This review contains spoilers.
Well, things have well and truly been turned on their head now. Howard Stark returned to New York in “The Blitzkrieg Button” in order to reacquire a specific piece of technology now in the SRR labs after Peggy’s successful discovery of Howard’s missing weapons at the end of “Time and Tide.” However, his failure to tell Peggy the truth about his motives cost him, and, in my opinion, it was no less than he deserved.
Around about a month ago, a short (but apt) tumblr text post made the rounds on my dash. It said:
“I can stomach bro-type boys who actually are quite sweet and loveable beneath their bro exterior significantly more than like, guys who study philosophy and write “poetry” but beneath it all actually have the skewed moral compass and heedless self absorption of your common or garden[-variety] bro.”
This post strongly resonated with me for the way it struck at the heart of an issue that had been troubling me for a while—the way some men either pretend allyship for the purposes of getting something out of a women or mistakenly believe themselves to be an ally when they are actually, at their core, committed only to a selfish personal agenda. For me and many of my friends, spotting a true ally has become an ofttimes fraught task, as discovering that someone you trust is untrustworthy is incredibly emotionally draining. However, on the flip side, the discovery of allies in places you never imagined they’d be can be a wonderful and uplifting experience.
As of “The Blitzkrieg Button,” Peggy Carter has experienced the profound disappointment that comes with realizing a trusted ally was actually a self-absorbed snake in the grass, but she hasn’t yet found that ally in an unexpected place. Of course, the dichotomy between false allies and allies in unexpected places is not so clear-cut in Agent Carter as it is explained here. Nevertheless, I find it an apt description of the lines that are being drawn between the characters of Agent Jack Thompson and Howard Stark.
On the one hand, we saw Agent Thompson riding Peggy hard over her continued commitment to the SSR. He said things to her that were utterly deplorable and cruel. And yet, I cannot help but admire that he had the guts to say such things to her face. Thompson has never hidden his disdain for Peggy and her doggedness. He has never disguised the fact that he considers her persistence to be a waste of everyone’s time—not because she is not capable, but because she is a woman and the system will not allow her to succeed. Failing at this point to understand his role in perpetuating that system—and consequently his ability to change it—Thompson has been consistently unpleasant and unashamed of his unpleasantness, and I kind of love that about him. Because as a awful as he is, it is nevertheless clear that he has very few illusions about himself. (A fact that was made equally plain in his exchange with Agent Sousa.) Whatever else we may say about him, Agent Thompson—at the very least—is not a hypocrite.
Howard Stark, on the other hand, is a hypocrite. He’s a user and liar, and he has used and lied to Peggy—deploying her desire to prove herself against a rigged system against her, not because he has no respect for her but because he has no respect for any woman. During this episode, Howard Stark spent his time wreaking havoc in Peggy’s apartment building and ordering her around like a servant. And when his scheme to steal back a vial of Steve Rogers’ blood was ultimately revealed, it was so very clear that he had viewed Peggy as just another girl he could manipulate. He claimed to respect her, but his intention was always to use her as his running dog—fetch this, fetch that—just like her coworkers do and with even less integrity. As Peggy rightly noted, when her colleagues tell her to do some menial task she at least knows that they mean what they say.
What we are seeing in Agent Carter is not just a depiction of sexism, but a deconstruction of it—an examination of its nuances and complications. This is not a black-and-white world but a world of greys and grays. And what has emerged thus far is the improbable notion that Agent Thompson—for all his faults—may well be a more redeemable character than Howard Stark is. Thompson knows the system is unfair, and he thinks Peggy is a fool for trying to change it, but he is neither completely oblivious to her merits nor entirely unsympathetic to her plight. By contrast Stark knows the system is unfair, and he thinks Peggy is a perfect mark because of it. He is surprisingly oblivious to her merits and unsympathetic to her plight. His first inclination was to take advantage of her weaknesses, and it never occurred to him that she would be able to look past his manipulation to see the truth. In the end, he had even less respect for Peggy than her SSR coworkers. And that’s not exactly a direction I was expecting the show to go, though I’m rather glad that they have.