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TV at the Movies: Agent Carter goes Hollywood, and Hedy Lamarr gets her due.

Since several members of Team Experience are high on Agent Carter, here's Lynn Lee to talk about its new Tinseltown resonance.

Are you enjoying Marvel’s “Agent Carter”?  If you're not watching, you should. The show’s really upped its game in its second season, in part because its main characters have found their groove, but in even larger part because of its change of setting.  

Dispatched to Los Angeles to assist the West Coast office of the Strategic Science Reserve, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) quickly finds herself in the heart of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Her old friend Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is doing his best impression of another famed Howard of the period, dabbling in filmmaking but really most interested in collecting starlets as poolside decorations and “production assistants.”  Meanwhile, Peggy and faithful sidekick Jarvis (James d’Arcy) do their own best impression of a platonic Nick and Nora Charles (although they also prefigure original Avengers John Steed and Emma Peel), trading exquisitely polite British quips as they navigate palm trees and movie sets, and they’re a delight to watch. 

But it’s not just Howard Stark who draws Peggy into Tinseltown’s orbit. More...

Hedy Lamarr and Whitney Frost

The main villain of the season, Whitney Frost (an excellent Wynn Everett), is a movie star who’s on the cusp of being aged out of leading roles.  She’s got an ace in her back pocket, though, and it’s not her generic rich-white politician husband—it’s her mind.  Not only a master manipulator of her husband, she’s also the brains behind his company.  It was she who discovered its most valuable and dangerous property, a mysterious substance called “zero matter” that seems to operate like a fluid black hole.  As we learned over the most recent couple of episodes, she didn’t get there easily, having received no encouragement or recognition of her scientific genius as a young girl.  Only with the advent of WWII was she able to put her talents to use by helping the Allies manipulate radio frequencies to send coded messages across enemy lines. 

If that back story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s obviously inspired by Hedy Lamarr.  No, Whitney Frost isn’t a stand-in for Lamarr, exactly; the show goes out of its way to refer to the real star as existing in the show’s universe.  But in a broader sense, Lamarr is the touchstone for this season, as the patron saint of brilliant women valued primarily for their beauty rather than their brains.  (It’s probably not a coincidence that while Whitney, a delicate blonde, has the Hedy Lamarr-like pedigree, it’s Peggy, the voluptuous yet classy brunette, who's closer to Lamarr in physical type.)

Whitney Frost’s character arc also reminds us that things sadly haven’t changed all that much for actresses trying to survive Hollywood.  There’s a real sting to the scenes in which the thirty-something star deals with the casual sexism and ageism of her industry, as she fields insensitive comments about makeup and more flattering lighting being needed for her as an “older” woman, the studio wanting to replace her with a “fresh face,” and most insulting of all, her director’s squicky attempt to extract a sexual quid pro quo for keeping her in a role.  There’s also a powerful symbolism in the ominous black crack that forms at Whitney’s temple as the result of her exposure to zero matter and expands each time she uses it.  She’s losing the trait that’s defined her in society’s eyes—her beauty—even as she’s gaining a new strength unleashed by her brain.  Although she tries at first to hide the mark and continue playing the part of a famous actress and politician’s wife, she eventually drops the pretense, cancelling an important photo shoot and revealing her new face and powers to her husband.  When he, terrified, demands, “What are you?” her response is as thrilling as it is chilling:

Anything that I want to be.”

Of course, Whitney Frost is still the villain, and even as the show adds sympathetic shading to her story, it highlights the alternative path represented by Peggy Carter.  While Whitney’s spent her life pretending to submit to the patriarchy while working it behind the scenes, Peggy’s simply refused to let it stand in her way.  The contrast between the two was both deepened and complicated by last week’s flashbacks to their pasts, which confirmed that outward circumstances, as much as inborn traits, can swing the balance between a hero and a supervillain.  Whereas one was rejected by a university because of her sex and repeatedly told her looks were her only asset, the other was encouraged, in fact pushed (ironically, by a man – her brother) to be true to herself and realize her full potential.  Change one detail of either of their lives, their families, their influences, and they could have been allies.  As it is, they’re formidable and well-matched adversaries and far more compelling than any of the men who try to control them.  Somewhere, in some dimension, the ghost of Hedy Lamarr is smiling at them both. 

Agent Carter airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC

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Reader Comments (7)

Wow.... JARVELOUS!!!!!

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

This show is soooo good.

February 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I adore Atwell's performance as Peggy Carter, and I love that she's the glue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (besides appearing in both Captain America films, she's had cameos in Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and on multiple episodes of Agents of SHIELD). And while I was thrilled to get the flashbacks in the last episode that filled in her backstory... I am not enjoying this season as much as the first.

I found her a more effective character in NYC than LA, and as part of the retooling for this season, they've glammed her up a bit too much. Not that I don't love seeing Peggy/Atwell in the costumes... but a couple of episodes back she had eight costume changes in a story set over two days. That Ana Jarvis must have a pretty deep closet!

I also preferred the smaller scale villainy of last season. The whole Arena Club and zero matter thing is much too similar to the ancient proto-Hydra cabal of illuminati and their passage to another dimension that's been the central plot on Agents of SHIELD this year. Whitney Frost is a good villain... but I want to see more of proto-Black Widow Dottie Underwood! She's even more Carter's evil doppelganger than Frost.

But these are MINOR complaints. Frankly, I still can't believe this little show even got renewed for a second season, and I'm thrilled to spend more time with Peggy in this delightfully exaggerated stylization of the late 1940s. Atwell is just tremendous in the role, and I wish more people knew that Jessica Jones is NOT the first female-led series from Marvel! (No knock on that series, which I haven't seen yet, and I adore Krysten Ritter too!)

February 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

LOVE this show so much. The move to Hollywood was inspired, and makes the show even more fun. And Whitney Frost is a great complicated villain, taking a stock type - "older" actress who will stop at nothing to keep her beauty - and complicating it by also making her a scientific genius thus devalued by society on nearly every front. All that, plus Jarvis and his old-fashioned workout routines! And Peggy in love with a genius African-American scientist who is only visible after getting sprayed with a substance of Stark's invention. So many great touches. The show remains great to look at, too. Oh, I love it so!

February 9, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Actually, the quote is, "Whatever I want." It was chilling, particularly in how it echoed what the talent agent said to Frost when she first was noticed in Hollywood. The show is brilliant; I'm sure Lamarr would love it.

February 9, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterram

Lynn here...

ram: thanks for the correction on the quote.

denny and Steven: Jarvis is really the supporting MVP of the show. Adore him

Doctor Strange: I actually am enjoying season 2 much more than season 1, and I haven't been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but agree that the "council of 9" is not especially interesting and "zero matter" seems like a typical comic book-y macguffin.

Glammed up Peggy is probably to go with the Hollywood/LA setting but also perhaps in part to help goose the ratings, which I hear are abysmal. :(

February 9, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I was under the impression that the first season was just a limited series, so the second season has been a delightful bonus. Hayley Atwell is such a joy as Peggy, and I love the period detail. Can't believe it didn't get any Emmy attention for its production design, costumes, etc.

Btw, Whitney Frost in the comics is the Iron Man villain Madame Masque, although she appears to have been considerably altered for this series.

February 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKirby

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