Hayley Atwell Teases Agent Carter's Surprising Dark Direction, Details Peggy's Grieving of Captain America

Agent Carter Preview Hayley Atwell

Captain America lives on in Marvel’s Agent Carter, which is set some time after his (presumably) fatal arctic plunge — and all Peggy Carter can do is shrug.

In the second half of the ABC series’ two-hour premiere (airing Tuesday at 8/7c), SSR Agent Carter (played by Hayley Atwell) catches a listen of “The Captain America Adventure Program,” a live radio play populated by breathy heroines and a Hitler-pummeling hero. But the artifice, as patriotic as it is, leaves her unimpressed and visibly missing the real man she and the Howling Commandos once fought alongside.

Now, with the men home from World War II, Peggy’s biggest fight is with those who marginalize her potential and contributions at the SSR. (Spoiler alert: It’s a battle she is sure to win.)

With a pair of movies, a Marvel One-Shot DVD featurette, some Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cameos and Agent Carter‘s eight-hour run now under her belt, Atwell tells TVLine that what most delights her about Peggy “is that she doesn’t sacrifice her integrity, her morals or her femininity when she’s up against tremendous personal and external obstacles.” As seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, “She is a fighter and a survivor, but she doesn’t have any superpowers,” HAYLEY ATWELLher portrayer notes. “She has to rely on her wits and intelligence and determination to navigate what comes her way.”

And sometimes, yes — as witnessed in this sneak peek — that means playing into her male colleagues’ assumptions (or donning a blonde wig) to gain the upper hand, as she stealthily angles to retrieve a stolen cache of Howard Stark’s (Captain America‘s Dominic Cooper) “bad baby” inventions before the SSR can. “She’s highly skilled in being a chameleon and using what she can in any given situation to get what she wants,” Atwell observes. “And sometimes that means using her sexuality, sometimes that means outwitting the men.”

As supplement to gal pal Angie (Nikita‘s Lyndsy Fonseca) — a waitress who believes Peggy to be a mild-mannered telephone company secretary — Carter has precisely two fellas in her corner: SSR Agent Daniel Sousa (Dollhouse‘s Enver Gjokaj), who’s oblivious to her private agenda, and Stark’s manservant Jarvis (Secret Diary of a Call Girl‘s James D’Arcy). Due to a crippling war injury, Sousa walks with a leg brace and thus, amid chest-puffing peers such as Agent Jack Thompson (One Tree Hill‘s Chad Michael Murray), “experiences prejudice, which makes him instantly relate to Peggy,” Atwell says. “Not that being a woman is seen as a ‘disability,’ but back then to an extent it was.”

Alas, Agent Carter is movingCAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER on without her biggest champion — the aforementioned guy who wields the mighty shield. But make no mistake, that hero lives on inside her. Much of who Peggy is now “stems from her relationship with and her love of Steve Rogers,” Atwell attests. “I think she found in him the love of her life, the greatest man that she’s ever known in terms of his character and his values. And in that grief we see her own personal struggles and her own kind of exhaustion, but also the determination to carry on his work.”

As Peggy forges on in the face of much adversity, “You’re seeing someone who has her own demons and her own character flaws, and she’s having to struggle with that while keeping up this facade of a put-together, perfect agent who can cope with everything. But there’s a cost to that,” Atwell warns. “Everyone on the planet is only strong until a certain point, everyone has a trigger, and this season really shows that. [In Peggy] we don’t have someone who is superhuman in her abilities. We see her cry, we see her private moments, we see her loneliness. We see the emotional and psychological costs of the position that she’s in and the loss that she’s had of Steve.”

Although Agent Carter‘s two-hour bow largely revolves around the search for a highly volatile implosive concocted by Stark, Atwell makes clear that this is not a Case of the Week show. “It’s not like, ‘Let’s find this ‘bad baby,’ now let’s find that ‘bad baby,'” she says. “It goes to a much deeper, darker place.

“I was absolutely shocked and delighted when I started to read the later episodes and see the direction we’re going in,” she continues. “That’s one of the advantages of having only eight episodes, is that it’s not diluted over 22. This has a very strong story and is essentially four films.”

That said, is the actress at liberty to spill any intel on any of the other stolen Stark creations, to figure into later episodes? “Oh, my goodness…,” she answers, pausing to think. Quickly latching onto one, she then teases, “It’s not so much a ‘bad baby’ as a bad monster.” With a laugh, she notes, “Yeah, ‘babies’ is a soft, misguided term!”

Agent Carter premieres Tuesday at 8/7c, before moving into its regular Tuesdays-at-9 time slot starting Jan. 13.