This Could Be Us But You Wanted Agent Carter

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to acquaint my dear friend and podcast co-host Didi with a show I love, X Company. While it fails in many regards on that buzzword “diversity,” I have found much to love about this show. Let me get a few points clear before I begin:

  • I followed X Company strictly for Warren Brown. Anyone who knows me by now knows that my love for this man knows no bounds. And Neil “I was done with your shit before it started” McKay is my second favorite character of his behind Luther’s Justin Ripley.
  • X Company is very white overall. Set mostly in Canada and France, people of color somehow do not seem to exist despite the fact that Canada has a substantial indigenous population and France has a long history of colonialism.
  • I don’t watch Agent Carter. I’ve never wanted to.

I actually had no idea what X Company was about when I first found it last year. However, the story takes place during World War II at a secret spy camp in Ontario, Canada, aptly named Camp X. The five core members of the crew are American, Canadian and British: Aurora Luft (the de facto leader), Alfred Graves (the secret weapon with an eidetic memory), Harry James (an explosives and communications expert), Tom Cummings (I forget what he does) and of course Neil McKay (the muscle).

Each mission could very well be the last and the show combines a character-driven drama with fast-paced action sequences. It’s a very conventional action drama like we might find here on any American network show. It reminds me why I miss the CBC.

Anyway, I was delighted that Didi enjoyed the show as much as I did. While we both admire everything Warren has to offer and brings to the show, we both found more of a connection with a character who appears in my favorite episode of the series.

Her name is Hallie Duvernay. Appearing in the episode 4 of season 1, “Sixes and Sevens,” Hallie is a jazz singer traveling through Europe to perform during this World War II setting. She performs for anyone who pays, including the Germans. However, what they don’t know is that she is also a spy, carrying secrets in invisible ink on her sheet music. The American government refers to her by her code name Nightingale.

She is also a proud Black woman.

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Let me note here that Hallie’s presence on the show is an exception. She and the integrated band she travels with are an anomaly for the pale complexion of the show. However, this does not stop her from being fully developed and given an emotional story arc that has an effect on the members of the main cast.

And this is where I see the difference from this show and Agent Carter, set in practically the same time period in America. For months before the show aired, white feminists/fangirls practically tried to employ emotional blackmail to get women of color to support the show (which really pissed me off and is the main reason I stayed away from the show because I’m petty). Recently, this exchange appeared on Tumblr to remind us of that time and also of the fact that many white feminists/fangirls still refuse to see why we owe no obligation to Agent Carter and other shows with white female leads. Now re-watching this episode of X Company provides a stark reminder of how white feminism often fails women of color and all people of color even when it champions white girl power.

“Sixes and Sevens” also reminds us that Black women were very much a part of American society and had roles to play even with an awareness of how that society saw us. Furthermore, it is a great example of how just a little imagination can help content creators become more inclusive of those who have lived on the margins for so long.

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See there are a few things I noticed about Hallie Duvernay: the French name, the occupation, the method of espionage and the attitude toward America. Hallie is most definitely based on Josephine Baker, who if you don’t know was an American-born performer who worked as a spy for the French resistance during WWII. She performed all over Europe with information marked with invisible ink on her music sheets. She also became a French citizen and publicly denounced the treatment of Black Americans back home. She was later decorated with the Croix de Guerre as a war hero. So yeah Hallie Duvernay was based on a real person who existed in history.

Let’s also be honest here: the actress portraying Hallie, Karen LeBlanc[i] is fine. as. fuck. The way she fills out and struts around in that beautiful 40s dress can only be described as divine. I mean… surrisly…

*Now it’s time to insert the spoiler alert.*

Hallie’s story arc is actually well developed. She is introduced on stage where Aurora and Alfred go to make contact and ask her to change her plans and protocol to escort a soldier with her to Spain. We see her through Alfred’s eyes, who sees colors from the music. Her quick thinking comes to play when she attempts to cover for her horn player, Marcus, who made some notes bad enough even for untrained ears to catch, explaining that he has “no fear of the avant garde.”

However, she is reluctant to get further involved than she already is. She doesn’t want to move a human being. In her conversation with Aurora and Alfred, she tells them that she will play anywhere and it becomes clear that she has found herself in front of a German (Nazi) audience, perhaps more than once, and seems to be something of a favorite. This is when she has a brief exchange with Aurora that made me fall in love with her character and start dreaming up fanfic with her and Neil:

Aurora: No special loyalty to Uncle Sam?

Hallie: Maybe the day he starts treating me like a citizen. I just help out ‘cause I don’t like bullies.

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It was that simple. That one exchange said so much more about her character and the wider experience of Black women in America at the time. To live in a country that treats you as less than a citizen but still find it better than the threat presented from a force more open about its hatred of your kind…

This isn’t the only significance of Hallie’s character. Her emotional arc is tied directly to a Black man, her horn player Marcus. The notes he missed during their performance were due to his battle with heroin addiction, an addiction to which he fell earlier and inadvertently caused the raid that made Hallie vulnerable to capture if she were found out. However, Marcus is arrested along with Aurora and Alfred in the raid. Later it is revealed that the Gestapo were after Marcus, knowing about this addiction and waiting for his withdrawal to break him so he will give up Hallie.

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In the meantime, Hallie deals with the X Company to smuggle their soldier, Walter, in exchange for Marcus’ return. She refuses to leave without him, explaining that they fought long and hard to get out of New Orleans. He leads the band and writes the music. Her devotion to him tells the longer story of their relationship and how loyal they are to each other. So we as the audience understand why Marcus decides to OD rather than risk turning in Hallie and endangering her as well as those who depend on her as the Nightingale.

Hallie’s story is definitely meant as a means to further develop the others, particularly Alfred who is an almost star struck fan of hers. In fact, it is he who talks Marcus into his death then later must admit to Hallie what really happened to Marcus. However, he placates her and explains in a way that absolves him and the X Company of any guilt in Marcus’ death. Still, we see Hallie distressed over Marcus, shedding tears for him and finding the will to soldier on with her mission, so to speak.

And it all comes to a rather glorious end. The last message Marcus relayed to her was that he was “ready to come home.” Before his death, Marcus sought to comfort Hallie by referring to a song he wrote for her, probably during their lean years, to assure her that he was ready to meet his fate. With Walter in tow disguised as her horn player, she has to put her quick wit to use once again, talking him through performing “Ready to Come Home” for a sly German soldier who forces him to play before allowing them to board their train to Madrid.

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Unfortunately, that’s all we see of Hallie Duvernay. She would be a great recurring character, especially considering her access to inner circles and connections to American spy networks. But I will admit for this one episode, we got the type of representation that many are asking for Agent Carter.

It really is that simple. There are countless examples of people of color who were directly involved in the war effort and also perhaps worked within government ranks before and after the war. One of the most glaring examples of stories that must be told around the time is that of the Japanese Americans who found themselves taken to “internment” camps, losing their homes and livelihood.

The Zoot Suit Riots occurred in 1943. This was a direct conflict between US soldiers and Mexican American youth. No doubt this had an effect on Mexican Americans during and after the war. There is a story to be told here.

And the Navajo Code Talkers. Navajo soldiers who changed the tide of the war by speaking their language. The espionage practically writes itself.

I’m sure there are plenty of people of color, many who may have connections to these types of stories, who are willing and anxious to tell them. All they need is the opportunity and the willingness to let their imaginations tell these types of stories that often get buried.

Interestingly, the basis of Hallie’s story in X Company is one that potentially makes white Americans uncomfortable. While it might like to see Hallie fighting for the cause, is it willing to deal with the fact that the promise of citizenship for which she (possibly) hoped would not be fulfilled? Is that why Agent Carter refuses to incorporate a story of Black Americans in its plotline? Because how would the white fangirls who want this show to work so badly have to confront that Carter would enjoy the fruits of her protecting one form of white supremacy over another while people of color would still suffer either way?

While that one episode of X Company does not erase the overall whiteness of the show, it didn’t shy away from the reality that Black Americans faced, the one that made the government urge the Black press to stop the Double V campaign during the war. It isn’t insignificant to me that the conversation in which Hallie acknowledges she isn’t treated like a citizen occurs between her and a white woman. It is a white woman who questions Hallie’s loyalty to her country.

This is why I doubt we’ll get such moments in Agent Carter. This is why I never once considered it an obligation to support the show even when it was more or less demanded that women of color support the show as if there aren’t already a ton of white women led shows already. This is why I don’t get excited about any shows with a white woman lead (looking at you Jessica Jones).

For now, I’ll just sit down and plot that fanfic between Hallie Duvernay and Neil McKay.

*Special thanks to Didi for the title of the piece and encouraging me to write it because she didn’t want to :-p You can also listen to our Catch the Fade rant on fandom on this week’s @blackgirlsquee.

[i] Karen LeBlanc also stars in a beautiful Canadian film Nurse.Fighter.Boy. It may still be on Hulu, so please check it out when you have the chance.

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3 thoughts on “This Could Be Us But You Wanted Agent Carter

  1. Embrace your pettiness, girl. I have! It’s fun. 🙂

    But back to this episode. First I need to get the shallow, Kinsey 4 stuff out the way. Hallie DuVernay was thickkkk! She had bright future behind and in front of her. I really wanted her and Neil to bang. I still do. So when you write that fic, tag me, girl!
    They nailed her characterization in a single line about Uncle Sam not treating her like a citizen. And when she said, “I don’t like bullies”, did you think of Captain America for a minute? Cause I did.

    The actress who plays Hallie has a hell of a voice too! She should be a lead actor of some TV series. Sadly this is a case of Black brilliance running up against the brick wall of white mediocrity and lack of imagination.

    This is such a great point that you make toward the end of the post. We keep seeing the same stories over and over because they don’t make ‘mainstream audiences’ uncomfortable. They serve whiteness. You give several examples of how TV writers could incorporate the stories of people of color during that time period without reducing them to being ‘just the help’. Congratulations, you have more imagination than most of Hollywood! Now they need to run you some money for these great ideas.

    This post is excellent, just like the episode you shared with me. I knew it would be because you love the show so much. And that they were able to do so much in one episode with a character of color who hasn’t re-appeared on the show since means there’s absolutely no excuse for shows like Agent Carter. The MCU has seemed hellbent on perpetuating the idea that ‘all the women are white and all the men are black’. And the majority of fangirls have latched onto that because it serves them. If Agent Carter continues down this path of erasing WoC’s contributions in that time period, I will continue to turn my back on the show.

    *Also, I didn’t realize you were trying to get me to write about the show until I saw your Twitter the next day. Between us, it makes more sense that you’d write about this episode since you love the show so much. And you did a wonderful job!

    • Good point about Captain America! I didn’t even catch that at first. But that line is so much more powerful coming from a Black woman because she is the *last* person this country serves to protect and here she is risking her life to protect it. And yeah Karen LeBlanc is just such a beauty! I know she gets work in Canada and I noticed when I had CBC that Canadian actors stay working on public television no less, but we just can’t get that here for some reason. I wish she would do a show or have some type of breakthrough that would make her more known to American audiences.

      Anyway, you really could have provided some good insight to this too based on this reply. You felt the same way I did and noticed all the things I did. But glad I went ahead and went through with this. It was a good pop culture analysis for me and I miss doing it.

      Also, it occurred to me that stories about POC during that time don’t always have to be “heroic.” I mean you could base a character on Tokyo Rose and focus on a POC who actually did go for the other side because I can definitely see how that might happen.

      Ugh, just so much they could do with that show to incorporate the stories of POC during that time that would make the show so much richer. But you know — whiteness. Guess that’s what fanfic is for 😉

      And yeah a check from them fools to give them story ideas would be nice 😀

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