It’s time for my episode by episode reviews of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. If you want my thoughts on previous episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, go here.
Thankfully, Disney is about to come to an agreement with Alan Dean Foster about paying him, as Adam Whitehead reports. However, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw reports, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, who created the Winter Soldier for Marvel, are not getting paid for the use of the character in the series due to bad contracts.
Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!
The first of the truths this episode deals with is that John Walker, the highly decorated soldier handpicked by the US government to take on the mantle of Captain America, is a killer who just beat a man to death with Cap’s shield in front of dozens of witnesses and cameras.
This episode starts where the previous one left off, with John Walker running off in his blood-splattered Captain America outfit with the bloodstained shield. He’s having flashbacks and hearing the voice of the very dead Lemar in his head and finally runs into some kind of warehouse, which – judging by the writing on the door – is definitely not in Latvia. Though the writing doesn’t look Czech either. It might be Hungarian, but I’m not sure.
Sam and Bucky corner Walker in the warehouse and try to persuade him to come with them, because his emotional state and military record will certainly be considered with regard to the consequences of beating a man to death with the shield. Walker, however, is not willing to give up, neither himself nor the shield, and so we get a big fight which is a bit reminiscent of the climactic fight in Captain America: Civil War.
It’s a nasty fight and it’s clear that Walker is fighting to kill, while Sam and Bucky are trying to contain him. In the course of the fight, Walker rips off Sam’s wings and short-circuits Bucky’s arm, all the while screaming “I am Captain America.” Bucky and Sam finally manage to knock out Walker and take the shield from him with their combined powers. Sam tries to wipe off the blood stains to desecrate the symbol.
John Walker may have been a jerk, but the John Walker we’ve seen before wasn’t a killer. This one, however, is. Most likely, this latest version of the supersoldier serum has mental health side effects (also see Karli and the Flag Smashers going from idealistic young people who steal food and medical supplies to give to the poor to murderous terrorists). Furthermore, John Walker lost the stabilising influence of Lemar, while Karli lost the stabilising influence of Donya. Also kudos to Wyatt Russell’s performance as the increasingly disturbed Walker.
While watching the completely unhinged and murderous John Walker fight Sam and Bucky while repeating “I am Captain America” over and over again, I couldn’t help but think that for many people in the world who have been at the receiving end of US military power the face of America is not the all-around good guys Steve Rogers or Sam Wilson but the hateful visage of John Walker. If Steve represented the good side of America, what the country wants to be, even though it all too often isn’t, John represents the ugly and hateful side.
We suspect that the US government representatives who gave John Walker the title and shield in the first place also represent the ugly side of America (and the lead bureaucrat proves it later in the episode), but nonetheless John Walker killing a man (and the wrong man at that, since Karli was the one who killed Lemar, not Nico) on camera is a PR disaster and so John is ordered before a committee, stripped off the rank of Captain America and ordered to return the shield. He is also given an “other than honourable discharge”, which means he loses his military rank and pension. “But I was just following orders”, Walker says, apparently unware that that particularly defence stopped applying in 1945.
In his review at Tor.com, Keith R.A. DeCandido notes that Walker’s sentence seems both harsh – after all, he got three Medals of Honour – and not harsh enough – after all, he murdered Nico. Rare for me, I fall on the “not harsh enough” side here. John Walker is a murdered, plain and simple. And while there were mitigating circumstances such as the mental health crisis caused by seeing his best friend Lemar killed, he’s still a murderer and should be going to prison.
That said, I wasn’t particularly surprised that Walker got off with a much lighter sentence than he deserves, because when US soldiers commit crimes abroad, the sentences they receive are often much lower than if they had committed the same crime in the US. 1532 people have been executed in the US since 1976. However, the US military has not executed anybody since 1961. I’m opposed to the death penalty, so it’s a good thing that the US military is not executing people anymore. However, the discrepancy between civilian and military justice in the US is striking. It’s also notable that the last person executed by the US military was an African-American soldier who had raped and attempted to kill an eleven-year-old white girl in Austria. Of the four US soldiers who are still on death row, one is black, one is white and two are Muslim.
Later, we see a furious John Walker and his still supportive wife sitting outside the courtroom, when an attractive no-longer-young woman walks up to them and introduces herself as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Most articles focus on the fact that this character is played by US comedy legend Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and indeed, I kept wondering where I had seen the actress before), but to comic readers the name will be immediately familiar. Because Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine has been an established Marvel character since the 1960s. In this time, she has been an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside Sharon Carter, Nick Fury’s lover, a Skull infiltrator, Russian double agent and the latest incarnation of Madame Hydra (an earlier incarnation of whom ruled Madripoor and had a relationship with Wolverine, but then who hasn’t?). We don’t yet know which of these versions of the character Julia Louis-Dreyfus will play, though the brief scene in which she hands Walker’s wife a blank business card and tells Walker that she can use someone like him, that the shield doesn’t actually belong to the US government and that she’ll call Walker strongly hints that we’ll be seeing one of the more sinister incarnations of the character. This Vanity Fair article by Joanna Robinson also suggests that we’ll be seeing more of Valentina and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And I really hope for a reunion with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury which makes it clear that Valentina is his ex.
Next, we get to see the softer side of John Walker (yes, he still has one), when he goes to pay his respects to Lemar’s family. It’s obvious that John Walker is close to them and appears to view them as his own family. That said, he still lies to them (and probably to himself) that the Flag-Smasher he killed was the one who killed Lemar.
Meanwhile, Lemar’s real killer Karli and her Flag-Smashers have been driven underground. The Global Repatriation Council is turning over every stone to find them and has arrested the people in the Latvian refugee camp for sheltering them, which is sure to win hearts and minds… not. Sam and Bucky – aware that they can’t do anything until Karli shows herself again – go their separate ways. Before he leaves, Sam tells Joaquin Torres that he can keep the wings or what’s left of them, suggesting that Torres will follow in the footsteps of his comic counterpart and become the next Falcon.
Bucky goes after Zemo, who escaped in the chaos of the last episode, and finds him at the memorial for those who were killed when the Avengers and Ultron slugged it out in Sokovia. The monument looks like a real East European war memorial – probably because it is. The kyrillic letters at least spell Sokovia correctly. Zemo doesn’t try to escape and barely flinches when Bucky pulls a gun on him and pulls the trigger, only to reveal that the gun is unloaded. He also tells Bucky that Karli is too far gone to save. The only way to stop her is to kill her. Bucky hands Zemo over to the Dora Milaje who will return him to prison. Ayo tells Bucky that he should maybe stay out of Wakanda for a while. Bucky agrees and asks her one last favour. It’s only later that we learn what it is.
Meanwhile, Sam – shield in tow in a leather bag that looks as if it’s from the 1940s – goes to see Isaiah Bradley, whom we met in episode 2. Because he’s alone this time, Isaiah is less hostile and tells Sam his story. Sometime in the late 1940s, Isaiah and some other African American soldiers were given an attempt to recreate the supersoldier serum that created Steve Rogers. The soldiers were not told what was in the injections – they thought it was a tetanus vaccine (shades of the real life Tuskegee experiment here). There was something wrong with the serum the men were given and many were unstable or died. The others were still sent on missions. When several of them were captured, the US Army planned to blow up the POW camp rather than let their guinea pigs fall into enemy hands. So Isaiah went off alone to rescue them in defiance of orders. However, the other soldiers still died one by one and Isaiah was locked up in prison and experiment upon for his troubles. Worse, the authorities told his wife he was dead and never gave Isaiah the letters his wife wrote him in prison. Eventually, a sympathetic nurse helped Isaiah fake his death and gave him the letters, but his wife had already died in the meantime.
It’s a terrible story, made even more powerful by Carl Lumbly’s performance. It’s also telling how much Isaiah’s story mirrors Steve’s. Both Steve and Isaiah went against orders to rescue their comrades. Both Steve and Isaiah were separated from the love of their lives for decades. Both Isaiah and Steve spent years on ice. But Steve was the celebrated hero. Isaiah was the embarrasment who was hidden away.
Sam is understandably outraged and wants to make everything public, but Isaiah points out that this will mean his death, because the people who abused him and experimented on him will never let him live. He also tells Sam that a black man will never be allowed to be Captain America and that Isaiah doesn’t know why any self-respecting black man would want to.
Isaiah also points out something that I’ve seen critics point out several times, but that the Marvel movies have never addressed so far, namely that Steve Roger, symbol of America, would not look out of place on a Nazi recruitment poster. “Blond hair, blue eyes, stars and stripes”, Isaiah says. The comics have addressed this occasionally, usually by making it vey clear that even though Steve may look as if he stepped right out of a Nazi recruitment poster, he is someone who will always side with the downtrodden and the underdogs.
After his visit to Isaiah, Sam goes home to his sister in Louisiana where there is more trouble brewing. The person who wanted to buy the Wilsons’ fishing boat has dropped out, because the condition of the boat is too bad. We also learn that empathy is not only Sam’s superpower, but a Wilson family trait, since Sarah – though in dire financial straits herself – still makes sure that neighbourhood kids, who are even worse of, get something to eat every day. Apparently, Sam’s and Sarah’s mother was the same, which gives Sam an idea. “How many people in the neighbourhood still owe Mom and Dad something?” he asks. “Uhm, all of them”, Sarah replies.
So Sam calls up their neighbours, asking for help to fix the boat, and all of them show up. They also get help from an unexpected source, namely Bucky who comes by to drop of a present from Wakanda in a big high-tech suitcase for Sam. Since Bucky has superstrength and a bionic arm, he’s useful in repairing the boat. Sarah is understandably impressed by Bucky’s impressive physique, while Bucky in turn is quite taken by Sarah and her two boys. Sam, being the typically overprotective big brother, is not at all happy that Bucky is flirting with his sister. Though personally, I think Bucky and Sarah would be good for each other. Bucky is deeply traumatised and more than anything needs stability and kindness in his life. Sarah shares Sam’s empathy superpower and could certainly use a hand or rather a bionic arm around the house. Also, when we see Bucky lying on the Wilsons’ couch and watching Sam’s nephews play with the shield, he smiles, something we haven’t seen him do ever since his supposed “death” way back in The First Avenger. Also, it’s interesting that Bucky, a white man from the 1940s, has only ever found brief moments of peace among black people, first in Wakanda and then in friendly and overwhelmingly black seaside town where Sam and Sarah live.
The scene with the two little black boys playing with the shield is also powerful in a different way, because it shows us that Isaiah is wrong. To these little boys, the shield is not (yet) a symbol of oppression, but a cool gadget wielded by a cool hero. And how much more inspiring would it be for these little boys, if the hero who wields the shield were someone who looks like them, someone like their Uncle Sam?
Bucky and Sam also have a heart to heart among Spanish moss laden trees. Bucky confesses that the reason the shield means so much to him is that it represents the only tie to his past and the only family he still has. He also reveals that Steve and Bucky decided together to give the shield to Sam, which is why Bucky was so hurt that Sam rejected it. Bucky also tells Sam that neither he nor Steve had considered what it might mean to give the shield to a black man and he’s sorry. Now Steve and Bucky grew up together in Depression era Brooklyn, so they were bound to meet people of many different backgrounds. They were also certainly aware of the racism that still reigned everywhere – after all, there were plenty of lynchings in their lifetime and even though those did not happen in New York City, they would have heard or read about them. However, we also saw Steve and Bucky fighting alongside black soldiers. And when Steve was thawed out, literally the first person he meets is Nick Fury, a black man who is director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Later, he also meets Rhodey, a black man who is an officer of the US Air Force, and Sam, another black man who’s a former soldier. And Bucky spends most of his time after being deprogrammed in Wakanda, a highly developed African nation. Steve and Bucky might be forgiven for thinking that racism is a problem of the past. Sam, of course, knows only too well that it isn’t.
Sam in turn tells Bucky that it doesn’t matter what Steve thought or did, because Steve is gone (which suggests that he died between the end of Avengers: Endgame and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, since he was still alive, if very old, at the end of Endgame). Sam also tells Bucky that he shouldn’t wait for other people to tell him who he is. Sam also points out a fatal flaw in Bucky’s plan to make amends and the list in his little black book. So far, he’s mostly taking revenge by taking out wrongdoers he helped to enable as the Winter Soldier. Also, apologising to people he wronged might make Bucky feel better, but necessarily the people he wronged. Maybe, Bucky should try to make them feel better, for example by offering closure. And Mr. Nakashima, the old man from episode one whose son Bucky killed on a mission, certainly needs closure.
The Bucky and Sam scene is powerful and has been praised by several reviewers, including io9‘s Germain Lussier and The AV-Club‘s Sulagna Misra. It’s clearly also an important moment for the characters who go off to become who they need to be. We don’t quite know what Bucky will do yet, though we can guess. Sam, meanwhile, decides that yes, he’s going to be Captain America, and so we get a neat montage of Sam training with the shield, while showing off Anthony Mackie’s impressive physique.
Meanwhile, Karli and her friends realise that the people who helped them have been arrested for their troubles, which only serves to radicalise Karli even further. She’s planning something big. The next time we see Karli, she’s in New York City. There’s no mention of how the Flag-Smashers, though being the world’s most wanted, are able to travel from Europe to the US undetected. Karli also has a new associate, namely none other than Georges Batroc, the athletic terrorist who keeps getting foiled first by Steve and then by Sam and now wants revenge. He also brings weapons.
However, Karli may just have signed her own death warrant, because earlier we see Sharon Carter talking to someone on the phone in French. It’s implied that Sharon broke Batroc out of prison and sicced him on Karli, presumably to take Karli out. This suggests that Sharon is the Power Broker, who after all wants to kill Karli. Unless Valentina is the Power Broker and Sharon is her flunky.
We also get a brief scene of the Global Repatriation Council who decide to send all of the post-blip immigrants and refugees back to their countries of origin. This makes them not only even more obviously evil than they already are, but also obvious targets for Karli and the Flag-Smashers.
And indeed, Sam is just watching a report about the Global Repatriation Council’s decision on the news, when Joaquin Torres calls to inform Sam that Karli is in New York. Three guesses where she will strike. Sam finally opens the case Bucky brought him from Wakanda. We don’t see what’s inside, but I’m betting on a brand-new Captain America costume.
However, John Walker still thinks that he is Captain America and so he post-credit scene (yes, there is one) shows him making himself a shield of his own, studded with his three Medal of Honours. Okay, so Walker has no vibranium, but he does have superstrength.
“Truth” is the penultimate episode. The final episode will likely involve a race between Sam and Bucky on the one side and John Walker, maybe with help by Valentina, on the other to stop Karli and the Flag-Smashers. I also strongly suspect that Karli won’t survive, though she’ll probably die at the hands on John Walker or Batroc or even Sharon rather than our heroes.
“Truth” was a good episode, probably because it was quieter than some of the other and focussed on interpersonal moments rather than flashy action scenes. That said, I agree with Camestros Felapton that overall The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is very uneven. It certainly tries to tackle big themes, bigger than Marvel normally does, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. And whenever a deeper point puts in an appearance, e.g. John Walker as the ugly face of America which is the one that many people around the world associate with the US, or Isaiah’s remark that no self-respecting black man would even want to be Captain America, it always feels as if this deeper point snuck in by accident rather than design.
I’ll hold off judgment until I see how the final episode will pull everything together or not. But so far, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems like an ambitious show that bit off more than it could chew and doesn’t quite pull off what it tries to do.