In its beginning season, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, “Captain America: The First Avenger”) had to struggle with overt and covert sexist behavior from her superiors and co-workers, constantly needing to prove that she was just as capable as the men. In the first few minutes of the premiere, we see the men’s shifted perspective. Her current chief, Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray, “One Tree Hill”), trusts her to begin the interrogation of Dottie (Bridget Regan, “Jane the Virgin”) as others watch from behind a mirror, commenting on how impressed they are with her technique. When Thompson sends Peggy to Los Angeles per Daniel Sousa’s (Enver Gjokaj, “Dollhouse”) request for a talented agent, Murray and Atwell convey that the tension between them isn’t predicated upon a lack of respect — but rather a desire on Thompson’s part to move ahead in his career.
When Carter arrives in California, there is some uneasiness between Sousa, now the chief of the S.S.R.’s West Coast branch, and Peggy, but the romantic subplot exposition doesn’t derail from the actual plot — solving a strange murder case involving a woman’s body encased in a block of frozen lake water.
Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy, “Broadchurch”), Peggy’s ally from the first season, introduces her to his wife, who is a little too wide-eyed to seem real. It’s the only scene in the episode that feels forced, but Mrs. Jarvis (Lotte Verbeek, “The Fault in Our Stars”) makes up for the awkwardness when she gives Peggy the kind of present every woman truly wants — a garter that also functions as a holster.
A new villain, Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett, “The Newsroom”) is introduced, ill will simmering under the polite conversations she holds with other characters, and there’s also a new romantic interest for Peggy, Dr. Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin, “The Omen”), who may or may not be in cahoots with Frost. With the inclusion of Wilkes’s character, the writing of the premiere sets up conversations about the racial discrimination of the time period. Wilkes and Carter have an understanding look in their eyes when they speak to one another; their chemistry feels natural.
As always in “Agent Carter,” the dialogue is organic, and the actors deliver it well. There’s even a cute nod to today’s popular jargon — when Jarvis is injured, and Peggy reassures him that he’ll live, he replies crossly, “Of course I’ll live. I’m worried about the aesthetic.”
The elegance of the shots of 1940s New York in the first season is echoed in the second season’s glamorous shots of Old Hollywood, in setting, costuming and makeup. Subtly chic details, like the color of Peggy’s sunglasses matching her lipstick, create an aesthetically rich viewing experience. The first shot of “The Lady in the Lake”— a perky red hat bobbing along in a sea of grey suits — is beautifully framed and reminiscent of the contrasts between Peggy and her male co-workers in the first season, but the differences of the power structures this season are emphasized when it is revealed that the red hat belongs to Dottie, not Peggy.
The beauty of “Agent Carter” never detracts from the story, nor from the themes that organically arise from it. Neither Carter nor the female antagonists are weaker for their femininity, nor do they apologize for it. Peggy Carter and co. are continuing a conversation that they helped start with the first season, which was followed by the likes of “Supergirl” and more recently (and successfully) “Jessica Jones” about whether there’s space and/or interest for female superheros.
Peggy might not have powers, but she doesn’t need them. As she proves over and over, she can still kick anyone’s ass.