Agent Carter: The Iron Ceiling

“The Iron Ceiling” is the Agent Carter episode I’ve needed. If there are no more after this, I will be happy having had this one. There are at least three more hours on TV, and Atwell is scheduled to appear in Age of Ultron, but still, you get the picture. This hour had so many of the things I had hoped for when I heard there was going to be an Agent Carter series. It has Carter in her element with the Howling Commandos in the field, as a leader and one of the crew. She gets to be funny, laugh and feel comfortable. It also contains the harsh realities of her post-war life, betrayed by her allies and coming face to face with sexism and the men (and women) who stand in her way. We also get a couple of references to Captain America that don’t have us immediately in tears.

Last week we saw Peggy’s ultimate eye-roll when Howard was talking about breaking through the glass ceiling with all that she deals with on the regular. We’ve seen Peggy strategically picking and choosing her moments, using people’s underestimation of her as a woman to her advantage. This week, perhaps the planets were in alignment – with the perfect mission to step in on, and egged on by Jarvis’ remarks, she takes a different tack. Instead of solving problems from the sidelines, she bulldozes herself straight onto the case and DEMANDS to be taken seriously and at her worth.

She gets to be funny, confident and face both sides of things, the sexism and glass ceiling, but also gets to be a leader and part of the team and the Cap references that don’t entirely make us break down in tears.

Peggy forcing her way onto the Russian mission mirrored her fighting style: brutal, destructive, efficient and precise. Watching Peggy go so hard for the mission, especially after weeks of watching her work her way around the periphery, I keep coming back to Shonda Rhimes’ speech at THR’s Power Women Event. She spoke about what it means when people tell her, in 2014, that she’s breaking the glass ceiling and how it’s all owed to the women who came before.

“How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?” Rhimes said. “How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures? How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore. (Read the whole speech here).

It’s not about one woman. It’s about many women, all working to make a difference for the women who come next. In a lot of ways, Peggy is the MCU representation of these women, brandishing the bruises, cuts, and scrapes from charging into the ceiling, hoping to make a dent. She does this when everyone around her — men and women, friends and colleagues — is telling her that’s not what a woman does. Early on, she fought so women like Simmons, May, Skye, and Maria Hill would live in a world where their assignments wouldn’t be limited to taking lunch orders, and the world would benefit from their abilities.

I think, at the end of the day, Peggy has created a tiny hairline fracture. She’s influenced the way Dooley and Agent Thompson see her. She’s included in the team’s after work drinks. And even though it’s so tiny, it’s something that just might stick and make it a tiny bit easier for the next woman to bump into that ceiling in the same spot.

Last week, we left Peggy betrayed by her allies and faced with the harsh reality from her coworkers. We also left Dottie alone and dangerous, with a blonde corpse under her bed and a sneaking suspicion that she’s a product of the Black Widow project that brought us Natasha many years later.

“The Iron Curtain” opens on a close-up of eyes opening. Immediately I freak out because we’re in Russia, which means Black Widow, which means more amazing lady-Marvel history. I also briefly lose my sense of time and wonder if we’ll also meet baby-Natasha.

I regain my composure just to lose it again because we’re in a room full of girls with matching braids … and hold the freakin’ phone, they’re all handcuffed to their beds. It’s 1937. One of them is probably Dottie, another is probably not Natasha, based on my quick calculations. Other than the handcuffs, it’s all sort of normal, I guess … for a baby-spy training facility. They have some bread, and the one who is definitely Dottie shares hers. They watch Snow White and then they stand in a circle and fight to the death. Baby Dottie kills the baby!spy she shared her bread with. Crikey O’Rielly!

We’re back with Dottie. She’s doing crunches while wearing 1940s sleepwear in her room at the Griffith, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s still a corpse under her bed.

At the Automat, Angie apparently has ennui so she can’t be in this episode. It’s a bummer but the episode’s pretty packed as is, so we’ll just have to soldier on without her.

Dottie and Pegs are getting to know each other over baguette that Peggy wisely, and politely declines to share (we *just* saw what happens when you take Dottie’s bread). Dottie endears herself to Dear Pegs by playing the hapless newbie who just wants to know the city. Peggy advises her to start in Brooklyn (like a certain CAPTAIN AMERICA), get to know the people that are the soul of the place, and Lady Liberty will always be there. She sounds like Cap (or Cap sounds like her, or they influence each other because they were quite the pair) and Dottie tells her so. That’s when Dottie knocks Peggy’s bag over and swipes her keys. This also gives us a beautiful wide shot of the diner, which is, coincidentally, my favourite set in the show.

It’s raining and we get the first Peggy is British joke of the episode from the newsstand vendor when Jarvis accosts her with apologies and excuses for both himself and Mr. Stark. Peggy wants none of it but to keep moving forward. Jarvis provides a long list of adjectives that accurately describe Howard’s shortcomings, but Peggy knows these to be true and an apology followed by what amounts to a “So the SSR isn’t treating you right so you might as well come back to us” isn’t enough. If anything, it makes it worse. I absolutely cringed when Jarvis was saying that to her. He’s rubbing her nose in the sexism she endures every single day at her job. He’s reminding her of her limited options and lack of respect. I don’t know that’s what he means to do, but it’s there. It does however appear to give Peggy some extra oomph when she walks into the SSR and demands to be valued for her skills and gets onto an important mission.

Over at the SSR, the agents are frantically trying to decode the message that came in on the magic typewriter. Peggy, fueled by contempt and probably tea, takes one look at the document and is like, really? None of you thought to try Russian?

Peggy fills in the team. It’s from Leviathan requesting a payment of 100,000 USD upon delivery, payable to Howard Stark. How incriminating! That number sounds familiar, like the amount Blondie was trying to shake down from Jarvis last week. Luckily, despite being super pissed at Stark, Peggy isn’t convinced by this. Dooley isn’t convinced this is the whole story either.

And here’s (one of) the big moments of the episode: Dooley assigns the team, and Carter isn’t one of the agents on it. Amid Thompson’s protestations, she jumps right up in there, telling them they’re wrong and that they damn well need her. The thing is, there’s really no good way for anyone to dispute this. They need a code breaker, a translator, and she knows how to survive out in that territory.

Thompson is protesting. Peggy reasonable puts together that she’s required as a code breaker and Russian translator. Now, I’m not all of a sudden a big Dooley defender (although I’m coming around to him this week), but he isn’t exactly wrong. He would catch a lot of heat for sending her along; perception means a lot in a job like that. He knows the team needs her and he’s asking her to help him out to make this happen by providing an asset his superiors absolutely cannot argue with. Or maybe I’m giving him more credit than he’s owed.

Enter the 107th Regiment, the famed Howling Commandos. Dooley asks and Peggy delivers faster than Thompson can say “institutionalized misogyny”.

Then we get the changeroom scene. I feel like there’s some really wonderful, insightful analysis out there of the moments Peggy spends staring at the door of the men’s room before finally going in, and I know I’m not the one to do it. Dear readers, if you come across that, please share!

Peggy bites the bullet and goes in. She meets the teasing by firing her signature barbs right back at them. Her good-natured retorts, of course, do not mean she’s cool with taking any of their shit – it’s just the most efficient way to deal. Thompson tries not to be a dick for once and be a leader instead, telling them to shut up.

There’s some discussion of the changes in the armour – something I can only assume will come back later. But then Sousa comes in and accidentally sees Pegs in her skivvies, conveniently revealing a distinguishing mark on her shoulder that also appears on the shoulder of the mysterious blonde from the club.

The SSR team is up in the air. Before the drop, Thompson looks like he’s going to puke. Peggy tells him to chill. It’s kind of great. On the ground, we meet the Howling Commandos. This is another one of *the* scenes of this episode. Besides it containing the commandos, and some great jokes, it’s another opportunity for Thompson to totally get shut down. Dugan makes a comment about how long Peggy fought next to Captain America – emphasizing not only Peggy’s equality with Cap, but also the way he, and he rest of the 107th, respect her and look to her to lead.

They hit the road, and while Peggy is next to Dugan in the truck, it looks like the first moment she’s actually gotten to relax this entire series. She feels at home in the back of a truck with a bottle of bourbon in the middle of Eastern Europe.

We get a little more intel on this Leviathan situation; they’re a potential buyer for Stark’s bad babies but despite the frame job, the folks investigating are no longer convinced Stark’s behind it. It’s kind of great watching Peggy be doubly pissed off at Howard. She has to save his butt because it’s her job and despite the recent betrayal of her trust.

Our calm before the storm comes in the form of a campfire. Peggy and the boys are trading stories, mostly the weird outlandish ones, teasing about yetis, abominable snowmen and mermaids. For once, Thompson is the one out in the cold, and Peggy, because she’s *not* a total asshole, decides to include him rather than reciprocate his usual treatment. She knows he has a Navy Cross and pulls the story out of him. This is how soldiers bond.

It’s a tough story, and we get the feeling he’s not telling the whole truth (he’s not). It’s one that reminds us of the terrors of the war they all lived through, the scars they all carry. I don’t think this is designed to excuse any of Thompson’s behaviour, but rather meant to remind us that these are all human people who have been through extraordinarily horrific circumstances, and come out the other side just a little bit something else. He calls it a SNAFU, which is also the title of Episode 7 of this series. I’m excited and terrified.

Back in America, Dooley’s drinking with a journalist who might know something about this weirdo battle he’s been chasing all over, with 247 dead Russians and no one to take credit. (Was it the Black Widows?) The journalist doesn’t know much, but he does know that Stark was there for the cleanup. After losing a fistfight with a one-star general, Stark cut ties with the army, walking away from a lucrative contract. The journalist friend reminds Dooley that he may have evidence, but evidence doesn’t paint a whole picture. Let’s hope he holds onto this nugget of wisdom.

Before we know it, we’re looking at the Black Widow Academy through the POV of Thompson’s binoculars. It’s just fun and novel and a real kick.

Thompson, who is technically lead on this assignment, lays out a plan and then stands awkwardly when everyone looks to Peggy for instructions. Peggy, being the magnanimous badass she is, carefully notes that Thompson is in charge here, but she takes him up on his “unless you have a better idea” offer, providing a game plan the whole team feels confident following. It is, of course, based on stealth and discretion which is the name of the game.

The team enters the academy; they seem completely thrown when they learn that it was being used to house children. They discover evidence that films were used to brainwash the residents. (Early iterations of compliance?)

There’s a young girl. She’s in braids. I can only assume I was not the only one screaming at Dum Dum through the screen, right? Dum Dum’s line about his bowler hat, by the way, was everything … and then the mini-widow stabbed him right in the heart. I scream, then remember the body armour the SSR folks were casually chatting about earlier and catch my breath.

You guys, this girl is FIERCE. The team calls Dum Dum off, but she’s not just a little girl. She’s anything but. Black Widow Program: Using sexism to their advantage since … at least the 1930s! For a moment, it seems like Dugan has seen this before. With the team in shock, Peggy takes the lead.

Over in the US of A,  Jarvis is exiting a bakery with a load of boxes that can only be described as comical because one should be burdened with boxes of baked goods when confronted by an SSR agent in the street. Dooley asks him about General McGuiness and Jarvis is barely even trying to lie believably anymore.

But here’s the thing … while Jarvis denies any and all knowledge about this General, Dooley has changed the game. No more threats of deportation, just a search for the truth. It’s finally paying off to have all the SSR bros start off as indistinguishable jerks because now it’s more effective when they break out of that.

Dooley tells Jarvis that there are three sides to every story: your story, my story, and the truth. While this applies to the Stark situation, it also applies to Sousa’s digging into Peggy’s files, and eventually IDing her as the blonde woman at the nightclub, and also likely the same woman from the SS Heartbreak. We’ll have to find out – will he be able to keep his cool and try to find out the truth, or will he be busy forming his own story?

While Peggy & Co are breaking guys out of prison in Russia, Dottie is breaking into Peggy’s room at the Griffith. Dottie notices the mark Pegs left on the door to indicate a break in. She methodically tears the room apart, careful to put everything back in its place. Finally, in the false bottom of a drawer, Dottie finds a jewellery box, the kind with a ballerina in the middle, but with no music. In there, she finds the pictures Pegs took of the Stark tech on the camera pen. Before leaving, Dottie sits in front of the mirror. She looks at Peggy’s lipstick, smells it. She knows. She looks long and hard at the picture of pre-serum Steve that sits out on her dresser. It’s like in that moment, she is internalizing what it means to be Peggy.

Meanwhile in Russia, Peggy asks the prisoners why they’re locked up before breaking them out. The men, an engineer and a psychiatrist, i.e. someone who can build a bomb and someone who can help him control his “gifts”, are there to build a weapon based on stolen Stark schematics. They said Howard hasn’t been there. If he was, they wouldn’t be, so Pegs shoots them out of the cell.

BIG ACTION SEQUENCE. There’s a chase. Our heroes are cornered, being shot at, and shooting back. It’s all quite chaotic. One of our guys is taken down and Peggy aims for and hits the assailant in the leg.

Our engineer just wants to get out of there, so he grabs one of the Howling Commandos at gunpoint and begs to be let go. Peggy is measuring the next move. The psychiatrist knows. He shoots the engineer.

Anxious for back-up, Dum Dum and team finally break through the brick wall, and our guys make their escape under fire. Thompson is paralyzed with fear and Peggy risks her life to save her team, pushing Dugan out the door while she stays to coax Thompson to safety.

“What would Cap say if I left his best girl behind?” “He’s say do as Peggy says.” Wonderfully, Dugan respects our Peg and that’s enough for him.

British Joke #2. As Peggy and the Howling Commandos say their goodbyes, Dum Dum is all like, “I’ll miss you,” prompting his genius nickname for her, “Miss Union Jack”, and now we all know why Peggy was able to turn down their offer to stick around with them in Europe.

On the plane. Thompson and Pegs have a chat.

Peggy: You alright?
Thompson: You saved a lot of necks back there. You saved mine. Not bad for a codebreaker.
Peggy: Pretty bad for a Navy Cross Winner.

Thompson tells the rest of the story he was telling earlier. He’s still shaken up from the fight, feeling vulnerable and seeing Peggy as safety. I’m not certain what to make of this revelation exactly, but my guess is we’re heightening the trust between the two before everything gets knocked off kilter when Peggy’s extracurricular spy work is inevitably revealed.

Night falls at The Griffith. In case we didn’t make the connection earlier, in Dottie’s room, she gets ready for bed, a ritual that includes taking out a pair of handcuffs and chaining an arm to her bed. Is this a piece of comfort from home? For her safety? For everyone else’s? Is Blondie’s corpse still under the bed? These are important questions and I need to know.

We return to the SSR for a Mission Report and it doesn’t look great. Agent Lee died in action, they’ve got no Stark and no Leviathan, but they did bring the psychiatrist who is willing to talk. Dooley is understandably not pleased. Agent Carter kindly shares credit for the intel they were able to retrieve. Dooley shares that he doesn’t think Stark is connected, and Peggy feels confident enough to share that she doesn’t either. Carter even earns a “Good work” from Dooley, so it’s not all bad.

Sousa’s sitting there in his sweater vest, staring at Carter and the exact same files he’s been pouring over for days. What progress can he possibly be making with this?

Thompson and the boys are heading out for drinks, and Peggy, who is leaning over Sousa’s desk, is shocked to hear “C’mon Carter” from Thompson. He owes her a bourbon. She’s being invited out for drinks. Sousa declines to join so he can continue to stare at the same documents some more … because reasons?

Hail of Bullets:

  • “No time for your crush on Carter.” Another point for Dooley. “Women, right?” Minus 10 points for Dooley
  • This week in ‘Everyone was in love with Steve Rogers’: “Yeah, I miss him, too.” Dugan’s crush on Cap.
  • It’s always a damn trap – that’s why we bring the guns.
  • “Not bad … for a girl” – “I hate you all.”

Next week: More on the Red Room Black Widow. Russians. Pegs is a fugitive!!!

What did you think of “The Iron Ceiling”? Was it everything you hoped for?

Photo Courtesy of Marvel

About Sara

Sara is determined to break the space-time continuum to allow for more hours in the week to watch all the TV. Her entry into TV geekdom came with Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Eccleston's Doctor Who, and has continued to spiral since. You can also read her TV musings at The Viewing Party and follow her on Twitter @janie_jones.