'Agent Carter' and the Value of Vulnerability

Peggy Carter is the emotional core of the MCU. Her TV spinoff had just as much heart.

Agent Carter

Peggy Carter is one of the most important characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one, she’s the co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. and so created the framework that allows The Avengers to exist. She’s also the emotional backbone of the team, constructing meaning for future generations of heroes from her great-niece Sharon to Captain America himself. Her moral center is what ultimately propels Cap and his allies throughout their most lasting conflict; in Captain America: Civil War, she is attributed a key monologue from the comics, and in so doing essentially offers a mission statement for heroes on all sides to follow: “Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No. You move.”

Peggy proves to be a trailblazer both on screen and off, acting as the first Marvel heroine with her own solo property. Premiering in 2015, this short-lived but well-loved spinoff series, Agent Carter, sees Hayley Atwell reprising her standout role from Captain America: The First Avenger. Here, Peggy continues her intelligence work with the Strategic and Scientific Reserve, combatting the likes of Manhattan mobsters, Hollywood starlets, HYDRA operatives, and even the biases of her co-workers in the wake of World War II.  In an added point of charm, she faces these challenges alongside a new crop of standout supporting characters: from Stark butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) to spunky waitress Angie Martinelli (Lyndsy Fonseca) to fellow field agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj).

Really, Agent Carter gives us the best of both worlds as a Marvel spinoff; the show stands well as an independent story, while still offering additional emotional heft to the main series of films. These beats make us care about Peggy Carter as a well-rounded character and invest us even further in her journey as it bends toward her eventually becoming the founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agent Carter

In a universe rife with resurrections, Peggy’s dashed relationship with Steve Rogers is one of the great tragedies of the MCU. There’s a permanence to their separation as a pair lost to time, considering that Steve was encased in ice for nearly seven decades. After the events of The First Avenger come to pass, these characters reconnect only briefly in MCU films, and often in the abstract: in a dream sequence, as part of a museum installation, by Peggy’s sickbed, and eventually at her funeral.

While it seems that Steve and Peggy are doomed to be passing ships, Agent Carter reminds audiences of Peggy’s personal investment in this ordeal. The series openly depicts her struggles with grief, as she is forced to reconcile with her place in a profession that frequently endangers the lives of those she cares about. Throughout this arc, Peggy is continually faced with the reality of her missed connection – while coming across old case files at the office, during heartfelt conversations with Jarvis and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and eventually, with a tearful goodbye over the East River, as she carries what she believes to be the only part of Steve that has survived the war.

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By giving us access to these moments of vulnerability, the series makes Peggy’s brief appearances in later MCU films feel even more alive and heartwrenching. After all, in seeing the stakes of both characters’ grief, Steve and Peggy’s separation becomes less of a one-sided affair; Peggy may represent the world that Steve left behind, but she’s more than just the one who got away. We’re reminded that the situation affects her, too, and that she isn’t just a photo in a locket, a familiar face in a museum archive.

Agent Carter isn’t just about Peggy pining for her lost love, however. The series gives its protagonist her own set of adventures and obstacles to face: from nuclear weapons to character assassination to a workplace culture that continually undermines her value. Seeing Peggy Carter in the field again — in disguise, on the run, even working as a double agent — gives the audience additional chances to see this character in her element, operating as an action hero on a series of high-stakes espionage missions. Her presence as a field agent also reinforces her importance as a character ahead of her time, as the story’s setting emerges as a major factor in her work; indeed, she successfully functions in this space despite continual asides from co-worker Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) and other SSR suits. Through these plotlines, Peggy constantly proves herself as “a credit to her profession,” making her solo outing that much more engaging to watch.

The most important aspect of the series is that Peggy Carter is presented equally in these moments of empowerment and vulnerability. We see her punching out bad guys and laid low by an exposed industrial pipe, swatting away sexist comments and falling for a potential new flame. With all of these throughlines, Peggy is able to set another standard for Marvel heroes to follow: she’s able to realize her full potential as an emotionally complex lead, operating as someone who’s both charming and tempered, determined and witty, spirited and sensitive.

Ultimately, the show’s greatest gift is that it gave us more time with one of the MCU’s most captivating characters. Despite its untimely cancellation, Agent Carter still has a lot to offer, especially considering its most important asset: its kickass protagonist with a killer wardrobe and a heart on her sleeve.

(Intern)

Film student about to step into the "real world," whatever that means.