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The Falcon And The Winter Soldier season finale, episode 1.06 – “One People, One World”, is an example of MCU storytelling at it’s finest. But, also, it’s very worst.
I really wanted to like this episode because I actually quite liked this series. The action is well shot, there are very poignant and extremely topical themes being explored, and, of course, the bromance. Oh, the bromance. The chemistry between Bucky and Sam is a little bit of movie magic that I don’t think either the Russo brothers, or Kevin Feige, expected during their days crafting Captain America: Civil War. I mean, when you have this scene, it has to be mined for more content. Right? RIGHT?!
While this scene is very funny, and I love it down to the very atoms that form my MCU blessed heart, a good show this does not make.
In order to create a good show, the MCU, and Head Writer Malcolm Spellman, have to manufacture a compelling reason for it to exist. Part of the process is finding a central question, and a thesis to answer that question. Oddly enough, there really is a compelling question TFATWS asks its viewers: can a black man be Captain America? In turn, the natural thesis Spellman is trying to prove is: yes – but it’s really frakking complicated.
The “it’s really frakking complicated” part is the gray area in which the show ought to rest, and when it does, it’s fascinating. Give me the emotionally charged conversations with Isaiah Bradley (brilliantly portrayed by Carl Lumbly), or even the cathartic moment when Bucky apologizes for not recognizing the burden he and Steve placed on Sam when they gave Sam the shield. Top that off with the incredible chemistry shared between Mackie and Stan, and this is absolutely the MCU at it’s best — deconstructing hard themes with characters who we already know and love. In other words, this facet of TFATWS, like WandaVision, is an independently great story which happens to have ties to the MCU, as opposed to the other way around.
Unlike WandaVision, however, TFATWS does not stay so tightly gripped to its main characters and/or its central thesis.
Instead, we are subjected to an onslaught of stuff.
Stuff like the reappearance of Georges Batroc for….reasons. Or the bombing of a truck full of super soldiers by non other than :: GASP:: Zemo’s butler!
Or, of course, we have to mine more of the Marvel universe for content to keep the MCU freight train running so we see the oh-so-predictable reveal of Sharon Carter as Power Broker. Also, there’s an opening left wide open for Wyatt Russell to remain in the MCU as U.S. Agent. More content. More story. More characters to use as they mine the comics for more narrative.
Therein lies the problem though – mining.
Since it’s designed to never end, only MORE content will keep the MCU chugging. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a simple statement of fact. More characters need to be introduced, nuggets for huge spanning arcs have to be specifically planted in optimal story points, and the audience has to be given enough of a satisfying story to be happy with the product, but left with enough questions or need to keep coming back for more. What other stuff can we put in here so that people keep coming back?!
Can a black man be Captain America in today’s America? The MCU is loudly declaring it’s answer with a resounding “yes!” So, they built a show around Sam Wilson struggling with his responsibility to the shield, the mantle, and the shadow cast by Steve Rogers. But wait! There’s more! Sharon really DOES suck! Look who we have now — U.S. Agent! And he’s going to a be the main cog of ANOTHER team of heroes created by
Vice President Selina Meyer Contessa Allegra de Fontaine!
Wait, no – sorry, wrong gif…
Ahhh…that’s more like it.
By the way, this is not a knock on Sam’s arc, or even Bucky’s for that matter. They both begin one way, and end in a completely different way – Sam being the new Cap, and Bucky being able to find a relative peace with himself and his deeds as The Winter Soldier. Not to mention the fact that they became genuine friends as opposed to “co-workers”. It’s obvious there was a clear plan for both these characters, and while there are some clear issues the writers had in stitching these two stories together, I’m willing to whistle past that graveyard because of their like-ability.
That very clear plan, though, begins and ends with Sam and Bucky. Aside from that, the story go wildly wrong when we get all the “stuff”. Chief among them is John Walker.
Wait, didn’t I say that John Walker was the best character in this show not more than two episode ago? Yep – I did. And he was.
Until he wasn’t.
While Sam was fun, if not a little narratively boring, and Bucky was extremely interesting because of his connection to Steve (as well as his own journey to accept himself as who he is) it was actually John Walker that started off as the shining beacon of change for the MCU.
If the thesis of this show is, “yes, a black man can be Captain America but it’s really frakking complicated”, then John Walker was very clearly the antithesis.
Implicit in this relationship, thesis and antithesis, is that they are in direct opposition of each other. The characters that stand-in for these ideas make for a profound exploration in what it truly means to be Captain America in the modern world.
This isn’t me telling you this, the language of the show is making this claim – as it pits the rise of Sam against the fall of John Walker. A black man ascends to be Cap while the hand picked white government agent devolves into violence and madness.
TFATWS has used this ENTIRE series to build John Walker as the antithesis of Sam Wilson. That’s not to say he’s the bad guy, or that he’s overtly racist. Rather, Walker embodies all that is wrong in the presumptuous system of the American government. A blond haired, blue eyed, strapping man with a jaw line that could slice deli meat who passed all the tests and scored the highest marks in all the categories EXCEPT for the ones that actually mattered.
All seemed well on the outside, but on the inside, Walker was rotting away to the sound of his own self doubt, self loathing, and uncontrollable jealousy. Add in the fact that he could not accept responsibility for his actions (a very un-Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson trait to have), and how he continued to lash out at those who did not accept his insistence he remain in his stasis (especially when he tells the senator, “I AM CAPTAIN AMERICA”). This contrast is furthered by a very tangible difference in costumes – where Sam’s Cap uniform is mostly white, while Walker ends up in a black and slightly menacing uniform of U.S. Agent. Thus evoking the natural push and pull of good vs. evil. Not to mention that Sam’s vibranium shield remains unmarked while the fake metal shield Walker creates is destroyed in battle.
This all sounds good, right? Because it is!
Here’s what’s bad: nothing happens to John Walker.
He is left unscathed because the show needs him to be U.S. Agent for future movies. Which, by the way, I’m ok with! What I’m deeply disappointed in is the manner in which Malcolm Spellman chooses to facilitate Walker’s “transformation” into U.S. Agent.
Walker’s mere existence epitomizes an interesting commentary that few franchises (never mind one that’s as big and safe as Disney’s MCU) would ever make – especially when one considers the stunning shot which concluded episode four. It was fitting John Walker failed so miserably as Cap, especially when he pulverized Nico’s head into a fine Raspberry Jam.
After spending an entire series building John Walker as Sam Wilson’s antithesis, the finale posits a scenario where Walker returns as Captain America to take vengeance on Karli for killing his best friend Lemar. There’s even a beautifully ambiguous line that Karli didn’t mean to kill Lemar because she didn’t want to hurt anyone who didn’t matter – which enrages Walker even further. But instead of writing an interesting avenue to provide a major revelation to Walker’s character, and his eventual transition to U.S. Agent, Spellman chooses to fall back on an overused trope of superhero stories – save the endangered group of innocents, or go after the bad guy!
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Walker, in this case, chooses the van of hostages and Karli escapes.
But this moment – this moment right here – is when the whole series fails. It fails because it does not deliver on the implicit conflict between thesis and antithesis. This is the MCU at it’s worst.
Instead of John Walker fulfilling his narrative momentum and pursuing his vengeance against Karli (which would also be a nod to Sam’s use of this word for Bucky’s motivations to heal in episode 1.05), Spellman wants us to believe that Walker somehow sees the light and saves a van full of senators who just took away the ONLY job where he ever felt like he was doing something right.
The problem is that because he turns around and saves these senators, Walker performs a massive and drastic 180 in his characterization. Hey, he saved those people! Everything is ok now!
Wait, wasn’t this the jabroni who murdered an unarmed man in front of millions of people? Hold on, he’s a hero now? He gets to be fun and quippy with Bucky and turn into a loveable doofus as he prances around a courtroom declaring he’s back in front of the Contessa?
Thematically, this makes zero point zero sense.
What happened to the man that stood in defiance of a nation’s bureaucracy maintaining that he was, in fact, Captain America? What happened to the man who made is own shield? What happened to the man whose PTSD and feelings of inadequacy made him to not only be jealous of super soldiers, but eventually pushed him to take that same serum? What happened to Dr. Erskine’s words that the serum amplifies what’s inside the person – thus “what’s good becomes great, and what’s bad becomes worse”? What happened to the man who was built by the American government and was simply cast aside by that same government with extraordinarily little care? Let’s explore that!
Nope – Walker receives and incredibly asinine and hastily constructed redemption story that spans all of five seconds.
Sure, the plot of the story suggests that Walker isn’t jailed because of his esteemed service to the American government – but what about the thematic resolution? I suppose one could argue that by Walker becoming a sudden hero again, this suggests that the thesis and antithesis are combined and thereby resolved to make an amenable synthesis. But there is no nuance there – good is good because he made simple choice to save people. All can be forgiven.
I’m not here to write a better show, but I am here to say that John Walker’s arc was simply an afterthought because the show needed him to become U.S. Agent. They needed him to be like-able for the next iteration of the MCU story.
Could there be a situation in a future movie, or even season 2 of this series, where this problem is rectified? Of course. But plotting is not an excuse for good storytelling and this is where the MCU gets itself in trouble. A series must exist because it tells a satisfying and complete story unto its own thematic language.
Could there be a situation where instead of Sam fighting Karli, we have John Walker fighting Karli? Perhaps Walker does let that van careen to it’s demise and it’s Sam who saves it? (Oh wait, he does anyway!) Perhaps in this instance Karli is the one not fighting back against Walker and he is the one who demands she fight him (as opposed to her yelling at Sam to fight her) and he finally knocks her down and about to kill her with his shield (which would rhyme with his killing of Nico) only to be talked down by Sam (which would rhyme with his conversation with Karli earlier in the season).
Also in this scenario, Sam can give his entire speech about feeling helpless and powerless not to a bunch of senators and government lackies we don’t care about — but to Walker, someone with whom we have spent the entire series. This would be the emotional revelation for Walker, and a valid turning point in his character – one filled with dread, hate, but also forgiveness and active goodness. It’s this moment when Walker realizes he can’t be Captain America, and simply chooses to embrace all his faults and we care about that because Sam is the one helping that transformation. Thesis, and antithesis combine to form a synthesis.
Wanna make it even better? Have Sharon kill Karli after Walker chooses to not kill Karli, thus allowing for an arc for U.S. Agent to find and bring Karli’s killer to justice. Wait, can’t do that! Why? Because the MCU needs Sharon to be Power Broker and no one can know about her identity!
Ultimately, TFATWS did John Walker very dirty in the service of building out the MCU’s roster for future installments instead of telling a complete and satisfying arc for all its characters. Is the TFATWS a failure? No. It’s just a mess. A mess that has a really good concept, but poor execution.
APROPOS OF NOTHING FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER EPISODE 1.06 “ONE PEOPLE, ONE WORLD.”
- Notice how Cap has his wings spread out as he’s holding a lifeless Karli in his arms. It’s the writers nudging you with their collective elbows, “eh? EH?! — see what we did there?” Yes, thank you.
- Speaking of Karli’s death – am I supposed to care? Honestly, I’m not being flippant when I ask this question. It feels like the show wanted me to be super upset about her death, but I just wasn’t. She just got done blowing up buildings and lighting trucks of people on fire.
- I literally HATE the fact that Spellman uses the “save innocent people or pursue the bad guy” trope TWICE in this episode. Once with Bucky, and once with Walker. What the hell are we doing here?
- Wait – did Sam do the exact OPPOSITE of what Isaiah wanted? Didn’t Isaiah say to leave him forgotten to time? OK, yeah, sure. But, in the meantime, here’s a whole bronze statue plopped right in the middle of the Captain America museum memorializing you and all that you’ve done.
- Though I do like that Isaiah does have his own process of change too. He goes from one end saying that no black man should ever WANT to be Captain America to admitting that Sam is special. Nice journey.
- Georges Batroc’s inclusion in this final episode is to do nothing more than separate Bucky and Sam. That’s it. He serves no purpose for the actual story. Take him out of this episode and literally NOTHING changes. God is that frustrating.
- Why did the reveal for Power Broker have to wait all the way to the end? Why is Sharon wearing the same face mask that Black Widow wears in Captain America: The Winter Solider to hide her identity, and then goes the rest of the episode without it on because no one is looking for her there? Why do we care that she now has access to government secrets and weapons when Black Widow released all those secrets at the end of CA:TWS, and the world was saved from, yanno, Thanos? What purpose does any of this actually serve?
- What purpose does the Power Broker serve?
- Why do I care about Sharon at all?
- God is that reveal sooooo frakking clunky.
- Hold on, why are John Walker, his wife, and the Contessa hanging out in the court room where Walker was discharged? How did he get access to a dressing room? If Val is playing her cards so close to the vest, why the hell is she openly hanging out with Walker in his new Black costume?
- “It’s the same, but black?!” There is no way this wasn’t an ironic joke in the writer’s room that was meant to be for them but somehow made it into the screenplay. Right?
- I know that Sam’s speech at the end is supposed to be the big emotional release for the series – when the government realizes they’re wrong and this solidifies Sam as the new Cap. But, I kept thinking the whole time that there was no way this giant monologue would ever happen due to the security of these senators being out in the open, but also because they wouldn’t listen to Sam. It has nothing to do with Sam, but more because these senators have an agenda. That’s what they care about.
- Suddenly an entire agenda is scrapped because the new Captain America has a viral rant? Again, I know it’s supposed to be a cathartic moment, but it’s another example of the show TELLING you what it wants as opposed to SHOWING you what it’s supposed to be.
- I actually quite like that the show title changes to Captain America And The Winter Soldier. Nice touch. But, what does that say about Bucky? Hmm….
- Lastly, the Sam and Bucky stories are great. I love that Sam helps Bucky become the man he should be. But, what does Bucky do for Sam other than apologize? How does Bucky help Sam’s transformation into Cap? Which makes me wonder, would the show have been better if Bucky were not part of it?
FOLLOW ALL OF OUR COVERAGE OF THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER HERE: