After last week‘s explosive episode, which was packed with a lot of new information, action, and Howard Stark, this week’s episode put the brakes on the forward momentum of a season a little bit in the most entertaining way possible. “Smoke & Mirrors” intercuts the past and present, moving back and forth between Peggy Carter‘s continued investigation into Isodyne Energy and exploring the past of both Agent Carter and the person who is shaping up to be the primary villain, Whitney Frost, or Madame Masque as she’s quickly becoming. The title of the episode refers to the illusion of propriety put forth by the men behind Isodyne Energy, the Arena Club, and apparently so much more and the illusions put up by both Carter and Frost at different points in their lives to hide their true selves, whether intentional or not. Getting a glimpse into the events that shaped both of these women, and especially Carter, is the focus and most fascinating part of this episode.
Honestly, not a whole lot happens in the present setting of Agent Carter. Toward the beginning of the episode is the most light-hearted bit of the entire episode when Carter and Jarvis go to snatch a man by the name of Hunt, who is the guy that attacked them in the previous episode. Jarvis bangs on his front door, pretending to be the police in an amusing American accent, saying that he’ll burst in “squirting lead.” When Hunt takes off through the back door, Carter hits him with a enough tranquilizer for a “rhinoceros.” Hunt goes down after a bit of a struggle in which he sticks Jarvis with a tranquilizer dart. Jarvis declares that he feels “Jarvelous” before passing out and dreaming of “the biggest horsey ever.”
After Sousa gets involved and they convince Hunt that he’s been infected with a particularly deadly strain of malaria, Hunt finally cracks and gives them some information about the scope of the group behind everything. He says that the group that meets at the Arena Club is know as the Council of Nine. He gives them a couple names and mentions that the group has been involved in everything from the assassination of President McKinley to the orchestration of Black Tuesday.
This new information is enough to get them a search warrant and Carter and Sousa return to the SSR office to prepare to raid the Arena Club. They’re quickly interrupted by Chief Thompson’s friend and mentor Vernon Masters and his War Department goons, claiming that they’re there for a routine audit. This leads to a great scene where Carter and Masters finally get to have a conversation and feel one another out. Masters is able to get a feel for how much Carter knows about everything, but quickly tips his hand when he presses a little to hard about the identity of Carter’s informant (which is Hunt). Now suspicious about Masters and his intentions, Carter makes it known that she won’t bend to intimidation. At this point, Masters tells her how harmful it could be to her and her friends to be labeled as Communists.
With their plans to raid the Arena Club dashed, Carter and Sousa return to Hunt and allow him to escape after planting a bug on him. He goes straight for Whitney Frost and her husband Calvin Chadwick to intimidate them into protecting him from retaliation from the Council. Having spent the rest of the episode up until now practicing her Zero Matter powers on rats, Frost decides to move on to human trials and grabs Hunt by the throat. Chadwick watches and Carter, Sousa, Jarvis and Dr. Wilkes listen as Frost allows the Zero Matter to absorb Hunt into her body. The present segment of the episode ends with Frost telling a terrified Chadwick that she’s just had to clean up yet another one of his messes and that she can be whatever she wants.
While the events in the present of the show are running, we also look back into the pasts of both Carter and Frost. The episode starts with Cater as a child, pretending to be a knight and slay a dragon. When she tackles her brother after he steals her sword, she is scolded by her mother for being so unladylike. This begins a trend of Carter fighting to conceal her true nature and assimilate into society as a lady. We next see her working as a brilliant codebreaker and freshly engaged. It is at this point she receives a letter informing her that she has been selected to undergo special training as a field agent and spy. With her marriage to her fiance, who expects her to be the perfect lady she portrays, looming on the horizon, Carter is sure that she’s not meant to be a field agent. It is truly unusual to see this younger, less confident version of Carter and really adds an entirely new level of depth to this already wonderfully rich character.
Then Carter’s brother returns home from the war for a bit and finally meets her fiance. He rattles Carter a bit when he tells her that she is hiding her true nature and that she won’t be happy with anything less than an adventurous life. He further tells her that it was he who recommended her for field duty. Carter still resists the idea until one day, as she’s trying on her wedding dress, she receives word that her brother has been killed in the war. This compels her to take the position as a field agent and is the catalyst for creating the take-no-guff Peggy Carter that is first introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Also cut in throughout the episode is Whitney Frost’s backstory, which mirrors Carter’s in many ways. She too is not very concerned with being a lady. She spends her time working on radios and other electronics, while her mother implores her to be nice to her “Uncle” Bud, who is nice enough to take care of them in return for her mother’s company. Frost does not like Bud and can’t bring herself to comply when he tells her to smile. Years later, when Bud is done with them and kicks them out of the house, Frost’s mother explodes at her, telling her that her looks are the only thing that’s ever going to be worth anything to her and that she needs to quit messing around with electronics and focus on that. This brings us to the end of the episode, when Frost is an adult and going to see a movie. When a modeling agent stops her and asks her to smile, Frost does so, securing her future as a big Hollywood actress. She has learned to put on the mask of a lady and use societal expectations of her for her own personal benefit and be anything she wants.