The specter of Steve Rogers hung over the whole of Agent Carter's first season — but last night's finale was all about him. To the point where this show started to feel a bit like an epilogue to Captain America: The First Avenger again. That didn't stop it from being incredibly moving, and having a few great fist-pumping moments.
The "Agent Carter" one-shot on the Iron Man 3 DVD had a huge theme of Peggy Carter letting go of Steve Rogers, who's missing presumed dead after the events of The First Avenger. And that carried over into the first couple episodes of the actual Agent Carter TV series, with hints that Peggy was having a hard time letting go of the man she'd loved and fought alongside. But for the most part, when Captain America was brought up on this show, it was more about Peggy being accused of being Cap's girlfriend (or something sleazier), as a way for people to put her down. The main way that Captain America has been an ongoing topic in Agent Carter has been as a McGuffin, as a vial of his blood was one of the things that Howard Stark, the Leviathan agents and the S.S.R. were fighting over.
So it felt slightly as though the show was going backwards, thematically, into a storyline that's all about learning to let go of Steve Rogers, and move on after his apparent death. It felt somewhat thematically disconnected from the stuff that this series had actually been about for most of its running time — and yet, as I said, the result was super moving, and showed Peggy getting some final closure on her lost love.
Part of what's going on here, of course, is that the major thematic and character arcs on the show were actually dealt with, more or less, last week: 1) Peggy's S.S.R. colleagues, who underestimated and ignored her all season, had their big moment of realizing at last how formidable she was (after already seeing her in action in Russia). 2) Peggy's career as a double agent, working to clear Howard Stark's name while ostensibly helping to hunt him down, was exposed and she already managed to win back the trust of her colleagues. These two things were the main issues of the season, and they were already pretty much resolved. (Although one of them gets revisited a bit this week — more on that in a moment.)
The plot synopsis: So here's what actually happens in "Valediction": Dr. Johann Fennhoff, the sadistic hypnotist previously known as Ivchenko, has eight canisters of the "midnight oil" gas that was supposed to allow people to go without sleep but instead turns them into psychopaths. He and Dottie Underwood plan to use Howard Stark's own airplane to release the gas on the V-E Day Parade in Times Square. But after Stark turns himself in and offers himself as bait in a trap, Fennhoff captures Howard Stark and hypnotizes him into flying the plane himself. It's up to Peggy to beat Dottie and then de-hypnotize Howard in time, while Sousa and Thompson deal with Fennhoff.
Here's the absolutely brutal fight scene where Peggy finally beats Dottie, who's still kind of Single White Female-ing her:
So how did all of this end up being about Captain America? Basically, that turns out to be Howard Stark's biggest weakness, the thing Fennhoff plays on with his mind-control. With Dooley, it was his estranged wife, and with Yauch it was his desire for more respect. But with Howard, it's his regret about all the terrible destruction he's wreaked. He sees Captain America as the one good thing he's ever done, and regrets that he let Captain America go to his "death" and never managed to recover his body.
So Fennhoff hypnotizes Howard into believing that Cap has been found in the ice, and he's flying to go rescue him — instead of what he's actually doing, flying a plane full of nasty gas to Times Square.
To snap Howard out of his trance, Peggy has to convince him — and herself — that Cap is gone and not coming back, and that they still have to carry on. And that Howard's faith in Peggy is important for its own sake, even without Cap in the picture. Peggy finally starts to get over her own grief and denial about Cap's death — which would be even more effective if we'd seen more hints throughout the series that she was unable to let go of Steve Rogers' memory.
To remind us of Captain America's actual fate, we get one more snippet of those radio-soap-adventure performers, acting out the adventures of Captain America and "Betty Carver," whom we haven't seen since the second episode. (Again, I had a moment of feeling like that would resonate more if we'd seen those guys at some point in the past six weeks.)
That leads to Peggy's greatest moment of closure — the vial of Cap blood, which Leviathan stole from Howard and Peggy stole from the S.S.R., has gotten back into Howard's possession. And then Jarvis has basically stolen the vial from his boss, because he's loyal to Howard but Howard does not own his integrity. Jarvis gives the vial to Peggy, who's the only person on Earth who might know what to do with it. (And the power to create more super-soldiers that it may represent.)
In the end, Peggy goes up on a bridge and pours it into the river. This is a beautiful scene, partly thanks to the evocative use of "The Way You Look Tonight."
A lot of last night's episode is actually about the men of Agent Carter. Peggy's already cleared her own name, last week, so now it's time to clear Howard's. And Howard gets a smidge of redemption for all his terrible inventions, which culminates with him deciding to destroy them all. Jarvis, too, gets some great moments where he nearly has to shoot down Howard's plane, and later proves that he has more integrity than his boss.
Meanwhile, Sousa gets a few actually beautiful moments. After he gets hit with the psycho gas and tries to kill Thompson, Peggy asks him later how he's feeling, and he responds, "I still want to kill Thompson, but no more than usual." And when Fennhoff tries to do his hypno-trick on Sousa, playing on his disability and his feelings of insecurity, it seems to work — until Sousa gets close enough to clock Sousa in the head. And then it turns out Sousa is wearing earplugs.
The theme of people not taking Agent Carter seriously enough comes back, briefly, at the end of the episode — with kind of a savagely ironic twist. Peggy comes back to the office after having stopped a plot to gas Times Square, and everybody applauds for her. But when a U.S. Senator shows up to commend Jack Thompson and offer him the chance of a Commendation, Thompson is suddenly happy to take all the credit for himself. But Peggy tells Sousa that she doesn't care — she knows her own worth, no matter what anybody else thinks of her.
And Peggy (and Angie, rememember her?) get to live rent-free in one of Howard Stark's luxury apartments! Isn't that a little ethically dubious? Oh, whatever, it's an awesome apartment. There's a telephone in every room!
Meanwhile, there's a nasty epilogue — Fennhoff is in prison, wearing a Silence of the Lambs face mask to keep him from hypnotizing anyone. And his cellmate turns out to be Arnim Zola, who's already planning what will be the eventual transformation of SHIELD into Hydra. Zola tells Fennhoff that he's lucky because even though he's in prison, at least he's in America — the land of opportunity.
All in all, Agent Carter was a fantastic series, and proof that an eight-episode mini-season is sometimes a better vehicle for storytelling than 22 padded episodes. Let's hope this show, and its heroine, get another chance to show just what they're capable of, next year.