Living in Captain America’s Shadow: Does Agent Carter Prove She’s a Hero in Her Own Right?

Near the end of last night’s two-hour premiere of Marvel’s Agent Carter, Peggy (Hayley Atwell) has a poignant exchange about Steve Rogers aka Captain America with her new partner, Edwin Jarvis (Howard Stark’s butler, played by James D’Arcy). When Jarvis tells Peggy that no one can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, Peggy simply replies with: “Steve could.”

In Agent Carter, this is an America that had and lost their hero and will forever be changed because of it. The same can be said for Peggy, who also lost a very good friend. When a world loses a figure like this, it’s easy to also lose hope. Without Steve to carry its weight, the world feels heavier and it falls to Peggy to shoulder those burdens.

As Jarvis tells her, “Your desire to help others is noble.” Her life of service did not begin, nor did it end, when she met Steve Rogers. She always wanted to better society, but her sense of purpose is muddled after the war and after the loss of Steve. Peggy, alongside Steve and the Howling Commandos, truly felt like she was doing good during the war, but now she’s running into walls that she’s struggling to overcome.

It’s not that Peggy needs Steve in order to good good in the world – she never did. But during the war and with Steve, there was a sense of value and goodness that is becoming increasingly absent. She was inspired by Captain America, but certainly not reliant on him. Now, though, she must overcome loss to regain the hope she shared with Steve, which is difficult in a society that constantly reminds her of Captain America.

She strives to do right by the world, but now it’s pushing back against her. The series is blatant with how the tables have turned: it’s a man’s world now. Unlike her positive relationships with Steve, Howard, and the Howling Commandos, Peggy’s fellow agents don’t give her the credit she deserves. She is explicitly treated as and mistaken for a secretary, more than once. If nothing else, the return of the Howling Commandos may provide validation where her colleagues don’t.

Yet, among all of this, Peggy doesn’t need to “prove” herself to her colleagues. She wants to show her worth but, more than anything else, she acts as an agent of her own moral compass. She knows her strengths and what she can provide, but now she has to figure out what that means in a world after the war and without Captain America.

This is the beginning of Peggy’s journey and self-discovery that she can affect change and do good. Her first step is to work against the S.S.R.’s orders and prove Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) innocent.

Hayley Atwell’s performance as Peggy Carter is at the heart of this. She provides a strong knowledge of her character, introducing the audience to Peggy’s doubts while maintaining the agent’s fighting prowess (this girl can really pack a punch with a stapler!). It’s exciting to watch Peggy develop in this world, because she can’t replace the void Steve left, but she can find a purpose to do good without him. Without Atwell’s nuanced performance, Peggy Carter’s journey would be that much farther from us.

Agent Carter got off to a very strong start, especially due to Peggy’s profound humanity, thanks to a great performance by Hayley Atwell and wonderful writing. I hope it continues this way, because Peggy clearly has worth as a hero and I’m already invested in seeing that develop.



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