Saturday, September 24, 2016

Murder Mystery With Mutants (Or Close Enough!): "The Lady In The Lake"

The Good: Good effects, Performances are decent, Engaging plot set-up
The Bad: Assumes relationships that are not developed, No real character development, Very familiar plot
The Basics: The second season of Agent Carter opens with a murder mystery involving that appears to be a serial killer, but opens up to being a mystery that has a villain with superhuman abilities in "The Lady In The Lake!"

There has been, fairly consistently, no corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I have cared less about than Agent Carter. The first season of Agent Carter (reviewed here!), was so underwhelming to me that when the ten-episode second season of Agent Carter aired on ABC during a winter hiatus, I could not muster up the enthusiasm to tune in to watch it. Perhaps the best reference I can give to how very little I cared about Agent Carter is this: as summer moved towards its end, I found myself picking up graphic novels pertaining to the Inhumans (Inhuman: Volume 1 - Genesis is reviewed here!) so I could better understand some of the nuances of season 3 of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (reviewed here!) before I bothered to track down the second season of Agent Carter and give it my attention. In fact, I only had a couple of weeks between reviewing the last television series's I actually cared about and the fourth season premiere of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the debut of Luke Cage, so I felt like I needed to catch up on Agent Carter solely to insure that I did not miss any allusions to the show in the continuing Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Season Two of Agent Carter opened with "The Lady In The Lake" and it continues by immediately picking up the loose end from "Valediction" (reviewed here!), in the form of capturing the escaped villain Dottie Underwood. Underwood was a Soviet spy working in the first season to undermine Agent Carter and the SSR and she managed to escape at the climax of the first season. Ironically, in "The Lady Of The Lake," it is Dottie Underwood and her arc that makes Agent Carter at all relevant to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, as a pin she was interested in contains the iconography for the mission HYDRA co-opted in the third season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.! In other words, just as perceptive viewers might have figured early on that Will was (knowingly or unknowingly) working for HYDRA when Simmons encountered him on the distant world, attentive viewers will know almost immediately that Dottie Underwood is interested in or affiliated with HYDRA.

Opening with a woman leading a bank robbery, the woman manages to get the vault, where Agent Carter is waiting. The woman is Dottie Underwood and the bank is staffed entirely with SSR agents determined to apprehend Underwood and take her associates into custody. Moving to Los Angeles, 1947, Sousa arrives at a murder scene where it appears a serial killer from the past may have struck again. The SSR was called out because on the hottest day of the year, the lake where the corpse was found is almost entirely frozen. Sousa, who is running the new West Coast division of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, is understaffed and Thompson sends Carter, mid-interrogation, out to Los Angeles to assist him. Carter arrives in Los Angeles where she is reunited with Jarvis, who is working for Howard Stark, who is working for a movie studio as a location scout.

Investigating the frozen corpse from the lake, Carter and Sousa discover some peculiarities, including the fact that the corpse glows because it contains radioactive elements. The lab tech clues Carter into the fact that there is a particle accelerator in Pasedena at Isodyne Energy. Carter sneaks into Isodyne Energy where she meets Dr. Jason Wilkes, who is able to identify the corpse from the lake. Carter learns that the scientist who was killed was associated with Calvin Chadwick, a politician who was having an affair with her. Carter interviews Chadwick and finds him willing to comply with her requests, but only if they come from official, legal channels. The situation is complicated by the coroner dying during the autopsy; frozen when he first cut into the mysterious corpse. As Thompson discovers that Dottie is out of his league, Carter unravels the mystery behind the frozen lake and the corpse it contained, revealing that there is a massive new conspiracy that requires Agent Carter's attention!

My own antipathy toward Agent Carter notwithstanding, "The Lady In The Lake" illustrates what a tenuous concept Agent Carter was to begin with, by almost completely redefining it in its second season premiere. "The Lady In The Lake" is a fairly abrupt transition for the series which belabors maintaining the few successful elements of the first season (like the Carter/Jarvis relationship) while moving the show in a very different direction.

"The Lady In The Lake" picks up character relationships in progress, most notably one between Carter and Sousa. Sousa's move to Los Angeles strained the budding romantic relationship between him and Carter. The relationship was never truly developed and when "The Lady In The Lake" leaps back into it, it seems somewhat abrupt. Even more forced than the Sousa and Carter relationship is the banter between Rose and Carter. The dialogue is good, but it assumes a relationship that was not at all substantive in the first season.

The three new characters in "The Lady In The Lake" that are introduced to the Agent Carter mix are Jason Wilkes, Ana Jarvis, and Vernon Masters. Wilkes is a brilliant physicist working for Isodyne Energy, who has an instant rapport with Agent Peggy Carter. Indeed, Reggie Austin (Wilkes) plays off Hayley Atwell (Carter) with such palpable chemistry that it is almost hard to believe that the writers and producers forced any romantic tension in "The Lady In The Lake" between Carter and Sousa! Ana Jarvis is a supporting character who seems to have been thrown into the mix to replace Carter's roommate in the first season and Vernon Masters appears to keep Jack Thompson and his thread even remotely interesting. Kurtwood Smith plays Masters and his appearance is what allows Thompson to lose Underwood as a prisoner and the truth is that Jack Thompson was such a white bread character that the viewer does not so much care whether or not he is heading up the East Coast SSR or not; Agent Carter was revealed in the first season as the most competent agent of the SSR, so that the story follows her makes so many of the other, prior, supporting characters superfluous. So, Vernon Masters is a tangential character to an unnecessary lingering thread on the Agent Carter story.

Agent Carter's first season was somewhat hampered by the theme of "Agent Carter is a woman, here's how that complicates her life." "The Lady In The Lake," fortunately, progresses past that. In fact, when Thompson begins his interrogation of Underwood, there is a threat of physical violence between them that is very much the embodiment of gender equality. To keep the sense of time and place, "The Lady In The Lake" includes references to racism of the day, which enhances the realism of the era beyond the simple costumes and sets.

"The Lady In The Lake" is very much a set-up episode of Agent Carter and it almost instantly creates an issue with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, specifically from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. On Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Simmons is characterized as a brilliant medical doctor who also idolized Peggy Carter; the elements included in "The Lady In The Lake" undermine that characterization as they are ridiculously close to elements from the story of Donnie Gill. In other words, Donnie's story is a "brand new" mystery to Simmons, but it should have been incredibly familiar to her as the common elements would have been included in the legend of Peggy Carter, available (at least) to a high level agent like Simmons.

That said, on its own, "The Lady In The Lake" is a surprisingly good start to the second season of Agent Carter. The acting is competent and the story is engaging enough to be watchable, even if there are larger continuity issues and the mystery seems more predictable than it was audacious. "The Lady In The Lake" might not light the world on fire for portraying any universal themes or making any grand statements, but it is entertaining enough to be watchable.

For other Marvel Television Universe season premieres, please check out my reviews of:
"AKA Ladies Night" - Jessica Jones
"Bang" - Daredevil
"Laws Of Nature" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agent Carter - The Complete Second Season, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of Agent Carter here!


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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