It has taken five episodes for Agent Carter to strip Hayley Atwell down to her undergarments. In another network’s hands, a moment like this might have felt exploitative; beyond cheap thrills, there might have been no good reason for the peepshow. But in ABC’s hands, the scene, which occurs roughly a third of the way into “The Iron Ceiling,” is respectful, even artful, in the way it illustrates gender division while also having a purpose within one of the overarching plots. Sousa has been onto Peggy for the last couple of weeks, but now he’s caught sight of her shoulder wounds and fully put two and two together. This is going to get ugly.
Incidentally, it’s also taken five episodes for Peggy to really strut her stuff for her misogynist SSR compatriots. Not that she hasn’t shown them up a few times already, but with “The Iron Ceiling,” Thompson gets to see Peggy in her full element; he, and the rest of the guys only know of Peggy’s wartime accomplishments on paper. Somehow, a file that’s fit to burst with the long list of her World War II experience doesn’t quite do her justice, though we can probably just chalk that up to sexism. Would Thompson and Dooley hold the same doubts about Peggy if she was a man? Probably not. So it takes a trip to Russia, a reunion with the Howling Commandos, and a series of firefights to change popular opinion on Peggy’s talents around the office. That’s the kind of world Agent Carter takes place in.
Unlike last week’s “The Blitzkrieg Button,” “The Iron Ceiling” is all about advancing the series’ narrative; a lot happens here, a lot and more, shaking up Agent Carter’s foundation—if only just—in the process. We’ve seen Dottie’s childhood training grounds, and all the whispers and murmurs about Stark’s involvement in Eastern European comings and goings seem to have a kernel of truth at their center. Is he being set up? Is he hiding more from Carter than just a propensity for harvesting superhero DNA? There’s something foul afoot about Stark, but neither Peggy nor Dooley buy the idea that he’s double dealing with enemies of the United States. As Shea Whigham tells us in his usual hangdog way, there are three sides to every story.
Speaking of, both Whigham and Chad Michael Murray have both been tasked with playing relatively one-dimensional characters since Agent Carter’s inception; Dooley has had a bit of recent growth, but Murray really gets to step into the spotlight with “The Iron Ceiling,̶ taking a serious, actorly bow in opening Thompson up for all to see. Who would have thought that this walking period stereotype might secretly be suffering from PTSD beneath his blustery exterior? Hearing about Thompson’s experiences in the war is harrowing; Murray is obviously more comfortable with being the macho tough guy than he is with talking about the horrors of military service, but maybe that’s part of the point.
Either way, he’s terrific, which might come as little surprise given the quality of Agent Carter’s casting as a rule. And how wonderful is it to see Neal McDonough fully mustachioed and rocking his bowler hat again? Dum Dum Dugan might not be able to tell us about the origins of his favorite fashion accessory’s nomenclature, but he wears it better than just about any performer on screens either small or large, so bully for him. Dum Dum—the only Howling Commando from the Marvel films to make it onto television—also makes for a nice foil to the SSR guys, giving Peggy her full due without questioning her for a second on grounds of gender. His is the sort of appreciation that she craves from her current crop of peers, and which she receives once “The Iron Ceiling” reaches its climax (though judging by the preview for Agent Carter’s next installment, it won’t last long).
And finally, there’s Dottie. By now it seems almost inevitable that Dottie is cut from the same cloth as Natasha Romanoff, better known to some as Black Widow, and better known by all as Scarlett Johansson; in one of Agent Carter’s more chilling sequences, we get to see where Dottie really comes from (it sure ain’t Iowa), and bear witness to the harsh conditioning she underwent in her training as a spy. What exactly she wants from Peggy is still kind of unclear, but as Dottie creeps through our heroine’s belongings and stumbles upon the photographs of Stark’s bad babies, there’s no doubting that her intentions are anything but good. Couple her intrigue, the growth of Agent Carter’s principal and supporting characters, a few decent action beats (which, admittedly, all pale compared to those of previous episodes), and McDonough’s glorious soup catcher, and you wind up with an exciting hour of television. Let’s see how well the promise of “The Iron Ceiling” carries onto next Tuesday.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.