Review – Agent Carter: “The Iron Ceiling”

This review contains spoilers.

The plot of Agent Carter is heating up as we come into the back half of the series, with several threads weaving together for what will no doubt be an exciting explosion in the next episode, “A Sin to Err.” Chief Dooly of the SSR (can I say again how much I love that he is obviously incredibly good at his job?) is onto the fact that there’s a lot more at stake than a witch hunt for Howard Stark. Dottie from Iowa, now revealed to be a product of the Black Widow program, is advancing her covert agenda right under Peggy’s unsuspecting nose. And Agent Sousa has—as we all knew he would—succeeded in uncovering the identity of the mysterious blond operative. There’s a lot to talk about, but perhaps the most intriguing element is the dynamic that has developed between Peggy and Dottie and the way it represents yet another subtle layer of sexism’s insidious cultural reach.

For the seasoned television viewer, comic book reader, film buff, etc., the introduction of Dottie from Iowa in episode three (“Time and Tide”) immediately raised a ton of plot-twist red flags, which the showrunners were wise not to drag out. The show’s reveal of her as a spy in episode four (“The Blitzkrieg Button”) probably came as a surprise to very few people. In “The Iron Ceiling,” however, the writers did give us something surprising—an exploration of Dottie’s backstory in a manner that enabled us to contrast her experiences with Peggy’s in a wholly unexpected way. Like Peggy, Dottie is a hardened soldier—skilled not just in warfare but in the ability to disconnect the emotional responses that is intrinsic to the successful pursuit of war missions. And like Peggy, Dottie is being underestimated on the basis of her gender. For just as Peggy’s coworkers should have sussed her out ages ago and have not solely because she is a woman, Peggy should have noticed Dottie’s maneuvers and did not solely because she is a woman. Internalized misogyny here we come.

Peggy has never really taken notice of Dottie. In fact, she had absolutely no interest in Dottie when they first met as she was lost in thought over her upcoming mission to trace the path of Howard Stark’s stolen technology at the time. That motif of not taking notice, of being lost in thought, of inherently—and without even the slightest critical consideration—assuming that she can lose herself in thought around other women because women are safe was repeated in this episode’s diner scene. Sitting across the table from an apparently-planning-a-walking-tour-of-New-York Dottie, Peggy loses her focus completely while looking at Jarvis’ business card. She loses her focus so entirely that Dottie has to verbally recall Peggy to herself—something that would never have happened if Peggy had been sitting across the table from a man. But just as Peggy has consistently used the sexism of her male coworkers against them, Dottie expertly uses Peggy’s own sexism against her. Dottie’s method of stealing Peggy’s room keys—knocking over her purse and then insisting on picking everything up as a penance—is such an obvious tactic that it’s almost unbelievable that an agent as good as Peggy is wouldn’t pick up on it. In the end, however, she is no more immune to her own prejudices than Chief Dooley and Agent Thompson were when Peggy botched their interrogation of Jarvis in the most staggeringly incompetent fashion.

Peggy’s dangerous dismissal of Dottie, predicated on her internalized misogyny, is presented alongside Peggy’s first taste of success at making her way into the boy’s club, and the juxtaposition of these two events is significant. This episode presented a radically different view of Agent Thompson that both humanized him and gave him some common ground to share with Peggy—thus laying the groundwork for the rehabilitation of his character that was hinted at in “The Blitzkrieg Button”—but the fact remains that Thompson is an ethically questionable figure. We’ve seen him beat, berate, and bribe witnesses; we’ve seen that he’s quite capable of, and comfortable with, lying (although, he is—as I’ve noted before—not one to lie to himself). In short, we’ve seen that Thompson’s desire to do his job, sometimes trumps his ethical standards—as the desire to do the job sometimes trumps many SSR agents’ standards. And while that’s okay for a government agent, if Peggy Carter really wants to be a hero she may have to rethink her club membership goals.

Just as it significant that Peggy’s tentative acceptance into the boy’s club has come at a moment when her own sexism is showing, it is also no coincidence that said acceptance came at the moment when the one person who has always respected her—Agent Daniel Sousa—has discovered a reason to doubt her. Right from the very beginning of the series, Sousa’s quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious blond operative (Peggy) who was independently investigating—and possibly sabotaging—the SSR’s case against Howard Stark has set him apart from his contemporaries. Unlike Thompson, and even Chief Dooley, who expressed frustration at the existence of this operative but otherwise ignored the conundrum, Sousa has been convinced that the identity of the unknown operative was a key to cracking the case. Neither Thompson nor Dooley ever felt that much time should be devoted to the problem because neither of them really thought that it was possible for a woman to be an important player in an espionage case. Sousa, on the other hand, knew that a woman could be an important player—an embrace of gender equality that actually puts him a step ahead of Peggy Carter for the moment.

Thus, in yet another ironic turn, it is not Peggy Carter but Daniel Sousa who has turned out to be the most emancipated thinker on the show.

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