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 fifth episode.
A climactic fight at the top of the hour notwithstanding, most of the penultimate episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like a deep breath before the final leg of a marathon. It’s a time for the show to take stock of its human element and present its central thesis in a clear, unambiguous way. With a notable exception or two, most of the episode’s running time is devoted to people at long last saying what they really mean…or perhaps finally realizing what it is they mean to say.
At the conclusion of last week’s episode, in retaliation for the death of his partner Lemar Hoskins, John Walker killed a member of the Flag Smashers in a manner that was very deliberate, very brutal, and most of all, very public. At the start of this episode, we see him fleeing on foot directly following last week’s events, arriving at an empty factory in an industrial park. The camera work here is out of focus, unsteady, never still, suggesting Walker’s tumultuous frame of mind. Just about the time Walker calms down long enough to muster at least the pretense of having his shit together, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier arrive.
Bucky and Sam attempt to reason with Walker, but when Sam tells Walker it’s time to give up the shield, Walker predictably takes all their talk as a ploy to separate him from the Captain America identity. “You don’t want to do this,” Walker warns the pair.
Bucky, who’d probably had enough of Walker’s shit before even meeting him, says, “Yeah, we do.”
And it’s on.
It’s a rough, brutal fight, the sort of fight no one sane would want to have with John Walker. Armed with the shield and his new-found super-strength, Walker proves a formidable challenge, but Sam and Bucky eke out a narrow victory, stripping the shield from Walker, breaking his arm in the process, and beating him into unconsciousness. A battered Bucky Barnes retrieves the shield and drops it on the ground near an equally battered Sam Wilson, who’s had the wings torn off his flight suit, and departs without saying a word.
In the aftermath of the fight, we learn the authorities have landed hard on a number of GRC resettlement camps, but none of the raids have turned up Karli or her inner circle. According to Lieutenant Torres, last seen in episode 2, the killing of a foreign national by Captain America has caused an international incident, and “folks higher up on the payroll are all over it now.” I would’ve thought Karli’s intentional bombing of a GRC building with GRC people still in it might’ve stirred folks higher up on the payroll to be all over it, but apparently not. With Karli’s trail gone cold, and Bucky in pursuit of Zemo, Sam elects to return to the States. Torres asks about Sam’s broken wings, salvaged from the fight with Walker.
“Keep ’em,” says Sam.
Back in Washington D.C., the public removal of John Walker as Captain America is taking place: “John F. Walker, it is the order of this council that you are no longer to act in any capacity as a representative of the United States government or its military. You are hereby stripped of your title and authority as Captain America, effective immediately.”
When Walker requests permission to submit mitigating evidence to the Senatorial committee sitting in judgment of him, the chairman tells him in no uncertain terms that what’s going on here isn’t a negotiation, it’s a mandate, and that Walker’s past service to the nation is the only thing keeping him from court-martial and a prison term.
“I lived my life by your mandates!” an angry Walker tells the committee. “I dedicated my life to your mandates! I only ever did what you asked of me. What you told me to be, and trained me to be, and I did it. And I did it well.”
The committee chairman remains unmoved. “You will be given an other than honorable discharge, retroactive to the beginning of the month. You will hold no rank in retirement, and receive no benefits.”
“You built me,” says John Walker. “Senator, I am Captain America.”
“Not anymore. And if you continue to demean and denigrate the priorities and dignity of this council, you will spend the rest of your life in the US Disciplinary Barracks.” The chairman says this last bit to Walker’s back, as Walker has sensibly elected to dismiss himself from these proceedings. “Consider yourself extremely fortunate, Mr. Walker, and return the shield to us with expedience.” That the committee doesn’t seem to realize that Walker no longer has the shield perhaps tells us something about their diligence and commitment to fact-finding.
Out in the hall, Walker’s wife Olivia is trying to talk him down from the ledge, proposing that he focus and take things one step at a time, beginning with visiting Lemar’s family. In the midst of this talk, an unexpected visitor intrudes: the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (a swaggering Julia Louis-Dreyfuss).
After introducing herself, she sits down between Walker and Olivia and points out the obvious: “Look, I would’ve killed the bastard too. Nobody in there is mad at you about that. I mean, you would’ve been doing them a favor by taking out the whole lot.” She tells Walker that the committee’s members have interests to protect, and that he did the right thing in taking the serum, that doing so has made him very, very valuable to certain people. It’s the second-best decision he’s ever made in his life, she says; the first, tied with marrying Olivia, will be taking Val’s calls in the future. “Oh, by the way: don’t worry about the shield. I know you don’t have it. Here’s a little dirty state secret: it doesn’t really belong to the government. It’s kind of a legal grey area.” She tells him she’ll be in touch.
The cynic in me wonders why the committee didn’t simply pony up the old ‘the video doesn’t show the whole encounter’ defense, along with the tried and true ‘the victim failed to comply’ on Walker’s behalf. Val’s not wrong: no one cares about Walker killing some asshole terrorist, and the same committee that hung him out to dry would have been pleased as punch if he’d gone ahead and scratched Karli and her entire team off the board, so long as he did it with a modicum of discretion. It’s not the deed, it’s the optics; or to put it another way, Walker’s not being removed as Captain America for committing murder, but rather for his spectacularly poor judgment. The committee’s problem is that Walker did what he did in public, in front of dozens of cell phone cameras recording the event for social media posterity…and even so, given the post-Trump, post-insurrection circus of malleable fact-fuckery we’re all currently living in, I’m not sure it would matter. In real life, it’s not a stretch to imagine the MAGA crowd reconfiguring the cold-blooded daytime murder of a helpless combatant into a righteous show of American dominance vs. terrorism….and it’s the MAGA element that would’ve given John Walker the shield and mantle of Captain America in the first place. They’d keep John Walker under wraps for a month or two, while Lindsey Graham and the My Pillow guy appeared on Fox News to proclaim the murder wasn’t as bad as it looked, and anyway it wasn’t murder, and when all is said and done, isn’t John Walker a hero for doing what’s necessary?
Back in Riga, Karli and her inner circle visit their old camp to find it empty of inhabitants, only a few belongings left behind. According to the notices posted, the camp was suspected of harboring and abetting international fugitives, and shut down after a raid. It’s yet another example of an outcome that’s precisely the opposite of what Karli had hoped to achieve…though, as one might guess based on her previous reactions, that’s not her takeaway from recent events. Instead, she prepares for further escalation.
The Winter Soldier finds Baron Zemo at the monument for Sokovia. Zemo’s not hiding, not running, doesn’t seem to have any master plan, unless getting caught or killed by Bucky Barnes is the plan. He warns that Karli has been radicalized beyond salvation and urges Bucky again to do what Sam won’t. When it looks like Bucky is about to shoot him, Zemo appears calmer than Bucky does. He looks Bucky in the eye and nods, as if giving his blessing. Bucky points a pistol at Zemo’s face and pulls the trigger…but the hammer falls on an empty chamber. Click. Instead of a shooting, the Dora Milaje arrive on the scene to take custody of Zemo. This outcome doesn’t seem to disturb or disconcert Zemo any more than the prospect of being shot in the face did. As for Bucky’s dramatic pretense of shooting Zemo, your guess is as good as mine as to what that was all about, or what it was meant to achieve.
“Ladies,” Zemo says to the Wakandans, then to Bucky: “I took the liberty of crossing off my name in your book. I hold no grudges for what you thought you had to do. Good-bye, James.” It’s news to me that Zemo’s name was in Bucky’s book, but okay.
As the Dora Milaje escort Zemo to a waiting airship, Ayo says they intend to take Zemo to the Raft, an underwater prison meant for super-human detainees, last seen in Captain America: Civil War (2018), where he will live out his days. Why wouldn’t they just take Zemo back to Wakanda? Who knows? She tells Bucky it might be prudent for him to avoid Wakanda for the foreseeable future, but they part on more or less friendly terms, with Bucky asking for one last favor.
Sam’s first stop back in the States is to visit Isaiah Bradley in Baltimore. He brings the shield with him in a sort of portfolio case, but Isaiah tells him to leave it covered. “Those stars and stripes don’t mean nothin’ good to me.”
Sam says he’s looking to understand…but understand what? What happened to Isaiah? How Isaiah feels about it? He doesn’t specify, but Isaiah says, “You understand. Every black man does. Whether you want to deny it or not.”
“Don’t do that bitter old man thing with me.”
“If you ain’t bitter?” Isaiah says. “You’re blind.”
Isaiah tells Sam he used to be like him, until he opened his eyes, saw men who’d served in World War II, who fought for their country only to come home to find crosses burned on their lawns.
“I’m from the South,” says Sam. “I get that. But you were a super-soldier, like Steve. You could’ve been the next –“
“The next…what? Huh? Blonde hair, blue eyes, stars and stripes…the entire world’s been chasing that Great White Hope since he first got dosed with that serum.”
“Steve did not put you in jail.”
Isaiah shows Sam pictures of his long-gone wife, the letters she wrote that he didn’t get to read while he was in prison; relics of the life Isaiah Bradley was owed and never received. Isaiah recounts how he and a handful of his fellow soldiers — black soldiers — were experimented on with different versions of the serum without their consent or knowledge, given shots without knowing what was in them or why they were being given. These prospective super-soldiers were then sent on missions, even though many of them weren’t stable, and over time they began to die off. When Isaiah’s surviving companions were captured, Isaiah overheard his commanding officers debating whether or not to bomb the entire P.O.W. camp to destroy all evidence. “But those were my men,” says Isaiah. “My brothers. Not evidence. So I bust out of the facility one night…and I brought them boys back.”
Not that it made a damn bit of difference, says Isaiah. It wasn’t long before he was the only one of his group left. For his rescue efforts, he was given 30 years in prison and experimented on painfully, relentlessly, his captors trying to figure out why the serum worked with him and not with the others. According to Isaiah, a kind nurse took pity on him and had him declared dead, effectively removing him from the system.
It’s to Sam Wilson’s credit and his kind-hearted, optimistic nature that he yearns to put this situation with Isaiah Bradley right, or at least as right as it can be after all these years and all this injustice. Sam wants to do something, tell somebody. The world is different now, Sam knows people.
“Man, that’s why you’re here?” says Isaiah. “You think things are different? You think times are different? You think I wouldn’t be dead in a day if you brought me out? You want to believe jail was my fault, because you got that white man’s shield. They were worried my story might get out, so they erased me. My history. But they’ve been doing that for five hundred years. Pledge allegiance to that, my brother.”
(I just want to point out how good Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley is here. He knocks it out the park with tremendous dignity and emotion.)
What Isaiah says next gets to the thematic heart of what Falcon and the Winter Soldier is all about: “They will never let a black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever want to be.”
Goddamn. No beating around the fucking bush for Isaiah Bradley, no sir.
I’ve criticized the MCU loudly and often in the past for being bland, formulaic, and thematically one dimensional. I’ve a life-long love of super-heroes, Marvel super-heroes in particular…but let’s face it, most of the movies that make up the body of the MCU aren’t really about anything other than people in colorful outfits trading punches and snappy one-liners in a bouncy CGI fun house of low stakes and shameless fan service. It’s a formula that’s worked like gangbusters — financially, at least, if not artistically — so it’s hard to blame Marvel Studios for rinsing and repeating their way through most of 23 movies over ten-plus years.
It’s to Marvel Studios’ enormous credit that not only did they not shy away from the black Captain America aspect of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, they made it the central point of the series. They didn’t have to. Plenty of fans would no doubt have been just fine with an unambitious six-course meal of super-hero fights, special effects, and deep cut cameos. In fact, going off the often ugly backlash received by the comics that served as the source material for this series — which we’ll address in more depth next week — there’s a vocal minority of fandom out there who are outraged over having to suffer what they see as the imposition of Marvel’s ‘liberal agenda.’
Racist and misogynist ass clowns notwithstanding, that Marvel Studios did their level best to make this series about something — race, representation, justice, responsibility, and competing ideas about what it means to be an American — gives me some small hope for the future quality of the MCU.
Shaken by Isaiah’s revelations, Sam returns home to his family in Louisiana. The family’s boat sale has fallen through, but Sam vows to find a way to fix the boat. When he discovers that his sister Sarah is still feeding poor neighborhood kids, Sam asks how many people in the community still owe their parents something. “All of them,” she says. “All that’s left, for sure.”
Sam decides to call in his family’s favors, asking his neighbors and life-long friends for help…and such is the Wilsons’ reputation for good will and high character that those friends do turn out to help, lending their time and their expertise when they have no other resources to give. Another unexpected friend also shows up to lend a hand: Bucky Barnes.
Ostensibly he’s there to drop off a large case — the favor he requested from Ayo and the Wakandans — but one gets the sense that maybe Bucky simply has no better place to be and nothing better to do. One small repair job leads to another — the Wilson family’s busted down boat has no shortage of maintenance tasks awaiting — and it seems natural that Bucky would stick around to help. A bit of mutual interest between Bucky and Sam’s sister Sarah probably doesn’t hurt either; the brief overtures of tentative flirtation between the two have a lot of warmth and charm.
As the day’s work winds down, Bucky asks Sam if he thinks Karli’s going to throw in the towel.
“I think she’s gonna double down,” says Sam.
“Any idea how to stop her?”
“I got Joaquin working on something.”
“Well, Zemo says there’s only one way.”
Meanwhile, Walker is visiting with Lemar’s family, his parents and his sister. Curiously, Walker repeats his story that what it was Nico Kovacszik, the man Walker killed, who was responsible for Lemar’s death, and not Karli Morgenthau. It’s unclear to me whether Walker genuinely believes this fiction, or to what extent his belief might be willful or the result of some mental instability. Lemar’s parents seem to buy Walker’s story readily enough, and appear comforted by it. Lemar’s sister, not so much.
Out in Madripoor, Sharon Carter is getting up to some tricks, calling up our old friend Georges Batroc, last seen leaping from an exploding helicopter in episode 1, to offer him a job. He doesn’t sound all that happy to be hearing from her, judging by her end of the conversation. She tells him that if it weren’t for her, he’d still be rotting away in that Algerian prison. When he’s finished with his outburst, she tells him she can offer him double this time, implying that she’s hired him in the past. Again, I’m not saying Sharon’s definitely a CIA agent running this Power Broker operation and using her clout from halfway around the world to spring mercenary terrorists from prison, but I’ve yet to see or hear anything that argues against it.
In Louisiana, Sam and Bucky, having been shooed away from work on the boat by Sarah, set up some shield practice for Sam in the yard.
“Feels weird,” says Sam, “picking it up again. The legacy of that shield is…complicated, to say the least.”
“When Steve told me what he was planning,” says Bucky. “I don’t think either of us really understood what it felt like for a black man to be handed the shield. How could we? I owe you an apology. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever happened with Walker, that wasn’t your fault. I get it. It’s just that shield’s the closest thing I’ve got left to a family; so when you retired it, it made me feel like I had nothing left. It made me question everything. You. Steve. Me. You know, I’ve got his book, and I just figured if it worked for him, then it’d work for me.”
“I understand, man,” says Sam, “but Steve is gone. And this might be a surprise, but it doesn’t matter what Steve thought. You gotta stop looking to other people to tell you who are.”
Sam tells Bucky that to get well, he needs to put in the work. That what he’s done so far in his book hasn’t been amending but avenging. Bucky’s been doing what’s good for him, instead of going to the people in his book and doing what’s good for them. It’s good advice. Sam and Bucky part ways in a good place, Bucky telling Sam that when he has a lead on Karli, drop him a line and he’ll be there.
After all the work they put in, Sam’s sister decides against selling the boat, and after talking with her, Sam takes what may be the first real steps in becoming his own version of Captain America. Sam acknowledges the injustices done to Isaiah Bradley, “But what would be the point of all the pain and the sacrifice if I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?”
Sam begins training with the shield in earnest, in a sort of Rocky-like montage, with the encouragement of his excited nephews, A.J. and Cass. The way the sequence ends, with Sam looking at his nephews with love and pride, you get the sense that there’s an extra weight — I wouldn’t call it a burden, given the unpleasant connotations of that word, but there’s an extra something there — to being a black Captain America. Sam Wilson as Captain America carries that weight for the A.J.’s and the Casses and the Eli and Isaiah Bradleys of the world in a way that Steve Rogers never had to, or would have been able to, for all that man’s considerable greatness. Like the shield, like the Wilson’s family fishing boat, Sam Wilson as Captain America represents a set of values, a shared communal history, that goes beyond his own personal experience.
In New York’s Bryant Park, Karli Morgenthau and her companion Dovich are meeting up with none other than Georges Batroc. Karli tells Dovich she hired Batroc to even the odds. Karli explains that Sam recently cost Batroc a small fortune not long ago, and he’s been looking for revenge ever since. Karli doesn’t seem to be aware of the Sharon Carter angle.
“So we’re working with criminals now?” says Dovich.
“Haven’t you heard?” says Karli. “We are criminals. Georges gets his payback and we get a killer. It’s a bargain on both sides.”
Batroc asks if he was invited for a picnic. “A test, of sorts,” Karli tells him. “We’re everywhere and nowhere. That’s why we’ll win.” She activates her social media alert, the same sort we saw just before the Swiss bank robbery back in episode 1. “We’re going to make sure the GRC vote never happens.”
“Hey,” says Batroc, “I’m not here to be part of your movement. I’m only here to kill the Falcon.”
“You’ll get your chance,” Karli promises.
That evening, Sam is contacted by Lieutenant Torres. He’s noticed a pattern of social media pings in Europe just before the Flag Smashers would hit a given target. The latest such ping, he tells Sam, was detected in New York. Sam, watching the news about the GRC vote on television, puts two and two together. “Great work, Joaquin. I’ll take it from here.”
In New York, the GRC is meeting in their UN-like chambers, discussing the coming vote — interesting that the same SenatorPlayed by Alphie Hyorth, he’s referred to only as Government Official in the IMDB credits. who presided over the John Walker debacle seems to be the unofficial chairman of the GRC assembly — when the lights go dark and the communications are scrambled. Back in Louisiana, Sam Wilson at last opens the case given to him by Bucky Barnes, courtesy of Wakanda. What he finds therein is a mystery for next episode.
A post-credits scene — the first for Falcon and the Winter Soldier — shows John Walker in the apparent process of making a new shield for himself. Not sure how that would work; so far as I know, John Walker doesn’t know shit about metallurgy, and even the poorest working duplicate of Captain America’s shield would require rare materials that’d be prohibitively expensive and nearly impossible to obtain. Think a normal person trying to obtain a specific type of uranium. It’s not really a DIY kind of project.
Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes:
- What would action movies do without abandoned factories?
- You do remember that in the comics Joaquin Torres becomes another Falcon, yes? Of course you do. In much the same way that there are currently two characters running around in the Marvel Universe calling themselves Spider-Man, Peter Parker and Miles Morales, so too are there two Falcons. I know. It’s weird. Even more weird, while Sam Wilson’s wings in the comics and in the movies are artificial, Joaquin’s wings in the comics are part of him, the result of experiments conducted on him by none other than Karl Malus, the Power Broker…the very same Power Broker that gave John Walker and Lemar Hoskins their powers. Created by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna, Joaquin Torres first took on the Falcon role in Captain America: Sam Wilson #6 (Feb 2016).
- While I doubt any appearance by any character could possibly surprise me as much Isaiah Bradley’s appearance surprised me, an appearance by the extremely obscure Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (played by the wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus, no less!) comes awful close. Created by the stylish, influential, and boundary-pushing Jim Steranko, the Italian super-spy and SHIELD agent first appeared in Strange Tales #159 (Aug 1967). I can’t speak to all mainstream comics, but certainly so far as Marvel was concerned, Val was the first of her type. Practically all the female characters who’d appeared in Marvel comics up to that point were either earnest, somewhat innocent teenagers, or else were earnest, somewhat innocent matrons. The Black Widow was still a few years away from sporting her slinky black leather outfit (a version of which we still see in the movies today), and Quicksilver was still defending his sister Wanda’s honor from lecherous pigs like Clint Barton when Val came along. Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson were appearing in Amazing Spider-Man, and Susan Richards, the Invisible Girl, was in Fantastic Four, but the nameless floozies hanging out with Tony Stark aside, you never really got the sense that any of the girls or women in Marvel comics were getting up to anything more risque than riding around on the back of Peter Parker’s motorcycle without a helmet, say. They certainly weren’t running around half-dressed and getting up to skanky Italian shenanigans in Nick Fury’s apartment without a chaperone. Not until Steranko created Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, at any rate.
- The Raft of the Marvel Universe is in New York, connected to Ryker’s Island. It otherwise functions in the comics much the same as it does in the movies. The Raft first appeared in Alias #26 (Nov 2003), and was created by Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Mark Bagley, and Art Thibert.
- It wasn’t a rescue op that sent Isaiah Bradley to prison in the comics, but his theft of a Captain America costume. The details of the costume’s theft and the mission Isaiah took it on can be found in Truth: Red, White, & Black #4 – 7 (Apr – Jul 2003) by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.
- As of this writing, Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar, is still alive and well in the comics.
That’s it for us this week. The final episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier beckons! As always, if you have any questions or comments on anything you’ve seen here — or if you have Marvel Comics questions in general — please let me know!
|↑1||Played by Alphie Hyorth, he’s referred to only as Government Official in the IMDB credits.|