I honestly don’t know what we did to deserve The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
It’s a pop-cultural panacea. It’s a show about race, about power, about trauma. It’s got buddy cop goodness, nods to deep Marvel lore, but most importantly, it’s a show about what America is – or could be.
Last week, we had Captain frat-boy, brain still fizzing with post-Afghanistan PTSD, snapping. John Walker took the super soldier serum, then basically practically beheaded a member of Morgenthau’s increasingly dicey band of Flag Smashers with his shield. The shield. It was… not a good look.
But then again, this is 2021. When cops are gunning black kids down in the street, a uniform is a fraught thing. Symbols are complicated. They shouldn’t be – the shield that forms a police badge should be nothing more than a clean, clear, pure symbol of quite literally protecting all those who need protection – but with the wrong person behind that shield, shit gets bad.
It gets bad fast.
And if you don’t think that’s been a core message of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, you’ve been watching a different show.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
There’s also an unflinchingly muted tone to this episode. When Sam Wilson goes to visit Isaiah Bradley, what we’re treated to isn’t a high-octane flashback of the young, black Captain America in action. In this universe, the government never let Bradley wear the uniform – he was a super-soldier, a test subject. Nothing more. But he’s living proof of what happens when a country, one riven with racism, decides that its standard-bearer probably should look… well, like Steve Rogers.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Steve Rogers, who has disappeared to god knows where (perhaps back to his alternate timeline where he married Peggy and likely saved the world), would be horrified at the treatment of Isaiah Bradley. But Steve also picked Sam to bear his shield because Steve is a truly good person. The only reason people are clamoring over the shield is because Steve made it what it is: he was the image of American values as they could be, as they should be. And that’s what Sam is, too. It’s complicated, as this episode asserts, but doing the right thing often is complicated.
This episode has some incredible pacing. It opens with our heroes literally breaking the petulant Captain Chin-merica’s arm to remove the shield (a very, very satisfying moment). Then, it spends much of its time ruminating on race, or functioning as a rolling, almost relaxing narrative wherein the long-tortured Bucky finally begins to heal. Watching him flirt with Sam’s sister, or laugh at Sam’s nephews as they play with the shield, is up there with the best content in the series to date.
Then, there’s the fact that he and Sam seem to begrudgingly adore each other now. They feel like brothers, crashing at the family home, ribbing one another, doing chores. It’s love, is what it is. After five episodes, we finally have a duo who are going to be the ones to watch in the next few big moves in the MCU.
…Oh, and then there’s Julia Louis Dreyfus as Madam Masque. That shit was, in the words of Oscar… WILDE.
Finally, let’s wind things back to John Walker. Is he bad? Yes.
Did the American Government make him bad? Perhaps.
There’s a lot to unpack with Walker, specifically this: are soldiers heroes, just because they do what they’re told? Are you a hero simply for wearing the uniform, for bearing the flag? What John went through didn’t – he points out, quite frankly – feel heroic. As my friend Sami Shah pointed out recently, when Steve fought, he fought Nazis. Proper bad guys. No grey areas. Nowadays, however, war is muddy. Lines are blurred. Steve was Captain America because he acted out of principle, and he didn’t actually seek power.
He only ever referred to himself as Steve. John Walker acted out of duty and did seek power. And as this episode showed, John will, whilst literally slavering over the prone body of a true hero, scream that he is Captain America. In short: is America a protector? Or is it a bully? Because whoever carries the shield needs to pick a lane.
This show is growing more complex every week.
Hopefully, next week’s finale lets us see a (wingless?) black Captain America, ready to hit the streets of New York and perhaps begin page one of a new chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And if this episode taught us anything, he’ll have backup.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is streaming on Disney+.