The long-awaited Agent Carter tv series opens with James Bond-level espionage and action, but balances it out with real emotional beats. This pilot excels at everything that the Agents of SHIELD pilot failed at.
AGENT CARTER PILOT
Director: Louis D’Esposito
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Original Air Date: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
Starring: Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Enver Gjokaj, James D’Arcy
Whether or not you are a fan of Agents of SHIELD, you have to admit that Marvel‘s initial television offering has been received with mixed opinions. This wasn’t the most auspicious environment to welcome Agent Carter into the world with, but I was incredibly pleased with this pilot episode starring Hayley Atwell as the titular character (reprising the role she played in Captain America: the First Avenger). Agent Carter not only celebrates the themes and tropes of 1940s spy stories, it also earns moments of real emotion that make Peggy Carter a character one can easily feel pathos for.
For her part, Hayley Atwell is stunning in all aspects of her performance. Yes, she is very physically beautiful, yet she commands the room with a stoicism and authority that gives her more power than any of her male co-stars throughout the episode. She is a masterful actress as much as Peggy is a masterful secret agent. The writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely layer in a lot of misogyny for the aforementioned male co-stars to play throughout the Agent Carter pilot and while it is certainly maddening to behold, it’s worth noting that that level of ignorance did exist in the year 1946 (when this first episode is set), and they give ample opportunity for Peggy to combat this oppression – no just in a professional capacity, but by sticking a fork into a man’s artery and threatening to teach him a real lesson in matters.
There are several moments throughout the Agent Carter pilot where we get to see Peggy Carter being a straight up badass. Like the much-mentioned James Bond she has a variety of tools to aid in her espionage (poisoned lipstick, a watch face that can crack a safe are just some examples), and she illustrates a brutality that speaks to her willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. In one memorable scene Peggy violently renders a man unconscious with a stapler … yeah, hardcore.
The Agent Carter pilot also gets some moments of real fun throughout the issue that leaves the moments of tragedy (and there is tragedy, including an important character death), the opportunity to land on viewers in a very real way. Markus and McFeely even give us an homage to Sharon Carter (Agent 13), in one of Peggy’s disguise.
Reports came out early on that the character of Edwin Jarvis would be more “domestic” than comic book fans are familiar with and I often find phrases like troubling. However, James D’Arcy (Broadchurch, Cloud Atlas), is so completely charming in his English stuffiness and so utterly unaware of exactly what he is getting into that you cannot help but adore him. D’Arcy’s Jarvis is long-suffering in his work for Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper also returned briefly to reprise his role in the Agent Carter pilot), though he is a dedicated man and agrees to remain with Peggy at the behest of Stark. Over the course of the Agent Carter pilot Jarvis and Peggy come to a real understanding and already we have Jarvis poised to be Peggy’s emotional support – and likely her closest confidante – throughout the course of the series.
The Agent Carter pilot is, structurally, is a pretty standard mid-20th century spy story with some classic Marvel characters layered into the narrative – Leviathan and Anton Vanko appear in this episode while several references are made to past events fans will be familiar with from the larger cinematic universe. The building blocks that are placed in the show feel less shoe-horned in than they often do in Agents of SHIELD and I would hazard that this is because Peggy Carter exists in a very specific timeline and is tied into predetermined events that won’t necessarily be shaping any of the new movies currently in development with Marvel Studios. While that could be constricting to a lesser creative team, the Agent Carter theme thrives under their constraints and cleverly deal with everything from period constraints, budgetary constraints and events they are beholden to.
The thing that really, really works about the Agent Carter pilot and has set it up in one episode as the best Marvel Studio television show is that it strikes a perfect balance. Action/adventure/spy stuff is absolutely at the forefront of the narrative, but Peggy suffers and she suffers a lot. However, with Jarvis there to offer his services – even if it’s just an empathetic ear – this lady and her television show is poised to be something quite special indeed.
THE BOTTOM LINE: WATCH THIS PILOT
Marvel fan or not, Captain American fan or not, the Agent Carter pilot is a solid piece of television. It fires on all cylinders, is engaging to watch and has a woman in the leading role. Practically perfect in every way.