BY NOAH BRAND
Warning: This post contains spoilers for season one of Marvel’s Agent Carter.
Last week, the season finale of Marvel’s Agent Carter aired, and right now, it’s unclear whether there will be another season. If there isn’t, it’ll be as great a loss to genre television as the cancellation of Firefly. Every fan of the show wants to see more of Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, and so do I, but I want to take a few minutes to commend this show on its awesome male characters. Even the jerks.
This that need to happen to make me happy list:— Sneaky Zebra (@sneakyzebra) February 19, 2015
1) @AgentCarterTV to get a Season 2.
That is all.
marvel pls realize we don't want another macho-white-superdude we want agent carter season 2, a not white spiderman, and a black widow movie— luka (@poesbf) February 23, 2015
PS: No I'm not gonna stop the #AgentCarter spam. Ever. Not til we get a season 2.— Maryne. (@MaryneeLahaye) February 19, 2015
Agent Carter is, yes, a brilliant feminist take on the super-spy genre, and if you don’t believe me, read this recent Playboy piece analyzing it from a feminist perspective. One of its ongoing themes is how its heroine has to deal with postwar sexism as the only woman in an office full of guys. Going into it, I was worried that, like too many sloppily-written action-heroine pieces, it would be stuffed with dumb male foils who had nothing to do other than sneer “Girls can’t do anything!” and then be proven wrong. That guy is an easy go-to for TV and movie writers, and I for one am tired of him.
Early on, there were indications that the show might be going down that path. The other characters seemed one-note in comparison with Peggy, and in the case of her coworkers, that note was sour. Very rapidly, though, they developed, as supporting characters on a show tend to do. Before our eyes, they went from being cheesy, thinly-drawn sexist jerks to complex, interesting, engaging sexist jerks.
The two biggest jerks were Agent Krzeminski and Agent Thompson, both outright sneering at Peggy’s presence in their macho enclave of square-jawed world-savers. Agent Sousa is a little more sympathetic but doesn’t understand what she’s doing there. The boss, Director Dooley, seems to see Peggy as someone he’s been saddled with against his will, a distraction from getting the real work done.
They went from being cheesy, thinly-drawn sexist jerks to complex, interesting, engaging sexist jerks.
Even at the beginning, though, we can see the real characters showing through. Dooley is sharp, professional, and dedicated to the job. Thompson puts up such a big front because he’s got some dark stuff behind it. Sousa is afraid he only got the job because a disabled vet is a good PR hire. They’re sexist, yes, but they’re people.
The key to understanding these guys is that they don’t know the title of their show is Agent Carter. They think she’s a supporting character on their show, the one about the brave men of the SSR and their spunky gal Friday.
Krzeminski doesn’t make it through episode three before he gets killed by the bad guys, and the team reacts the way every bunch of law enforcement guys on every show always reacts: They make some really tough-sounding speeches and swear to hunt down the killer.
Sousa has a slow-burning flirtation with Peggy, perhaps because he feels they’re the two office misfits. He’s the team’s Columbo, in the sense of being the quiet, polite, thorough, painstaking detective who chases down the leads everyone else thinks are garbage. That’s why Sousa’s the first one to become suspicious of Peggy; her genuine skulduggery is dismissed by the other guys because they don’t think she’s capable of being an agent, much less a double agent.
We learn Thompson’s dark secret in episode five, but by then we’ve already seen him showing increasing competence at interrogation and investigation. We’re no longer wondering how this stupid jerk even got this important job, because we’ve seen that he’s not stupid. Just a jerk.
Dooley is the gruff, hard-nosed commander from a dozen great cop dramas, and he gets to be the one to explain in clear terms how his personal opinion of Peggy is irrelevant, because he’s stuck in the same system she is:
Put yourself in my shoes, Carter. I send you on this mission, you get yourself killed, I’m the moron who got a woman killed in action. I send you and one of my guys buys it, I’m the one who set him up to die.
The sexist attitudes that limit the guys’ view of Peggy are the same ones tying Dooley’s hands. In the end, of course, he sends her on the mission because he’s not a fool, and she saves the day because she’s a phenomenally good field operative. She’s awesome, and it’s her show.
Best of all, when Peggy’s secret activities are exposed, this shift shows us new sides of the male characters. Thompson becomes surprisingly nice in her interrogation, because he no longer sees her as a woman, just as a suspect, and he can play the good cop. Sousa is furious with her, because he liked and trusted her and it feels personal to him. Dooley is just as angry, but keeping a tighter lid on it because he’s in charge and can’t show how rattled he is.
She saves the day because she’s a phenomenally good field operative. She’s awesome, and it’s her show.
Peggy handles all of this with her usual cool professionalism, but underneath she’s still not certain if her loyalty to her wartime friend Howard Stark was the wrong choice. In the end, Peggy and Stark are vindicated and the relevant hidden agendas are straightened out, but for a long time it’s not clear if that happy ending will happen.
Then, at the end of the last episode (so far!), after we’ve seen Thompson grow and develop as a person and realize that he was wrong about Peggy Carter, we find out that he’s still 100 percent willing to take credit for her work if it means he gets a bigger office. Because yes, he’s a nicer jerk now, but he’s still a jerk. He hasn’t been magically redeemed, he hasn’t gone from pure ignorance to pure enlightenment, because that’s not what people do.
One of the useful feminist critiques of pop culture is that “strong female characters” doesn’t mean “strong females” in the sense of badass action chicks, it means “strong characters” in the sense of characters that have depth and variety and more than one dimension. This is absolutely true, and feminists have rightly taken time to applaud characters like Peggy Carter, who can be powerful but feminine, reserved yet vulnerable, who are complex and engaging.
There’s never been a shortage of male leads who have those qualities, but it’s also true that secondary characters tend to fall into the same few male stereotypes over and over, including the dumb sexist foil type. It’s tired, it’s old, and it’s lazy writing. The folks behind Agent Carter have avoided that, instead writing their secondary characters as characters. This means that Peggy isn’t facing ludicrous cartoon sexism, but realistic sexism that feels grounded in the world and in the characters. In other words, having good male characters makes Agent Carter a better feminist show.
If the show does get the second season it deserves, let’s hope the fans see more of what made the first one work so well.
This post was originally featured on the Good Men Project and reposted with permission.
Screengrab via ABC/YouTube