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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier episode 1.04 “The Whole World Is Watching” brings back some much needed nuance to it’s characters and proves that our heroes need to be inherently hopeful.
Wait, did John Walker just become the best character on this show?
No I don’t mean that he’s a great guy, or I support his straight up murdery rage-fit in front of a sea of people who couldn’t click GO LIVE on Instagram fast enough. Walker is now reprehensible, and, I daresay, irredeemable. Not on my top 500 list of great guys.
His lack of presence on my favorite people list, however, doesn’t mean he’s not the best or most interesting character. In a quick four episodes, we have watched him fall from government golden boy with three medals of honor to lowly killer and general all round a-hole and that fall is fascinating.
Much has been made about the final shot of the episode, and rightfully so – here it is:
It’s an evocative image – a ghostly and slightly hunched John Walker holding a shield that is meant to represent freedom and forward thinking splattered with the blood of an unjustly murdered human. Sure, you can argue that the guy who was killed (apparently named Nico – and I don’t blame you for not knowing his name because he has just as much characterization as your thumbnail) was an enemy combatant, but that does not justify his wrongful death.
Furthermore, we get your typical hero-style shot looking up in reverence, but something is completely off about the framing because the angle is canted and the line of the building behind Walker cuts him right in half – suggesting a split personality. Not to mention the immediate foreground is centered on a blood soaked shield. Your brain is telling you two separate ideals – this is supposed to be a heroic feel, but your eyes are are also seeing something contorted and off kilter.
On a foreign and sovereign land, “Captain America” stands in shock as the whole world witnesses the horror he created by forcing his will on a man who neither asked for it, nor wanted it. In turn, there is now blood spilled in the name of what Walker considers justice. It’s a very serious and damning commentary on the current state of American foreign relations (because, honestly, Walker barely has any jurisdiction due to his relationship to the GRC) and the recent volatility of American politics. There is no grey area in John Walkers mind, and there is no patience to deal with anything but the absolutes of his judgement on right and/or wrong.
There is, though, a far more telling sequence in this episode than the final image and that is “they weren’t even super-soldiers.” THIS is the beginning of the end for John Walker, and I cannot get enough of it.
All of the plot mechanics of this episode: Donya’s funeral, creepy Zemo handing out Turkish Delight like the White Witch in Narnia, Karli calling Sam’s sister, even how Walker and Hoskins find the Terrific Trio all fall to the wayside once the Dora Milaje arrive on the scene and kick the hell out of Walker with ease.
It’s at this point we realize the whole series has been building to this fulcrum, where all of our stories intersect and the emotional stakes are all contingent on the rise and sudden fall of Cap 2.0.
“They weren’t even super-soldiers”. It’s an honest and scathing moment of self awareness for a man who has “put in the work”, passed all the tests, received three medals of honor, served his country with pride, and tried to assume the mantle of Captain America to further serve his nation’s purposes. But as we discussed last episode, no one cares. No one respects his work, his honor, or the efforts he’s put in because he’s simply not Steve Rogers.
Taking the serum was ALWAYS going to be the ultimate (pardon the pun) endgame for Walker, especially when he follows in the not so small footsteps of Rogers. But, never in my wildest dreams did I think that this decision would be so specifically rooted in his character. Dripping with insecurity and an unending desire to prove his worth, add in a giant dash of self-loathing, and the shame of not measuring up to highly trained group of warriors, and I can honestly see why Walker takes the super soldier serum off-screen.
Oddly enough, the problem isn’t that Walker chooses to take the serum – anyone who has to fill Steve Rogers’ shoes would take it. Well, except for Sam of course, as he shuts that notion down VERY quickly. But, I think most people would probably answer the way Lemar responds to John with a fervent “hells yeah”. Instead, the real problem that faces Captain America 2.0 is that he should have never been put in that position in the first place.
The American government, so quick to try to find the easy button, focus-grouped their way to the most publicly pleasing answer for a new Captain America. Blonde hair, blue eyes, a chin line that could cut a diamond, and a laundry list of military awards which is longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls? Oh, and he looks good in our equally as focus-grouped new outfit? That’s our guy!
Below that veneer, however, lurks some fairly obvious trauma and it is MIND BOGGLING that no one saw this aggressive display of violence coming. I’m pretty sure anybody with at least twenty minutes worth of freshman level psychology would know enough to not only ask, “hey, so – Afghanistan, huh?” but also be wise to the complete farce of an answer Walker certainly provided when he was like, “yeah, it was good. See my medals?”
Did they put him through the physical wringer, only to run out of time before the deadline to announce his new title? Were the experts sitting in a board room somewhere saying, “yeah, he’s good, right? Yeah, he’s gotta be totally ok in the head – no mental trauma or PTSD whatsoever. Yay us! Capital Grille time?” How can these people COURT MANDATE Bucky to attend weekly therapy, and not think it may be a good idea to give Walker a run through with a least a Rorschach Test or even a simple questionnaire about his red, green, or blue zones? It’s a gargantuan failure on every level by the American government that has lead to catastrophic results.
I love this episode for many reasons, but namely because it works so very hard to contrast Sam and John Walker, but really Bucky and John Walker. It’s no coincidence the story begins with Bucky being freed of his Winter Solider programming, and ends with John Walker willingly choosing to become not just a super soldier but a super-murdery super soldier.
Granted, Bucky’s actions were more of the topple-governments-with-a-single-bullet variety but he wasn’t in full control of his actions either. While Walker, oh, he is fully in control of his actions and did what he had to do to not only serve the best interests of his country, but also to survive during his wartime experience.
Both Walker and Bucky are aware of the wrongs they committed during their respective times as “soldiers” but their solutions couldn’t separated by a bigger chasm.
The main difference between the two soldiers is this: Bucky never had a choice, and has risked everything to heal his trauma. Ayo paces by a a fire with Bucky saying the ten words that are supposed to ignite The Winter Soldier (in what is by far the most poignant scene TFTWS has offered so far) only to then tell Bucky that he was free. It’s a stellar moment that validates Bucky’s entire arc from Captain America: The First Avenger all the way up to this point. While Bucky never had a choice in his inherent Super Solider-ness, Walker certainly does.
Instead of confronting and releasing his trauma similarly to Bucky, it’s the trauma that is the fire which ignites Walker. To help further calcify this contrast, writer Derek Kolstad simply comes out and tells the viewer the path Walker’s headed down.
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When Walker knows he has no chance to go through Bucky to confront Sam, and arrest Karli, he condescendingly remarks, “It must be so easy for you, all that serum running through your veins.” It was a mistake to leave Bucky’s decision to allow Walker and Hoskins to crash Sam’s conversation off screen, but I do like that it was words and not brawn that Walker uses to manipulate the situation.
Notice too that words and not brawn were what healed Bucky, allowed Sam to speak with Karli and almost convince her to stop her movement. Words. But it was violence that lead to Zemo’s escape, Lemar’s death, and the obvious fall of Cap 2.0.
As I watched Walker stare back at the watchful eyes of the world after he killed an unarmed man (yes, a super-soldier but still, unarmed) I couldn’t tell if he was looking back in defiance, shock, or in authority. It’s important to note that Nico was the character who said he grew up admiring Captain America, and it’s shockingly ironic that it’s a morally corrupted version of Captain America who kills him in the end.
Is Walker proud of this moment? Is it finally validation that he took out an enemy of the state who also happens to be a super solider? Is his decision to take the serum vindicated in his eyes now? Is he warranted in exacting his form of justice for Lemar’s death?
Well, the fact that these are even questions is a problem. Walker’s actions are unquestionably reprehensible and even unconscionable, especially when they’re approached through the definition of what it means to be Captain America.
“Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, *you* move’.”
Captain America, regardless of whoever it may be, always does what is right. “Right” may be up for interpretation, and it may not always be the easiest answer, but “right” can always be justified. While we may not agree with the decision, perhaps one could argue that John was simply doing right by his job in trying to arrest Karli before Sam could talk her down.
One could even argue that he took the serum to better serve his country against in an ever escalating world of superheroes and/or super soldiers.
But, killing Nico is not defensible. It was not to serve justice, to serve his country, or even the “right” of the world. Nico’s death was precipitated by nothing more than an act of vengeance spurred on by Walker’s anger, insecurity, his obvious PTSD from his time in Afghanistan, and what feels like a sobering undercurrent of acceptance that he can never truly be Captain America.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine informs Steve why he was chosen for the Super Soldier program:
The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.
Now, is John Walker a bad person? No, of course not. He’s not turning into Red Skull anytime soon. He is, however, an insecure person – one racked with guilt, anger, sorrow, and now an never-ending desire to prove his worth. To that end, he is also a man who views his best day and the supposed validation for his appointment as Captain America — receiving three medals of honor for his actions in war — as the worst day of his life.
Is it safe to assume the serum amplified these traits and that’s why Walker moves to kill Nico? Is it also a fair assumption that Walker followed every order, carried out every mission to a tee and now that he has the super solider serum flowing through his veins, he no longer needs to follow their rules? Instead of abiding by their constrictive guidelines, he can exact his own justice as he sees fit? Zemo says: “Desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals.” Does Walker consider himself above others, and the law, because he is now a super soldier? What kind of man is he, and what kind of man will he be now that he has the easy route of having the serum flow through his veins just like Bucky?
Ultimately, Walker murdered someone in cold blood in front of hundreds (and with the power of the internet, millions) of people. He can no longer carry the mantle of Captain America, he can no longer be employed by the GRC, and he can no longer be an agent for the U.S. Government. He should stand in front of his peers, go to trial, and have the kind of justice the actual Captain America would endorse – a fair and honest decision that best serves the community.
Of course, none of those options will happen as Walker will most likely go rogue because he believes he fulfilled his mission of taking out an enemy of the state. Perhaps it’s these actions which pit Sam and Bucky against him in future episodes, and how we will have an inevitable battle between two super soldiers. A battle between one man whose trauma and past deeds are healed, and the other whose trauma and past deeds are only amplified to suppress his true feelings of insecurity and an unchecked anxiety and possible supremacy.
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- In addition to contrasting Bucky and Walker, Sam also serves as good contrast to both men. Sam would never take the super soldier serum, and his first response is to always talk someone down instead of using violence.
- The fight sequence with the Dora Milaje is excellent directing as we understand where everyone is at all times despite the frenetic camera movements.
- I still cannot get enough of the “they weren’t even super soliders” moment. I must have rewatched it ten times. Once again, Wyatt Russell plays this moment perfectly. In what could have been a cheesy, or self pitying moment, it’s portrayed with the kind of pathos and scathing sincerity that almost makes me feel bad for him. ALMOST.
- Though I did feel very bad for him when Hoskins was killed. Honestly, Wyatt Russell has really impressed me. There is definitely a space for him in the MCU. I mean, not as Cap but definitely as a version of what is surely to become U.S. Agent.
- I’m kind of disappointed in Zemo as a character in this show. Civil War made him unique, but this version feels like a cheap off-brand version of Hannibal Lecter? There’s nothing that sets him apart from any other rich bad guy that’s ever existed.
- Speaking of Zemo, yes he destroyed the vials of serum, but now he’s facing another super powered Captain America again. What will come of this inevitable conflict between Bucky, Walker, and Zemo?
- Karli’s profile has now risen because of the bombing, and this episode has now given Sam/Bucky far more reason to be in conflict with her.
- In the end though, this fight will not be solely against the Flag Smashers, or even Walker for that matter. The final battle has to be between Power Broker and everyone else. I’m interested to see how this turns out,
- Speaking of Power Broker, I know a lot of people have theorized that Power Broker is Sharon Carter – and that makes sense on a basic level. Given the mystery and how Sharon has just shown up with all different kinds of resources, she seems fishy. Something is definitely going on with her, but I don’t think it’s Power Broker.
- Let’s take a minute to acknowledge some tonal discrepancies – this show has taken a very clear stance on racial inequality and I am happy it has. But, at the same time, Sam’s sister has been reduced to nothing more than a plot device to get Sam in trouble, or get him in the same room as Karli. Not to mention that Lemar’s death serves only as a catalyst to motivate and perpetuate John Walker’s story. Hmmnm….
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