Last week's Agent Carter episode "Smoke and Mirrors" didn't do much to advance our knowledge of the season's big bad Arena Club (aside form a very diverting allusion to President McKinley's assassination, just in time for President's Day). Instead, it pointed the mirror to the past, examining how Carter and her main nemesis Whitney Frost came to be the women they are today.
Evidence In the first of a series of flash backs, we saw a young Peggy Carter pretending to be Saint George, slaying a dragon, only to be foiled by her brother Michael and her protective mother, who reminded her daughter that she'll soon have to learn to be a lady. Jumping forward in time, we saw Jarvis and Carter discover that their bodyguard is none other than their would-be assassin. While they kidnapped him for questioning, the next flash back was to young Whitney Frost. Her childhood was not nearly so bright, as her mother lived with a man to pay the bills, and both discouraged her scientific curiosity and ability.
In the 1940s present, Frost experimented with her Zero Matter abilities on a set of unsuspecting rats. Sousa discovered the kidnapping and quickly took over as an interrogator from an incapacitated Jarvis, which eventually yielded enough information to get a court-sanctioned raid on the Arena Club. Back in the more recent past, Carter was engaged to a Home Office man who discouraged her from accepting an invitation to serve as spy, an invitation promoted by her brother turned soldier. His tragic fate sparked her desire to push beyond the limitations she'd accepted. On the other side of the pond, Frost's mother aged out of her role as kept lady, teaching her that the most important asset she could hone was a pretty face.
The raid was canceled at the last minute by Thompson's interfering mentor, who made not so subtle hints about Carter and Sousa risking the brand of communist sympathizer if they didn't tow the line. Instead, they released their source with a tracking agent, hoping to get a new lead. But when the assassin attempted to blackmail his handlers, he discovered that Whitney Frost was a more dangerous enemy than any he'd faced to date.
Analysis A repeat watching of this episode showed how little actually happened in it. It was so tied up in exploring backstory that very little "A" story came through. That's not necessarily a bad thing; however, as others pointed out in my Twitter stream, neither woman's past was explored as thoroughly as might be desired to get a fuller appreciation of their characters. We got broad strokes rather than fine detail.
The story with the most surprises was Carter's. Before her work in Captain America, it turns out she was on the path toward a very different life: a quiet life, a normal husband, and a domestic marriage. Sure, there are overtones of her current life as she battles dragons and attacks her brother in her very formative years, but she also played with dolls and enjoyed romantic adventures.
After a week to mull it over, I actually like this decision on the writers' part. While some were miffed at Carter's seeming lack of agency, I think it's good to show she's not just an icon of power and authority, and that she's not only in this fight for the thrill of it. Perhaps there might have been another way of showing this character trait besides having her brother goad her into becoming the woman we know. But the writers crafted a decent trajectory out of very limited time, one that played in clear contrast to Frost's: Carter had family who believed in her, loved her, and respected her enough to push her.
Watching it a second time, I was struck with how she treated the envelope offering her a position in the secret service, like a dangerous animal. It didn't read like a lack of confidence on her part, but a healthy respect for a dangerous animal. Carter understands just how high a cost such a decision may contain. With Michael's death, she decides the price is worth it, probably to spare others the pain she feels in that moment. She's not out for simple revenge or the joy of the chase. She's on a mission to stop those would prey upon others. It's that ambition that pushes her to become the ferocious defender we know and love, faults and all.
Unfortunately, Frost's story suffered by not giving us more. While we can fill in much of Carter's with what we already know about her, we're still just getting to know her feminine adversary, and we're much hungrier to find out what her Zero Dark matter will eat next. There's too little character exploration and too much backstory exposition; in the end, we know far more about Frost's mother than the woman herself.
Compare the scene where Carter learns of her brother's death, delivered nearly in silence and with artistic camera work to tell the tale, versus the scene where Frost's mother and her live-in boyfriend have it out one last time. The former puts all its focus on Carter, what she's feeling, how the action is affecting her, and draws us into the character's transformation. With Frost, the camera barely moves away from a dull argument between two characters we have little investment in, only returning to the person of interest so that she can be lectured to by her mother in an obvious, moralistic tone. There's no focus on her, and what she's actually experiencing. The scene with the rats had more intrigue.
Also, I hated how easy it was for her to become a Hollywood starlet. As someone who's pounded as many auditions as those tap dancers from the first episode (and with equal success at "making it"), I couldn't believe her good fortune, and grew quite out of patience for her complaints about aging out of her movie roles. She who lives by the sword of beauty shouldn't be surprised when she dies of it too.
Since the "A" plot in the present was given so little attention, Dr. Wilkes had very little to do but sigh and look dreamily at Carter (which didn't suit either him or the show), Mrs. Jarvis didn't make an appearance, and Rose only got a mention. Fortunately, Jarvis got to be his usual splendid self and delivered much of the episode's peppiest moments, including a wicked impression of an American cop, a parting jab at Bernard the flamingo's rival (evidently koalas are a dangerous breed), and a new catchphrase the fandom is sure to embrace: "Jarvelous!"
Agent Carter had yet to deliver an episode less than jarvelous to date, and while I think "Smoke and Mirrors" was its weakest this season, the show is still good enough that to top most television even when its not batting 1000. Rushed it might have been, but the backstories themselves held much potential, one I'm sure the fandom will continue to explore and appreciate as we see how Frost continues to develop.