To tell you the truth, the Mad Men nostalgia craze always annoyed me.
It seemed too easy for people to watch (well-off, white) men behaving badly as if it were an artifact of a specific, long-gone time period. As if women don't still have to navigate the world those men set up and the rules that they've mostly left in place.
Which is exactly what makes Marvel's Agent Carter so damn satisfying.
American nostalgia for the post-World War II period can sometimes seem overwhelming, especially in the face of a lousy economy, spiraling inequality, and the disappearance of what we used to think of as "good" jobs. We think of the World War II generation as the "Greatest Generation," of the postwar labor compromise that gave us the eight-hour day and five-day week, of thousands of returning soldiers buying houses and the birth of the middle class.
Agent Carter takes a good handful of those myths and punches them in the face. (Which is what Agent Carter herself spends a good chunk of the show doing, and doing rather well.) For a superhero spinoff TV show by Marvel, which has a somewhat checkered resume when it comes to female lead characters, that's actually pretty impressive.
If you remember Agent Carter at all, it's most likely from the first Captain America movie (or her cameos on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if you kept watching past the first few mediocre episodes—I didn't), as the character actually doesn't have a deep history in Marvel comics—not like, say, the Black Widow, last seen played by Scarlett Johansson in the second Cap film. Like the Black Widow, Carter (first name Peggy) is a mere human surrounded by superhumans who keeps up with them purely on smarts and skill and a mean thrown elbow. Unlike the Black Widow, Agent Carter does it in 1940s skirt suits and impeccable red lipstick.
Yes, she was the Captain's love interest and we do get a few scenes of her longingly staring at a photo of the presumed-dead Rogers, but the show tells us exactly what to do with our expectations of "Captain America's liaison" the first time a colleague at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (the precursor of sorts to S.H.I.E.L.D.) uses it as a put-down. Instead, the premiere was two hours of Carter (played by Hayley Atwell with wit and believable physicality) fending off come-ons and condescension and never-ending reminders of her dead boyfriend while taking on a top-secret mission that, if she fails, could land her in prison for treason.
Begged by Howard Stark (the father of Tony "Iron Man" with the same sort of style, sleaze, and technical expertise) to help him clear his name and track down his stolen weaponry, Carter takes on the gig because, as Stark puts it, "they're not using you well over there." The war in which she was able to be treated mostly like an equal is over, the men are home, and in case you miss the point being made here, Carter's got a roommate who complains about being sent home from her factory job because more G.I.s have returned and want the work. Back into the kitchen for the women. Let the boys do the hard work.
As a nagging reminder of what society expects Carter to be, woven throughout the episode is a "Captain America" radio program in which Carter hears herself, made over as Nurse Betty Carter, squealing repeatedly for her man to come and rescue her. Just when it gets to breaking-point irritating, though, it's intercut with a fight scene where Carter's taking on yet another guy twice her size, her actual punches and kicks juxtaposed with the gimmicks used for radio sound effects—a man punching a raw ham, or snapping a cooked lobster as Carter breaks the man's arm.
Carter literally uses red lipstick as a weapon, beats up a man using implements from her own kitchen, and sneaks into a secret meeting by delivering coffee to her sexist colleagues. Repeatedly, the show tells us, she is able to use men's low expectations of her against them and come out ahead. And yet it works because the microaggressions Carter deals with are still all too realistic, and her revenge never perfect, never entirely complete. When her friend Angie, a waitress at the diner where she holds her secret meetings with Stark's butler Jarvis, is harassed by a piggish customer, I'm sure I'm not the only former or current waitress who flinched because it felt too familiar (a Restaurant Opportunities Center United survey last year found that 90 percent of women who work in restaurants have faced sexual harassment), and when she's asked to do the filing by a male agent, ostensibly her equal, it's not hard to picture that happening in a workplace in 2015.
To further shake up our expectations, instead of Howard Stark, our male lead is actually Jarvis the butler, played by lanky James D'Arcy with a blend of fussiness and inflappability. He's in the in-over-his-head role usually given to the girlfriend in superhero flicks but carries it off with the panache of Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts. Their chemistry is not unlike that of the Captain and the Black Widow in Captain America: the Winter Soldier, more buddy comedy than will-they-won't they sexual tension. Instead, Jarvis insists on being home on time to his wife.
The story of Agent Carter is still a white, single working woman's dilemma, to be sure, and the show is very white so far (except for a too-short cameo by Andre Royo, best known as Bubbles from The Wire). But the first Cap movie was a little too easy a nostalgia-fest, and the second one, while it does engage thorny political issues, takes place in the present day while Cap gets to mythologize the past he comes from as better than the world we're in. Agent Carter doesn't give us that chance. Steve Rogers might have been a great guy, a real hero (#notallmen), but he's gone no matter how many bad radio plays they make about him, and the real world circa 1947 isn't so easy to like.
The first episode ends by challenging perhaps one of the most American myths of all. Agent Carter, in her rush to prove she's as good as the men and her fear of her work rebounding violently on her friends (sound familiar? The superhero tropes tend to), repeatedly rejects offers of help. As Jarvis helps stitch up her cuts, he chides her for wanting to do everything herself, without support. The man who's concerned about work-life balance knows better than Carter that being independent doesn't mean going it alone. One of the most important lessons Agent Carter, like so many male superheroes, will have to learn is how to accept help from others.
I'll be watching to see how she does.
Image via ABC.