I’d Rather be the Cowboy: Agent Carter Goes to the Old West With “Better Angels”

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“They help me think.”

Howard Stark returns to Agent Carter, and he’s brought some Mighty Marvel Westerns with him! Some of the comic connections in Peggy’s latest episode go way, way, waaaay back. [Updates!]

This was a fun episode, making for a really fun new season so far – which is sad as the ratings haven’t been near what the studio was hoping for. Maybe positive buzz will help the show. There should be more period comic book series on TV.

The story thus far: Agent Peggy Carter has relocated from New York to Los Angeles to help her friend (and former love interest) Daniel Sousa tackle some mysterious Zero Matter-related incidents in which all manner of laws – even the laws of physics – are being broken. They had a lead on the villainous Whitney Frost (and her husband Chadwick) with help of Dr. Wilkes, but now he’s dead … seemingly.

Connecting the Show to the Comics:

We open with an investigation into the missing-and-presumed-dead Dr. Wilkes’ home, with the SSR crew dogged by the Hollywood press. This seems unfortunate, as there’s a good chance Peggy’s mug will end up on rag sheets, making it easier for enemies to identify her in the future. Almost immediately, Peggy finds (what seems to be planted) evidence that Wilkes was a communist spy, a claim Agent Baker is ready to believe. Communism what the great white whale for federal agents in the early days of the cold war, but for all Peggy’s surety, Wilkes’ comic book counterpart was a traitor paid off by Russia.

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Not Doctor Doom. Neither are these guys.

Visiting the set of the latest Stark Pictures’ film, it may have seemed Peggy was watching a movie starring Woody (thus furthering the origin of Toy Story‘s hero), but Howard Stark confirms those garish duds belong to the “real person” Kid Colt, Outlaw. According to Marvel lore, larger-than-life heroes with secret identities have been around for centuries (going back at least as far as the dark ages), and the Old West was no exception. Masked heroes like the Two-Gun Kid or the Masked Raider, and those adopting new identities like Red Wolf or Kid Colt, were heroic legends. Although more-often-than-not wanted by the law for a crime they didn’t commit (or were justified in committing), these icons refused to be murderous heroes, almost never killing in the line of duty (despite using guns). They even had their own villains, like the totally-not-Doctor-Doom owlhoot, the Iron Mask.

Alright Netflix, the gauntlet’s been thrown: Make an Old West Marvel series!

Anyhow, Jack Thompson has arrived from New York, he’s still calling Peggy “Marge,” but otherwise he seems much more devious than he did at the end of the first season. He demands Peggy sweep the Wilkes’ case under the rug, he watches the Isodyne reel with their Zero Matter experiment, then gives information and takes orders from the mysterious Vernon Masters (also now in California). The dude seems no good, is what I’m saying.

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A president could never be that evil… right?

Against Thompson’s orders, Peggy pursues the lead Howard gave her. The strange pin she found is the insignia of the Arena Club, and with Howard’s begrudging help, she’s able to sneak into the boys-only club and plant listening devices. Stark believes the club was founded in 1906 and has been involved in all kinds of market manipulation. According to interviews (thanks, Alliterator and Taltos!), the club is the 1940s incarnation of the Secret Empire, a politically motivated branch of Hydra. In one of Cap’s most infamous storylines, Cap traced a Secret Empire conspiracy all the way the highest level of government – the White House! Rather than turn himself in, Secret Empire leader Richard Nixon committed suicide.

In the club, we meet club servants Torrance and Leopold, who seem about as stuffy as one could expect for such a club. Although Eleanor Roosevelt couldn’t get in, with Stark’s help, Peggy does. Her listening devices might have broken due to some unforeseen technology (or plot device), but she still spies tomorrow’s newspaper, revealing Isodyne owner and political schemer Chadwick’s opponent Anderson Ankles will be forced to resign or be disgraced, thanks to the Arena Club. Speaking of tomorrow’s newspaper, anyone remember the short-lived series Early Edition? I liked that show. Kind of a lower budget Quantum Leap. [Update: Peggy’s alias is Wendy, a name that apparently didn’t exist until Peter Pan was published a few decades earlier, a security guy named Warshaurer is called to find the spy, and “ankles” was a slang verb for walking, as in, Anderson “walked out” of the election – thanks Alexander Hammil!]

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(I always thought it was “hi ho, Silver.”)

Ignoring Peggy’s findings, Thompson immediately tries to bury any connection to the Arena Club (as he’s being groomed by Masters and the club for something bigger). Peggy calls him a “coward,” claiming he’ll bury any “ugly truth” to get a medal. Ouch. Last season, Thompson revealed his darkest secret to Peggy as a show of confidence: He’d killed a surrendered enemy and let people award him a medal anyway. Now she’s throwing it right back in his face. While not excusing Thompson’s behavior, Sousa tells Pegggy not to be such a Lone Ranger (who was a really big deal, especially on radio, back in those days). The Lone Ranger was also connected to the hero Green Hornet through various other media, though both non-Marvel characters are considered fictional in this universe.

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You iiiiidiot!

More significantly, Sousa and Peggy see objects floating near her, and with Stark’s help, they discover the still-living but now unseen and intangible Dr. Wilkes! In the comics, Wilkes had developed an antidote to his condition, but was unable to activate it in his ethereal state; here, Stark can combine his genius with Wilkes to create a solution, albeit temporary for now. No word yet on whether he really was a spy or not.

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Even in the Marvel Universe, there is commercializing.

On Wilkes’ tip, Peggy confronts Whitney Frost, who has been freaking out over the Zero Matter crack in her forehead she’s had since the explosion that disappeared Wilkes. Realizing Peggy’s getting close, Frost manipulates Chadwick into hiring Mr. Hunt to kill Peggy. Sousa also uncovers Frost’s true identity: she’s Agnes Cully, a supergenius from Broxton, Oklahoma [Update: parents Richard Simon and Mary Jean Cully]. Broxton is significant, of course, because it was the Earthly home of Asgard for quite a while Thor’s people were stuck in our dimension.

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Unless it’s one of a dozen heroes who are all the best in the West!

Hunt attacks Peggy while she’s letting off steam beating up a punching bag at Stark’s place – much as her ex-beau Steve Rogers would do in the future. They fight furiously until Jarvis breaks them up with a well-placed frying pan. Peggy shoots her assailant in his gun-holding hand, but he escapes before she can do more damage. Here again, we have a Western reference of sorts, as under the Comics Code, heroes couldn’t kill, so comic book cowboys of the 50s and 60s almost always shot guns out of their enemies’ hands instead. They could do this unerringly while on horseback, wounded, bound, or concussed. Marvel Vision #29, from Marvel’s in-house self-promotion magazine in the 1990s, put it best with:

The Marvel Marksmanship Test

  1. Tape a target on the blade of a ceiling fan;
  2. Turn the fan on “turbo”;
  3. Stand in the far corner of the room with a bag of rubber bands;
  4. Close one eye and shoot the rubber bands at the target while jumping up and down.

If you can hit the target thirty times in a row […] we can feature you in your own western title.

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I’m sorry Peggy, I can’t let you do that.

In response to the attack, Stark installs a new security device that automatically produces Jarvis’ non-threatening voice if an intruder is detected, something that bothers Jarvis as he doesn’t like being a “disembodied voice.” Hardee-har-har.

Oh, and Stark mentions his old teacher Abner Brody, who took his brain to the Amazon [Update: specifically, he went to Peru], but who Wilkes says isn’t there. Huh. This seems like a reference to something. The Eternal Brain, maybe? Perhaps we’ll get more on this later.

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That’s cold, man.

Now, back to Frost. Unable to express her intelligence or ambition as a woman in a man’s world, Frost can’t benefit from her genius, and not as young as other starlets, she can’t use her beauty. Plus, with her husband being more-and-more controlled by the Arena Club, she can’t even exercise what power she did have, so Frost is getting pretty steamed. Ken, her director, brightened her day with some good news (laced with bad news), but then took the good will too far by making a pass at her. All of this bottled up emotion was released as the Zero Matter jumped from her body to consume Ken with into a cold darkness before returning to her body, leaving the crack on her head slightly larger than before.  This is seaming more and more like the Darkforce, as it can exist as a black nothingness, make people feel cold and scared, and then consume them. This is a hunger the hero Cloak (of the team Cloak and Dagger) knows all too well.

Next time, we’ll see if Frost can turn this to her advantage!

MORE UPDATES:

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While filming Kid Colt, Stark mentions a few women who are presumably aspiring starlets, Arlene French and Irene Dunne, although the later may be a reference to a real person.

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The Kid Colt comic that Stark first holds in front of the camera is a mock-up by a modern artist, but on his shelf, we can see actual comic covers, like Kid Colt, Outlaw #95 and Kid Colt, Outlaw #103! Never mind that both of these issues were published about a decade later in our world – in this universe they are historical retellings.

There’s another SSR guy, Agent Vega, who is only named in the subtitles.

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Across the street from the SSR’s Austback Theatrical Agency, the theater is playing a movie called Tales of Suspense staring Frost. Obviously, that was the title of one of Marvel’s most successful horror/sci-fi anthologies (which later gave rise to superheroes like Iron Man).

The “Special Thanks” for this episode includes Clifford V. Johnson, presumably he was the physicist who helped create the theories on Stark’s chalkboard and some of the technobabble about Wilkes’ condition. If so, neat attention to detail!

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14 comments

  1. It’s great you’re still doing these, I really need them to keep track.

    Now, do you remember in the first few episodes of Agents of SHIELD there was a character who got sucked into a swirling sticky black blob? It hasn’t yet been followed up on. Is that goopy stuff in any way connected to Zero Matter?

  2. Thanks again, these are great. Also a great show, and even better than last season.

    Loved the Kid Colt references, like the fact that we’re getting a different version of Madame Masque. Really digging the Wilkes story line, seems like they may set him up to either be super powered or die (disappear) tragically at the end of all this. I also like how they’ve managed to make Jack a little more three-dimensional as he struggles with Red trying to recruit him into… what, a proto-Hydra Arena club? I don’t know, but this show is wonderful, ratings be damned!

    • Agreed. I also think the bit where he was asking Sousa about Oklahoma was him trying to be a “friend” again, but Sousa is treating him suspiciously after the things Thompson said before, further driving Thompson to the Dark Side… uh, I mean proto-Hydra.

  3. Hm, I’m a bit bummed how they use Madame Masque. It’s basically in (civilian) name only and I expect her to become more of an evil Darkstar than a heir to the Maggia. Her brand of Darkforce reminds me of Quagmire, who has has the ability to tap into the Darkforce in the form of a thick, dark, viscous tar-like substance.

    While I couldn’t find anything about a Abner Brody in the comics, I found a Abner connected to the Darkforce: Dr. Abner Croit, a physicist hoping to build a device capable of tapping into energies from other dimensions. Blackout was his lab assistant in the comics.

    • I’ll go back and check the subtitles to make sure on the spelling.

      As far as Masque goes, I doubt she’d get to keep the powers, also, I doubt she’ll exist beyond this season – HOWEVER, if they can establish some kind of Maggia connection, maybe we’ll get a spiritual heir of her’s in a future Iron Man (or War Machine?) movie in some way.

  4. Great write up, as usual, but a couple of quibbles: I’m pretty sure Chadwick’s opponent in the Senate race is Mr. Anderson; “ankles out” is a slang phrase meaning “walk away.” Also, that was Whitney Frost’s scuzzbucket director, not her agent – one of the Sklar brothers!

  5. I love this show and have always enjoyed your write-ups. Thanks so much.

    I enjoyed one line from this episode in particular: When Peggy tells Howard, “Making movies based on comic books? Doesn’t sound like a very good idea.”

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