The Importance of Context, Historical and Otherwise

Marvel’s Agent Carter was an interesting experiment. A series of eight hour-length episodes, the miniseries-esque offering served to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) while allowing it’s sister show, Agents of SHIELD, a chance to regroup and air the second half of it’s season in one long continuous burst rather than chopping it’s episodes up in that weird spring schedule a lot of TV shows adopt. This certainly helps SHIELD tell a cohesive, overarching story and the idea of a miniseries expanding the MCU is a new angle we haven’t seen in TV before, in part because there’s never been anything quite like the MCU before to drive it.

That’s not to say Agent Carter is without flaws. I could find any number to nitpick at but the one that really jumps out at me does so because of how glaring it is. On the whole, not many characters in the series, outside leading lady Peggy Carter, showed much character growth or had their background delved into at any length. What I want to poke at is one of the attempts to provide that growth that fell somewhat flat. It concerns SSR Agent Jack Thompson.

Thompson is Carter’s foil in the SSR, the agent devoted to the idea that she couldn’t hack it in the high stakes world of cold war spy work. He’s a decorated marine who won the Navy Cross in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War and he’s determined to prove he’s top dog. Eventually we find out why (and please be aware that this is a spoiler, if a minor one.)

You see, our boy Jack got the Navy Cross for saving his superiors life during a night ambush by the Japanese. He woke up, saw Japanese soldiers in their camp and started shooting. In the aftermath he found a white flag dropped on the ground and concludes the Japanese were surrendering and that he’d just incited the death of innocent men. Then he gets an award for it and the guilt really starts eating at him.

Jack tells Peggy this story after he freezes in the middle of a pitched gunfight and she asks him why, giving her and the audience a little more understanding of why he is the way he is. It’s a nice moment, well acted and well written. It has one problem.

The Japanese almost never surrendered.

Soldiers talk about fighting to the death all the time but a large percentage of them will surrender if it’s clear there’s nothing more they can do to win. Troops in WWII did it all the time. German troops, Italian troops, American troops, British troops, French troops, it was just a part of war and nothing to be ashamed of. For everyone, that is, but the Japanese.

The culture of Imperial Japan was fatalistic in the extreme, most famously manifesting in the kamikaze pilots at the end of the war, and it’s shocking how all pervasive the attitude was. Many Japanese troops captured during the war were incapacitated somehow and most of those capable of resisting chose to do so until killed, or did something suicidal like running at enemies with a grenade ticking in their hands or just committed suicide rather than submit to capture. This isn’t to say the Japanese didn’t surrender but those who did were a very small minority.

On the other hand, the Japanese knew the Americans surrendered and expected them to do the same. So Japanese troops would sometimes pretend to surrender, approaching with a white flag and hands in the air, only to drop the flag and attack when it looked like they were close enough to enemy lines. This tactic quickly became well known among American troops who viewed any attempt to surrender in a large group with a great deal of suspicion. It may have happened much less often than people talked about but it’s still a historical fact, confirmed by records on both sides of the conflict, that Japanese troops almost never surrendered during WWII.

This is something Jack Thompson should have known. He should not have been readily accepting of the notion that the Japanese troops who’d come into his camp were there to surrender because the historical context makes such an assumption highly unlikely. Failing to take this context into account when writing this scene strips the moment of all the credibility it’s good writing and acting earned it.

It’s not like this fact would have changed the scene a great deal if it had been included – Thompson could have been just as guilt-ridden over choosing not to wait to see if the Japanese really were surrendering before fighting back instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt no matter how little he may have thought they deserved it. In fact, that scene might have been even more believable and more suited to analyzing the horrors of war because Jack would have found himself in a situation where he was powerless to know whether he made the right choice or not. At least when he knows with concrete certainty that he was wrong he can look for some kind of penance. But the stark fact of war is that it dehumanizes those that participate and Jack’s inability to tell whether he did the right thing or not would be a powerful representation of that, one that would reinforce the ambiguous yet grim fate of the Japanese soldiers who found their way into his encampment.

Instead the writers failed to do their research and a scene that had the potential to be very impactful fell flat by failing to fit with the historical context it was intended to have. Agent Carter did a very good job recreating the mid to late 1940s in fashion, culture and even architecture and vehicles. That’s what makes this oversight particularly glaring – it’s a hole in the historical context that’s otherwise rock solid. Writers take note! If you’re going to add historical context make sure you get it all or your work is just going to come out flat.