It wouldn’t be the Marvel Cinematic Universe without the Stark family keeping it running. Tony Stark’s debut film successfully launched the series and gave it the legs it needed, and now his father, Howard, is the primary catalyst for the plot thrust of ABC’s Agent Carter. After making a quick exit in the extended premiere, Howard and guest star Dominic Cooper are back and bring along the patented Stark family charm with him.
“The Blitzkrieg Button” does a 180 from the more serious-toned “Time and Tide” a couple of weeks ago (the show took a one week hiatus last Tuesday), and the significant screen time given to Cooper’s charismatic portrayal of Stark means more opportunities for light humor and a generally frothier mood. Cooper proved that he could play Robert Downey Jr.’s father in Captain America: The First Avenger and continues to prove it in an hour of television mostly devoted to his character, while Edwin Jarvis takes more of a backseat this week. With their chemistry already well established in The First Avenger and the premiere, Hayley Atwell and Cooper provide the lively spark that holds the viewer’s attention.
But Peggy and Howard’s scenes together highlight an issue that the series has struggled with since the beginning: the rest of the Strategic Scientific Reserve are a bunch of varying shades of bland. Sousa’s struggle with his disability amongst more physically capable agents holds little heft, especially since it’s been acknowledged multiple times before, while Shea Whigham’s been given little to work with as the flat Chief Dooley in a storyline I can barely recall a day later. Chad Michael Murray has had better luck as Agent Thompson, who has proven to be a capable frenemy to Peggy as someone acting through good intentions with a generally irritable attitude. Thompson’s an asshole, but it’s hard to argue when his methods on the job so often work.
A crack begins to show in his demeanor, however. While Thompson’s certainly dealt Peggy a sizable portion of the office sexism she’s experienced, he has a moment of self-awareness and humanity with her. When asked why she still works at the S.S.R. despite the generally crap treatment from the men, her answer of upholding democracy, a simple and straightforward answer supported by Atwell’s confidence and no-BS performance, is met with a sternly honest response: that the “natural order of the universe” is tilted against her favor in being a woman. But before the audience can say “no shit,” Thompson admits that while this is the reality, it’s a sad one at that. It’s a small and subtle moment, arguably the best of the hour, which works as a character beat for Thompson, a bit of reflection for Peggy, and a reinforcement of the feminist theme running through the show. Peggy can do all she can to show that she’s a perfectly competent and intelligent agent in comparison to her male coworkers, but that’s not going to change much in the way of their gender perceptions.
By this point in the episode, the tone has shifted from Howard’s cocksure charm and rampant womanizing to a more somber note, especially once he reveals that their alliance is built on a lie to obtain Steve Rogers’ super soldier blood from the S.S.R. Obviously, she’s royally pissed off that someone she considers to be a friend would manipulate her in such a way for personal gain, giving Atwell more of a chance to play up the personal stakes Peggy has in this mission, not just professional (the line about “finding holes to crawl into” wasn’t meant to be funny, but with Howard sleeping around I couldn’t help but laugh at its double meaning).
But Howard’s not the only character with secrets in this episode. As an assassin arrives at Peggy’s door, armed with a particularly cool automatic pistol, her next-door neighbor Dottie pulls some unexpected acrobatic moves and takes the guy out with very little effort. Dottie seems to be working on her own, or for an as-yet-unseen third (I guess really fourth at this point) party with ulterior motives. Is she working with Leviathan or someone else entirely? I suppose that’s for next week’s episode to answer.
EPISODE RATING: 7/10