Monday, January 19, 2015

Review - Agent Carter: "Time and Tide"

This review contains spoilers.

Agent Carter is really, really killing it.

In this episode, Peggy and Jarvis set out to follow up a lead given to them by the mysterious (and now deceased) Leet Brannis, but before they can do so, Peggy is called upon to sacrifice her professional pride in order to save Jarvis from persecution at the hands of the SSR in one of the episode's most intriguing moments.

I've seen a couple of good metas that have pointed out how brilliantly the writers have fit the perception of Peggy as incompetent by her male coworkers into a pitch-perfect narrative that explores the institutional sexism of the period, and I'd like to expand on this theme a little bit. As has been noted, in "Time and Tide" Peggy flubbed in a major way to get Jarvis out of a difficult situation, and her flubbing was so obvious that if a man had done it he would have come under immediate suspicion. But in Peggy's case her fellow agents expect her to be incompetent, and so it never registers that her obviously deliberate actions are deliberate. It doesn't register even in spite of the fact that they know a) that she is an associate of their suspect, b) that she is on record as stating she thinks the SSR is after the wrong man, and c) that there is an unknown female operative in the mix who seemingly came out of nowhere. It's staring them right in the face, but they can't see it at all.

Now, it would be really easy for the writers to portray the male agents on the show as brainless hacks. (One of my major problems with Marvel's other spy show was that it regularly requires its characters to be temporarily, and inexplicably, bad at their jobs in order for the plot to move forward.) That's not the case in Agent Carter, however. As we have repeatedly seen, the male agents of the SSR are very good at their jobs—if occasionally unthinkingly impulsive. These men are smart; these men are experienced; these men are capable. From the chief on down, they have been shown to be highly observant, methodical in their analysis of evidence, and quick on the uptake. In the first three episodes, we've seen agents Sousa and Krzeminski pour over evidence with a fine tooth comb, leaving no stone unturned. We've seen Agent Thompson routinely move his investigations forward quickly using a combination of tactics (interrogation, carefully maintained personal contacts in the espionage world, etc.) and while coordinating the activities of an investigative team. We've seen Chief Dooley consider and implement good suggestions rather than simply give orders, and we've also seen him to be an expert investigator—as when he immediately noticed that Demidov's typewriter was unusual and had it impounded intact. Time and again it's been made very clear that these men know what they're doing.

And the fact that they so clearly know what they're doing makes their inability to recognize what Peggy is doing all the more explicitly rooted in sexism.

These men are not soft targets for Peggy to work her way around. These men are not tools for making Peggy's (and the writers') job easier. These men are rigorously trained and highly skilled operatives who are so blinded by the institutional framework of sexism in which they live their lives that they cannot see the rigorously trained and highly skilled operative who's going to save the damn day. At the same time, though, the fact that these men are sexist, and that their sexism has material costs (both to them and to the women around them) does not mean that they have no redeeming qualities or that they are inherently bad people. Just as it would be easy for the writers to make Peggy look smarter by making her male coworkers stupid, it would also be easy for them to paint these men with a stereotypical brush, and I am so thankful that they are not doing that.

The nuances of the show's writing came strongly to the fore with this week's handling of the death of Agent Krzeminski, who was not a nice man. The writers never shied away from this fact when dealing with Krzeminski. The reality of what kind person he had been was never glossed over, even as his death was treated with sympathy and respect, and what this indicates is that the writers and showrunners understand that the world is a place where people are complicated. Krzeminski was a sexist, abelist jerk. He was a cheat. He had a wife and a girlfriend and big, rude mouth, and (like a number of the men working under Dooley) he had a very flexible sense of ethics. But he was dedicated to his country, and he was good at his job, and he didn't deserve to die. And the fact that the writers acknowledged this, and showed Peggy acknowledging this, is so important. You can dislike someone and still feel sorrow over their untimely death. You can disagree with someone, and wish they would be different, and—failing that—wish them to stay the hell away from you, and still be cognizant of their fundamental right to exist.

The writers of Agent Carter are giving us so much more than caricatures and sloppy worldbuilding. They are giving us a time and a place and a story imbued with honest, relatable realism. And I am loving it.

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