The Falcon and The Winter Soldier – Season 1 Episode 5
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier takes stock of recent events through consequences for John while Sam and Bucky consider their next move.
John Walker’s actions at the end of the previous episode made for a really dark and shocking ending that promised lasting repercussions to spin out from it. Strangely there was little coverage of the public perception of John’s actions despite the focus on bystanders recording what he did on their phones. This show has largely been a very character driven story where most of the attention is given to the leads and how they react to given situations but John’s actions demanded at least some idea of what the reaction of the general public would be and it’s unfortunate that this wasn’t delivered.
As always the involved characters are given a lot of attention and the commitment to John’s complexity is continued in the immediate aftermath of his actions. He is shown to be remorseful with the event repeating in his head suggesting that he is aware that he got carried away and is struggling to reconcile it. Words said to him by Lemar about how good a person he is and how deserving of the Captain America mantle also deliver excellent insight into his state of mind as he works to justify what he has done within himself. Wyatt Russell’s performance as he comes down from his rage and the gravity of his actions starts to set in is excellent while being wonderfully complimented by the visual of the bloodied shield being something he tries to cling to. In essence he is trying to hold onto the fact that he is Captain America out of a misguided belief that he deserves to be in that role rather than casting aside the shield because he feels he has disgraced it. The shot of him kneeling on the floor behind the shield with him being off centre of the frame is the perfect representation of how far away he is from the thing that he clings to.
Sam and Bucky approach John with empathy looking to help him rather than outright condemn him for his actions. In particular Sam reaches out to him by relating that he understands his actions were motivated by the heat of battle and encourages him to stand down so that nobody else gets hurt. It’s a great callback to Sam’s counselling background and a clear sign that he has seen what John is going through in others so uses those techniques to calm John down. It doesn’t work and he becomes increasingly hostile, opting to fight them instead of back down reasonably. John insists that they’re making him do it indicating his lack of desire to take responsibility for his actions. As expected the serum is amplifying his more negative traits and he lashes out violently.
His fight with Sam and Bucky is brilliantly executed with John’s rage fuelling his conflict with them as they try to take away the thing he definitely doesn’t deserve. He continues to insist that he is Captain America and fights them. The action is well choreographed and showcases really impressive teamwork from Sam and Bucky with the stakes constantly shifting in either direction such as when Sam’s wings are damaged or when John has his arm broken. Ultimately John loses and returns to America in disgrace. He is stripped of the title of Captain America and removed from service with no ongoing support. In effect he is betrayed by the system he swore to protect and his reaction shows that he understands that to be exactly what is happening. For all his faults John was a good soldier who did exactly what was asked of him even if he believed it to be morally dubious so to be so casually abandoned after he gets caught doing something that is likely very similar to what he was ordered to do before is a personal insult to him and not something he can shrug off.
Ultimately this speaks to one of the underlying themes that the show is driving at. The Flag Smashers directly comment on how people can feel betrayed by the systems in place to protect them and up until this point John was a product of that system working to maintain it even though it realistically needs to change. John has been clearly identified as not simply being a bad person as he does have admirable values he has been shown to hold but he remains a part of the problem rather than being interested in being the solution. He was after Karli and the Flag Smashers because they threatened that system and it’s his job to uphold it. It has been referenced that he doesn’t always agree with his orders but he never disobeys them which makes him clearly different to Steve. Now John is on the receiving end of that broken system and has lost everything he has worked for which begins to radicalise him similar to Karli. It’s a really fascinating parallel that continues the notion of a better world needing to be built rather than maintaining the problems of the current one.
John’s scene with Lemar’s parents highlights how strong their friendship was and that his death means something to John on a deeply personal level. He tries to assure them that the one responsible was punished in an effort to comfort them but they are all so heavy with grief that there’s nothing that can be said that will make it better. It’s a necessary scene to reinforce John’s humanity and add in extra motivation for his upcoming actions. Once again it looks as if he will be motivated by vengeance whether that be against the system that wronged him, Karli for killing Lemar or a combination of both. The introduction of Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) earlier in the episode strongly suggests there is a clandestine organisation out there that John could be a part of and that he still has a major role to play. Her less than subtle suggestion that the government don’t actually condemn what he did but had to respond to the public relations issue created by John’s actions being out there for all to see. If he had done it and not been caught then it seems certain that there would have been no consequences. Once again there is an obvious marker of corruption.
Bucky’s contribution to the episode continues to interrogate his perception of his own self worth. His scene where Zemo accepts that he has to go away for what he has done in the past is really strong because it allows for some coverage of their different worldviews. Zemo believes that the only way to stop Karli is to kill her but Bucky insists there is a better way and he intends to work to that. His commitment to finding that better way is shown by him giving Zemo to Ayo to let him answer for his crimes rather than seeking lethal justice. It’s an indication of growth on Bucky’s part while showing that Zemo’s morality remains heavily skewed. Zemo’s role in the show ends in a really unexpected way but remains fully consistent with how he is characterised in the context of the events he takes part in. The betrayal never comes because he got what he wanted out of the arrangement and understands that there are things he needs to atone for. He is allowed a dignified exit that doesn’t forgive him for what he has done.
The remainder of Bucky’s contribution is spending time with Sam’s neighbours and family as they all work to fix the boat that belonged to Sam’s parents. In this setting Bucky finds purpose in a simpler life and doing honest work as well as acceptance from everyone around him. There are brief reminders of the fun dynamic that exists between them to be found when Bucky casually uses his strength to make light of a task that Sam is struggling with or Sam threatening him as a big brother when he flirts with Sarah. This is a great example of character development through mundane tasks which is something I always personally enjoy watching as it highlights the strengths of the characters and their relationships without the need of a life or death situation.
One of Bucky’s major struggles over the course of the episodes is his sense of belonging. He’s out of time, has no real support structure and feels apart from the world he now lives him. Being around Sam and his family as well as the surrounding community gives him that however briefly and lets him feel truly sedate. There are a couple of moments that showcase this such as the genuine smile when he sees Sam’s nephews playing with the shield. It’s a pure an innocent moment that he obviously enjoys being a part of. In general just helping people in their efforts to restore the boat adds to that serenity that he is being exposed to. It amounts to very effective therapy for him and shows him that he can be a part of the world if he makes the effort.
His later conversation with Sam as they throw the shield around as if they’re playing catch in the back yard tells us a lot about his state of mind. Bucky admits that he considers the shield to be the closest thing he has to family without having Steve as an active presence in his life so reacted in the way he did when Sam gave it up. It made him question everything about himself and his connection to Steve because he felt that he had nothing to cling to at that point. It’s a difficult admission especially when he is now reconsidering it and apologises for blaming Sam for something that was entirely his hang up. He also apologises to Sam for putting that pressure on him without really considering what wielding the shield actually meant and that there would be considerable anxiety attached to the prospect of being the next Captain America. Failing to consider the implications of passing that onto a black man in the world they currently inhabit was a failing on the part of both Bucky and Steve that placed significant pressure on Sam. It took a lot for Bucky to realise that him apologising for that clears the air between them as well as in his own mind.
Sam’s advice to Bucky is that what Steve thought of him doesn’t matter because he has to stop worrying about how others see him and figure out who he is on his own. He also advises him to reframe his quest for redemption. Bucky still thinks he has been making amends but Sam says that he has been “avenging not amending” and encourages him to offer closure to people on his list rather than using them on his misguided quest for his own closure. Sam encourages him start with one person and take it from there which immediately conjures up a reminder of Yori from the first episode who is seeking closure on the death of his son. Bucky can offer that to him but hasn’t so far out of his own shame. This is advice he’s willing to take and makes for another great callback to Sam’s role as a counsellor. His insistence that Bucky needs to “do the work” to get better hits hard and is the reality check that Bucky needs. They part as friends and partners even if they are too macho to admit it with Bucky offering unconditional support when needed. The character work on Bucky with Sam offering him the advice he needs is unquestionably excellent and brings in everything they have been through up until this point.
Sam is also in need of a reality check but a very different one. There is a great deal of downtime in the wake of John’s actions and the search for Karli. The calm before the storm is common in the final act of a story like this and it’s used well from Sam’s point of view as he takes the time to regroup in an effort to figure out what to do next. Initially this takes him to Isaiah as he needs to understand what he went through. Isaiah tells a really harrowing tale of betrayal and corruption that he personally experienced when being used by the United States Government. The fact that he’s even alive to tell the story is because a nurse took pity on him as it’s clear that the government wanted him dead in order to cover up their experiments. Sam has the shield with him but Isaiah won’t even look at it because of what he feels that it represents and makes it very clear that he believes black people are not respected by those in power so they would never allow a black man to be an officially sanctioned Captain America nor should a black man accept the mantle in the unlikely event that it were offered to him.
This ties into the arc Sam has been working through since the show began. The spectre of Steve Rogers has been hanging over him and it’s well established that he feels ill equipped to live up to that but the necessary realisation for him is that he has to define himself rather than worry about what Steve represented. It’s similar to his advice to Bucky but he has to come to terms with that on his own. His conversation with Isaiah helps him consider that Captain America should not be an agent of the government because the symbol means more than that. It was Steve as a person who gave that symbol meaning rather than what the nation in the name does or doesn’t represent in the modern world. Sam has to become his own version of Captain America to honour Steve and promote what he stands for rather than accepting what a corrupt system of government wants from it. This starts to personalise his acceptance of the identity and once again makes it something to aspire to rather than a tool of the system. It’s profound and inseparably linked to who Sam is as a person.
Once again he exhibits the necessary traits to live up to that mantle as shown by his ability to pull the community together in a common goal. This is possible because his parents created a lot of good faith but his genuine and friendly nature ties into their desire to offer help when asked. Sam exhibits leadership qualities as well having faith in those around him therefore showcasing his suitability for the role of Captain America because he is connected to the people that make up the community. When he fights he will fight for them.
The montage of him training physically as well as with the shield symbolises his journey towards accepting that he will be the next Captain America. It takes him a while to master the skill of throwing the shield but with perseverance and determination he manages it and stands ready to reveal himself to the world in full belief that he deserves to carry the shield. It’s inspiring and a satisfying development for Sam. He “does the work” as he advised Bucky and it pays off for him.
His conversation with Sarah helps him get to that point as she corrects him on the assumption he held around her thinking he ran away from the family problems. Sarah never believed that and is proud of him taking on external fights as well as the fight to preserve his family’s legacy. She understands that the boat is an important example of their family history so gains the determination to restore it while encouraging Sam to stand up for what he believes in because it’s worth doing. Their dynamic remains engaging and complex with everything linking back to Sam’s development into the hero that the world needs in such hopeless times.
Sam’s decision comes at the right time as Karli and her followers are gearing up to attack a GRC meeting so that they can’t vote to make the lives of people worse. The brief insight into the meeting further muddies the conflict as there is clear corruption there through the mention that the optics are whatever they decide to show people. This makes it clear that they don’t have the best interests of the people in mind and are manufacturing a narrative that supports their selfish agendas. This reinforces that the Flag Smashers ideology is admirable though their methods are to be condemned. Karli’s decision to attack means that they have to be stopped but it remains to be seen what can be done to actually get to the root of the problem and stop it. It will take more than fighting and Karli’s methods certainly won’t lead to an ideal resolution that benefits the people she fights for. The situation is further complicated by Sharon hiring Batroc further supporting the theory that she is the Power Broker. Ahead of the finale there is so much at play to be resolves do hopefully it will all come together.
An excellent episode that deals with the consequences of John’s actions, offers detailed commentary on corruption and provides excellent character development for Sam and Bucky that compliment their established arcs perfectly. The episode could have done more with the public perception of what John did but his complexity is reinforced by his reaction to what he did in the previous episode ahead of his fight with Sam and Bucky. In particular Sam approaches him with empathy calling back to his experience as a counsellor who has seen people go through what John is going through. Unfortunately John reacts with hostility and they are forced to subdue him before he has to return to America in disgrace and be stripped of the title of Captain America. He is abandoned by the system he unquestionably fought for and becomes painfully aware of how flawed it is. He has previously followed orders he disagreed with and is now cast aside therefore connecting to the theme of corrupt systems and what maintains them. This pushes him towards being radicalised just as Karli has creating a fascinating parallel. Bucky’s contribution to the episode continues to interrogate his perception of his self worth. Letting Zemo be imprisoned rather than kill him shows his desire to find a better way and gives Zemo an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion based on his contribution to the show.
Spending time with Sam’s family and neighbours doing honest work gives Bucky purpose and acceptance therefore showing him that there is a place for him in the world despite his belief. The scenes spent restoring the boat are excellent character beats that compliment both of the leads wonderfully while letting Bucky have some natural therapy. His conversation with Sam where he is advised not to fixate on what Steve thought of him and be more concerned about defining who he is on his own terms. He is also encouraged to reframe his quest for redemption by helping others find closure. Sam advises him to do the work necessary for him to heal and they part as partners who support one another unconditionally. Sam needs a similar yet different reality check that he gets through his conversation with Isaiah who relates a harrowing tale of betrayal and corruption that highlights his reasons for hating those in power so much. He tells Sam that a black man will never be officially sanctioned as Captain America and even if it were to happen a black man should never accept the mantle because of how corrupt the system it connects to is. This helps Sam realise that he needs to figure out his own way to take on the mantle and frame it through honouring Steve rather than representing a national identity. To get to this point he does the work and learns how to use the shield. The montage symbolises his journey towards that acceptance and he ends the episode ready to step forward. They way he conducts himself as well as his conversation with Sarah further highlights his suitability because it shows that he stands for the people in the community. Further complexity is added to the overall conflict through the GRC meeting showing clear corruption as Karli prepares to attack it. Once again the Flag Smasher ideology is shown to be admirable with their methods being a problem. Sharon’s contribution to this adds credence to the theory that she is the Power Broker so a lot is in play to be resolved in the finale.
- reinforcing John’s complexity through his immediate reaction to what he did
- Sam approaching him with empathy calling back to his counselling background
- John realising he has been cast aside by the system he has always fought for
- the parallel created between John and Karli through that realisation
- Bucky’s handling of Zemo showcasing his desire to be better
- Zemo’s unexpected yet perfectly fitting conclusion
- Bucky finding purpose and acceptance through Sam’s family and neighbours
- doing honest work around people being great therapy for him
- Sam helping him realise what he needs to do to heal
- Sam’s reality check through Isaiah’s harrowing tale of betrayal and corruption
- using what Isaiah told him to encourage finding his own way to honour Steve and take on the mantle
- the montage symbolising him doing the work needed to define the role for himself
- reinforcing his suitability through how he conducts himself and his conversation with Sarah
- further complexity shown through the GRC meeting clearly establishing they have their own selfish agendas
- not showing much of the public perception of John’s actions
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