I recently finished watching the second season of Agent Carter and after the last episode was over I was left with a familiar feeling, something akin to loss. It’s a feeling I’ve always gotten when there’s nothing more left of a story or character that really captured my imagination. It falls somewhere between disappointment and actual heartbreak, but it’s notable in that it stays with me for a few days or even a few weeks and I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not because anything has actually gone missing from my everyday life.
I was born decades after Agent Peggy Carter’s era and my life experience is a far cry from undercover missions, secret weapons, old fashioned car chases and back alley shootouts, but I still feel like I understand Peggy better than most of the people I work with every day. When a story is well told or a film is well acted it feels like you’ve gotten to know a character more intimately than you ever know anyone real because you’re given the kind of look at what’s inside their heads and hearts you only get from other people second hand or redacted. I sometimes think that communication is like a game of broken telephone – a series of misunderstandings and near misses that we agree to accept because it’s as close to truly connecting as we can get without ever really being able to know how another human being feels.
Stories are shortcuts that let us get closer to other people (the characters, and on some level the writer or actors) than it’s possible to get in any other way. We’re able to almost become them or a part of their world while still watching from the outside as ourselves, and when we stop watching, their experiences are integrated with ours even though we were never there and they don’t really exist. Perhaps that’s part of the draw of voyeurism, but unlike most voyeurism, reading and watching shows is consensual because it’s been created specifically in order for you to have that experience and make those connections. You only get a curated piece of an author or actor’s mind, but you often have complete access to a character. They remain as much themselves as a self has been created for them, but beyond that they become a part of you and your world and you’re free to tell yourself whatever stories you want about them.
I find it interesting that western dualism has resulted in an ingrained bias about the intellectual being superior to the physical, but at the same time the “real world” is so often seen as more important while getting lost in fantasy or connecting through books, movies and games is dismissed as escapism. I suppose it comes down to a judgement of relative value, in this case what is considered intellectual. My experience is that sometimes the most satisfying connections we feel are with figments of our own imagination. They don’t surprise us or challenge us the way real people do, but they do allow us to explore our own internal geography, safely reach beyond our comfort zone, and reflect us back to ourselves the way we would like to be seen, even if it’s in the eyes of a person who doesn’t exist.
Fictional characters can inspire, teach empathy, and expand horizons. They can also comfort you and make you feel less alone, or just less lonely. Characters on film have the physical appearance of real people, which we can borrow in our minds like a shell or an outfit for a fantasy person to wear. Sometimes it’s just a superficial appeal, but other times it’s a combination of a specific character with their looks and how they‘re played – a perfect storm which is unlikely to be replicated even by the same actor in another role. It’s chemistry, and a new character isn’t the same formula.
I love Agent Carter in a large part because Peggy is such a fantastic character and Hayley Atwell plays her so well. She can punch you in the face while clinging to the top of your car in a stylish outfit, and show up all the fools who doubt it with a clever line. I love it that every time there’s a fist fight it’s Peggy duking it out while the rest of the cast plays sidekick. I especially appreciate that the sexist treatment her character gets in the script, like the male characters shutting her out of investigations and asking her to get coffee, doesn’t bleed into sexism in how her character is handled in the show. Her action and fight scenes are filmed just like any other action-adventure show with no modifications made because she’s a girl.
Entertainingly enough, Hayley Atwell’s twitter feed is full of apologies for her clumsiness. For example: “Dear stunt man and actor, sorry I kicked you both in the balls during rehearsals today.” I’ve seen pictures of her both in and out of costume, and since it’s a period piece set just after World War II there’s a more striking difference between the two than is sometimes the case. If for some reason I knew her in real life I might well like her, and assuming that I did I’m sure I’d think she was attractive, but honestly for me to be interested she’d actually have to be Peggy Carter. It’s the characters in stories that have always captured my interest and my heart.
The feeling I had after the last episode was like the echo of a breakup – it forced me to let go and accept that our relationship was over, at least until next season. I’m well aware that she’s a comic book character. I’m not under the impression that the show is an accurate representation of how things were in the 1940s or what it would be like to be a secret agent, but I did enjoy imagining what it would be like to be a 1940s comic book secret agent. Or at least partners with one. Realistically, in this scenario I’d be Jarvis.
alex MacFadyen is not at all certain he could throw a punch while clinging to the roof of a car.