Just when I was getting sick of people telling Peggy—to her face, on repeat—that the men she works with will never respect her, Agent Carter brings back some of Peggy’s war buddies and we get to spend a refreshing hour watching people who genuinely respect Peggy work effectively with her. Agent Carter was just beginning to wear the sexism schtick too thin—which is what happens when you keep having super obvious conversations about the same topic—we’re reminded that not everyone treats Peggy like a sandwich girl. This episode sees Peggy and Agent Thompson heading to Russia to investigate a lead about Howard’s stolen weapons, and they hook up with the Howling Commandos to complete the mission. Well, they hook up with some budget Commandos from the comics who were not in the The First Avenger, and Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough).
I kind of wish Dum Dum was a series regular. McDonough and Hayley Atwell have such great chemistry, and given that they’ve worked together on two previous Marvel projects, they have an ease on screen together—like Atwell and Dominic Cooper, too—that makes their history totally believable. When Dum Dum and Peggy fall silent while sharing memories of Steve Rogers, you really feel their anguish, and you buy that they lighten one another’s load. This is a series high for Agent Carter and it’s in no small part because McDonough and Atwell bring a really cinematic dynamic to the show.
The plottiness of Agent Carter is still a bit much—there’s a whole thing about kidnapped Russian scientists I could not give two shits about—but this episode does a nice job as a three-way balancing act. The plot re: Howard Stark’s stolen weapons advances smoothly, with Agent Dooley beginning to suspect that Howard might have been set up after a falling out with Army brass related to that mysterious battle of Finnau we keep hearing about. And we get to see Peggy showing off her skills and capabilities, garnered over years of working for the SSR during the war. Agent Thompson gets his comeuppance, seeing Peggy in the field and realizing that she was truly a field agent all along.
In a neat bit of follow through, Thompson cracks a crude joke at the beginning of the episode about Peggy’s relationship with Captain America that pays off when he realizes that she more than earned her place on Cap’s team. I don’t need to like Agent Thompson, but I do appreciate that his wartime backstory isn’t supersoldiers and monsters, it’s just the kind of tortuously sad story soldiers tend to have. It’s a nice, grounding touch, and one thing Marvel has always done well is portray soldiers as fully realized people, not just convenient cannon fodder or rah-rah stereotypes.
But by far the coolest element of this episode—and so far, the coolest thing to come out of Marvel’s ever-expanding TV universe—is a glimpse inside the Red Room, the organization responsible for training the Black Widow. They don’t name it as such, but we learn that Dottie, Peggy’s new neighbor, is in fact a product of this training program, and we get to see a little of the indoctrination and brutal conditioning the girls are subjected to. In the comics, Natasha Romanov is very old, kept forever young by a knock-off supersoldier serum, but so far the movies have shown her as a regular ole human, albeit, a highly skilled one.
Nothing about the Red Room in Agent Carter suggests experimentation or serums, and I really hope the Marvel Cinematic Universe sticks with that. So far they’ve been stingy with their supersoldiers—there are only two to date, Captain America and the Winter Soldier—and I hope they keep it that way. There’s something so much more horrible about plain old fashioned cruelty and abuse producing child soldiers than there is in comic booky serums and sci-fi magic bullshit. Because that happens—child soldiers are real. Like Agent Thompson’s war story, it’s a way to sneak some grounded, real-world devastation into the goofy world of superheroes.
There are only three episodes of Agent Carter left, and if this episode is any indication, the momentum will continue building exponentially as we approach the end. Agent Sousa has figured out that Peggy is the mysterious woman hampering their investigation, and Peggy’s won the respect of her asshole co-workers just in time to lose it again. We’re still not sure what’s going on with Leviathan, or with the remainder of Howard’s missing weapons (seriously, if this isn’t leading to the Winter Soldier I will be so disappointed). Now that we’ve glimpsed the Red Room, what else would you like to see Marvel tease out in the remaining episodes? Besides, you know, this: