Friday, November 25, 2016

Agent Carter Flounders Through "Smoke & Mirrors"

The Good: Special effects, Character backstories are well-executed
The Bad: Imbalanced performances, Very obvious plot development and character arcs
The Basics: "Smoke & Mirrors" erratically mixes the past of Peggy Carter and Whitney Frost with clumsy progression of the season-long mystery around Zero Matter.

Whenever constructing a mystery, there is a tough balance to be found between servicing the story, servicing the characters and servicing the audience. Most mysteries unfold with the viewer learning at the same pace as the protagonist, with clues peppered in that they might have missed, which allow the viewer to get there first or have something to return to the work to look for in subsequent viewings. The least satisfying mysteries are those where the revelation is a long exposition at the end that is based upon leaps the detective makes that the viewer would not have been privy to. The other major way the formula can be shaken up is by letting the viewer know what is going on before the audience. In the second season of Agent Carter, the mystery the season is constructing is following that model. The key to pulling off such a mystery is in finding the right development that allows the protagonist to learn the truth in a reasonable amount of time. "Smoke & Mirrors" does not keep the viewer waiting very long.

"Smoke & Mirrors" continues the story where “Better Angels” (reviewed here!) left off, with Carter and Jarvis investigating the mystery surrounding the Zero Matter. As the second season of Agent Carter is essentially one long mystery, it is impossible to discuss the current episode without some revelation of how the show has gotten there. By the fourth episode of the second season of Agent Carter, the main players seem to be in place in the form of the mysterious Arena Social Club (which appears to be related to HYDRA) and Whitney Frost, who is a scientist posing as an actress. Frost is contaminated with the Zero Matter and has been revealed as able to release it at times, though her control is not yet clear. As "Smoke & Mirrors" picks up, Carter is hot on the case and given that the season has ten episodes and "Smoke & Mirrors" is episode four, viewers might come into the episode wondering just what will keep Agent Carter going the whole season when she is already so far up the right track.

Opening with Peggy Carter as a little girl playing before chided for being unladylike, the episode leaps up to 1947, where Agent Carter is discussing the truth about Whitney Frost with the disembodied Dr. Wilkes. Wilkes reveals that Frost was a scientist beyond genius who modified a power source to generate a stunning amount of power. As Frost tries to learn the extent of her abilities to use Zero Matter by trying to release it upon lab mice, Jarvis tracks down Mr. Hunt, Chadwick's driver and guard.

Carter is reunited with Sousa to interrogate Hunt. When Hunt is resistant to torture, Peggy uses a Stark bioweapon to get him talking. But, when Carter and Sousa prepare to make a raid on the Arena Club, Vernon Masters arrives to audit the West Coast SSR instead.

Peppered throughout the episode are flashbacks to young Agnes Cully (before she started using the alias Whitney Frost) and Peggy Carter as she was brought into the proto-SSR in Europe in 1940. The two groups of flashback offer contrasting views on the directions that both women took to get where they were. Agnes was a genius always studying and pushing herself to be more, resisting social conventions and family pressures in Oklahoma, while Carter was characterized as a code breaker who wanted to follow a very conventional lifescript until she was given an offer she could not refuse. Carter and her relationship with her brother Michael is vastly more interesting than any of the adult relationships Carter fumbles with in "Smoke & Mirrors." Unfortunately for Agent Carter, Agnes Cully is painted in "Smoke & Mirrors" as being more initially compelling than Peggy Carter through her backstory.

In the main narrative, Peggy Carter's relationship with Wilkes begins to develop true chemistry and sexual tension while they are entirely unable to act upon it. But, at the same time, Sousa comes through for Carter against Masters in a substantive way, which makes the episode feel like it is taking the shotgun approach to Carter's romantic life. This plays poorly in an episode where her committing to being a spy is finally revealed and Carter takes on a sense of adult resolve. Her seriousness in her albeit predictible flashback arc seems ridiculous beside the goofy buckshot romances of Agent Carter and her and Jarvis bumbling through getting to Hunt.

Arguably the peak of "Smoke & Mirrors" comes up early with a fairly original take on a character who is out of phase with our reality. The disembodied Wilkes is an interesting take on the old "ghost" character. As Wilkes attempts to describe what being affected by the Zero Matter feels like, the show has a feeling of being original. Seeing Wilkes look into the heart of the Zero Matter is an interesting moment of perspective that is well-executed as well.

Beyond that, "Smoke & Mirrors" develops Frost's condition by illustrating the side effects of releasing the Zero Matter by having the fissure on her forehead grow with each use. Hunt delivers a lot of exposition by revealing some of the members of the inner circle at the Arena Club, which puts Carter on track to discover all she needs to know about the proto-HYDRA group.

"Smoke & Mirrors" falters in trying to find a balance and remain at all compelling. The erratic nature of the character relationships and yet another work where torture is illustrated as being an effective means of getting reliable information is frustrating. But, for the overall narrative of season two of Agent Carter, "Smoke & Mirrors" is necessary for developing Whitney Frost and her newfound powers, even if it is hardly consistent.

For other works with Chris Mulkey, please check out my reviews of:
Twin Peaks

[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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