Agent Carter’s fourth episode (“Smoke & Mirrors”) is full of revelations, evolutions, and history. It’s true that everyone is shaped, in part, because of their past—and Peggy Carter is no exception. Neither, for that matter, is Whitney Frost, nee Agnes Cully. These two couldn’t be more dissimilar in personality, but the cores of the characters are remarkably similar: despite the odds and limitations of circumstance/society, each became exactly what and who she wanted to be.
For Peggy, we are treated to a flashback of her and her brother Michael. As a child, Peggy plays at being a knight. Whereas Frost fixes a radio and is told, as women often were then (and far too often are now), to smile: “I bet you’re really pretty when you smile. Come on, why don’t you smile for your Uncle Bud?” (Gag. Her mother’s—Samaire Armstrong—boyfriend is a super creep.) This small bit of social commentary serves a second purpose, because the audience knows that Whitney eventually learns to use her looks as a weapon. Hiding in plain sight, playing the part (pun intended), Whitney eventually claims her own identity.
Peggy does, too, but in a markedly different way. Through several more flashbacks in England, we get a glimpse of a very different Peggy. She’s a codebreaker, engaged to a guy thankful for a boring life (a soldier who is decidedly not on the front lines, which Michael is), and her fiancé is so dull that I’m not sure he’s even given a name. And if he was, I’ve quite forgotten it. Which should tell you something. Turns out, Peggy was offered a job as a field agent at the SOE, which is the British counterpart of the SSR. Initially, she turns it down, repressing who she is—even looking mortified at her brother’s suggestion she could drink him under the table—all for the sake of doing what’s expected of her. At her terribly tepid engagement party, her brother reveals that he’s the one who nominated her for the SOE job: “Don’t worry what other people think. You were meant to fight.”
For most of us, life often happens and changes in the ordinary instant. Peggy’s life is no exception. Another flashback shows Peggy in her wedding dress, SOE letter on her dresser, when the notification arrives that her brother has died. Gorgeously effective and devastatingly honest, Peggy breaks down. And it’s that loss, that breakdown that leads her to leave her engagement ring on the dresser and take the job at the SOE—and she’s well on her way to becoming the badass Peggy we know and love.
In the present, things are somewhat harried and a bit slapstick, which results in some good fun. Jarvis and Peggy decide to kidnap Hunt, Calvin Chadwick’s lackey and the man who tried to kill Carter. This involves a tranquilizer gun Jarvis employed to fell a koala in Stark’s rather vicious animal menagerie and a somewhat silly application of a cold. Once Peggy captures Hunt, Jarvis passes out due to a stray dart, and Daniel Sousa joins in the fun. But first, he is hurt and indignant that Peggy didn’t include him from the beginning. Man, this guy’s carrying a torch for her that burns brighter that Lady Liberty’s. If they don’t kiss soon, I’m going to be cross. And no one likes me when I’m—wait, wrong show.
Moving on: Hunt (after sneering at Peggy, “I know all about you, running around, pretending you’re Eliot Ness.” Excellent reference) spills some names, thinking he’s been infected with malaria. He also says that the cabal records their secret, evil board meetings and stashes the tapes in a storage room at the Arena Club. Because, clearly, creating evidence of nefarious doings is en vogue and not at all unwise. (Seriously, it’s like Dr. Evil is running this joint, and I’m waiting for the sharks with their frickin’ lasers.)
Unfortunately, none of this information can be put into use, because just as the SSR folks are planning a raid, Vernon saunters in with…an audit. Okay, I know he’s not supposed to sound like an evil tax man, but he kind of sounds like an evil tax guy. Regardless, his sole purpose is to threaten Peggy, but when he mentions that Jack Thompson thinks very highly of her and considers her an independent thinker, her response made me laugh: “I’m sure he meant that as an insult.” Vernon goes on to dismiss Peggy’s legitimate concerns, threaten her friends, and imply that she might be deported, if she doesn’t back off and play ball. But, as Michael asserted, Peggy is made to fight, not cower to fear.
Meanwhile, Whitney has gotten interesting as all hell. A delivery of lab rats arrives, and she methodically conducts experiments, honing her powers. Of course, this makes the oozing black crack in her forehead start to expand, and she ends up being 100% done with her awful husband’s demands. Frost blows off an important appointment with Life magazine, hanging up on Chadwick spectacularly. He’s really all machinations, but no brains—and that becomes readily apparent at the end of the episode.
Wilkes has begun to see some ill effects from the Dark Matter. He’s tired. He hallucinates the crack in Whitney’s head. And while Peggy encourages him to fight and be strong, to hold on until they can restore him to his proper state, I found that I’m not particularly invested in him. I was, however, very invested at the sad look on Daniel’s face when, on one occasion, he saw Peggy and Wilkes talking from across the room. A lesser man would be jealous, and yes, there’s a trace of it in his face. But it’s overshadowed by the sadness of a possible missed connection, a yearning borne of what-if. Quite frankly, I want to see those two make out. Sorry, Violet. (Not sorry.)
Eventually, Daniel and Peggy pretend to let Hunt escape—Sousa takes a hit to the jaw—but they send him off bugged. He trots off to Whitney’s, dismisses her, pours himself some booze, complains about said booze, and then waits for Chadwick to come home. Basically, he’s the worst houseguest ever. When Calvin does arrive home, feather ruffled as per usual, he starts ranting impotently about having Peggy’s job for what she’s done. But it’s Whitney who grinds the scene commandingly to a halt, asking what exactly Hunt told Peggy. That one question is out of character with her disguise (loyal, living doll of a wife, Hollywood’s sweetheart, etc.), and in that moment, she drops the veil.
Stepping toward Hunt, she uses the Dark Matter to dispose of him, as Peggy, Daniel, Jarvis, and Wilkes listen—right up until the feed is lost. Calvin is aghast, if not abjectly terrified by what he witnesses, and it’s remarkably satisfying to see Frost slither out of her mask so thoroughly. When Calvin questions what she did, Frost’s mercilessness is profound: “That was me, fixing another one of your problems.” Calvin, hapless, gapes: “What are you?” Whitney responds with the most powerful line of the episode: “Whatever I want.”
It is beautifully done, and Whitney is a nice foil to Peggy. While they became what no one thought they could, these two strong women are wildly different. Whitney learned to smile on command, on cue—and hide behind it. Conversely, Peggy learned to embrace who she is, to hell with what anyone else thinks. To echo last year’s finale, Carter knows her worth.