[Agent Carter Episode 5 SPOILERS to follow.]
Much like the first season of Agents of Shield, Marvel's Agent Carter is now experiencing "late-pilot syndrome"; where, in spite of hours of storytelling, the true purpose of this limited-series event is just now emerging. The famed Howling Commandos, who joined the battle this week, helped bring this tale to life; however, the real driving force in this spy game now comes from Peggy Carter herself, as it's supposed to.
In "The Iron Ceiling", written by executive producer Jose Molina (Dark Angel, Castle), Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) throws her secretarial duties in the trash and joins Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) on a mission into the heart of the Soviet Union, where Stark (Dominic Cooper) is set up to sell his Photonic Amplifier to Leviathan. As the truth of the weapon's sale is exposed (and Black Widow's (Scarlett Johanson) "Red Room" origins are revealed), Thompson explains how unheroic a hero's tale can be. Meanwhile Carter's co-worker, Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), and neighbor, Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan), begin to close in on her many secrets, while revealing a few of their own.
This week's adventure begins in Russia, in 1937, and provides us with a early look at the training that a young Dorothy Underwood went through before becoming the unassuming assassin next door. This scene is largely establishing the "tells" of being a part of the famed Soviet program: sharing bread, handcuffs, etc. Its success, however, comes from the fact that time is actually spent to provide a real purpose, as well as an intriguing backstory, to another character in this world. In many ways, Underwood's backstory is far more defined than that for much of the Carter cast. Carter herself may have more questions that require answering, certainly; to understand a character, however, is everything, and regardless of the Black Widow connection, our trip to the "Red Room" feels too refreshing to simply disregard.
Fortunately, The Howling Commandos have now helped provide more purpose for Carter in this series, and not a moment too soon. Rather than continue to rely on the Howard Stark storyline (which, for 4 hours, the series has done for little in return), in 'The Iron Ceiling' characters like Carter and Thompson are able to prove themselves through their surroundings, in dialogue and action. We're now watching more than an investigation occur, and are seeing more than the insides of the show's select sets (such as the diner and the SSR office). Until now, few members of the SSR have ever accomplished more than "secretarial work" in the series, Carter included.
Outside of the fun and frank dialogue which marks the return of the Commandos - "Junior" (James Kerr), "Dum Dum" (Neal McDonough), "Happy Sam" (Leonard Roberts), and "Pinky" (Richard Short) - the group also brings with them inherent personality, which many might say the series has largely been missing. Upon entering the modern-day "Red Room", the Commandos are able to take control of the scene, deliver quips about 'cuffs, while they continue to clear the area. When one of them is stabbed, the control remains; and it's through them that we continue on this adventure, with the confidence that "our team" can survive this gunfight because of skill.
The only difference between this episode and previous ones: purpose. Howard Stark is a brilliant scientist, but in Agent Carter he's relegated to being a "big name" on a show which cannot afford his inclusion. So then how can Peggy Carter's journey be anything more than superficial if, in reality, the person she's trying to sincerely help feels almost expendable to the story? The Howling Commandos helped provide purpose, as did Sousa's exploration into the scars on Carter's back and the subplot with Underwood (issues with her too on-the-nose Carter imitation aside). After all, it's not size of the world, or the convenience of its storytelling which makes successful television; it's how the characters are being brought to life by their world.
Ultimately, the story of this episode - Stark selling weapons to "Leviathan" - is another untrue, mistakenly informed mission which includes deaths from both the SSR and the Howling Commandos. In terms of setting up the next few weeks of episodic storylines, it's quite successful; in terms of creating a real purpose during an hour of viewing during a self-described mini-series, it's less so. Hopefully next week's episode will take all of this earned potential and make use of it until the end.
As such, this week's Agent Carter episode is the pilot that should have been, as it relies on its cast of characters to help bring the series life - much more than any period dressings and/or CBS lens blur could do. The strength of this comic book world is in the characters, big and (especially) small, as it's them which help sell the entire world while providing it with a reason to exist. Though not exactly what one wants to hear with more than half the series complete, it's safe to say that Marvel, much like much of American television, is having a difficult time nailing what a "mini-series" is in the same way that the UK can.
Agent Carter returns next Tuesday with "A Sin to Err" @9pm. You can check out a preview of next week's episode below: