By the end of "Hollywood Ending," Peggy Carter has closed the book on her big Los Angeles case — but like many mysteries, the journey turned out to be a lot more satisfying than the resolution.
I wish I could say Agent Carter ended its second season at the top of its game, but "Hollywood Ending" was the weakest episode of the season. It's a finale with so many stories to resolve that it didn't have enough time to do most of them justice. (It didn't help that ABC aired back-to-back episodes over the past two weeks. After those movie-length installments, the 42-minute finale was doomed to seem anticlimactic.)
"Hollywood Ending" begins, as a title card helpfully informs us, "60 seconds ago," as Peggy points a gun at Jack Thompson outside Whitney Frost's compound. "You don't have it in you," Jack scoffs as he prepares to set off the detonator. "There was a time when that was true. Not anymore," Peggy replies.
In the end, Agent Carter cheats the question of whether Peggy is actually bluffing. Jason Wilkes unleashes his Zero Matter, sending everyone scuttling to the floor in the resulting shockwave. When the dust clears, Wilkes is finally free, able to live as a normal (and corporeal) man again. Unfortunately, all that Zero Matter transfers directly to Whitney Frost, who has mutated from brilliant, emotionally hardened scientist into credulous, bug-eyed lunatic.
The devolution of Whitney Frost is the finale's first big misstep. In earlier episodes this season, time was spent to carefully set up tragic parallels between Frost and Peggy. We were meant to see how two similarly brilliant women could be pushed down divergent paths by sexism and circumstance. That's the kind of meticulous character building that lays the groundwork for a truly climactic standoff, and after circling each other all season, we couldn't be more primed to see Frost and Peggy go head-to-head.
How, then, does "Hollywood Ending" botch the landing so badly? The plan to stop Frost is laughably simple, and easily accomplished. After stealing Frost's research, Peggy and her allies collaborate on a machine that can open a Zero Matter rift. When they activate it, the sudden burst of energy draws Frost like a moth to a flame. She simply wanders over to the rift without any protection — and immediately becomes a wide-open target for the S.S.R., which has arrived with a Zero Matter–destroying Gamma Cannon. Frost gets hit with the Gamma Beam, then loses her Zero Matter powers and gets arrested. Shortly thereafter, the S.S.R. successfully teams up to close the Zero Matter rift without anyone getting hurt.
And just like that, this season-long, apocalypse-threatening conflict has been handily resolved.
With the big threat tied up in a dubious and unconvincing bow, Agent Carter spends the rest of the episode letting us hang out with our ragtag band of heroes. In theory, this is a smart move; one of Agent Carter's biggest assets is its uniquely stacked supporting cast. But once again, the series ends up cutting corners. Peggy and Wilkes never really address that time he threatened to kill her. Instead, they politely say good-bye, paving the way for Peggy and Sousa to consummate all those smoldering looks they've shot at each other with a protracted make-out session in the office.
Snogging aside, the most frustrating thing about "Hollywood Ending" is that it gives Peggy so little to do. The Gamma Cannon that takes down Frost is fired by Howard Stark, not Peggy. The love triangle between Peggy, Sousa, and Wilkes ends not because Peggy makes a choice, but because Wilkes steps away from the possibility of being with her. Agent Carter is at its best when Peggy is front and center, and she was sidelined too often in the back half of the season.
That long-awaited Peggy-Sousa hookup is sure to please shippers — but in the end, Agent Carter's second season ends with a question mark, not an exclamation point. As Jack Thompson prepares to leave sunny Los Angeles for pizzeria-strewn New York City, a stranger knocks at his hotel-room door. When Jack answers, a mysterious, black-gloved figure shoots him and steals the heavily redacted file on Peggy. It's not clear whether Jack is alive or dead.
It's a lame cliffhanger — but forgivably so, since Agent Carter needs any and every trick to stay alive right now. If enough fans clamor for the answers to this open question (as well as the other ones I'll mention in Stray Bullets below), Agent Carter might get a stay of execution.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of ominous signals that "Hollywood Ending" could be the actual end. The show's ratings, which were so-so during the first season, took a significant nosedive during the second. Hayley Atwell has already been cast as the lead in a different ABC series. (Inside sources claim she could plausibly star in both, but for both scheduling and branding reasons, I'm skeptical.) And Marvel's Most Wanted — the long-discussed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff centered on Bobbi "Mockingbird" Morse and Lance Hunter — is based on a higher-rated show, with a concept that's much simpler to market. Because of its contemporary setting, Marvel's Most Wanted would also offer a more practical venue for the kind of cross-promotional, TV-to-movie synergy Marvel loves so much. A time slot may not be available for Peggy and Co. next year.
"Hollywood Ending" certainly was not the show's finest hour, but if this season finale turns out to be a series finale, I'm going to miss Agent Carter terribly. The qualities that make this show a niche entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are also what make it so special. Peggy Carter is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in the MCU, and Hayley Atwell's performance is as impeccable as it is reliable. The period setting makes it uniquely stylish, and allows the series to tackle all kinds of stories that don't fit in any of Marvel's other properties. The bench of memorable supporting characters gets deeper with every episode. And the show's creative team is bold enough to experiment with all kinds of oddball ideas — like, say, the song-and-dance number that opened last week's episode.
At the end of a second season that moved thousands of miles away from the first, Agent Carter could plausibly leap anywhere if it's given another chance. Yes, there are cliffhangers to resolve and a budding romance to chronicle, but Peggy's career was long and rich, and there are plenty of adventures left to chronicle. Here's hoping for season three.
- Other cliffhangers left unresolved at the end of season two: The function of the mysterious Arena Club key that Jack hands off to Peggy; the contents of the S.S.R. file on Peggy's allegedly horrific actions during World War II; the whereabouts of Dottie Underwood; the fate of Sousa's onetime fiancée Violet, who was very smart to dump him.
- Straw poll: Would Peggy have shot Jack Thompson if she hadn't been interrupted by the Zero Matter shockwave?
- After a few episodes of thumb-twiddling, "Hollywood Ending" finally gave Ken Marino the chance to shine as Frost's gangster beau Joseph Manfredi. He made the most of it, playing both the humor and the pathos of a regular guy who can only watch as the woman of his dreams goes off the deep end.
- In a conversation with Peggy, Jarvis describes having "a good cry over what can never be" with Ana after he told her she's unable to have children. It sounds like a powerful, moving scene, and I wish we'd had the chance to actually see James D'Arcy and Lotte Verbeek perform it.
- The final scene of Frost in the asylum — mumbling to herself while hallucinating a conversation with her late husband, Calvin Chadwick — was a genuine chiller. I still wish the season had found some way to incorporate the would-be Madame Masque's golden mask, but given her obsession with scarring her own face, it's possible they were saving it for season three.
- The movie-theater marquee reads "MARY NAME in MIDNIGHT NIGHTSCAPE." If that's a reference to something, I'm not getting it. Any ideas?
- Howard Stark's vague reference to a "big new idea" could mean anything, but I'd like to read it as a veiled reference to S.H.I.E.L.D., which he and Peggy co-founded after World War II. And if Agent Carter somehow does get a third season, I hope it centers on the foundation of S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that makes up the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
- Thanks so much for following Agent Carter with me. It's truly been a pleasure to interact with such a dedicated group of viewers. I'll be recapping the remainder of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s third season — so if you're watching that too, join me back here next week!