The Falcon and The Winter Soldier – Season 1 Episode 1
“New World Order”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues with its television offering with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
WandaVision was for the most part a great success. It was a subversive take on the MCU that provided a closer look at characters the films don’t have time to explore in detail due to focus being elsewhere. This show could be described as a more traditional take on the Marvel formula which makes sense given the characters involved. Sam Wilson aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes aka The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) have been supporting characters in the films before this point but have had limited attention so bringing them together for a TV show is an exciting opportunity to dig into these characters and explore what makes them who they are. Keeping them apart for the first episode allows time to be taken to establish them individually which was a really good decision for an introductory episode.
This show picks up following the return of billions of people thanks to the efforts of the Avengers in Avengers: Endgame and opens with Sam considering the enormity of the responsibility Steve passed to him when he handed over the shield. His own words about it feeling like it belongs to somebody else echoes in his mind and he seems melancholy about the situation. This quickly establishes what will likely be some of the main themes of this show. Legacy stands out represented by the shield being a symbol that can be passed town between people taking on the mantle of Captain America.
Steve intended Sam to be the inheritor but he has his doubts because he doesn’t feel that he is up to the challenge of being everything that Steve was which brings us to the second suggested theme relating to impostor syndrome. Steve had absolute faith in Sam as evidenced by handing the shield to him and encouraging him to be the Captain America this post blip world needs but Sam doesn’t feel like he can live up to the enormity of what the title and shield represents. There’s no denying that Steve is a tough act to follow and was a special case when it came to moral standing so it understandable that Sam would be reluctant to try and live up to that.
Another theme that is likely to be explored is hope or the lack of it. This episode suggests that the absence of a Captain America represents the absence of hope in an uncertain world. The Blip changed things significantly and people are looking for something -or someone- to rally behind in order to make them feel that there are brighter days ahead. Once again Sam doesn’t feel that he can be that person but there are a number of exchanges that reference how desperate people are for a hero to rally behind.
This is reinforced through Sam’s conversation with James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka War Machine (Don Cheadle). This comes after Sam donates the shield to the Smithsonian as he believes it belongs with the other Captain America memorabilia so that people can see it and remember everything he represented. The speech he gives about how great Steve was and how he embodied that hope so completely is a little on the nose but Anthony Mackie makes it work through his sincere performance. It’s from the perspective of someone who knew Steve and considered him a close friend so there’s weight behind the words as well.
Rhodey tells him that he should wield the shield because it was given to him but Sam insisted that the world survived just fine without a Captain America in it for 70 years so doesn’t see it as being a big issue that the world doesn’t have a Captain America in it. Rhodey’s point is that the world now is very different which brings in the need for a symbol to rally behind. Basically the aim of this conversation is for Sam to hear from someone with an understanding of how the world currently is how much Captain America is needed. Having it punctuated by walking through an exhibit that confirms how historic a man Steve Rogers was when in that role really helps sell that idea in an obvious yet effective way. Having him reflected in the display that currently holds the shield was a really nice visual touch to highlight Sam’s reluctance.
Sam’s post blip life has him thrown back into action with the Air Force doing specialised missions for them with his unique tech. The extended action sequence near the beginning of the episode is brilliantly executed with impressive aerial combat, a great use of hand to hand combat in tight quarters and stunning effects work. It feels very in keeping with sequence that can be found in the movies which is probably why this show was designed to be released first so that fans could be eased into the Disney+ era with something less experimental than WandaVision. The familiarity isn’t a bad thing because it suits the characters in this show perfectly.
Following the sequence a bit of time is spent establishing Sam’s comfort level with the work he’s doing. He has a natural bond with Jaoquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) that suggests they’re comfortable working together and his general charm stands him in good stead out in the field. There’s a brief mention of the “Flag Smashers” as an organisation to watch out for in this post Blip world which sets up the ongoing antagonist so the setup for the work Sam is currently doing is both efficient and engaging.
In his personal life he’s dealing with the fallout of returning from five years of non-existence. He heads back home to Louisiana to catch up with his sister and nephews while dealing with some unfinished family business. This begins a deep dive into Sam’s background and upbringing which is great to see as the films aren’t built to incorporate such details. Sam’s family were never even mentioned in the films as the only relevant elements of his backstory were his service in the military so in that respect he’s a blank slate for this show to run with.
His relationship with his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye) is fascinatingly tense. She wasn’t blipped and has shouldered the responsibility of the family fishing business. Both of their parents are established as being dead and their lives went in vastly different directions with Sam joining the military and Sarah managing the business. It has taken a major toll on her as she’s running it at a loss and desperately looking for a way to keep things going so that she can support her kids. Complicating the issue is Sam’s stubborn refusal to sell the boat their parents owned despite how run down it is. The suggestion is that Sam’s motivated by a sentimental attachment to something that was a big part of his childhood and doesn’t want to lose one of the few remaining tangible connections to his parents. Sarah’s outlook is more realistic as she has her family to think about which trumps sentimentality. It’s a really interesting point of disagreement as both positions are understandable.
Sam’s position is analogous to someone who hasn’t been involved in his sister’s life for a long time suddenly appearing out of the blue and making demands. His reason for not being around is completely valid considering he didn’t exist for five years but it doesn’t alter the fact that he has no idea what Sarah has dealt with in his absence. He comes across as being somewhat insensitive even though he is offering to help out financially. A big problem is that he isn’t really hearing what his sister is saying or acknowledging her feelings because he’s so fixated on preserving the connection he has to his parents. When pushed he reminds her that half of the boat and house belong to him so ultimately the buck stops with him on whether Sarah can actually do anything.
This leads to an interesting scene where they go to a bank in order to apply for a loan. It provides some background on how the world is coping following the Blip. The question is asked over whether the Avengers were paid -they weren’t- and what Sam was living off during that period which makes for fascinating ancillary details for those interested. There’s mention of the return of billions of people affecting financials significantly which means they can’t be approved for a loan because Sam’s income isn’t enough to offset the lack of earnings in the business. Naturally this adds further complications to the impasse Sam and Sarah are currently dealing with as financial aid won’t settle the disagreement for them. An arc for Sam could be around letting go of physical tethers to the past for the greater good of his family though that issue is interrupted before it can be covered in any more details. As I mentioned it was great to explore Sam’s background in this way and get a sense of where he came from while introducing a compelling problem for him to solved that isn’t related to a high tech wing suit.
Bucky’s life is very different. He is far more isolated than Sam and is focusing his energies on making amends for his past while lying to a therapist about the lingering impact his past has on him. He is introduced in the episode having a nightmare/flashback of one of his exploits as the Winter Soldier under the control of HYDRA. He wakes up in a sparse room without even a bed to sleep on. This immediately shows that he lives in the world but isn’t really a part of it as he hasn’t settled into a living situation that has any comforts. This could suggest that he feels he isn’t deserving of a true identity in this world so lives as spartan a lifestyle as he can. Basically his trauma has consumed him and is affecting his ability to function effectively. His therapist directly asks him about nightmares and he denies that he’s having them while being creative with the truth around him following the conditions of his pardon. He is crossing names off a personal list in order to make amends and is doing so as non violently as possible though the given example shows that he comes close. To him doing the right thing is more important than following those imposed rules and being vague about it to his therapist.
Bucky and Dr. Raynor’s (Amy Aquino) conversation works really well because she directly challenges aspects of his life that he dismisses. He has convinced himself that he’s content to live a mostly solitary existence crossing names off a list in pursuit of making amends but the fact that she comes from a military background allows her to empathise with him in a very real way. She has experienced the isolation that comes with coming home from the horrors of War and combat so wants to emphasise to Bucky how important it is for him to nurture connections. She points out he has been ignoring texts from Sam and has very few names in his phone so she feels that he is in dire need of companionship in order to maintain his sanity.
The self imposed isolation is a strong starting point as it says a lot about Bucky’s mindset. His reluctance to be part of the world he helped save suggests that he hasn’t forgiven himself for everything he’s done despite the fact he wasn’t in control of his actions at the time. His situation makes for a compelling contrast to Sam who has thrown himself into being part of the world again where Bucky looks to defend it from the shadows. It’s likely his arc will involve him accepting companionship and visibly becoming part of something outside of himself.
He isn’t bereft of contact with others as he spends time with Yori (Ken Takemoto); an old man mourning the loss of his son. Bucky has a regular lunch appointment with him and seems to feel connected to him because of the era they both grew up in. Their scenes together are really charming and leaning into Bucky being old fashioned is a good decision as it reinforces him not fitting into the world around him. His lack of connection to the modern world fits in with his background and being more comfortable around older people is a natural extension of that. The reveal that Yori’s son was the man Bucky killed in the nightmare he experienced earlier adds intrigue as their connection has a dishonesty to it from Bucky’s perspective. Characterising Yori as a defeated and sympathetic old man runs in direct contrast to Bucky needing to bring him to justice so there’s definitely a lot to explore there.
Bucky’s date with Leah (Miki Ishikawa) works well enough but there’s also a forced quality to it. In general it exists to have Bucky answer questions about himself while looking sullen and fill in some background details about Yori. It does reinforce Bucky’s difficulties in making meaningful connections with people and shows that he finds it difficult to have a simple friendly conversation with someone. She also makes him talk about his family and reveals the interesting detail of him talking about his sister in the present tense suggesting that she may still be alive and can be a connection that the show uses in the coming episodes. The actors work well together but it does stray into awkward exposition territory at times. Reinforcing that Bucky is a tragic character is a good idea but it is well established in the episode already so this exchange would have been better served as being purely character driven.
The ending involving the government establishing a new Captain America and introducing John Walker (Wyatt Russell) to the world is a somewhat underwhelming cliffhanger though still works because of Sam’s reaction to it. He feels that nobody is worthy of the shield so is clearly insulted by the prospect of the government handing it to someone. Once again this suggests that this show will delve into what the symbol of Captain America truly means and connect it to Sam personally as he considers his suitability for the role. If the attack from the “Flag Smashers” earlier in the episode was the reason for this decision then it doesn’t feel impactful enough but subsequent episodes may provide more detail as to the mechanics behind it.
A strong beginning that reintroduces the characters well and takes the time to explore them in fascinating detail. Keeping Sam and Bucky apart for the first episode was a good decision as it allows them to be established individually. Sam being introduced agonising over Steve handing him the shield and questioning whether he’s worthy of the mantle is a good starting point and sets up his arc towards accepting the role. The speech he gives when he donates the shield to the Smithsonian is a little on the nose but is delivered well by Anthony Mackie who plays Sam with a great deal of sincerity. These moments set up what looks to be the main themes of the show and the conversation Sam has with Rhodey helps to confirm the need for a symbol like Captain America. Showing Sam working with the Air Force allows for an excellent action sequence while giving him a defined place in this new world and the time spent exploring his relationship with his sister is a really fascinating look at his background. The disagreement between Sam and Sarah is very real and delivers a lot of insight into Sam’s emotional state.
Bucky living his life disconnected from the world and those in it is a compelling starting point. His conversation with his therapist helps set that up and having her come from a military background means she can empathise with him in a unique way. The episode does a lot with Bucky’s self appointed isolation and his old fashioned outlook that prevents him from being a part of the world. He spends his time making amends for his actions but doesn’t feel right truly being part of the world. His date with Leah further reinforces that though to a forced extent at times rather than making the conversation a more character driven one that isn’t a clear attempt to work in Bucky’s background and general sense of unease. The ending with the new government sanctioned Captain America is somewhat underwhelming as a cliffhanger though Sam’s reaction really helps to underscore how significant it is. The situation that seemed to prompt it doesn’t seem to be impactful enough but more details may be forthcoming.
- taking time to reintroduce the characters separately
- setting up Sam’s reluctance to accept the mantle of Captain America
- Rhodey and Sam’s conversation setting up the need for a symbol to rally behind
- the excellent aerial action sequence
- insight into Sam’s background through his relationship with his sister
- their realistic disagreement
- filling in background details about the universe
- the exploration of Bucky’s self imposed isolation
- the general sense that he struggles to connect with people or the world around him
- some details about his background
- Sam’s speech being on the nose at points
- a forced quality to Bucky’s date
- the underwhelming cliffhanger ending
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