Agent Carter: “Smoke & Mirrors”

(Episode 2.04)

TV Reviews
Agent Carter: “Smoke & Mirrors”

Whitney Frost defies categorization. She’s a super scientist, leading lady with homicidal tendencies. Peggy Carter also defies categorization—well, except for the part where she is most definitely not a lady.

Tonight’s episode attempts to give us more details on both their back-stories. Peggy growing up in England is a tomboy with an older brother, Michael, who sees her for who she really is. Meanwhile, Whitney is growing up as Agnes, the too-bright-for-her-own-good little girl, with a mother who relies on her looks to make her way in the world.

The only problem with this is that it requires an abundance of flashbacks that don’t really have much previous context. Structurally speaking it makes the episode feel disjointed and never really allows the story to settle on a specific tone. Most of the flashbacks rest firmly in the world of melodrama. Whitney’s hard knocks story and Peggy’s loss of her beloved brother are both played for maximum emotional impact. This might have been more effective if the episode focused only on their back stories, but instead the separation of these scenes by months, even years merely lessens their emotional impact, making character reactions feel clumsy and over the top.

Take for example Michael’s death. There’s no reason that his sacrifice shouldn’t affect us just as much as it does Peggy, except that it honestly can’t. We don’t know Michael. We’ve never met him before tonight and he’s only been mentioned sparingly. Because of this we don’t get any real opportunity to see his relationship with Peggy in action, and what little we do see, we don’t have time to process. No time to process means we can’t form an independent opinion of him, which means we don’t really feel anything when he dies.

It’s a tough thing to admit, but this flashback structure tends to do more harm than good for most superhero shows. It forces the audience to jump around in time, often without a clear reason for why scenes occur in the order they do.

It removes a lot of subtlety from the episode’s writing as to make connections scenes often consist of a setup and payoff within two back-to-back moments. Take for example Whitney Frost’s line of “whatever I want.” It’s a great episode tag, but it would be a lot more powerful if the quote that sets it up – Whitney’s agent remarking: “That’s the beauty of Hollywood you can be whatever you want.” – came earlier in the episode. It gives the audience a framework for Whitney’s entire journey that lends a lot more weight to her closing remark.

Finally, jumping around the timeline creates a tonal dissidence that makes almost every scene feel as if it is from a different episode than the last. Jarvis and Peggy’s exaggerated slapstick comedy feels out of place when paired directly with the drama filled flashbacks. Similarly, Daniel and Peggy’s spy games feel a bit contrived when paired next to Wilkes cosmic horror moments. It’s the danger of trying to cram too many ideas into one episode, and ultimately the results don’t seem to lead us to any real conclusions at all.

That’s not to say tonight’s episode is completely without merit. There are some great performances. Wynn Everett (Whitney Frost) really stands out as she has the chance to play two very different sides of her character. Her powerless new to Hollywood Agnes is executed just as beautifully as the power drunk, morally dubious Whitney. You can even see where Everett has connected the two character stages; making sure that once Agnes understands how to play the game she adopts more of Whitney’s attitude and physicality.

Peggy and Michael’s relationship is certainly interesting and engaging, which makes its lack of emotional resonance a bit sadder really. It’s not all that often that we get to see a brother/sister relationship where the two siblings not only get along, but genuinely root for each other. Michael’s understanding of whom Peggy really is and his conviction that she should be able to have the kind of life she really wants only make me like him more. I just wish we’d spent more time with him. Sigh, well maybe in future flashbacks.

Finally, Sousa you do not get to be jealous when Peggy comforts Wilkes—not unless you’re going to get up and do something about all these unrequited feelings that keep floating around. Still, I’ll give you a pass tonight. “I’m with you til the end” is pretty reminiscent of Steve and Bucky’s “I’m with you til the end of the line,” and if there’s one thing Peggy could use now, it’s a few more Buckys to team up with her inner Steve.

Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.

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