America’s got blood on its hands. It’s a statement that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has been pointedly reiterating for over four episodes, but which lands with stunning clarity only in the wordless final shot of its last one. At its heart, the show is about two men — Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a former assassin trying to outrun his past, and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former pararescueman who’s deviated from the future laid out for him. What both men have in common is Steve Rogers or Captain America (Chris Evans), their relationships with him becoming the shorthand by which they’ve come to be defined in the MCU. Despite his absence from the show, lengthy discussions about his legacy and what carrying it forward could entail mean that his presence is still acutely felt.
It’s Steve’s legacy that’s the cause of Sam’s doubt. At the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), set before the events of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, Steve urges Sam to take his shield, passing on the Captain America mantle to him. It’s an enormous ask, one that Sam’s silent hesitance amplifies. When he does try on the shield for size, he says it “feels like someone else’s”. “It isn’t,” says Steve, neatly wrapping up that little exchange.
Sam’s reluctance persists long after that conversation, however and by the first episode of the show, he’s relinquished the shield to the US government. Though tacitly agreed that the weapon will be part of a Smithsonian exhibit honoring Steve’s legacy, it’s promptly, and covertly, handed over to war veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell), who is then introduced to the public as its new Captain America. The optics of Caucasian man swooping in to snag a role officially assigned to a Black man, without his knowledge, aren’t great, and become one of the many micro and macro-aggressions Sam faces over the course of the show.
The most damning indictment of America’s original sin comes in the next episode, when the search for super soldier serum leads Sam and Bucky to the house of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Black super soldier created by the government in secret, deployed on suicide missions, cruelly experimented upon and eventually imprisoned, his legacy erased from the history books. Sam is stunned. And furious. Until now, his explanations for why he gave up the shield have been vague and give the impression of him being unable to articulate his behaviour even to himself. Does he feel crushed by the weight of expectation? The impossibility of living up to the ideal of a perfect man? When Steve was given the super serum, he transcended from soldier to symbol; does Sam, a mere man, feel unworthy of the same? All of these seem plausible, but the Isaiah Bradley scene lends his struggle another dimension — Sam isn’t quite sure how to represent a country that historically hasn’t represented him.
The show doesn’t trust viewers to grasp this implication, immediately following the scene with another in which Sam’s race is weaponized against him. On spotting the two Avengers arguing on the street outside Isaiah’s house, the police pull up, deferring to Bucky while treating Sam with hostility on the assumption that he’s the aggressor. It’s an illustration of how even his elevated status as an Avenger can’t always shield him from snap judgements tied to his race. That there’s actually a warrant out for Bucky’s arrest caps the scene off with a neat twist.
Episode 4 introduces the idea that the desire to become a superhero is intrinsically linked to supremacist ideals — Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) points out that this “warped ambition” led the Nazis to inject Bucky with super serum. The episode’s final shot drives home that point hard. John Walker’s simmering inferiority complex is only fuelled when he’s bested by the Dora Milaje, an all-women group of Wakandan bodyguards. “They weren’t even super soldiers,” he whispers, humiliated and in disbelief. When he gets his hands on a dose of super serum a while later, he rationalizes taking it by convincing himself it’s in service of a noble endeavour, to save lives. What he does, instead, is violently and publicly kill a man responsible for the death of his best friend. The legacy of American exceptionalism, now embodied by the new Captain America, continues to be blood and violence.
Throughout this season, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has hinted at John being ill-suited to his new role, lacking Steve’s spirit or Sam’s empathy and defaulting to violence over negotiation. It’s only this last shot of the episode, however, that prompts the question: What are the qualities that make up Captain America? Who really deserves the role? A decorated military man, John was handpicked for the role by virtue of being a good soldier. But unlike Steve and Sam, he isn’t a good man. In contrast to Steve, who willingly relinquished the shield in defence of his best friend, in Captain America: Civil War (2016), John picks up the shield in brutal, frenzied violence to avenge the death of his. If Steve represented the hope and optimism of what America could be, John represents the harsh reality of what it currently is. It’s a powerful, wordless statement conveyed through a single shot of the shield, painted in the colours of the American flag, bloodied for the first time ever since its appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). What makes it more resonant is that the man lying dead at the end of the episode was a longtime fan of the old Captain America’s selfless ideals, only to be killed by self-serving, myopic agenda of the new one.
Still, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is a show that can’t seem to stop undercutting its own message. Just as it wants to advocate the importance of therapy and processing one’s grief but keeps puncturing Bucky’s exploration of his past trauma with jokes, it lessens the impact of its statement on Black sacrifice as the foundation stone of America by having John’s arc progress only at the cost of his Black best friend’s life. The show inadvertently ends up playing out the very story it’s been critiquing.