Time for some backstory. While Agent Carter and Captain America: The First Avenger have informed us about Peggy’s character, we don’t know much about her upbringing. Well, while now isn’t the most ideal time to dig into her history, “Smoke and Mirrors” goes back to an earlier time to show how Peggy and Whitney Frost became the people they are today.
All the while, our agents continue to uncover the mystery and conspiracy behind the shadowy Council of Nine. With a few snags in the process. This is “Smoke and Mirrors.”
The episode begins with a young Peggy Carter, played by Gabriella Graves, dressed as a prince that has just saved the princess after slaying the dragon. Her brother, Michael, played by Webb Hayes, steals her wooden sword, but she pushes him over and the two start roughhousing. Mum comes out and tells Peggy to start behaving like a lady. Yeah, right.
As if on cue, we cut to Peggy chomping on a sandwich as Jason goes over some work. He still has no sense of his body at all and can’t even eat yet, but he still enjoys spending time with Peggy. As the two get close, they realize this was about to be a moment, so Jason goes over a design for a fast neutron reactor.
At full power, it could generate 25 kilowatts. Three years prior, Agnes Cully patented a reactor that can generate a 1000 times more power. Wilkes may be a genius, but Frost defies categorization.
We then cut to Categorization Frost, who receives a giant package, courtesy of Isodyne Energy, with a cage of mice inside. Huh.
As Jarvis leaves a Calvin Chadwick campaign setup, he tells Peggy that Calvin is inside, but no Whitney. He also gives Peggy a campaign button that she promptly gets rid of, even if it could have helped her blend in. Peggy figures that exposing Whitney is the key to exposing everything else. As some men leave, Peggy notices one of them has a wound on his hand in the same spot as the man who attacked Peggy.
Thanks to some intel from Rose, Peggy learns that the car is registered to a Rufus Hunt, who is head of security at the Arena Social Club, meaning he has access to secrets. Given how Hunt almost bested them both, they’ll need a good strategy. That’s why Jarvis presents a tranquilizer gun. Not previously used for the flamingo, surprisingly, but the koala. Jarvis is a dick to koalas.
We cut back to Broxton, Oklahoma, 1920, as a young Agnes Cully, played by Ivy George, puts a radio back together. As her mother, Wilma, played by Samaire Armstrong, speaks with her, in enters Uncle Bud, played by Chris Mulkey, who takes away Agnes’ pencil. He asks her to put on a smile, but she’s too busy thinking. She doesn’t like Uncle Bud.
In the present, Frost- who has masks in her room, by the way- examines the deepening crack on her forehead and then takes out one of the rats. She waits a long moment and…nothing happens. A knock on the door gets her attention.
Calvin enters, wondering about the missing director, but Frost could care less about him. The photographer asked if Whitney could wear the white dress with the neckline tonight, as LIFE Magazine wants to put her on the cover. They’re gonna hit it big, I tell ya.
Once Calvin leaves, Whitney returns to her rats. She pulls one out and holds it in her palms. After waiting another long moment, nothing happens, but soon enough, the rodent is absorbed into her palms. Whitney Frost is a dick to rats. Also, the crack continues to expand. After examining the crack, she makes a note.
Jarvis, putting on his best cop impersonation and American accent, calls out for Hunt and tells a nearby neighbor to go back inside and shut the door. Hunt, escapes out the back and runs right into one of Peggy’s tranquilizer dart, but it’s not enough to put him down. He strangles Peggy, who desperately reaches out to grab the tranquilizer dart and eventually manages to put it in his arm.
But once she and Jarvis stuff Hunt into the trunk, Hunt actually opens the trunk and tries to give it one last fight! He fails and is knocked out by the butt of the tranquilizer gun, but not before sticking the dart into Jarvis’ arm. How Jarvelous. He goes down. Okay, that was funny. Hunt is a fighter- that much is certain.
Peggy heads home and is surprised to find Sousa waiting for her. He did some more digging into Frost, but Peggy, in a hurry, whisks the files from Sousa. But this is Sousa, and he knows when someone is trying to brush him off. It’s not a big problem when he notices Jarvis knocked out of his mind, when Peggy could blame that on drinks, but then Sousa hears a man knocking and yelling from the trunk.
Yeah, Sousa is pissed, as he wishes that Carter would have kept him in the loop. Peggy’s excuse is that Sousa has faced enough blowback from the SSR due to her actions, but Sousa still wants to help. And he will, so long as Peggy doesn’t keep pushing him away. So what’s Peggy’s plan? Kill Hunt?
No. Interrogation time. Sousa demands that Hunt start naming names and explain Whitney Frost’s involvement, but Hunt doesn’t buckle. He’s not afraid of being knocked around. Hell, the Japanese already put his fingers through hell, but even they got nothing. When it’s Peggy’s turn, Hunt isn’t afraid of her, either. He tells Peggy that people like her have a line, but she won’t torture him because there’s no time.
Back in the past, Peggy shows off her engagement ring to the ladies at her job. Her boss, Mr. Edwards, played by Christopher Grove, calls her into his office. He congratulates her, but also has a proposal: Special Operations Executive- they’ve been tasked to train field agents in warfare. No, women aren’t sent in, but resistance networks need women and Peggy is being recruited because she’s already an exceptional codebreaker.
Peggy tells Mr. Edwards that she doesn’t believe she’s meant to be in the field, but Edwards tells her that this is a massive chance to strike a blow for king and country. Peggy promises to discuss this with her fiancé. She’s just not cut out for war.
In the present, Peggy removes the syringe from Hunt’s neck. She tells him that sometimes, people need to blur the line to get things done. Peggy knows all about Hunt, who apparently should be familiar with the effects of malaria. There’s an antidote to Hunt’s right and the toxin’s effects become fatal in 20 minutes. She’ll be back in 10. The compound, turns out, is a failed cure for the common cold that will just give Hunt a serious cold. Peggy is cold as ice.
We cut back to Broxton, Oklahoma, 1928, as an older Agnes Cully, now played by Olivia Welch, overhears her mother arguing with Bud. H heads out, leaving a wad of cash, demanding that Wilma leave the house tomorrow. Wilma tells Cully that she could have been nicer to Bud.
Oh, but Wilma’s not done yet. She holds up Agnes’ rejection letter from the University of Oklahoma and chastises her, saying that the college would never accept a woman. No one cares what’s in her head. If she was smart, she’d focus on her face- as that’s the only thing that would get her anywhere in this world. I’m sure people in the 1920s talked like this.
In the present, Frost receives a call from Calvin, who is upset that she’s an hour late. LIFE will cancel the story if she’s not there. Frost hangs up the phone.
Sousa and Carter continue interrogating Hunt. He eventually names Thomas Gloucester and Hugh Jones, but he knows that he’ll never be free after this. There’s no running or protection from the Council because these men aren’t just ordinary criminals. They’re in everything, and what they can’t buy, they destroy.
President McKinley, Black Tuesday- those things didn’t just happen by accident. As Peggy prepares to crush the antidote, Hunt admits that there’s a storage room where the Council of Nine records their meetings. Everything Peggy and Daniel will want to know is on their tapes.
Jason and a now sober Jarvis work on a theory. Jason’s atoms lost cohesion at the quantum level, but it seems like he’s reached a dead end. As Jason then notices a deepening crack in the chalkboard, Jarvis snaps him back to reality.
Sousa and Carter have a plan to raid The Arena Club. As they go over the strategy with SSR agents, Vernon Masters and federal agents enter. The War Department has decided to audit the SSR- with an executive order, no less. While Sousa shows the men around, Masters tells Peggy that he’s been dying to talk with her.
She tells him about the conspiracy and how there’s no legitimate reason to hold up this raid, but Masters doesn’t think that Carter is a team player or likes to play it safe. Peggy rattles off some of the Council of Nine’s influence, but refuses to name her source. She and Sousa signed up an affidavit, which is sufficient for a warrant, but Vernon still wants a name.
He tells her that the Hollywood 10 also thought they were independent thinker, which is relevant since Peggy could be seen as a spy by some. It doesn’t help that she isn’t even American. Peggy will have to work hard to stay afloat, but she’ll manage. Even still, Vernon warns that her friends could still drown.
We then flash back to Hampstead, England, 1940, Peggy toasts with two men: an older Michael, now played by Max Brown, and Peggy’s fiancé, Fred, played by Kevin Changaris. Michael talks about life on the front and Fred offers some assistance, while Peggy talks about her offer to join the S.O.E. Fred says that Peggy isn’t one to risk life and limb to go behind enemy lines. In addition, he says that a boring life is a privilege. Fred is boring.
As Fred leaves, Peggy asks Michael his opinion of Fred. In response, Michael asks why Peggy turned down the S.O.E. position, as he’s the one who recommended her. He knows that Peggy wants the same thing she’s wanted since she was young- a life of adventure. She claims that her dreams changed, but Michael counters that she can still change her mind. She shouldn’t worry what other people think- she’s a fighter.
Back in the present, Sousa and Peggy figure that the Arena Club must have removed anything incriminating for now. Peggy tells Sousa to stay at SSR and save his hide, but he says that he’s in this until the end, as he got the same speech from Vernon that Peggy did. Plus, not all of the evidence has been taken- as Sousa managed to hold onto a tissue sample from Jane Scott’s autopsy. Time to revisit the broom closet.
Sousa releases Hunt from his bonds and orders him to his feet. Hunt tells Sousa to shoot him now because he’s done marching. Sousa pull the trigger and the gun doesn’t go off, so Hunt knocks him out and escapes. Well, Peggy already got throttled twice, so it’s only fair for him to take a punch.
Hunt heads to the Chadwick household and speaks with Whitney Frost, completely unaware of the listening device planted on his back.
Back in England, 1940, Peggy’s mum helps her into her wedding dress. Mum, naturally, is emotional because of the big day, but Peggy appears at ease. When Mum goes to answer the door, Peggy looks out the window and sees two soldiers.
If movies and television shows before this show are any indication, when soldiers show up at your home, it’s usually bad news. That happens to be the case here as well, as Mum faints and Peggy fears the worst for Michael. Sometime later, Peggy grabs her suitcase and heads out, S.O.R. envelope in hand.
In the present, Hunt and Frost continue to talk while the others listen. Peggy asks Jason if he’s fine, as he’s transfixed with the chalkboard. It’s more than being unable to sleep- it’s as if something is pulling him away. It would be easy to let go, he says. Peggy says that her brother talked about her being a fighter- and Jason is the same. Ah, so that’s why we learned about Peggy’s brother. So we could talk about him now.
Calvin Chadwick arrives at home. Hunt tells her about Peggy Carter and admits to Whitney that Carter wanted names. As Whitney draws back the curtains, Calvin tells Hunt that he has to answer to the Council. Hunt disagrees- he can always tell the Council what Calvin and Whitney are up to right now.
Whitney has something important to show Calvin. Hunt only made a mistake, and mistakes can be fixed. Frost grabs Hunt’s throat and begins to absorb Hunt. The signal disappears.
We then cut back to Hollywood, California, 1934. A doll faced Agnes Cully, now played by Wynn Everett, heads to the picture show, but she has no money. The woman at the ticket booth tells her that the picture hasn’t changed. She slides Cully a ticket, but only just this once. As she heads in, a talent agent named Ned Silver, played by Andrew Carter, says that Cully looks pretty when she smiles. If Cully smiles like that, he can make a career future for her.
Cully thinks this all sounds real interesting. She introduces herself to Silver as Agnes Cully, but he says that name will have to change for one as pretty as her. That’s the beauty of Hollywood: you can be whatever you want.
In the present, Frost’s crack deepens. She tells Calvin that getting rid of Hunt was her fixing another one of Calvin’s problems. As Whitney heads over to Calvin, he asks what she is. Her response? Whatever she wants.
In a period piece where your protagonist is an unabashed, independent thinker, and a woman to boot in the 1940s, chances are it won’t take long before you get to discussions about identity. While Agent Carter has dealt with how Peggy sees herself and under what lens the world views her, we haven’t spent a lot of time dealing with her past prior to Captain America: The First Avenger.
And rather than shoehorn in references to that film, “Smoke and Mirrors” takes us through Peggy’s upbringing, but also adds some depth to Whitney Frost as we examine both of their backstories within one episode.
Identity was the central focus of their respective stories. Even as a young girl, Peggy was a fighter who refused to conform to society’s standards of what was deemed acceptable for a lady. As evidenced when we learn that she’s an expert codebreaker, she already exceeded society’s expectations not because she had something to prove, but because of her natural abilities.
At the same time, she seemed to still want some semblance of a domestic life. I’m unsure whether this is because she was forced or she chose marriage of her own volition, but for a moment, Peggy chose, as Fred put it, a boring life that’s still a privilege. She second guessed herself at times, but she wanted the simple life.
But if this show and Captain America: The First Avenger are any indication, that boring lifestyle isn’t who Peggy really is or what she truly desired. She longs to be useful outside of a normal life. Hell, it wasn’t until Russia last year that Peggy truly felt at home in her element.
It’s a tragedy that it took the death of her brother to make that push to join the war effort, but it was necessary to set Peggy Carter down the road she’s on today. Michael saw greatness in Peggy and sought to make sure she lived a life worth her time instead of getting married and settling down. And he didn’t try to force Peggy to prove a point- he saw from childhood her desire to be more than what was expected of her.
That same drive is what led her to clash with the SSR, but also Vernon with the real threat of blackmail. The drive to be an independent thinker is looked down upon by those who want everyone to fall in line. Peggy isn’t a follower, but she’s also not trying to step over her colleagues to make herself look good, the way she feels Thompson does. Given what we know of Peggy, I don’t think she needed someone else to give her that push.
She’s driven to both better herself and protect those around her, particularly those who may not be able to fend for themselves, but still fight anyway. That’s one of the things that drew her to Steve Rogers in the first place. I wish her decision to join the S.O.R. had been more of a personal decision.
It also seems like including Michael was just a way for Peggy to mention him to Jason, who talked about how easy it would be to let go. Had he not said that and just maintained confidence throughout, there’d be no reason for Peggy to draw comparisons between Jason and Michael. It also seems odd that, given what Michael saw in combat, that he’d recommend Peggy go as well, when they’re both liable to lose their lives.
On the other side, you’ve got Whitney who, from her childhood, also stood out above expectations due to her intelligence, but while Peggy received encouragement from Michael, Whitney was told to stay in her place and smile like a good girl. It’s the same mentality that plagues her in Hollywood and has some real world implications as well, going back to the director who got too hands-on with her.
It didn’t matter how much Whitney knew. To her mother, the world would never accept a woman who’s got a brain and speaks her mind. But like Peggy, Whitney didn’t show off her smarts to receive validation. She was already confident in her abilities.
Not until Whitney arrives in Hollywood and comes upon the opportunistic talent agent that she realizes the truth of her mother’s words: if you’re a woman, the most important thing you can offer is your body instead of your brain. Like her mother before her, Whitney used her body to sell her image and make a name for herself to satisfy the men making the decisions. Like Peggy, Whitney wouldn’t just buckle and let men tell her what to do.
She smiled because she knew that’s what people like the talent agent craved to see, as if smiling would negate all of her other problems. If I wanted to stretch, it’s similar to how Kilgrave exerted control over Jessica Jones- among many others- because it made him happy that she loved him of her own free will, even if it was through mind control. And there I go again referencing Jessica Jones.
While I’m not convinced that people in the 1920s, in the midst of the crash, would talk about how much women need to smile in order to get by, I like how the show is fleshing out Whitney’s character by giving us her backstory so soon. Like the SSR last season, Whitney could have been two-dimensional, but she’s given depth and is no longer bending to anyone’s beck and call. Now that she’s shown off her abilities to Calvin, she’s demonstrating to him that she’s in control now.
With all that said, I’ve spent more time on the past because that’s where we fleshed out the characters. Most of the stuff in the present either revolved around Whitney testing her powers or Peggy, Daniel and, to some extent, Jarvis, racing against the clock to uncover the Arena Club’s secrets before they’re stonewalled by Vernon Masters.
It’s always fun to see Peggy and Jarvis work together, and this episode is no exception. But credit where it’s due, Hunt is one hell of an opponent and as much fun as it is seeing Peggy kick ass, you want your character to feel grounded. So it’s a refreshing change of pace to see her go up against an opponent she can’t just overpower with a few punches.
And at least Sousa got to get in on the action. As we saw last time, he does trust Peggy’s instincts, but if she keeps going rogue, he won’t always be there to have her back. Not that Peggy ever needs protection, but Sousa is one of her biggest backers.
I’m glad he’s not letting their friendship cloud his judgment as chief, as she did still kidnap someone. If this were a simpler show, Sousa would turn a blind eye, but because Agent Carter is better than that, Sousa still trusts her, but won’t just let her walk outside of the law, even to get information.
“Smoke and Mirrors” helped flesh out not just Peggy Carter before she went to war, but Whitney Frost as well in her ongoing journey to discover who and what she is. While some elements of the backstory weren’t as strong as they could have been, it was a change of pace in an otherwise good episode. The more dramatic flashbacks were balanced out by the faster-paced and comedic moments in the present. But as Peggy and company don’t know what Whitney Frost is capable of yet, they’re in for a big surprise.