Agent Carter and The Bletchley Circle: Pursuing Justice in a Weak Society
One doesn’t frequently associate the slam-bang world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with British mystery dramas. Yet as a fan of both these genres, I have been struck by the more-than-cursory similarities between two excellent recent shows: the 2015 ABC confection Agent Carter and The Bletchley Circle, an ITV show that aired on PBS in America. In both cases, audiences follow the exploits of women who had proved useful to society during World War II but who find their talents ignored or wasted in the post-War environment. Working out of this backdrop, both series dramatize the pursuit of justice in societies that find themselves willing but unable to see such justice prosecuted.Like Agent Carter, the members of the Bletchley Circle have skills and insights that would have been likely rewarded with employment (and possible promotion) if they were men.
Airing in the mid-season gulf of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter follows the exploits of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), once a valuable asset to the Allied cause in World War II and the significant other of Captain America. Now, she works for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.), a precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D., but is largely disregarded by her office’s otherwise all-male staff. Her life grows more complicated when she agrees to help clear the name of wealthy inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), her old friend from the war who her office believes to be a traitor. With the help of Stark’s butler Jarvis (James D’Arcy), Carter tries to track the billionaire’s stolen tech while attempting to do her job at S.S.R., even though she is also working against them in the search.
Agent Carter currently holds a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The lone holdout, Slate’s Willa Paskin, contends that despite its apparently feminist trajectory, in actual execution, Agent Carter is dominated by men — men who get their periodic comeuppance from the scrappy heroine, to be sure, but who nonetheless also cluster the screen. To Paskin, “there is a woman at the very center of things, but all the supporting characters are men — so male-dynamics end up being the focus more often than not anyway.”
In some senses, I’m sympathetic to her frustrations. Would I love to see more televised or cinematic projects from Marvel (or DC) that consistently pass the Bechdel Test? Sure. Some of Paskin’s objections might have been alleviated by subsequent episodes (only the premiere was available at the time of her review), but her overall thesis still holds. Nonetheless, whatever Agent Carter may not be, I am inclined to appreciate it for what it is. Of course, Carter holds her own in the paternalistic S.S.R. world, but she does so with wry humor and dignity in addition to the requisite butt-kicking; and, refreshingly, the series largely avoids the temptation to put her in the position of using her sexuality manipulatively. Rather, she tends to rely on her intelligence and resourcefulness (we even learn she has done codebreaking at Bletchley Park). Nor is she a mere caricature — Atwell’s charm and the show’s writers present a woman who is competent but complex, who is afforded ample opportunity to demonstrate her skill-set but who sometimes (as in the agonizing “Time and Tide”) must bear humiliation for the sake of friendship and loyalty, which she has found in short supply following the War.
Most of all, Carter is committed to the pursuit of justice. In one sense, her S.S.R. associates share this commitment, and it is to the show’s credit that it resists the impulse to reduce these characters to the stock “sexist men” stereotypes that they initially appear to be. Even so, the other agents’ natural inclination to dismiss Carter’s insights significantly hamstrings their ability to effect the justice they seek. Thus, Stark, a flawed but ultimately loyal ally, becomes their prime target for several episodes. In order to protect Stark and see true justice accomplished, Carter must at times work against the very agencies ostensibly tasked with promoting society’s well-being.
The same is true of The Bletchley Circle. The show was cancelled after its second season, which aired last year in America, but it was warmly regarded by both critics and a solid fanbase. Like Agent Carter, The Bletchley Circle is about women who saved lives during World War II, only to find themselves relegated to backseat roles when the desperation of immediate combat has passed.
There are four women in the titular Circle. Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) is now a stay-at-home mom married to a low-level government employee; but because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, Susan can reveal nothing about her past to her husband, Timothy (Mark Dexter). (She had served alongside many other women at Bletchley Park, the historical centre of British code-breaking in the 1940s.) At the start of season one, Susan begins to recognize patterns in the behavior of a London serial killer. She informs Scotland Yard, and the police are initially open to her advice; but when the killer’s patterns and motivations prove to be more complex than she had first suspected, she finds herself alone. In desperation, she assembles three of her old compatriots, Millie (Rachael Stirling), Lucy (Sophie Rundle), and Jean (Julie Graham). Together, using their unique blend of war-honed skills, they seek to uncover the killer. Season two introduces two further mysteries and an additional Bletchley woman, Alice (Hattie Morahan).
Of course, The Bletchley Circle lacks the pyrotechnics of Agent Carter, but the similarities between the shows are still significant. Like Carter, the members of the Circle have skills and insights that would have been likely rewarded with employment (and possible promotion) if they were men. Though patriarchal, the men of Scotland Yard, like the staff of S.S.R., are not necessarily wicked or even brutish. Yet they are inadequate to the task of seeing justice accomplished and, at times, some may be complicit. The Circle thus find themselves working independently of (or, at worst, against) the very instruments of justice in the society. Unlike Carter, none of the women are actively involved in military or enforcement matters, and their investigations lead them into dangerous territory. Yet how can they stand by, when they find themselves the only means of prosecuting justice? As Millie declares at one point, “Nothing is going to change unless someone stronger does something.” In this context, it is the strength of the Circle that is required.
The post-War world (as depicted in Agent Carter and The Bletchley Circle) is hardly the only society to find itself powerless in the quest for justice. Time and time again, the biblical book of Judges portrays a country that constantly finds itself in trouble, only to be saved by the skin of its teeth when God provides a judge. Even the judges themselves tend to be deeply flawed individuals, from the alternatively fearful or arrogant Gideon, to the rash Jephthah, to the hubristic Samson. Perhaps the most positively depicted of all the judges is Deborah, who, like Carter and the Circle, is a capable woman operating in a man’s world. She is forced into action when Barak, Israel’s military leader, fails to act in response to a threat posed by the Canaanites. Indeed, Deborah is among the most omnicompetent individuals in all Scripture, serving not only as a judge but as a singer/poet and, even more significantly, as a prophetess.
Only Deborah among the judges is identified as holding this dual role, a significant detail. For in castigating Barak, Deborah fulfills one of the most important functions of a prophet: to speak truth to those in power. Because she is a judge herself, her situation differs slightly from that of the Circle, who are all outside the established authority structure, and even from Carter, whose bosses generally have little interest in her input. Few biblical prophets carried Deborah’s authority, however. More often than not, their inspired pleas fell on the deaf, or even downright hostile, ears of the nation’s rulers. For every Nathan heeded by a king, there were countless Elijahs or Micaiahs or Jeremiahs who sought true justice in a wayward society, only to find the erstwhile defenders of justice turn against them. Sometimes, such prophets could only look on helplessly as their country persisted in unrighteousness despite their warnings; at other times, they were permitted a more active role.
The biblical office of prophet was not a universal one. God equips each person in different ways. The best societies seek to promote justice and curb injustice, but to do so, they find the best people to accomplish the specific tasks necessary. When the state fails in its role of effectively demonstrating and enacting fairness and impartiality, we can be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration or — like Peggy Carter, like the Bletchley Circle, like Deborah and the other prophets — we can use our own gifts to pursue whatever justice may be attained in our weak, fallen world. And though perfection will ever be an unattainable ideal, we may perhaps follow their lead in strengthening the society into which we have been placed.
I really like this review. And I might just have to look into Bletchley Circle too
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