Agent Carter's Rebound

         For those of you who've never seen it, Marvel's Agent Carter is an action/espionage adventure show, with a side helping of superhero. Set in the late '40s, the show's protagonist is the frighteningly capable Peggy Carter, the romantic foil to Steve Rogers in the first Captain America film. Now that the war is over and Captain America is apparently dead, Carter is working for the SSR (an organization that will eventually evolve into Marvel's super secret service S.H.I.E.L.D.)  

     One of the main themes of the first season of Agent Carter was the trouble professional women have being taken seriously by their male co-workers. The show got a lot of mileage out of the way Carter ran rings around her fellow agents, though inevitably it was the men who got the credit for her work.  For this new season, the show has added the element of race, and its treatment in the first two episodes illustrates one of the challenges of creating a period piece TV show: how do you realistically portray the racial attitudes of the past without offending present day notions of diversity and progressiveness? 

   The Season 2 premier of Agent Carter introduces a possible new love interest, an earnest black scientist named Jason Wilkes. Carter first encounters him when she sneaks into a sinister industrial firm called Isodyne in order to investigate a murder. They run into each other in a hallway, and, after a beat of surprise, Wilkes immediately invites her back to his office, in order to wow her with the still he has built in his apparently ample spare time, a collection of glass tubes and beakers in which he creates "the best wine" Carter has ever tasted. Carter is on a mission, but she's also charmed by Wilkes, and engages in some light badinage while trying to get information. Were Agent Carter set in the present, this meet cute would seem perfectly normal (if a little ham-handed). But this is supposed to be the late '40s, when such forwardness to a white woman could--and sometimes did--get black men killed.

    Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing. I've never had any trouble accepting that Carter can beat up just about any man she encounters, nor that a villain can freeze people solid with a touch of his hand, as happens in this first episode. But the ease with which Wilkes moves in the world of white people struck me as scarcely credible. Affable, intelligent, and confident enough to recognize the chance that his interest in Carter will be reciprocated, he is a "post-racial," Obama-esque figure years before such a thing existed--before the civil rights movement and "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," before it was even legal for black and white people to marry in many states (though California did repeal its miscegenation laws in 1948, around the time in which Agent Carter is set.)   

     To be fair, the writers do try to address the racism of the time. At one point, Wilkes says that Isodyne is the only company that would employ "one of his kind." Later, as he and Carter are on the run from some murderous company thugs, they encounter a white store owner whose attitude--including calling Wilkes "boy"--sends Carter into a fury. When she expresses her desire to settle things with her fists, Wilkes smooths things over, noting that the store owner is hardly the only racist in LA.

    That's about it. Wilkes doesn't seem angry about such treatment, nor particularly hampered by it. So far, so good. So far, so bland.

     Perhaps Wilkes is not meant to be a recurring character. By the end of the second hour, he seems to have been sucked up by the mysterious black ooze which serves as the show's current McGuffin. If they bring him back--and he is not possessed by some sort of alien demon (such things often happen in the Marvel Universe)--I hope the writers make him more compelling, and explore the dramatic possibilities of his character's presence. How will the other men in her life--buttoned-down butler Edwin Jarvis, playboy inventor Howard Stark, sad sack SSR agent Daniel Sousa--react to Agent Carter's interest in Wilkes?  A romantic relationship between them would highlight Carter's disdain for convention, and also give her plenty of opportunities to get outraged on Wilkes behalf: a good thing, as actress Hayley Atwell is most engaging when her character is either angry at, or annoyed by, men.

    Besides, how cool would it be for Captain America's ex-girlfriend to find happiness in the arms of a black man? This is a woman whose romantic ideal is the blond-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers, a guy who dresses in an American flag and beats people up for a living. For her to end up with a nerdy, African American scientist would be a subversive act in ways that resonate as much now as they would have 70 years ago.