana's fate. The episode opens with a flashback to the very first episode — but from Jarvis's perspective. After Peggy calls Jarvis for the first of what will eventually turn out to be many, many favors, Ana quizzes him about Howard Stark's latest assignment. "I promise you, Miss Carter won't interfere with our lives in the least," Jarvis says. "Don't make promises you can't keep," Ana replies. Cut back to the present, as a teary-eyed Jarvis waits to learn whether his wife was killed by Peggy's most formidable enemy.
This pause in the narrative also serves as a chance to evaluate Ana's season-long arc — and here, Agent Carter reveals some notable shortcomings. When Ana was introduced in the season premiere, she seemed like a much-needed female confidant for Peggy, as well as a fascinating character in her own right. Unfortunately (and confoundingly), she then disappeared for a number of episodes, returning just in time to remind us why she's so likeable before getting shot. It's possible that Lotte Verbeek was only available for a few episodes — she's plenty busy with Starz's Outlander — but whatever the reason for her extended absence, it makes Ana feel like an expendable prop, a contrived motivation for Jarvis to seek revenge on Whitney Frost.
It's not all bad, though. Though the arc comes dangerously close to fridging Ana, it also offers a showcase of terrific dramatic work by James D'Arcy. The enormity of Jarvis's grief is truly heartbreaking; he sits by Ana's bedside, listing all the things he would do for her if she would simply open her eyes.
As talented as D'Arcy is, he can't quite sell Jarvis's subsequent shift, which turns him from a mild-mannered, intelligent voice of reason into a loose cannon willing to risk everything — including his own life and the lives of his allies — to kill Whitney Frost. It's a mission that sees him insist on tagging along with Peggy, Sousa, Jack Thompson, and Dr. Samberly as they team up to rescue Jason Wilkes and stop Frost before she can inflict any more Zero Matter–related damage on the greater Los Angeles area. (He also delivers his last will and testament to Rose, to be given to Ana if he dies along the way.)
Jarvis isn't the only one who seems a little out of character, either. Jason Wilkes gets his own little whiplash-inducing mini-arc, as he goes from victim to villain to hero over the span of two hours. When Wilkes first wakes up, he discovers that he's in the custody of Whitney Frost, who is genuinely fascinated with the differences between his Zero Matter–derived powers and hers. She delivers a standard-issue speech about how his "curse" is actually a gift, but it hits home anyway. Peggy successfully rescues Wilkes, but Wilkes pulls a gun and points it at her head, threatening to kill her if she doesn't reveal the location of the uranium rods that can set off the bomb he needs to open a large-scale Zero Matter rift. Peggy refuses, but Sousa caves, and Wilkes rushes off to collect them.
There's a potentially fascinating arc here: the story of a brilliant, kind, and deeply sympathetic man who faces a power so unknowable and all-encompassing that his goodness is stripped away, leaving him with nothing but a desperate will to survive. For a while, it seems like the show might even make good on this idea. Wilkes and Frost head out to the desert and open the Zero Matter rift, with the S.S.R. team close behind. After accomplishing the goal she's been pushing toward all season, Frost is crushed when Wilkes is drawn into the rift alone. The Zero Matter apparently "chose" him over her.
But in the end, Agent Carter chickens out. Rather than play Wilkes's tragic arc to its logical conclusion, he's restored as a hero by the end of episode nine. The S.S.R. team closes the rift with a fancy piece of Howard Stark technology, and Wilkes falls back to this side of reality to be recaptured by Frost and her goons. Jarvis, incensed that Frost is still standing, rushes up and shoots her — to no effect, of course, since her Zero Matter powers absorb the bullet. Then, Jarvis and Peggy are taken captive by Frost and her scummy gangster boy-toy, Joseph Manfredi. So ends the so-so "Edge of Mystery."
The exponentially stronger "A Little Song and Dance" begins with an inventive, jubilant, and format-breaking musical. In a dream sequence that takes place in Peggy's unconscious mind, we get a zippy song-and-dance number, complete with appearances from Wilkes, Sousa, Jarvis, Dottie, her deceased brother Michael, and a very special cameo from Peggy's long-lost New York pal, Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca). It's weird and catchy and completely delightful — a welcome reminder that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is often at its best when it drops the self-seriousness and does something genuinely unexpected.
Back in the real world, things are a lot less colorful. Jarvis and Peggy escape from Frost without much trouble, but Jarvis's recklessness is still a big problem. As they wander through the desert on their way back to civilization, they hash out all the unspoken bad blood that has developed between them over the course of the series. Peggy criticizes him for his selfishness and his failure to treat her "adventures" with the life-or-death seriousness they require; Jarvis, in a moment of uncharacteristic cruelty, suggests that everyone around her ends up dying. Given the investment we've been asked to make in Peggy and Jarvis's unlikely partnership, it's a scene that carries significant emotional heft — particularly when Peggy laments her lost loved ones, and Jarvis reveals that Ana's gunshot wound means she can no longer have children. Agent Carter is strongest in scenes like this one, and if the show defies the odds to return for a third season, I hope to see more of them.
But there's also a high-concept, sci-fi plot to resolve before this season ends. After Peggy and Jarvis return to the city, Agent Carter wastes no time getting all the pieces into place for the finale. Though Vernon Masters had ordered corrupt S.S.R. agents to kill Sousa and Dr. Samberly, Jack Thompson successfully intervenes, engineering an elaborate "enemy of my enemy is my friend" scheme that turns Vernon into a temporary ally in the quest to take down Whitney Frost.
As complicated as that might already sound, Jack is working several other angles, too. He meets with Whitney Frost, reveals that Vernon is planning to betray her, and offers to join her side in return for a guaranteed spot on the Council of Nine. She accepts, but the offer is a yet another trick. Jack has rigged a bomb, which he plans to detonate as soon as he gets Frost and Vernon into the same room.
Peggy's goal is a simpler one: Infiltrate Frost's base and rescue Jason Wilkes. When she finds Wilkes, she tells him that she forgives him for what the Zero Matter made him do. He admits that the Zero Matter didn't "make" him do anything. Threatening to shoot Peggy and working with Frost to open the rift were active choices he made.
Given Peggy's exceptionally justified trust issues, and the bitter fight she just had with Jarvis, you'd expect this revelation to land like a right hook — but for whatever reason, she doesn't seem all that fazed by it. Even if Peggy is willing to forgive Wilkes, though, he isn't willing to forgive himself. He locks Peggy out of the base and rushes back in, confronting Frost just as she begins to absorb Vernon Masters. Outside the base, the S.S.R. team argues about whether or not to detonate Jack's bomb. Things get heated, and guns are drawn: Jack pulls on Samberly, and Peggy pulls on Jack.
But it probably doesn't matter, because the battle is already moving to a different plane altogether. As he reaches Frost, Wilkes draws upon the full extent of his Zero Matter powers, and the episode melts into black — setting the stage for an otherworldly finale.
- The anti–Zero Matter cannon relies on gamma radiation, which Marvel fans will recognize as the energy force that will eventually turn Bruce Banner into the Hulk.
- With just one episode left, it looks like the tragedy/comedy masks in Frost's dressing room will be the closest Agent Carter get to Frost's comic-book fate as Madame Masque, the super-villain who covers her face with a gold mask.
- Frost kisses Manfredi several times in these episodes, but the only passionate smooch takes place after Manfredi tells her that her powers make her more beautiful, and that she shouldn't need to hide them from the world. It's a nice, faintly tragic moment that highlights how much Frost, for all her super-villainous bluster, aches for her true self to be accepted.
- Jarvis's list of things he promises to do if Ana comes out of her coma: Wear the periwinkle tie she knitted; cook apple tort once a week; get a Bernese mountain dog; believe in the daily horoscope; protect her.
- Jarvis's decision not to tell Ana she can't have children could have come off as patronizing, but to Agent Carter's credit, he eventually admits it was his cowardice, not his kindness, that made him hold back the bad news.
- Sousa awkwardly standing around while Peggy changes clothes behind him is a cute little callback to season one, when Jack engineered the same scenario to rib Sousa for his crush on her.
- I hope the Agent Carter fandom gets behind the Jack Thompson/Whitney Frost flirtation teased in the past few episodes — if only so we can get a #JackFrost hashtag going.
- Sousa and Jack, yelling simultaneously: "DO AS PEGGY SAYS." Now that's a phrase to get crocheted on a pillow.
- Next week: Peggy finds a Hollywood ending in Agent Carter's season two finale.