“The Falcon And The Winter Soldier” Episode 5 Review!

SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!

Billed by the series’ producers as the single best episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier from a thematic standpoint, and highly-anticipated in the fandom due to its rumored inclusion of an epic Marvel Comics cameo, episode five – which bears the simple yet potent subtitle, “Truth” – delivers overwhelmingly on both fronts, diving into a timely discussion about Black identity in America while precisely utilizing the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus to plant seeds for MCU storylines in the near future. After drifting slightly off-course in episode four, the series has regained its footing and the focus is back where it belongs, on Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)’s journey of reconciliation.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Sam Wilson | theguardian.com

Louis-Dreyfus’ unexpected cameo as Marvel’s famous Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is a big deal for comic-book fans, probably deserving of its own breakdown, but The Falcon And The Winter Soldier very wisely doesn’t belabor the point, slipping the charismatic Contessa into just a single early scene before having her exit just as mysteriously as she arrived, leaving a blank business card and a promise to “keep in touch” in her wake. It hasn’t been confirmed if she’ll show up again in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s upcoming finale, but there’s no question we’ll be seeing more of Louis-Dreyfus in the MCU soon, as her character’s sprawling comics history gives her plenty of potential story directions from which to choose.

But all the Easter eggs in the Marvel Multiverse (and there are thousands) can only go so far when it comes to crafting a truly meaningful story. Thankfully, that’s why The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is blessed to have a head writer like Malcolm Spellman, who uses the series’ penultimate episode to develop a profound commentary on the sacrifices Black people in America are expected to make every day for a country built by and for white supremacy…and how Sam Wilson’s fight to protect what he sees as the legacy of Captain America isn’t anywhere near as simple as it would be for a white man.

That’s something even Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) comes to acknowledge later in the episode, apologizing to Sam for all the times he questioned his decision to give up Captain America’s shield, and specifically for never once considering how Sam’s identity as a Black man factored into that controversial decision. It’s a powerful moment that recognizes Sam’s Blackness as a crucial element of his character in-universe that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed, even when that makes white characters and viewers uncomfortable; especially when that necessitates reevaluating Hollywood’s so-called “colorblind” strategy of treating characters as paper dolls, and racial and cultural identities as interchangeable outfits.

But that’s a moment. And in too many cases, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s best scenes have been mere moments – due to occasionally poor pacing and the nearly consistent issue of time constraints. The latter is at least not a problem in today’s hour-long episode, which makes room for one extended dramatic sequence that I suspect will still be hailed as the series’ thematic high-point even after next week’s finale. In a story that revolves around Black identity, it’s no surprise that this incredible sequence is focused exclusively on two Black men – Sam Wilson and Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), who meet up at Isaiah’s house on the outskirts of Baltimore, with Sam initially intending to give the old man a chance to see Captain America’s shield.

And as Sam approaches the house, with the shield wrapped up in brown paper, it’s easy to envision how that hypothetical could have played out with a different screenwriter; all tears of joy and feel-good vibes. But Isaiah stops him in his tracks, recognizing the shield before Sam ever gets a chance to unwrap it. “Leave it covered,” he tells Sam bluntly. Them stars and stripes don’t mean nothin’ good to me.”

At last, Isaiah finally gets a chance to tell his story. It’s not a comfortable one, particularly for anyone who recognizes the intentional parallels between his account and the history of the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted on Black men between 1932 and 1972. Isaiah describes how he and the other men in his facility were told they were being treated for tetanus, though in reality their bodies were being used by the US Government as expendable vessels on which to test out experimental versions of the Super-Soldier Serum – all part of a race to recreate what Isaiah describes as the “great white hope” of Steve Rogers; the same race being run by John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a living still-frame of whiteness in action.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Falcon And The Winter Soldier | leftoye.com

Lumbly’s performance throughout the sequence is so vividly and excruciatingly present, there’s no need for dramatized flashbacks even as Isaiah tells of his escape-attempt, and the thirty years he spent in prison on charges of treason while the experiments continued, and he was slowly drained of his superhuman blood, his resolve to live, and his sense of self. He was mutilated, erased from history, and, upon being released, forced into hiding. The fact that his blood now flows in John Walker’s veins backs up his pessimistic worldview: his entire life was reduced to the parts of him that could be mined to create more juiced-up white guys.

But it’s what Isaiah has to say about Sam that cuts most deeply: like an emotional gut-punch on par with, if not far exceeding, Vision’s profound analysis of grief in WandaVision. “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever wanna be.” It’s probably one of the most powerful lines ever spoken in the MCU, so quietly paradigm-altering that it demands a response from Sam – but since we don’t get to hear one because the scene ends there, we’ll have to see his response instead, through his actions. I don’t trust Disney to make the right call here, but it would be incredibly empowering to see Sam come out of this unaffiliated with the American government in any way.

To be honest, I don’t see another option that makes sense given how far Sam has progressed. He’s already shed his identity as the Falcon, symbolically passing his wings along to Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez); who, if the comics are to be trusted, will get plenty of use out of them. And while he could still use the Captain America moniker, he’s clearly sympathetic to the motives, though not the methods, of the anarchist Flag-Smashers – which probably wouldn’t make him too popular with any government, least of all the United States’.

The Flag-Smashers are an example of a subplot that has been meandering so long it feels pointless, only barely being kept afloat by Erin Kellyman’s performance as Karli Morgenthau. The group is apparently being secretly assisted by Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who breaks Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) out of jail and sends him along to New York City to help the Flag-Smashers orchestrate a hostage crisis that will shape next week’s finale – though the nighttime setting gives me concern that we won’t be able to fully appreciate the splendor of Sam Wilson’s new set of wings, which I believe to be the unspecified Wakandan-designed gift left behind at Sam’s house after Bucky stops by to help him fix up his family’s old fishing-trawler.

Separate from Sam, Bucky’s journey also starts strolling off on its own, leading him to the memorial in Sokovia namedropped two weeks ago by Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), whom Bucky finds there. In a slightly strange turn of events, Bucky aims a gun at Zemo’s head and pulls the trigger, only to then reveal that he removed the bullets…some emotionally manipulative payback for all of Zemo’s own manipulations. The Dora Milaje arrive to escort Zemo to The Raft, the high-security underwater prison seen in Civil War that is totally a great place to be holding one of the most dangerous criminals in the world.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine | meaww.com

Obviously he won’t be there for long, but I have a feeling his time on The Falcon And The Winter Soldier may have come to an end. With a mid-credits scene revealing that John Walker is hard at work on his own handcrafted replica of Captain America’s shield (is anyone gonna tell him it needs vibranium to actually be effective, or…no? Okay), all our focus in next week’s finale will have to be on the action-packed showdown between Walker, Morgenthau, Barnes, Wilson…and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which is a bizarre yet wonderful twist of fate that I can’t wait to watch spiral out across the MCU.

Episode Rating: 9/10

Wakanda Was Right Not To Totally Trust Bucky – Sorry, Not Sorry

SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!

And…here we go again. Another week, another episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, another round of unbearable Twitter discourse about the white people in this show while the Black lead continues to be, at best, overshadowed, and at worst, actively undermined, by this very type of discourse. And this week’s episode didn’t even center on Sam Wilson as much as it could have with better writing, but it focused even less on Bucky Barnes – and yet the new discourse predictably revolves around the latter.

Wakanda
Bucky and Ayo | digitalspy.com

This week, it’s actor/director Stephen Ford who failed the “try-to-have-a-meaningful-conversation-about-The-Falcon-And-The-Winter-Soldier-without-constantly-centering-whiteness” challenge. While most of us were acknowledging the sheer awesomeness of the Dora Milaje warriors, and getting even more hyped about the upcoming Wakanda Disney+ series that will surely explore their adventures and inspiring teamwork, Ford took to Twitter to share his own deeply cringeworthy take on one of the best scenes in the series (and by far the best action sequence), in which Ayo and the Dora Milaje battle Sam Wilson, Bucky Barnes, John Walker, and Lemar Hoskins.

In a matter of minutes, the Dora Milaje have soundly defeated all four men – and only fail in their ultimate goal to capture Baron Zemo because Sam and Bucky insisted on getting involved in the fight to protect John Walker’s fragile ego, allowing the Baron to escape in the chaos. Sam almost holds his own, but Ayo makes short work of Bucky, swiftly and decisively activating what is implied to be a secret failsafe built into his Wakandan-made vibranium arm, causing the appendage to simply pop off.

The moment is shocking, and is clearly supposed to provoke an emotional reaction from the viewer – but if your takeaway is that the Wakandans are “really messed up” manipulative monsters who violated Bucky’s bodily autonomy, then I encourage you to rewatch the scene: and this time, not through the filter of whiteness. Because the entire sequence is far more complex and nuanced than that, and exemplifies everything I love most about The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s masterful way of tackling very serious topics.

Ford’s argument, which I had already seen being voiced by melodramatic Bucky stans before he posted his tweet, is that Bucky was betrayed by the Wakandans who designed the failsafe in his arm, and that it’s indicative of the way nobody in his life – even those he believes to be friends or allies – actually trust him to have changed or evolved since his time as the brainwashed HYDRA killing-machine known as the Winter Soldier. But for a deep-dive psychological analysis into an already iconic pop-culture moment, it’s embarrassingly shallow, ignoring several crucial bits of context that lend a wholly different meaning to the scene when taken into account.

Firstly, how about we actually talk about why the Dora Milaje were there? They had been dispatched from Wakanda to find Baron Zemo and bring him to justice for assassinating their King T’Chaka – a violent killing that, need I remind you all, Zemo carried out while disguised as Bucky in an attempt to have the Winter Soldier taken captive, thus making him easier for Zemo to later access and brainwash. And yet, when the Dora Milaje arrive in Riga, they find Bucky now willingly aiding and abetting Zemo – something that has to hurt them all, after what they did to help Bucky heal and recover from Zemo’s manipulation.

And sure, you could argue that Bucky had a valid reason for breaking Zemo out of prison and following him halfway around the world…but at the same time, it is deeply troubling that Bucky hasn’t once mentioned what he planned to do with Zemo after he and Sam had gotten the information they needed from the killer. At this point, anything remotely resembling a plan has now gone out the window (or, rather, the sewer tunnel), thanks to Zemo’s escape: but the Dora Milaje are validated in their distrust of Bucky, because all he’s done is call Zemo “a means to an end”, as if that makes his actions more ethical, without explaining whether he ever intended to hand Zemo over to the Wakandans, or back to the German authorities.

Wakanda
Ayo | superherohype.com

Secondly, let’s talk about the arm in question for a moment, shall we? Designed by the Wakandans out of vibranium, their nation’s most rare, precious, and frequently stolen resource, the fact that that arm even exists is proof that Wakanda trusted Bucky enough not to go on a homicidal rampage strangling people to death, as is the fact that Ayo leaves the arm with Bucky after their battle instead of taking it with her. But…that arm is still a weapon; a dangerous and potentially very destructive weapon.

And Ayo, by activating the failsafe in the arm, isn’t telling Bucky she distrusts him. She’s reminding him – without even having to say a word, though she does throw in a whispered “Bast damn you, James” for good measure – that Wakanda did trust him, that they made the choice to weaponize him believing he had changed, and that he betrayed that trust: not by devolving into the Winter Soldier again, not by going on a murder spree or anything like that, but by having the audacity to defend Zemo after everything he did to hurt the people who helped Bucky escape him in the first place.

There’s a reason society overemphasizes the virtue of trust – because whiteness relies on people putting their total, unwavering, trust in fundamentally corrupt individuals and systems which are then free to exploit, abuse, and weaponize that trust against people of color, and particularly Black people. Unconditional trust is extremely dangerous, and if you want a good example, look no further than American nationalism, which is horrifically embodied in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier by John Walker. The entire show is about this idea of unconditional trust being the weapon of the oppressor, and about how Black people specifically have known this for a very long time.

So no, the Wakandans not putting total trust in Bucky isn’t a fault of theirs. It’s a defense mechanism – just like the literal failsafe they built into his arm. It’s not monstrous, it’s not manipulative, and it’s not messed up.

Wakanda
Bucky Barnes | gamerant.com

You know what is? That every week, the discourse that comes out of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier immediately centers whiteness and white characters in a story that is all about the dangers of doing just that. But with two episodes left and two more weeks of what will have to be some extraordinarily bad “hot takes” in order to top this one, I hope I can use my blog responsibly to help fight this trend.

“The Falcon And The Winter Soldier” Episode 4 Review!

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.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
John Walker | theguardian.com

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.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Falcon and the Winter Soldier | indianexpress.com

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.

Falcon And The Winter Soldier
Sharon Carter…aka the Power Broker? | cinemablend.com

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