Agent Carter, as nerds will know, was never meant to be a long-running series. Originally planned as an eight-episode one-off season hiatus filler for shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a rare Marvel property I haven’t been able to warm to), it developed just enough of a following for ABC to commission a second series, which is now playing out its final episodes on Fox in the UK.
While Peggy doesn’t get the kinds of ratings – or rapturous miles of column inches -dedicated to Daredevil and Jessica Jones on Netflix, it has attracted a hardcore of devoted fans (myself among them). With its short, sharp seasons that allow for a single story arc to be thoroughly plumbed without ever dragging, it’s a crystalline gem of a show. But I’m getting ahead of myself – five reasons, I promised, and here they are.
One – Hayley Atwell
To be honest, she could easily be five reasons on her own. But since she waltzed onto the screen with a spring in her step and a punch in her fist in Captain America: The First Avenger, who’s been able to take their eyes off Peggy? Atwell’s trick is to make Peggy an entire woman. A whole person. She has complex relationships, romantic and otherwise, she has to fight lazy sexism at work (it is the 1940s, but honestly some of these things really are still happening) and she’s sharp, capable and wryly funny. But she’s not just one of these things. She says wonderful feminist things, but is not a cookie cutter feminist mouthpiece. She exhibits physical strength when she needs to, but doesn’t hide behind it. She has hurts and painful memories, but she rolls up her sleeves and gets the job done – acknowledging her pain but neither hiding it nor wallowing in it. Too many Strong Female Characters are only that – relentlessly, exhaustingly, tough. There’s a fullness to Peggy that harks back to the glory days of Buffy Summers, only without the post-adolescent whining. And with a glorious English accent.
To top it all, she looks fabulous. Besame Cosmetics 1946 Red Velvet, if you’re wondering.
Two – James D’Arcy
As the youthful Edwin Jarvis, D’Arcy’s bumbling English butler with a heart of gold and passionate belief in doing the right thing- even if it costs him – provides a much needed note of lightness. He’s charming but never slimy, and serves to remind Carter of the fact that just because she can do something alone, it doesn’t mean she has to. Carter’s main weakness is what is usually considered strength in male-centred narratives – her inability to ask for and reluctance to accept help. Would that there were more Jarvises in the boy stories….
Plus, he’s an Amersham boy, raised in west London and I did the opposite, so I feel kindly disposed.
Three – Diversity
This sounds quite po-faced, I know, but it’s actually a hugely refreshing thing to watch a comic book-based piece of creative and not just see a wall of strong, white men. Aside from Peggy there are a number of interesting female characters, including two complex and indefatigable nemeses and an older, plus-size woman who is included for her intelligence and loyalty – not as a punchline. Of Carter’s colleagues, one of the most interesting is disabled (part of his character development, but not even close to dominating it), has a Latin surname and is played by an Albanian-American actor. In season two, a potential love interest for Carter is a black man. Jarvis’ newly-introduced wife is Jewish.
It’s definitely not perfect – what is? – but I applaud what seem to me deliberate attempts to at the very least balance the gender narrative, and begin to take steps towards tackling wider race and disability inclusiveness.
Four – Humour
If it’s all sounded a bit heavy-handed so far, let that be my fault; one of my very favourite things about Agent Carter is its relative lightness. It sounds weird to say this about a programme that has so far seen a cinema full of people bludgeon each other to death under the influence of a mysterious chemical, a major character badly injured by being impaled on a metal pole and man blown up with a bomb vest as he plummets out of a window to save others from the explosion. But unlike Daredevil‘s relentless gore and Jessica Jones‘ psychological warfare, Agent Carter really does feel like a Marvel comic book – violent, yes, but not gratuitously and with regular infusions of light relief, a touch of slapstick and a hint of romance.
If Daredevil feels to me like Marvel stepping into live-action territory usually dominated by DC, Agent Carter is an explosion of colour and light: modern Marvel at its best.
Five – Short seasons
I’ve bored the pants off a few friends with my theories on how series length can make or break things for me. I genuinely think the Netflix-length 13-episode arc is what’s made the two Defenders shows so far so good (imagine that single Kilgrave storyline extending to 22 episodes; no matter how excellent Jessica Jones is – and it is – and how marvellous both Krysten Ritter and David Tenant are – and they are – around episode 18 of same-old you’d be about ready to hand yourself in for a lifetime of mind control). Eight episodes is basically four films. It’s enough time to extend into some backstory, spin off a few interesting sidelines and set up some possibilities for the next season without labouring. Season 2 has extended to ten, but it still feels tightly plotted and just leaves a little more breathing space for the slightly expanded ensemble cast.
Without wishing to sound as if things were better in my day – eleventy hundred years ago – I do think both films and many seasons of television have become, of late, more self-indulgent and far too long than ever; maybe it’s for money or maybe it’s because no-one has the heart to tell Peter Jackson to stop it, but there really is something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more. When season one of Agent Carter ended, I was bereft, because there was so much more left to tell. I will be the first to say when I think it’s been overtold. But two seasons in and there is a wealth material to explore – I’m definitely entirely behind a third season (pretty please ABC?).
And now to get ready to say goodbye again. Sob.