One of Captain America's worst enemies makes his presence official as he torments Peggy's teammates in the penultimate Agent Carter episode, but what is Item 17, and what the heck is a "SNAFU"?!
This was a damn strong episode, with the tone fluctuating between suspenseful, hopeful and downright dreadful - all tied together with strong comic book references. Dang, Agents of SHIELD needs more of this!
Spoiler-Light Recap: Just as she had earned the agency's trust, Peggy has found herself on the wrong side of the SSR's interrogation room mirror. How will she and Jarvis get out of this one, and who is Dr. Ivchenko really? Not everyone's going to make it out of this one in one piece (mentally or physically).
On with the Comic Connections
The episode opens in Russia in 1943 with a flashback confirming what viewers have long suspected: the creepy "Dr. Ivchenko" is in fact Dr. Fennhoff, a.k.a. the mind-bending villain Dr. Faustus creator of the "Faustus Method." Just to drive the point home, the scene opens with Fennhoff reading The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by
William Shakespeare Christopher Marlowe, the play about a German doctor who made a deal with the devil to learn the secret knowledge of the universe - then promptly spends the next 24 years playing magical pranks on people before the devil takes him down to Hell. In 1943, Fennhoff was apparently still experimenting with his mesmerism, but he was able to help Private Ovechkin "focus" so well that the young man didn't even notice his leg being removed without anesthetic. Wow. In the comics, Dr. Johann Fennhoff is a mad psychiatrist who has plagued Captain America and his associates for years, brainwashing numerous people - especially Peggy Carter and her sister grandniece Sharon Carter (Agent 13 from Captain America: The Winter Soldier). He was instrumental in Captain America's most recent death when he manipulated Sharon into killing Steve Rogers (who was the father of her unborn child, at the time) and then had her off searching for the "real killer" before he kidnapped her, brainwashed her some more and helped the Red Skull try to steal her baby (which was never born). Man, the dude's evil. On the plus side, his attempts to drive Captain America mad did lead to Steve's reunion with Peggy after decades apart (although he'd first had Peggy set up as a veil-wearing madwoman).
Back in the present of 1946, the men of the SSR grill Peggy to find out what she's been hiding from them all this time. She doesn't miss an opportunity to skewer Sousa for his perceived weakness (he's often overlooked by his peers due to his physical condition), Thompson for his misplaced chivalry and penchant for brutality, and Chief Dooley for his chauvinistic dismissal of her potential. Interestingly, none of the three men really want to attack her as much as they know they should. Yes, she lied to them, yes she may or may not have been involved with the death of their friend, but dang it, they've grown to respect her so much it's hard for them to reconcile their jobs with their belief in her (and in Dooley's case, the additional information he'd learned investigating on his own).
While all that's going on, the men learn Agent Yauch died in an apparent accident and Dr. Faustus - the man actually responsible for Yauch's death - continues to turn the screws on Dooley, bending the chief to his diabolical will. Before things get too hairy, Jarvis walks right in to the SSR's top secret building and convinces Rose (who complimented Peggy's hat in the pilot) to put him in touch with Dooley. Interestingly, Rose is ready to kill intruders if need be - much as Betty Ross/Agent R was willing to do in the origin of Captain America. Jarvis hands Dooley a confession from Howard Stark, seemingly letting Peggy off the hook, but Peggy soon realizes Jarvis forged the documents (much as he did when he got himself dishonorably discharged). Peggy is quick to note they could still be hung for this, and since she's been hung before she doesn't recommend it. (She actually says "hanged" but that verb form always sounded off to me, no matter context.)
During this whole process, Peggy cleans out her desk in a scene strangely reminiscent of her eponymous Marvel One-Shot (albeit with a more somber tone).
Peggy spies Faustus sending secret messages to his hidden assassin and tries to warn Dooley, who'll have none of it as the "good" doctor just helped him patch up his shaky marriage (and has been slowly brainwashing him). Desperate, Peggy finally comes clean, telling the agents everything - even about Captain America's blood that she'd kept hidden from Stark. The men agree to trust her somewhat, and go searching for "Dottie Underwood" (the Black Widow assassin who has been shadowing Peggy for a few episodes). Thompson also notes that Sousa has been "carrying a torch" for Carter, so that's two potential suitors who have unspoken feelings for Peggy. No, this isn't a reference to the Human Torch, but heck with it, Alex Ross draws a cool Human Torch.
Thompson, Sousa and this episode's designated Red Shirt, Agent Corcoran, investigate Dr. Seth Honicky's office. Corcoran is killed by Dottie, Sousa discovers Dr. Seth's dead body and Thompson rushes back to find Peggy. Frustratingly, despite Thompson and Sousa agreeing Dottie should be shot on sight, both men hesitate.
Of course, by this point Dr. Faustus has Dooley completely under his thrall. Dooley locks Peggy and Jarvis up (but notably doesn't kill them), banishes the SSR scientists from the room with Stark's gadgets and helps Faustus steal Item 17 (whatever that is), but notably tries to resist giving the McGuffin up. It's to no avail, however, as the evil shrink convinces Dooley he is home with his wife and kids (son named Emmet in the credits) while turning him into an IED against the SSR. Coincidentally, "Item 17" might be a reference to the Agents of SHIELD forebearer Marvel One-Shot: Item 47, although the two item numbers are not related.
Faustus strapped Dooley into an experimental suit of armor created by Stark. No, this one doesn't shoot repulsors; it was intended to keep soldiers warm in the winter but had the unintended side effect of turning the soldier into a walking bomb (I could understand why some of these failed projects were kept, but this one should've just been melted for scrap). Interestingly, SSR scientist Alex Doobin, who seemed so inept the first time we saw him, seems very competent here as he correctly intuits everything they need to know about Stark's device, even if he is unable to disable it. Realizing what's coming (and his failure to stop Faustus), Dooley jumps out a window and explodes away from others to prevent anyone else getting hurt. This redemption-followed-by-heroic-death is a far cry from how his lecherous comic counterpart died. For the record, the comic book version of Tony Stark has also had a problem with armor prototypes killing his friends.
Meanwhile, Faustus and Dottie escape and test Item 17 in a movie theater, causing all attendees to go mad and kill each other (sounds like some movie out recently...). This seems like a clear reference to Madbombs, destructive weapons Captain America has encountered more than once that cause mass hysteria and panicked murders.
Next week, according to the trailer, is the "season finale." Interesting that they didn't say "series finale" - here's hoping there's more Agent Carter!
Bonus: Special Thanks
This episode adds special thanks to Ryan Sheridan and Jill Bogdanowicz, some of the behind-the-scenes people that help make entertainment shows happen!
Bonus 2: What's a SNAFU?
If you didn't already know, SNAFU began its etymological career as a slang acronym among soldiers in WWII - Situation Normal, All F***ed Up. But, it was also the name of Marvel's short-lived 1950s humor magazine. Snafu featured an official appearance by bondage queen Bettie Page and the first appearance (and face!) of Marvel mainstay Irving Forbush (later known as Forbush Man)!
Bonus 3: Mea Culpa
The Dark Overlord of Evil noted that I missed a rather major "secret" in the previous episode: Agent Yauch's map refers to the main SSR office space as The Bullpen. While it's true that the term has been used in baseball fields for years, when it comes to an office, the main "Bullpen" this could refer to is the Marvel offices themselves! Although many of the creators worked from home (or at least off-site), Marvel liked to maintain the illusion that the House of Ideas all worked out of the same office space and termed their home turf the Marvel Bullpen, even including maps in fan publications from time to time. Thank you, oh Dark One!