The Falcon and The Winter Soldier – Season 1 Episode 2
“The Star Spangled Man”
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier brings the two leads together on a mission as the new Captain America makes his debut.
Introducing a new Captain America at the end of the previous episode was a cliffhanger I found underwhelming because it was delivered as a shock reveal that was somewhat at odds with what the rest of the episode chose to focus on. Framing it as a betrayal of what Sam wanted worked well enough but it’s something that could have been handled a lot better.
One thing that works really well in this episode is the subversion of expectations that come with this reveal. Since Sam’s perspective is one of the main viewpoints this show has the audience is invited to feel betrayed and suspicious. In Sam’s mind the government took the opportunity to give the shield to their approved candidate instead of respecting the spirit in which Sam donated it. This episode spends some time detailing the man behind the shield and challenges the viewers assumptions about the sort of man he is.
Wyatt Russell’s John Walker is immediately shown to be apprehensive about making a propaganda driven public appearance. He goes over how he will deliver his lines, he paces nervously in the locker room and he openly talks to his sidekick Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar (Clé Bennett) and his wife Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss) about his misgivings. The intent is to set him up as a decent man trying to live up to the mantle he has been given. He says pretty much exactly that in his interview and Wyatt Russell’s performance is sincere enough to make it believable. It is possible to build a narrative around John that has him overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility that has been handed to him. His self doubt acts as an interesting mirror image of Sam’s reluctance that could allow for some common ground to be found between them in future. It’s a strong introduction that sets up a complex character with plenty of room for exploration. It’s likely that he will end up as a villain of sorts but based on this it could easily go in the other direction.
At this point he isn’t a villain but he is an antagonistic presence as far as Sam and Bucky are concerned. John makes an appearance during a combat situation where Sam and Bucky are fighting to prevent a truck heist. He appears eager to help and showcases impressive skills when it comes to wielding the shield despite the assertion that he has no enhancements. Based on his conduct in this sequence it would appear that he is enhanced in some way though it’s very possible something has been done to him without his knowledge as is hinted at through the mention of MIT studying his body.
The main point of his appearance here is to ask Sam and Bucky to team up with him because it would make for good PR for Captain America’s friends and comrades to support him. IF Sam and Bucky agree to work with him -or for him as is strongly implied- then that will validate John as the new Captain America. In fairness he is completely transparent about this intention but once again there’s a sincerity to Wyatt Russell’s performance suggesting a genuine desire to protect people. Much as it’s a PR stunt to have Captain America backed up by The Falcon and Bucky Barnes he also clearly believes that they can work effectively together in putting an end to the threats that are cropping up.
Curiously there’s very little to suggest that John is anything more than what he seems though there is also an arrogance to the way he conducts himself which calls back to the reason Steve Rogers was chosen to be the recipient of the Super Soldier Serum in the first place. Steve was chosen because of his values as well as his perspective on strength. Before the Serum he was a very weak man with a host of medical issues and had suffered at the hands of bullies all his life. It was believed that he would see the power he was given as a privilege that he would always respect whereas someone who had always been strong and athletic wouldn’t have that same perspective. It is highlighted in Captain America: The First Avenger with a soldier who used his strength to pick on others as a clear contrast to what Steve represented. Basically Steve never took the power he was given for granted and always used it for the benefit of others whereas others may not have the same attitude.
John is an interesting case so far as he does seem to have that desire to do good but that streak of arrogance is starting to shine through which does raise a few red flags when it comes to determining whether he deserves to shoulder the responsibility he has been given. Establishing him as potentially worthy successor on the surface with hints at potential issues that could cumulate is a really good start and makes him a dynamic presence within the show.
After spending the entirety of the previous episode separated, Sam and Bucky are brought together in this one. It happens in a very understated way with Bucky confronting Sam about giving up the shield and almost blaming him for the new Captain America being nominated mere days after. Bucky then just forces himself onto the mission Sam is on which raises a number of questions around how he could get away with doing that considering Sam is conducting official business. Despite that it’s good to see them interact and Bucky being less than pleased with Sam over his decision to give up the shield adds an interesting point of contention for them to work through.
Bucky’s self loathing brought on by his trauma creates the foundation for his views on Sam giving up the shield. He reminds Sam that Steve trusted him with it and vocalises concern because if Steve was wrong about Sam then it might mean he was wrong about him. It seems that Bucky has based his entire redemptive journey on knowing that Steve believed he could achieve it. If Steve was wrong about Sam living up to the mantle of Captain America then it’s possible he was wrong about Bucky redeeming himself. This sets up an arc for Bucky to believe within himself that he has value rather than relying on how his best friend saw him. He’s very much at the beginning of that journey and is trying very hard to live up to what Steve thought of him without actually having that belief in himself. It’s a strong basis for character development that gives Bucky something tangible to work though.
In contrast the episode was very light on meaningful characterisation for Sam beyond what was already established. There is mention of the fallout of being on the run for two years following the events of Captain America: Civil War and having no desire to return to that life but beyond that much of the focus is on how Sam works in the field. His more deliberate and careful approach works well in contrast to Bucky’s more gung ho attitude even if it doesn’t fit Bucky’s background for him to be so reckless. With this being a “Buddy Cop” show in many ways there has to be significant differences in style that create conflict but it felt slightly manufactured for Bucky to be itching to leap into action in that way.
Despite that, Sam and Bucky’s dynamic was a joy to watch. The episode doubles down on them being like an old married couple with them constantly bickering and even directly leaning into the idea with Dr. Rayner engaging them in an awkward couples counselling technique that they are both understandably resistant to. It involves them getting uncomfortably close to one another and awakens their more childish instincts which prompts them into a staring contest. It’s highly amusing to watch and the actors make it work brilliantly thanks to their natural chemistry. It also isn’t overplayed to the point that it becomes tedious and feels perfectly natural.
Outside of the comedic angle there is a clear respect that exists between them with their shared history informing a really complicated relationship that makes them such an effective team. Bucky wants to reclaim the shield and have both of them wield it in Steve’s honour. He may be confused as to his own sense of self worth but he still believes that they are best placed to honour Steve rather than a government sanctioned stooge who never knew him. They also support one another at key points and are able to look beyond the petty annoyances that often rise to the surface. If this balance is maintained then there will be plenty of varied interactions.
A good amount of time is spent developing important background details. The Flag Smashers are places as the major threat of the season though there isn’t a lot of detail surrounding them at this point. They somehow have access to a Super Soldier Serum which allows them to have plenty of muscle behind them so they represent a reasonable physical threat if nothing else. Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) occupies a position of leadership within the organisation and has gained a lot of notoriety in the time they have been active. Very little can be concluded about her as a character but the mention about priority given to those who returned from the Blip rather than those who never disappeared is a compelling setup for something that may be explored in greater detail. Even though their actions are to be condemned it makes sense that there would be unrest if people felt marginalised because of the way governments chose to approach the difficult situation that existed following the return of those Blipped. This adds texture to the world and establishes the Blip as an event that has complicated global consequences.
Bucky taking Sam to see Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly); a Super Soldier that he fought with during his tenure as the Winter Soldier further establishes that Steve wasn’t the unique specimen that was believed. Sam immediately questions why this is coming up now and Bucky admits that he kept it from Steve out of respect for Isaiah because he believes he had been through enough and deserved to live in anonymity. He sees it as a necessity to look him up because of the appearance of Super Soldiers but Isaiah is too damaged to even entertain a conversation about it and delivers a harrowing account of how he was treated. It’s grim and completely unsurprising given that he’s a black man. Once again this adds further texture to the world the show takes place in while somewhat supporting the Flag Smasher belief that those in power are not to be trusted. I’m fully expecting the United States Government to have sanctioned the Super Soldiers in some way.
On the subject of racism, Sam has to deal with institutionalised racism when he attracts a police response by simply being a black man raising his voice. They insist on ID before realising who he is and quickly backing down. It’s a small moment but a very important one that supports the idea of being wary of those in power. Those police officers were all set to abuse their power to make life very difficult for Sam because of his race. It’s a timely moment and resonates powerfully. Having them back down once they realise Sam’s celebrity also sends a clear message around what dictates how people of colour are treated.
The end of the episode brings Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) back into play because the search for information has hit such a dead end that they have no choice but to call on this resource. This helps raise the stakes as Sam and Bucky are forced to admit how lost they are in the midst of this rapidly escalating situation. Bucky’s unique knowledge of the shady practices over the decades makes him ideal for finding unconventional solutions to the problems at hand but they also invite a lot more trouble at the same time. Structurally this is a good place to be a third of the way through the season.
A strong episode that raises the stakes appropriately, makes great use of the Sam/Bucky dynamic and introduces the new Captain America in a compellingly complex way. Introducing John Walker as apprehensive about the role he has undertaken was a great touch that plays with audiences expectations founded on Sam’s point of view. When interviewed he comes across as genuine and sincere with his values appearing to be what would be expected but there’s an undercurrent of arrogance to him that suggests there may be problems with him later. His conduct in the main excellent action sequence that points to him being enhanced in some way but it’s entirely possible something was done to him without his knowledge. Bringing Bucky and Sam together worked really well and was done in a really understated way. There’s some confusion around Bucky inviting him along on Sam’s mission and having him be reckless as a contrast to Sam’s more careful approach didn’t completely make sense. Their dynamic was great to watch especially in the couples counselling scene and there’s enough variety to their interactions to prevent the childish back and forth from becoming tiresome.
The background details highlighted in the episode added some interesting texture to the world. The Flag Smashers aren’t well developed at this point and Karli Morgenthau isn’t really a character but having them motivated by distaste for the global approach of prioritising those that returned from the Blip while ignoring those who didn’t disappear makes sense. Bucky taking Sam to see a Super Soldier he fought during his tenure as the Winter Soldier shows that Steve wasn’t an isolated case while also reinforcing the idea that those in authority aren’t to be trusted. Something that is further backed up by Sam’s encounter with institutionalised racism where the police only back down once they are made aware of his celebrity. All of this adds weight to the world the show takes place in and shows how complicated things are both in general and in the wake of the Blip. Going to see Zemo because all other avenues have been exhausted raises the stakes appropriately while showing that Bucky’s unique experience allows him to come up with unconventional yet dangerous solutions.
- the complex introduction to John Walker
- Wyatt Russell’s sincere performance contrasting the arrogant streak that clearly exists
- the hints that he has enhancements, possibly against his will
- Sam and Bucky’s dynamic
- the couples counselling scene
- enough variety to their interactions to prevent the childish ribbing becoming stale
- background details that point to not trusting those in authority
- Sam’s encounter with institutionalised racism
- raising the stakes by reintroducing Zemo
- Sam receiving less attention overall
- Bucky’s reckless attitude not making complete sense
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