Mild spoilers for “Agent Carter” season 2 follow.
We might not have met “Jessica Jones” and “Supergirl” until quite recently, but in hindsight, 2015 was always going to be a pretty awesome year for women in the TV superhero world. After all, we kicked things off with the smart, compelling “Marvel’s Agent Carter.”
Now Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is back for more with a second season, and it’s clear that the trend of awesome, complex female heroes will keep on gaining momentum. Not only do the first two episodes (which were provided for screening to MTV News) take everything great about season one and crank it all up to 11, but they also set the series down a new and much more interesting path, one that goes even deeper into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s past.
This year, Carter journeys to the west coast of the United States at the behest of Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) to help Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), who’s been heading up a new LA branch of the SSR. She’s supposed to help him solve a mysterious new case that involves a woman found frozen solid in a iced-over lake during a heat wave. It’s a supernatural spin on the Hollywood murder mystery, but as is always the case with Marvel villains, there’s something much more nefarious lurking under the surface.
As much as we’ll miss season one’s New York City setting, moving to Los Angeles is a genius move in every respect. The show is campier, more glamorous, more colorful, and much more beautifully shot (at times the cinematography is almost reminiscent of “Pushing Daisies,” although obviously much less stylized). And on a meta-textual level, the new scenery also gives the show plenty of opportunity to lampoon the sexism and bigotry of Hollywood — an especially timely topic given how prominent a talking point it’s become over the past year.
Not that a change in scenery would have done much to distract from the unstoppable powerhouse that is Peggy Carter, of course. Hayley Atwell continues to have chemistry with every living breathing human on the planet, and is given plenty of opportunities to either charm the pants off of her suspects, and/or punch them in the face. Her co-stars continue to ably steal the spotlight as well: James D’arcy in particular remains the perfect foil for her to bounce off of; and although Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) isn’t there this year to infuriate Carter himself, his ridiculous inventions and general wealth-based excess are able to do so just fine in his absence.
The new additions to the cast, all of whom are fiercely, magnetically fascinating, absolutely hold their own against the characters we already know, too. While Peggy’s dear friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) won’t be as frequent a guest this time around, there are plenty more supporting female characters to fill the void she leaves behind. As the sole receptionist for SSR’s West Coast office, Rose (Lesley Boone) has a much bigger and very welcome role this season. There’s also Violet, who gets in the way of a pretty popular “Agent Carter” ship, but is depicted as a friend so far — rather than a romantic rival.
And then there’s the long-awaited Anna Jarvis (Lotte Verbeek), who’s bound to be everyone’s new favorite. A lesser show would have her seething with jealousy at the amazing chemistry Peggy and her husband Jarvis (James D’Arcy) have with one another as partners in crime-fighting, but not “Agent Carter,” in which Mrs. Jarvis seems to platonically ship them as hard as we do (OT3, anybody?) It almost feels like the show’s deliberately trying to make us question her amazingness — she must be a secret Red Room operative in deep cover, right? No one’s that great, right?
Speaking of the Red Room, don’t worry, Black Widow fans: Peggy-obsessed Dottie Underwood and her Soviet overlords are still around and pulling strings behind the scenes. But while last season’s villains hid mostly in the shadows, this season delivers its baddies to us right upfront: specifically Hollywood actress Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett) and her husband, wealthy businessman Calvin Chadwick (Currie Graham).
Chadwick is clearly up to no good from the get-go: he’s currently running for Senate, his company is working on some very dangerous top-secret technology, and he’s also a member of a very mysterious and definitely evil secret society, all of which makes for some very bad news. But of the two, it’s definitely the Lady Macbeth-like Frost who’s the real Machiavellian mastermind in their relationship, and the show wastes no time in setting up her supervillain origin story.
Also new to the cast is Doctor Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), who aids Peggy at the beginning of her investigation and quickly decides he has a much deeper relationship with her in mind. It’s hard not to see his appearance on the show as a response to the criticism against the overwhelming whiteness of the show’s first season, which fans saw as an odd choice for a story all about ’40s-era prejudice and marginalization.
Fortunately, the show doesn’t shy away from race this time around, and while it does inform Wilkes actions as a character in natural and interesting ways, it certainly does not define him. He’s charismatic, intelligent, warm, passionate, and fantastically nerdy — all of which totally makes him Peggy’s type, by the way. It’s unclear how much of a role he’ll get to have beyond the first few episodes (and fair warning, the end of episode 2 will surely fuel even more discussion about Marvel’s problems with diversity) — but at the very least, his appearance on the show at all suggests that “Agent Carter” is trying to evolve.
However, the biggest change in season two is one that fundamentally alters the “Agent Carter” formula as we know it: Peggy no longer has to bend over backwards and in high heels to earn her coworkers’ respect. Her season-long quest to prove that her gender did not make her inferior was certainly laudable and empowering — but even while we were cheering for Peggy to stomp the patriarchy, every once in a while her constant battle against endless casual misogyny ended up becoming just as tiring as it is in real life. Does Peggy still have to convince people that she’s not there to take their coffee eight episodes in? Can’t we just get this over with and get to the part where she kicks butt?
The good news is, we can and we have. Obviously Peggy hasn’t solved sexism for good, because that’s still impossible. But the show doesn’t take the time to retread old ground where her abilities as an investigator are concerned; it just lets her be the amazing badass we all know her to be, and in doing so gives of her first arc so much more meaning. While the insurmountable odds that Peggy’s already faced are incredibly meaningful and inspiring, we don’t need to be reminded of them every minute that she’s on screen — we’d rather just tag along for the ride and see what she accomplishes next.