I've been watching Agent Carter with great interest and enthusiasm since its first episode, and generally have seen an upward trajectory in action, detail, and design.It crossed my mind during the second episode that it might become too "canned", or enclosed by only using a couple of sets and moving between them repeatedly even though, like a good stage play, the characters might be diverting enough to distract you from that fact. Since then it's broadened out in locations, and especially tonight in Episode #5 as we see her on a mission to Russia.
Though a naturally feminist show with insistently modern commentary on feminine roles can hardly be criticized for such, Agent Carter always toed a fine line on losing meaning through repetition. In my opinion, the feminism in the show has been saved from dogma or the dullness of repetition through humor. In tonight's episode, for instance, we see a sign reading "Men's Locker Room" and then a reverse shot of Peggy's chagrined expression that's subtle enough, and not really angry enough, to make the detail of it funny. It lifted the tone and set the scene for awkwardness to follow when we learn there's no ladies' changing room in the building.
But to go back to the beginning of the show, we may catch on that this episode might make strides in focusing on the female role by present young Russian female assassins, well, child-soldiers really, chanting "wash and sew and sleep and cook" before they turn into killing machines. There are a number of reactions viewers might have to this scene. They might think, "Oh look, how strange that children are soldiers", or "Oh look, how strange that girls specifically are being trained as soldiers". It's a toss up, but the fact that all the children are female is no accident. We learn that the upcoming episode of Agent Carter will explore the Russian training of young women as agents further.
If viewers watch Agent Carter and think, "How awful the way they treat Peggy because of her gender. How they underestimate and belittle her. How longsuffering she has to be", that would be an appropriate reaction, and a helpful one. It might remind us that this double-standard in the treatment of women still happens all over the world, even in the USA. And in similar office and government environments, too.
But there's something that might be even more useful, and that would be to admire Peggy and do as she says rather than just feeling sorry for her and condemning those who look down on her. Those who look down on her and mistreat her no doubt have their own comeuppance on the way—if nothing else they've missed out on being more successful and enriched by her intelligence and wisdom. But could we possibly admire Peggy as an underdog, a mistreated person whose attitude rarely wavers, whose determination is outstanding, and whose courage under fire, as we see in tonight's episode, is sterling?
Tonight's episode comes closest to using the gender barriers as commentary while making the focus of the show Peggy's qualities as a person, not just as a woman. Why is this? Partly it's about her environment. When we see her mostly oppressed in the office, or leered at, even a little charmingly, by Stark, we are going to see her as the reflection of others' perceptions. It's hard to see the real Peggy beyond what we're hearing about her from others. Tonight's episode took her far from those environments and captured in a more magnified way what we occasionally witness in her adventures with Jarvis (who's a good neutral magnifier rarely referring to gender when he addresses her), and that is placing her again in the company of the Howling Commandos. Here she is "at home" in active duty, wearing uniform which does seem to suit her even more than the costumes he dons to fit into social expectations, and among her real social group. Drinking with Dum-Dum Dougan is all about drinking with one's social group, albeit sadder and wiser since the loss of Captain America.
In this episode we finally "see" Peggy and not merely the way she is reflected or reflected upon by others. When the gender differentiation stops defining her, we just see the real Agent Carter. It's not about being a woman in government service anymore, it's about being an unlikely hero because of the expectations of oppressive groups, and finding a way to shine out and make a difference despite that. Cap would be proud. Maybe she should have been Miss Union Jack and let Cap sit out the war. Or better yet, a team up?