Reviews

AGENT CARTER: “The Iron Ceiling”

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I’ll be honest: I’ve been looking forward to this week’s episode of Agent Carter since we saw last week’s preview, for a number of reasons: the return of the Howling Commandos, footage and backstory of the infamous Black Widow program, the fact that we were going to finally see Peggy getting out of New York and doing some fighting akin to what we had seen in Captain America: The First Avenger. With only three episodes left, “The Iron Ceiling” didn’t disappoint, and between Peggy’s identity inching closer and closer to discovery, the secrets of Howard Stark, and the shifts in power at the SSR, it’s clear we’re building to something explosive.

The Red Room, aka the Black Widow operative program, has long been a staple in Marvel comics, specifically as it relates to known Avenger and spy Natasha Romanoff. While Natasha has been using the title of “Black Widow” for a number of years (indicating that perhaps she is one of the last remaining or most accomplished girls to come out of the program) it was nice to see some background on where everything started, and also great to see some real footage of what Natasha’s early life might have been like – being handcuffed to a bed, being brainwashed by seemingly mindless cartoons, and being taught to ruthlessly kill. Might we be able to look forward to some more Red Room knowledge, as the groundwork has been quietly laid for an exploration into Natasha’s past during Age of Ultron?

It’s assumed that the blonde girl we see in the beginning montage is Dottie during her training days, and when we see her in the present day, she’s no longer devious but instead overly sweet, chatting up Peggy about sightseeing. She asks her to share bread (a nice callback to the show’s opening, where she also shared a piece of bread, as well as a smile, with her friend…before killing her) and knowledge about New York City. Peggy isn’t exactly focused on that at the moment and when Dottie knocks over Peggy’s purse by accident, she skillfully manages to steal Peggy’s key to The Griffith – “uh oh” moment number one of the night.

When Peggy gets to the office, she notices everyone trying to decipher a message from the magic typewriter. She quickly deduces that it’s Russian, which allows her to figure out that the message is a drop date and coordinates for “Leviathan.” The payment is supposed to be for none other than one Howard Stark, so you can guess how well this goes over with Dooley and Thompson. And despite attempts to persuade her otherwise, it doesn’t stop Peggy from going to Russia.

Granted, it doesn’t mean that Peggy’s inclusion in the mission comes without some hitches. Sousa is tricked into walking in on Peggy getting dressed, where he spots the two bullet wounds on her shoulder – the marks that will spur his curiosity and allow him to later put together the pieces on the mysterious blonde from the club. (I’m giving it until next week before that bomb drops.) “Uh oh” moment number two of the night. Dottie, meanwhile, is using Peggy’s absence to comb her way through her room, until she finds the pictures Peggy’s hidden of Stark’s inventions. We also get a glimpse of the famed Steve Rogers photo, an Easter Egg that always makes me emotional. Dottie takes her time looking through Peggy’s things, clearly attempting to imitate her for…what exactly? We know Dottie’s trained to be a spy in these kind of situations, but we’re not sure yet what her endgame is.

So Peggy and her team head off to the 107th…where they meet Dum Dum Dugan. And, well, the rest of the Howling Commandos who existed unknowingly until now. It was a joy seeing Neal McDonough reprise his notable role and even more great seeing him fall back into ease with Peggy, from the booze smuggling to the snarky banter. It was even perhaps greater to see the normally cool boys of the SSR become a little star-struck when they met the legendary men that Captain America fought with. As I’ve mentioned previously, seeing Peggy in these situations is not necessarily seeing a woman in a man’s world – it’s seeing a competent fighter as an equal. They make their way into the border of Russia with Dum Dum’s help, coming across a school that looks similar to the one that we saw at the beginning of the episode.

What I love about Agent Carter – and what I loved about most of this episode – is that it continually defies the constraints of what it means to be a woman in the 1940’s. In Captain America: The First Avenger, we saw Peggy fight alongside Steve Rogers and his Howling Commandos. We saw her shoot machine guns, punch soldiers who made sexist remarks, and become respected among the ranks of the 107th. It’s been wonderful having Peggy run around New York and kick butt, but bringing her back into the field by going to Russia served to remind us of why we fell in love with her in the first place. She’s not there because she’s a woman – she’s there because she’s a darn good soldier, and someone who can have her team’s back. Dum Dum tells the group that she fought along Steve Rogers longer than he did, and what many people seem to forget is that she’s still fighting alongside Steve Rogers, even though he’s not physically present anymore. But she’s driven by the respect, determination and selflessness that he showed her, and that’s what makes her not just a strong woman, but also a strong person. And it’s an interesting juxtaposition against someone like Thompson, who we learned more about tonight thanks to his history with the war. Thompson is someone who has seen death and grief, and yet his outer shell is all hardened (and sometimes cruel) purpose, so you would never know it. Peggy has experienced the same kinds of compromising emotions, and she also allows herself moments of vulnerability.

Dum Dum is tricked and attacked by a left behind Black Widow girl who is hiding out in the school that they’re infiltrating – thankfully, his vest takes the brunt of the attack from the girl’s knife, but it’s still a pretty brutal scene, and I’m impressed with how far Marvel is going to show the intensity of what these girls went through, from this to the neck snapping at the beginning of the hour. (There’s also no confirmation on who the girl is, for anyone wondering.) While searching the building further, Peggy comes across two men in a holding cell.

The two men in the cell — Nikolai, an engineer and his friend, a psychiatrist — claim that they’re being held there by Leviathan (apparently a person, not a thing) to build a weapon. They say they know nothing about Stark and Nikolai becomes unhinged during Peggy’s group’s escape, shooting another Commando even as Peggy tries to talk him down. I have to hand it to Chad Michael Murray, who did some wonderful work in this episode, particularly in the final few moments when he’s explaining to Peggy why he froze up during the shooting. Thompson has thus far been cold and hateful, and here he lets down his guard in a way that’s completely unexpected to both us and to Peggy. It’s a quiet moment in an hour that was filled with action, but it was one of the most notable.

And it’s interesting, because earlier in the episode, Jarvis made a point of telling Peggy her attempts to fit in with her superiors at the SSR Boy’s Club were futile. But by the end of the episode, she’s starting to gain some equal footing on the playing field – and it’s about time. I still believe this is all too easy of a development, especially with Sousa finally having figured out her real agenda, but after building Thompson up to be more or less an asshole, it’s nice to see some progress being made on Peggy’s inclusion into the group.

Odds & Ends:

  • Did everyone catch that “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” nod to Captain America: The First Avenger, when the camera focused on young Dottie’s eyes in the Red Room? I had distinct flashbacks to Steve waking up in the hospital in the present day.
  • It seems our Black Widow story on Dottie isn’t entirely done, which means we’ll be learning more next week, and I’m excited. Bridget Regan is having an excellent TV season this year, between White Collar and Jane The Virgin and Agent Carter, and I can’t wait to learn more about Dottie and see how she impacts the story.
  • Call me a hopeless fangirl, but I’m still holding out hope that Sousa becomes Peggy’s husband, okay? Their relationship has all the makings of a couple that I’m on board with.

2 thoughts on “AGENT CARTER: “The Iron Ceiling”

  1. Good comments about the constraints of women in the 40s and Peggy’s journey toward gaining equal footing in the SSR. But now when I watch this show I can’t help but think about Joss Whedon’s recent comments regarding sexism and misogyny in Hollywood. He’s right, but then I think about this show and I get frustrated.

    Agent Carter is well written, well acted and an engaging story that happens to have a woman as its lead. It’s a good example of a strong character that defies gender. Then I think about Joss’s comments. And then I read recent articles that the ratings on this show are not that great and it’s not likely to be renewed.

    So what shows like this really come down to is viewing tastes of the American television public. I’m not really sure networks and studios would have an issue producing more shows like this if people would watch them. They do seem to be pretty bottom-line driven. So until more of America turns away from cheap reality TV and the 20th clone of NCIS/CSI we aren’t likely to see more of these shows produced. I hope I’m wrong about that, because the prospects make me sad.

    I love this show, but TV is ratings driven (for better or worse) and it needs better ratings or it may not be back.

    Ugh, that was too editorial. Let’s just say this show is fun. Fun is good.

  2. “It’s been wonderful having Peggy run around New York and kick butt, but bringing her back into the field by going to Russia served to remind us of why we fell in love with her in the first place. She’s not there because she’s a woman – she’s there because she’s a darn good soldier, and someone who can have her team’s back.” Pretty much. And this is why I feel Peggy’s validation should have come much earlier. She’s great at what she does not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a more than competent fighter who can take care of herself with ease.

    I enjoyed this episode for its significant character development for Thompson. Not too shabby for a guy who previously told Peggy that no man would ever respect her. But the two have a connection because both are seen as someone that they’re not: Thompson is seen as a hero when he’s not, while Peggy is seen by her SSR counterparts as less than competent because of her gender. At least that looks like it’s changing and I couldn’t help but smile when Dooley commended Carter on her work and when Thompson invited her to drink with him and the rest of the boys. And what’s great is that Carter didn’t have to make them respect her, as she suggested to Jarvis, but they saw how good of a fighter she was when she got back into comfortable territory with the Commandos. I enjoyed the talks between Peggy and Dum-Dum and it was very sad to see them part ways again because we all know this is where Peggy feels the most comfortable. And these men see Peggy as an equal because they know what she’s capable of.

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