Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier. As always, there are spoilers ahead, and this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fourth episode. I’ll beg the reader’s patience in advance; I quote dialogue fairly extensively from this episode, as much of what people say here reveals character and provides depth to the series’ ongoing themes: power, powerlessness, race, class, and communal responsibility.
Hope and cynicism, death and zealotry. No doubt it sounds strange coming from someone who’s devoted as much of their life to cataloging and absorbing these stories as I have, but I believe the only really inherently compelling thing about the characters populating super-hero universes is the extremity — the purity, the certainty — of their belief systems. There’s an entire constellation of overlapping (and often conflicting) motives, methods, and philosophies at work in this episode, but one thing practically everyone here has in common is a devout belief in the essential rightness of their cause, or at least that their actions, however questionable, will be justified by the end result. And as we’ll see, competing ideas about Captain America — both the person and the legacy — will once again come into play, and then some.
Our story opens around a campfire in Wakanda a half dozen years past, Bucky Barnes staring pensively into the fire, Ayo of the Dora Milaje standing nearby. “It is time,” says Ayo.
“Are you sure about this?” he asks her.
“I won’t let you hurt anyone,” she says. It’s not a threat but reassurance. She begins repeating the Russian code words that have in the past activated the kill on demand Winter Soldier…but this time, though the words bring up a host of incredibly unpleasant and haunting memories and associations, Bucky Barnes remains Bucky Barnes. Sebastian Stan has been good in all his appearances as the Winter Soldier, but he gets to stretch his talents here in a way that he’s rarely tasked to do. His eyes fill and overflow with tears. It’s a lifetime’s worth of guilt over having been made an instrument of murder, and relief that he can no longer be used as such.
“You are free,” says Ayo, and if that seems wildly optimistic — can or even should anyone be free of something like this? — her point is taken, and well-meant.
Back to the present in Latvia, and Ayo’s got some hard questions for her old friend Bucky Barnes. Namely, she’s awfully curious as to how, after all that Wakanda has done for him, Bucky could conspire to free Zemo, the man who killed Wakanda’s king, T’Chaka.It happened in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Bucky’s swiftly diminishing cache with the Wakandans buys him a little time. “Eight hours, White Wolf,” Ayo tells him, “Then we come for him.”
Bucky returns to Zemo’s safe house and tells his companions the Wakandans are in Riga, after Zemo.
“It was sweet of you to defend me, at least,” says Zemo.
“Hey, you shut it,” says Sam. “No one’s defending you. You killed Nagel.” That’d be Dr. Wilfred Nagel, the designer of the current super-soldier serum, last episode in Madripoor.
Zemo gets off what may be the funniest, most deadpan line in MCU history: “Do we really have to litigate what may or may not have happened?” Like everyone in the room wasn’t standing right there, two feet away from him when he shot a creepy scientist guy in cold blood.
While Sam is reasonably insisting there’s nothing to litigate — “You straight shot the man!” — Bucky reads the news that Karli Morgenthau and her Flag Smashers have bombed a GRC supply depot, killing three and injuring another eleven, and have issued demands promising more attacks if their demands aren’t met.
“She’s getting worse,” Zemo says, and strongly suggests that there’s really only one way to complete this particular mission. He questions whether Sam and Bucky have the will to go that far. Sam tells him Karli’s just a kid.
“You’re seeing something in her that isn’t there,” says Zemo. “You’re clouded by it. She’s a supremacist. The very concept of a super-soldier will always trouble people. It’s that warped aspiration that led to Nazis, to Ultron, to the Avengers.”
Sam admits that Karli’s radicalized, but insists there must be a peaceful way to stop her. Zemo disagrees: “The desire to become a super- human cannot be separated from supremacist ideals. Anyone with that serum is inherently on that path. She will not stop. She will escalate until you kill her. Or she kills you.” The camera pushes in close on Zemo when he’s saying this, suggesting both that he believes what he’s saying, and that it’s important to him. Zemo’s notions concerning supremacy and the desire to be powerful is something that he and other characters will kick around for the rest of this episode.
Bucky thinks maybe Zemo is wrong. He reminds Zemo that the serum never corrupted Steve Rogers, the original Captain America.
Zemo concedes the point, but, “There has never been another Steve Rogers, has there?”
Reasoning that the recently deceased Donya Madani was something of a community leader, Sam wonders if the refugee community suspected of harboring Karli might have a sort of service or ceremony for Madani. It’s as good a lead as any.
Meanwhile, Karli and her fellow super-soldier Flag Smashers are seen absorbing media accounts of their supply depot operation. One of the dead workers was a father of two who’d only been on the job for a week. If any of the Flag Smashers have regrets about being made de facto accomplices to murder, they don’t say so. In response to the violence, we’re told the GRC has begun formally drafting legislation, the Patch Act, which would restore traditional border regulations…precisely the opposite effect that Karli had intended.
Arriving at the GRC Resettlement Camp building in Riga — a place Zemo remembers hosting ‘fabulous dinners and parties’ in his youth — Sam, Bucky, and Zemo try questioning the residents about Donya Madani. They’re met for the most part with sullen stares and closing doors. It struck me as curious that there didn’t appear to be any security or GRC personnel whatsoever present. No guards, no administrators, no liaisons, no one to take note of the comings and goings of anyone in the camp, and nothing to stop outsiders from strolling in at any time to stir up trouble or take advantage of some very vulnerable people. Also, it’s not as if Karli Morgenthau is some unknown person working under cover of anonymity. She’s all over the news, she’s highly distinctive physically — no one’s going to mistake Karli Morgenthau for anyone but Karli Morgenthau — and plenty of people know that she has ties to the refugees in these various GRC camps, if not ties to this specific camp. I’m just saying, it’s a little surprising that Zemo, Sam, and Bucky are apparently the first and only hounds to bark up this particular tree.
Sam does at least manage to find a teacher willing to speak to him, if only to tell him that, despite knowing who he is and perhaps even believing that he has the best intentions, outsiders to the camp aren’t to be trusted. Zemo, smarter and more pragmatic, has better luck, appealing to the camp’s children with a bag of candy. From them, he learns when and where Donya Madani’s funeral will be.
Throughout this series and through this episode in particular, it’s Sam Wilson who, over and over, evinces Captain America qualities: not just bravery and capability, but also kindness, compassion, and empathy. It’s Sam who advocates for approaching Karli peacefully, and it’s Sam who’s able to articulate the Flag Smashers’ position, the reason for their bitterness and resentment, to Zemo and Bucky: “Karli is the only one fighting for them, and she’s not wrong. For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that have kept them out using barbed wire. There were houses and jobs. Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild. It wasn’t just one community coming together, it was the entire world coming together. And then, boom, just like that, it goes right back to the way it used to be. To them, at least Karli’s doing something.”
What Karli’s doing practically as they speak is retrieving the remaining vials of the super-soldier serum from their hiding place in a cemetery, at the grave of her companion’s grandfather. According to the IMDB credits, this companion’s name is Nico, played by Noah Mills, and I assume he shares a last name, Kovaczsik, with his grandfather. Karli wonders whether she’s doing the right thing, using the serum to make more enhanced humans sympathetic to their cause. Nico tells her that his grandfather, a resistance fighter who fought Nazis, used to say that if you were doing something and it made you scared, it was probably because it was the right thing. Nico admits to being a fan of Captain America as a kid, and that he didn’t think there could be another Captain America until he met Karli. Nico says that people need a leader that looks like them, that understands their pain. “Someone who understands that today’s heroes don’t have the luxury of keeping their hands clean. What we’re doing will outlive the legacy of that shield.”
“That shield is a monument to a bygone era,” says Karli. “A reminder of all the people history just left out. If anything, that shield should be destroyed.”
It’s interesting that each Flag Smasher in this scene unwittingly echoes the thoughts and guiding principles of some of their opponents. Nico’s belief that the ends justify the means, that a harsher new era might need harsher new heroes to respond to it, is very similar to statements we hear from John Walker and Lemar Hoskins. And Karli herself, with her myopic absolutism, finds her ideological counterpart in Baron Zemo. Things are this way, this way and no other, however one might wish it otherwise. In many ways, Karli and Nico either are, or are well on their way to becoming, the very thing they’re opposing. You become what you fight.
Sam contacts Sharon Carter back in Madripoor, looking to get an extra set of eyes on the camp. Sharon allows that she might still have access to a satellite or two (no surprise, if she’s still the CIA agent I think she is). (It makes me wonder why Walker and Hoskins, a pair of operatives openly, actively employed by some branch of the government or other, don’t seem to be utilizing their own available assets in this manner, but why nitpick?) Sharon tells Sam that the killing of Nagel has angered the Power Broker and stirred up a whole mess of trouble in Madripoor, and like everything Sharon says, it might be true, or it might be complete bullshit, or some unholy marriage of the two.
No sooner do Sam, Bucky, and Zemo set foot out their door on the way to Donya Madani’s funeral but they come face to face with John Walker and Lemar Hoskins.
“How’d you find us now?” asks an exasperated Bucky.
“Come on,” says Lemar, “you really think two Avengers can walk around Latvia without drawing attention?” He’s got a point. Bucky hasn’t exactly been operating in stealth mode; instead, he’s been walking around by the cold light of day with a world famous super-hero and an equally infamous terrorist in a Superfly coat.
Walker advocates for hitting the funeral hard and fast, but Sam argues for talking to Karli alone, and he’s backed up by Lemar, who reasons that if there’s a possibility for ending the matter peacefully, why not take the chance? Walker grudgingly acquiesces, but I’m not sure he should.
One, Walker’s not wrong when he suggests that the time for reason is past; Karli did blow up a building with people still in it, purposefully and with murderous intent, and no one’s going to be forgiving or forgetting that any time soon. Two, at last count, Karli had at least a half dozen enhanced super-humans with her, and for all Sam Wilson or John Walker knows, could now have a dozen more (she doesn’t, but none of the people pursuing her know that). Three, however well-intentioned he may be, Sam Wilson is just speaking for himself. He’s not in a position to offer deals, immunity, reduced sentencing, increased supplies to the camps, or any other thing that Karli doesn’t already have. What is Sam really offering? A life sentence in prison next to Zemo? There’s zero motivation for Karli to surrender; doing so won’t make life any better for her or for the people she’s attempting to represent.
Walker handcuffs Zemo to a furnace in the basement of the building where the funeral is being held and tells Sam he’s got ten minutes, then “we’re doing things my way.”
There are maybe a hundred or so refugees or mourners at the service. Karli delivers a speech that’s one part eulogy, one part revolutionary oration. She notices Sam on the floor above, watching and listening as the service concludes.
When the people have gone, Sam approaches Karli, telling her he came alone. “I just want to talk,” he says.
“Bold of you,” says Karli.
Sam tells her that he’s sorry for her loss, that he understands Karli’s frustration and helplessness, but that this doesn’t need to be a war. Karli says the war was started when people were kicked out of their new homes and on to the street. “People around the world need me. Millions of them.” It’s a weird mix of youth, rage, idealism, and megalomania that Karli has going on.
“You want me to stop because people are getting hurt,” she says, “but Sam…what if I’m making the world a better place?”
“It’s not a better place if you’re killing people. It’s just different.”
That makes Karli laugh. “You’re either brilliant, or just hopelessly optimistic.”
“Can’t I be a little bit of both?”
Meanwhile, an increasingly shaky John Walker — observe the unstable handheld camera work in his shots — is close to jumping the gun on his own ten minute mark. When Bucky stops him from going in, Walker brings up the super-soldier serum running in Bucky’s veins, speculating on how all this is really easy for him. It’s an odd note of insecurity from a guy who’s holding Captain America’s shield and has three Congressional Medals of Honor sitting on his trophy shelf at home.
Sam Wilson floats Zemo’s supremacist idea to Karli. No surprise, Karli doesn’t see herself in those terms at all. “That’s ridiculous. Everything I’m doing is to end supremacy. These corporations and the beasts that run them, they’re the supremacists.”
“You’re killing innocent people.”
“They’re not innocent. They’re roadblocks in my journey and I’d kill them again if I had to.” You can hear how young she is here, in her projection of certainty.
“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. You tricked me into sounding like…”
“Like what?” Like a supremacist, I’d imagine, though Sam doesn’t say so. “I’m not your enemy. I agree with your fight. I just can’t get with the way you’re fighting it. And I’m sure she [Donya Madani] wouldn’t either.”
Whatever Karli might’ve said or however she would’ve responded is lost as John Walker makes an unwelcome appearance, announcing that Karli is under arrest. Karli punches Walker and flees, with Bucky in pursuit. She loses him but comes to face to face with Zemo, who’s escaped his cuffs — people like him always find a way — and promptly shoots Karli with a pistol he’s procured from God knows where. As she scrambles for cover, the pack she has with the remaining vials of super-soldier serum come loose, spilling out on to the floor.
“Is this what I think it is?” says Zemo. He begins smashing the vials, while Nico hustles in and helps move Karli to safety. Before Zemo can smash all the vials, Captain America’s shield hits him in the head, knocking him out cold. John Walker notices one last vial that’d rolled away, and puts it in his pocket just before Sam, Bucky, and Lemar arrive on the scene.
Nico reports to Karli afterward that all the vials of the serum have been destroyed. While Karli and her fellow remaining super-soldiers come up with a plan for separating the Sam Wilson / John Walker contingents, and then killing Captain America, Sam is back at Zemo’s safe house, contacting Sharon and asking her to keep her satellite coverage on Walker.
Baron Zemo is recovering with a stiff drink and a cool compress on a nearby couch, and why Walker didn’t just take custody of him while he was unconscious, I couldn’t say. Zemo asks Sam if he was ever offered the super-soldier serum.
Sam seems to find the question amusing. “No.”
“If you had been, hypothetically, would you have taken it?”
“No hesitation. That’s impressive. Sam, you can’t hold out hope for Karli, no matter what you saw in her. She’s gone. And we cannot allow that she and her acolytes become yet another faction of gods amongst real people. Super-soldiers cannot be allowed to exist.”
“Isn’t that how gods talk? And if that’s how you feel, what about Bucky? Blood isn’t always the solution.”
Bucky returns — “Something’s not right about Walker,” he says — and hard on the heels of that, Walker himself shows up, kicking open the door and strolling on in. “All right, that’s it, let’s go. I’m now ordering you to turn him over,” meaning Zemo.
“Hey, slow your roll,” Sam tells him. “Let’s be clear, shield or no shield, the only thing you’re running in here is your mouth. Now I had Karli, and you overstepped. He’s actually proven himself useful today, and we’re gonna need all hands on deck for whatever’s coming next.”
Walker bristles up. “How do you want the rest of this conversation to go, Sam? Yeah. Should I put down the shield? Make it fair?” He puts down the shield, while his partner Lemar Hoskins looks at him like he’s maybe lost his goddamn mind, and then…
Three members of the Dora Milaje of Wakanda enter, who announce their presence with a spear thrown across the room and embedded in a wall between Sam and Walker.
Ayo, speaking Wakandan, tells Bucky, “Even if he [Zemo] is a means to your end, time’s up.” In English: “Release him to us. Now.”
Walker attempts to introduce himself to Ayo. “Hi. John Walker, Captain America.” She just looks at him, a withering glare that says I’ve met Captain America, and you, sir, are no Captain America. Getting no response from Ayo, Walker says, “Well, let’s, uh, put down the pointy sticks and we can talk this through, huh?”
“Hey, John,” says Sam. “Take it easy. You might want to fight Bucky before you tangle with the Dora Milaje.”
“The Dora Milaje don’t have jurisdiction here,” says Walker.
“The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be,” says Ayo.
Walker tells her he thinks they just got off on the wrong foot, and claps a hand on her shoulder. Ayo rolls for initiative, and an ass-whupping commences, courtesy of the king of Wakanda’s ceremonial wives. Walker and Hoskins get a beat-down while Sam, Zemo, and Bucky (“Looking strong, John!”) watch. Sam and Bucky finally intervene when it looks like Walker and Hoskins are about to be fatally dispatched by the Milaje, while Zemo takes the opportunity to finish his drink and make himself scarce. He escapes into the bathroom and locks the doors behind him.
Sam and Bucky don’t fare much better than Walker and Hoskins, though in their case, both they and the Milaje are probably reluctant to really let loose against people they consider friends. Ayo ends her fight with Bucky by disconnecting his cybernetic arm from his body, something Bucky didn’t know she could do.This arm was designed by the Wakandans and given to Bucky in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). She opens the doors behind which Zemo disappeared, to find a hidden tunnel he’s used to escape, while Walker’s Milaje opponent — according to IMDB, her name is Yama, while the third Milaje is named Nombie — has taken Captain America’s shield from him. With Zemo gone, Ayo tells Yama to leave the shield; she gently hands the shield back to a thoroughly defeated Walker, and the Milaje depart. “They weren’t even super-soldiers,” a dazed and dispirited Walker tells Lemar.
Later, recovering over coffee (and signing autographs, of all things!), Walker asks Lemar if he had the chance to take the super-soldier serum, would he do it. Lemar says he would, without hesitation, thinking about all the lives that could be saved. “You wouldn’t worry about how it might change you?” Walker asks. Power just makes a person more themselves, reasons Lemar, offering Karli Morgenthau and Steve Rogers as examples. If you found yourself thinking at this juncture that the sensible and steady Sergeant Major Hoskins would’ve been a far better choice for Captain America than the impulsive, insecurity-driven John Walker, well…you’re not alone.
Back in Louisiana, Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) takes a call from none other than Karli Morgenthau, and like nearly everything Karli does, it’s perhaps the right motive married to the wrong method. The shots of Karli and Sarah in this scene share a sort of compositional harmony, each of them mirroring the other. Karli and Sarah often share the same side of the screen, and share the same type of close ups with out-of-focus backgrounds. The camera wavers slightly forward and back on some of Karli’s shots, perhaps suggesting some uncertainty on her part with regard to her tactics. When the two women disagree, they tend to switch sides of the screen.
“I’ve seen you on the news,” says Sarah. “You’re the leader of the Flag Smashers, those terrorists, right?”
“Revolutionaries, depending on whose side you’re on.”
“Is there a reason you’re calling me?”
“I’m trying to figure out if I need to kill your brother. I thought I could trust him. I got the impression that he and I had some things in common, but then it turns out he’s working for your new Captain America.”
“I didn’t choose him,” says Sarah.
“Who would you have chosen instead?”
“My world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?” The camera is very close in on Sarah here, as with Zemo earlier, suggesting both the truth and the intensity of her statement.
“I like you, Sarah. You remind me of me.”
“Karli, if you believe one thing, believe this: my brother is not working for that man.”
“I hope you’re right. I need to meet with Sam. Alone. I’m gonna send you the coordinates to pass along.”
“Because he needs to know that I’m serious, and I need to know that he won’t betray my trust again. Otherwise, instead of meeting Sam here, I can always meet with you, and A.J., and little Cass there, maybe out back, by the dock?”
Sarah relays the message — all of it — to Sam, who advises her to take her boys and head somewhere safe. Karli instructs Sam to come alone, but he brings Bucky along despite the instructions, and suits up as the Falcon. As might be imagined, Sam is none too pleased about the threat to his sister and his nephews.
Karli tells him she would never hurt his family, nor does she want to hurt Sam; she tells him that he’s just a tool in the regimes she’s looking to destroy, that he’s not hiding behind a shield, and that killing him would be meaningless. Instead, she asks Sam to join her, or at least ‘do the world a favor’ and let her go. Before Sam can make any reply, he’s contacted by Sharon Carter, who’s keeping track of John Walker by satellite. She tells Sam either Walker has found the Flag Smashers or they’ve found him. I’m not entirely sure how she’s found Walker, but okay.
Sam realizes the trap Walker’s in, and sends Bucky to help after a brief confrontation with Karli.
Walker and Lemar have arrived at an unknown location (we’re not told where this is or how or why Walker and Lemar learned of it). The two unwisely split up, with Lemar brutally overpowered and tied up. By the time Sam arrives, Walker is actively fighting with the Flag Smashers…and has clearly taken a dose of the super-soldier serum, evincing super-human strength and durability. Bucky arrives on the scene shortly thereafter, and this time, it’s the Flag Smashers who are surprised and outmatched. Super-human strength or no, the Captain America / Winter Soldier contingent have a lot more training and experience than the Flag Smashers do.
Even so, Nico and Karli very nearly manage to get the upper hand on Walker, who’s narrowly saved by the timely intervention of Lemar, who’d managed to free himself from his constraints. Angry and in the heat of the moment, Karli strikes Lemar with her full force, sending him flying into a stone pillar. If Lemar’s not dead, he’s at the very least not moving and gravely injured. All the participants, Flag Smashers and Avengers alike, are stunned by the sudden escalation of violent consequences….yet one more thing that’s gone directly contrary to Karli Morgenthau’s expectations.
In the face of Walker’s mounting, vengeful rage, the remaining Flag Smashers wisely decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and take the opportunity to flee for their lives. It works for most of them…but not for Nico Kovacszik, grandson of a resistance fighter, who Walker sees after crashing through a window in pursuit. He chases Nico into a public square, savagely beating him and then plunging the edge of his shield into a helpless Nico’s chest. Cell phone cameras record it all — this new Captain America committing brutal murder, the iconic shield covered in a young man’s blood — while Karli watches, stunned and horrified, from one vantage point, and Sam and Bucky from another.
The whole world is watching.
Odds and ends…
- The Dora Milajae are the king of Wakanda’s all-female cadre of personal bodyguards. By tradition, they are ceremonial wives, ‘married’ to the king and to the nation, and their ranks include at least one member from each tribe in Wakanda. The Dora Milaje were created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira, and made their first appearance in Black Panther #1 (Nov 1998).
- As stated earlier, the obvious parallel for Karli is Zemo, but the parallel for the displaced GRC community Karli belongs to is the Wilson family (as well as the Bradley family, out in Baltimore): they’re two sets of people who aren’t really part of a society that surrounds them on all sides. Sarah’s claim that America doesn’t care about her world, so why should she care about its mascot echoes Colin Kaepernick’s, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” One of the things Falcon and the Winter Soldier is explicitly about is the prospect of having not just a new Captain America, but a black Captain America…and not a secret black Captain America like Isaiah Bradley, but a public one. To their credit, Marvel and the showrunners haven’t shied away from this aspect of the show at all.
- Baron Zemo again is the MVP of the episode. Without Zemo to drive things forward, where would everyone else be? Sitting around at home, wondering what to do next.
- There’s an ongoing motif of masks and dehumanization in this series I find interesting. Whether its the Flag Smashers, John Walker, or Baron Zemo, the wearing of masks in Falcon and the Winter Soldier signals a setting aside of humane ideals and behavior in favor of open violence and the raw exercise of power and domination. The masks are used to hide or cover humanity.
- I rather wish the showrunners had gone some other direction with John Walker, or rather, picked a specific direction for him. Crazy or not crazy? Capable or not capable? The show can’t seem to decide from one moment to the next. It’s jarring to go from the John Walker who wants to do his best, who believes in the ideals of Captain America and genuinely seems to want to live up to them, to the John Walker who’s a petulant –and maybe completely crazy — bully, threatening to burst into tears because he got beat up by some Wakandan girls. All of which, I guess, is another way of saying that I wish the show would have just hewed closer to the comics version of John Walker, whose weird mix of positive and negative traits is highly compelling. That John Walker wouldn’t be caught crying on the floor after getting his ass whupped. This wouldn’t be the first fight Walker had ever lost, and it’s unlikely it’d be the last. Everyone in the room — including Sam, Bucky, and Zemo — has lost fights, and plenty of them. They’re a little like professional athletes in that sense; no one likes to lose, but it’s part of the game. I think Walker would reason that if he wants to win fights, he needs to fight better, and that’s about as far as his existential introspection on the matter would go. Walker would likely be of the opinion that his defeat was his own fault; he underestimated a quality opponent, and this was the entirely predictable result. Better luck next time. The John Walker of the comics is an asshole, but he’s a capable asshole, and I wish we could see him here.
- On the subject of Walker, I’m perfectly fine with Wyatt Russell’s portrayal of him, particularly in Walker’s quieter, more human moments. Russell gives Walker a dimension and a gravity he wouldn’t otherwise have; I just wish the showrunners could have picked a lane for the character he’s playing.
That’s it for this episode! Questions or comments, please let me know. See you next time!