Season one of Agent Carter had a pretty tight storyline—Peggy’s colleagues understimate her, and meanwhile she’s having to lie to them as she works to clear Howard Stark’s name. But season two had a lot of moving parts, and a bunch of detours. What was the point of it, in the end?
Judging from last night’s finale, “Hollywood Ending,” the point was kinda that the season’s villain, Whitney Frost, ends up all alone, whereas Peggy Carter has a huge army on her side. Because Peggy inspires people and earns their loyalty by sticking by them—even when they’ve betrayed her, or she ought to leave them for dead.
And meanwhile, Whitney Frost just tries to control people with her beauty, or with fear. When Joseph Manfredi betrays her in the finale, that leaves her with no real allies—and it’s especially terrible, since Manfredi was the one person who seemed to see the black goop lines on Whitney Frost’s face as beautiful because they represent power. He was the one guy who erased the whole dichotomy that meant she could be either beautiful or scary, but not both. But she finally drives him away with her crazy-eye, mad-scientist, too-busy-trying-to-destroy-the-world-to-go-out-for-dinner schtick.
So the contrasting storylines of Peggy Carter and Whitney Frost ended up being about one woman getting all these various guys, who all had reasons not to work with her, on her side. And the other woman driving all these men, who had every reason to want to help her, away. (Or killing them. She killed a lot of her own people.)
Along the way, these 10 episodes took in a pastiche of classic L.A. noir, dipped into shadowy political corruption, and tossed around some nuclear-test imagery. What do all these things have in common?
I guess the main thing is that if season one of Agent Carter was about the world directly after World War II, and a bunch of traumatized vets trying to readjust to peacetime, this season is more about the dawn of the atomic age. And Zero Matter seems to represent new sources of power that the establishment can’t entirely control or even understand.
From Kiss Me Deadly to Mulholland Drive, L.A. noir films have tangled with the dread of nuclear weapons, contrasting the pettiness of human greed with the awesome destructive power of the atom. But actually, Zero Matter reminds me more than anything of Ross McDonald’s best hard-boiled novel, Sleeping Beauty—a pitch-dark story that’s framed by an oil spill which blights the beaches and kills helpless sea birds (inspired by a real-life oil spill in Santa Barbara in the late 1960s). It’s not just powerful, it’s ugly and and messy. Everybody who touches Zero Matter gets their hands dirty, which makes it perfect as the McGuffin in a noir story.
For a big chunk of season two, this story seems to be about the Council, that mysterious organization of powerful old white men led by the likes of Ray “Satan” Wise. They’ve got their fingers everywhere, and even the SSR is under their thumb. You sort of expect the season to end with Peggy discredited (once again) and trying to fight back against, effectively, the whole establishment of postwar America. But instead, the Council near-sightedly tries to get rid of Zero Matter because they fear they can’t control it—and that timidity leads to their destruction.
And meanwhile, all the men who could have abandoned Peggy rally behind her. Jarvis tries to blame her for his wife Ana getting shot, but comes around. Sousa gets roughed up and loses his fiancee, but still comes to her aid. Samberley is on her team, because she knows his middle name. Jason Wilkes pulls a gun on her and later tries to sacrifice his own life, but she keeps saving him in spite of himself. Even Jack Thompson, who’s been threatened by Carter since day one, is finally willing to be her ally even when he thinks she’s going to turn him in.
But also, Peggy wins by cheating. The whole ending relies on her stealing Whitney Frost’s research, so her small army of science geniuses and helpers can reverse-engineer it. The sight of all these self-important dudes fighting over the “naming rights” to Whitney’s invention is somewhat unsettling, even if Peggy does cut them off and give the Rift Generator a perfectly no-nonsense name. Whitney’s worst nightmare—that men will steal her work and take credit for it—comes true, thanks to Peggy.
If this season tried to pack too much in and ended with rather too easy a victory—Whitney Frost is kind of a pushover, in the end—at least it has a bit of a knife-twist to it. And the threat of Whitney opening a permanent gateway to the other universe, so Earth can be devoured by black goop, is vaguely terrifying, even if it never seems terribly imminent.
Whitney Frost could have been powerful by association, as the wife of a Senator. Or once she mounts her coup, as the power behind the Council. But her tragic flaw is that she wants to be admired, and she’s all too ready to trust first Calvin Chadwick and then Joseph Manfredi, as long as they tell her what she wants to hear. She ends up in a mental institution, listening to the only man who can never disappoint her: an imaginary version of her husband.
“Hollywood Ending” keeps teasing us that somebody’s going to die, this being a season finale and all. Samberley seems done for at one point, and then Sousa seems like he’s going to sacrifice his life to close the rift. But instead, Jack Thompson gets a high-velocity going-away party, and he basically asked for it.
The redemption of Chief Thompson is one of the sketchier things about the past few episodes—at some point, he sort of realizes that his Council boss Vernon Masters is dirty, even after Vernon tries to erase his memory. And Thompson tries to work his own angle, tricking Vernon and nearly blowing up Whitney and Jason with a gamma bomb. But in the end, he seems genuinely penitent and eager to help—even agreeing to take the dinner orders for everybody who’s working on the Rift Generator.
But then Thompson can’t resist snooping and working one last angle. He finds two things: Vernon’s Council membership pin, which he discovers is actually a key. (To what? We may never know, unless this show gets miraculously renewed.) And Peggy Carter’s (apparently) falsified, heavily redacted, file listing the war crimes she supposedly committed. He gives the pin/key to Peggy, but keeps the file for himself.
And someone kills him to get it. Who? We may never know—unless, again, this show somehow gets renewed.
And meanwhile, Jarvis is reunited with his beloved Ana, who doesn’t blame Peggy for her near-fatal shooting and encourages Jarvis to chauffeur Peggy around one last time. And meanwhile, Peggy resolves the season’s big love triangle—by choosing Sousa. Because, duh, Jason held a gun to her head and Sousa was willing to throw everything away to save her. And when Sousa was nearly killed, she returned the favor—making her, as he’s happy to point out, kind of a hypocrite.
And meanwhile, the case of Zero Matter isn’t really closed—any more than any dirty business is ever really over in a noir story. Howard Stark, who miraculously turns up in this final episode to help save the day, seems terribly interested in exploiting it for himself. And he’s got a very eager new assistant, Jason Wilkes. Could turn out to be one more of daddy’s messes for Tony Stark to clean up.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.