SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
At last I’m beginning to understand why The Falcon And The Winter Soldier waited so long to give us any insight into the series’ main villains, the Flag-Smashers, and their sympathetic ideologies. It’s apparent now that the writers felt they had to wait until just after the end of episode three, when the Flag-Smashers commit one completely uncharacteristic, irredeemably brutal act of violence, bombing a storehouse full of innocent people. Up until that point, they had only occasionally had to resort to violence, always against corporations rather than humans: in fact, their mission to smuggle vaccines, food, and other resources into refugee camps around Europe seemed fairly noble, and was just getting really interesting.
And then comes that one act of horrible violence: all it takes to permanently stamp the Flag-Smashers with the “villain” label and cast their nobility into question. Only three people die in the ensuing cataclysm (a number I actually find shockingly low, given how much of the building was on flames last we saw it), but it’s three too many. And, given how the series only now allows the Flag-Smashers a chance to tell their side of the story, it was clearly taken as a preventive measure by the writers to make sure they can’t fully win our empathy, much less our trust, and so by extension neither can their message…which, incidentally, is fervently anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist.
The Falcon And The Winter Soldier reduces what could have been a significantly more complex conversation between a genuinely empathetic Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and a status-quo-upending Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) into a clear-cut moral debate about violence that side-skirts (and distracts from) any meaningful discussion about the Flag-Smashers’ agenda entirely, where Sam can only go so far as to say “I agree with your fight. I just can’t get with the way you’re fightin’ it,” because that’s as far as he can go without endorsing the murder of innocent civilians. The Flag-Smashers could have presented the writers an opportunity to tackle a sensitive but timely topic, but they shied away from the conversation instead.
It doesn’t even feel authentic for Sam’s character, who deserved the emotional growth that could have come from having the chance to feel more morally conflicted about the Flag-Smashers’ war on injustices much like the ones Sam and his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) have been fighting for a long time on the show. But with the Flag-Smashers now murdering people left and right, and “Captain America” himself, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) also a very high-profile murderer after the events of this episode, it looks like Sam is being positioned to rise like a falcon between the two opposing forces and their ideologies by the end of the series…which makes me fear the ultimate moral of the story will be to meet your enemies half-way and compromise.
All that being said, the eventual meeting between Sam and Karli is still a powerful scene, taking place at a gloomy funeral service in Riga, Latvia, for Mama Donya, Karli’s mother-figure and the matriarch of her community. There’s a subtle yet impactful beat as the scene opens, where Karli, delivering a speech to the onlookers with a small child nestled in the crook of her arm, suddenly catches sight of Sam watching from the mezzanine – and immediately passes the child in her arms to another character, the implication being that she fears she’s about to be shot dead by a sniper’s bullet, and won’t use the infant as a human shield.
If The Falcon And The Winter Soldier won’t make her truly sympathetic, it would at least be worthwhile to examine this aspect of the character, her surprising duality, in greater depth: if for no other reason than that Kellyman is a brilliant actress, and it’s frankly a little insulting that her character keeps being called “a kid” in the show, as if Kellyman’s not in her early twenties, and Karli Morgenthau is somehow not responsible for her own actions. I hate having to classify her as a villain, but I’m not gonna sit here and deny that she was the one who planted the car-bomb. What makes her so interesting is her ability to switch from gentle to fearsome in an instant, and the responsibility she takes for that, much like another character on this show.
But Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) actually keeps his cool this week, being content to lean back and enjoy the show as Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and her small team of Dora Milaje warriors from Wakanda arrive looking for Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl, a fan-favorite thanks to his awkward dance on last week’s episode). After giving Bucky eight hours to hand over Zemo, the Dora Milaje go for the kill: taking on everybody at once in a melee battle, including John Walker and his partner, Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett). The result is the best action sequence not just in this episode, but in the series thus far, although I feel like budgetary constraints probably prevented the Dora Milaje from using their electric spears the way they were intended.
Even apart from their fighting skills, the Dora Milaje are developed as characters, with Ayo and Bucky sharing an intense flashback scene set six years prior to the events of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, while Bucky was living in Wakanda – though, again, budget constraints necessitate that the scene be set somewhere in the forest surrounding Wakanda. Technically, there’s a good reason for this: Ayo is testing Bucky’s resistance to his HYDRA programming, and wants him as far from the city and its people as possible. Bucky is ultimately able to suppress the Winter Soldier programming, but we later learn that Shuri designed his new vibranium arm to be much easier to remove in battle, leaving Bucky bewildered when Ayo does just that.
John Walker, on the other hand, escapes with all his limbs intact but one seriously bruised ego – lamenting to Hoskins that he can’t keep up with any of his enemies physically…which probably explains why he, unlike Steve Rogers, carries a handgun as part of his gear. Walker isn’t the Cap that America needs, but his weapon of choice makes him the Cap that America would predictably end up being saddled with anyway: a vainglorious, gun-toting, white guy who publicly murders an unarmed Flag-Smasher at the end of the episode, quite likely beheading the man based on the way the shot is framed, and then having the audacity to lift the blood-stained shield and stare unapologetically into the cameras capturing every moment of his rampage. Yikes.
And by that point in the episode, John Walker has also finally recovered one of the vials of Super-Soldier Serum stolen by Karli Morgenthau from Madripoor, and used it to juice himself up with a physical boost that puts him on par with the Flag-Smashers. This is a John Walker who’s at the peak of his career and celebrity, who should and very easily could have left the Flag-Smashers alone at that point and gone his own way. Instead, he recklessly attacks Morgenthau’s hide-out, and she, presuming both him and Lamar Hoskins to have used the Serum, throws Hoskins into a stone pillar, breaking his back and killing him instantly. It’s shockingly graphic, but what comes next, with Walker using the shield as a murder weapon, is just as horrific.
The episode leaves on a weird kind of cliffhanger: John Walker’s next move is obviously going to be extremely important, but Sam and Bucky don’t really have a clear objective now – they’ve been reluctant to confront Walker, but now might be the moment things change, and they’re forced to do so to save not only the world, but Steve Rogers’ legacy. Meanwhile, Zemo has completely disappeared, after evading capture by the Dora Milaje and pursuing Morgenthau himself, leading to a gunfight which breaks off when Zemo discovers several vials of Morgenthau’s Serum and crushes them one-by-one under his heel, in an attempt to end the line of Super-Soldiers permanently. Say what you will about him, but at least he’s consistent in his motives.
And then there’s Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who, in just a few scenes, is looking more and more like the Power Broker behind the creation of the new strain of Serum. She somehow has access to satellites that are able to pinpoint John Walker (who had just taken the Serum, perhaps suggesting that Sharon’s tech is able to detect the chemical compound), and these satellites act as her “eyes in the sky” – wording eerily similar to the tagline “The Power Broker Is Watching” that we see graffitied on buildings in Madripoor and in the closing credits. My only question is what Sharon would be doing with the Serum, since she doesn’t seem to have a clear motive just yet: stealing valuable art is risky, but does it require an army of superhuman warriors?
I do feel as though the biggest enemy to The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is, unfortunately, a lack of time to properly explore all of its many subplots and storylines, but we have two episodes left in which the series can hopefully regain some footing, while remaining entertaining and action-packed. Right now, it’s just downsized its powerful thematic punch to a light swat, a result of too many different ideas pulling focus from Sam Wilson’s mission to regain the shield and become Captain America…which should be the central thrust of the narrative, and right now feels like it’s going to have to be forced into the finale as an afterthought.
Episode Rating: 6.5/10