To say that “Valediction” doesn’t live up to the best episodes of Agent Carter’s cardinal season is to say that it’s still pretty good television; it’s just not great, which as criticisms go lies somewhere between “observational” and “straight up spoiled.” Maybe Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely shouldn’t have done such wonderful work on the rest of the series. Maybe they just should have written more tension into “Valediction”s falling action. Or, maybe they should have just given Hayley Atwell more to do, because she’s the first billed on Agent Carter’s marquee. At least she’s paired up with Dominic Cooper for further gender-smashing shenanigans, and she scraps it out with Bridget Reagan in one of “Valediction”s highlight sequences. But Atwell remains in puzzlingly diminished form until the finale’s final half.
We’re dealing with the fallout of “Snafu” as the SSR puts itself back together and fervently tracks down Dottie and Dr. Ivchenko, who we now know as Johann Fennhoff, AKA Doctor Faustus, a member of Captain America’s rogues gallery. (Aside: how awesome is Ralph Brown? The guy has a voice so soft that it’s effortlessly mesmeric. He and Toby Jones should make a fun pairing in the future.) They have plans for Howard’s volatile effluvium, the Midnight Oil, and as anyone who has ever seen a thriller can guess, it involves dispersing the stuff over New York City. It’s up to Carter and the boys to stop their Russian rivals from dipping the Big Apple into chaos, though our English gal has a lot less to do than you might expect from a show named after her.
Atwell might not be the constant holding “Valediction” together like so much glue, but she has been the constant driving the show since “Now is Not the End.” If she’s deprived of screen time in favor of her male co-stars here, she maximizes every second she has the camera’s undivided attention. Peggy runs hot and cold, stoic and sentimental; she sails steady, keeping one step ahead of the guys (but several behind her enemies), until the question of Steve Rogers is raised for the umpteenth time in Agent Carter’s lifespan, and her seams start splitting. Atwell does, and has done, terrific work as Peggy, adding impressive robustness to the Strong Female Character outline with her performance. Carter could have fallen victim to that archetype’s worst tropes. That she doesn’t is a testament to how well Atwell understands her role.
Credit is due to Agent Carter’s writing team, who give her weaknesses to compliment her strengths, or at least a hint of weakness. At the same time, though, it’s the writers who put so much emphasis on Thompson, Sousa, Howard, and Jarvis in “Valediction,” to Atwell’s detriment. It helps that the supporting cast of dudes is uniformly terrific, even though the troupe lacks the gruff, wary aloofness of Shea Whigham’s Dooley; Chad Michael Murray has done solid work putting meat on Thompson’s otherwise bones, Enver Gjokaj has made Sousa into a capable agent and less of a puppy dog, and James D’Arcy, well, he’s just so damn refined in everything he does that it’s hard not to find him terribly charming. Even with his finger on the trigger of a plane-mounted machine gun he’s unfailingly posh.
Which leaves Dominic Cooper as the incorrigible Stark. Frankly, his airwave chat with Atwell feels like the biggest character-building moment in all of “Valediction”, and one of the biggest of Agent Carter’s existence; viewers will recognize the scene as a riff on the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger, only this time Peggy’s fighting for the safety of a man she loves and cares for platonically. Is she taking a step back by being this vulnerable? Do her pleading tears signal a regression for Peggy? Or are they just another component of her well-rounded character, a reminder that she is above all else a complex human being with baggage of her own? Maybe the way “Valediction” integrates Atwell into the mix with Murray and Gjokaj is the best evidence ofAgent Carter’s progressive bent. The ultimate goal, after all, is equality, and what better way to demonstrate that than by having her work side by side with men who have mostly cast her aside up to now?
The punchline, of course, is that despite being accepted by her peers Carter still gets no credit. But as she intones to Sousa not moments after Thompson’s moment of glory, she doesn’t need to be empowered by others, only by herself. Agent Carter’s first season has been about her struggle for validation from men; maybe season two will break from this pursuit in favor of deeper character exploration, legitimizing her without the need for patriarchal approval. If so, then the show will likely benefit from introducing new female characters to supply Carter with foils, or by better developing those already on board (a la Angie). Dottie’s revelatory speech during her battle with Peggy might just be a tactic, but her words open up new avenues for looking at Peggy’s travails. Peggy might be disenfranchised, but she hasn’t been literally chained to her fate from childhood. She has a sense of agency which Dottie has been entirely robbed of. Will Dottie continue to serve as Carter’s ultimate nemesis? Bridget Regan and her avian stare are such a treasure that we should all hope the answer is “yes” when Agent Carter begins its second go-round.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.