Following yesterday's finale, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is now finished and it's been a…bumpy ride. The series has felt choppy and fragmented in how it seemed to value ass-kicking action set pieces over grounded character development.
Suchin Mehrotra: I feel like we need to start by discussing that finale. Which, I know you just finished writing about. For me, I think it may be the episode I enjoyed most this season, for all the wrong reasons. It was laughable and silly. And if anything, up till this point, the show had been bumpy with some promise #Episode5, but this finale was the final nail in coffin, confirming that this show has been a mess with a few good moments along the way. My favourite moments from the episode include: that terrible campy new Cap costume..and chair trumping shield.
Gayle Sequeira: When it comes to laughable and silly, I don't think anything trumps episode 3 – Bucky and Sam sneaking into Madripoor in disguise like some Scooby Doo subplot. Bucky going full Winter Soldier and beating up a bunch of citizens, while being filmed, was a massive moment that had no payoff at all. Had that footage surfaced after John Walker killed a man in broad daylight, public trust in the Avengers would've been at an all-time low. Think about it – Cap's a murderer, The Winter Soldier is still an assassin and Scarlet Witch just enslaved a whole town. I'd like to see a movie about that fallout.
I think the finale only highlighted something I'd been feeling about the whole show – it's so poorly structured. More than half its runtime is spent on a single fight and its most intimate, winning moments go by too fast. More Sam and Bucky watching the sunset together, please.
SM: Oh yeah episode 3 with dancing Zemo (still can't believe that's an actual thing) and Sam drinking snake Martinis (still can't believe that's an actual thing), and Sam being forced at gun point by a bad guy to answer his sister's phone (still can't believe that actually happened).
And I totally agree about the show being poorly structured. The first episode felt serviceable at best, and then it just went to strange places till episode 5, which a lot of people have said should've been episode 2, which I agree with. It's also just a pure failure of serialised storytelling, which is supposed to do one thing – give us more time with these characters and give us a deeper look into their arcs. This show only managed that in moments.
GS: I think the marketing also had something to do with why the first episode felt so off. The show was billed as this buddy comedy so Sam and Bucky spending the whole first episode apart, and the disclosure that they weren't even on talking terms, was obviously jarring. Their individual arcs were set up quite well for sure – Bucky in therapy trying to cope with his traumatic past, Sam saying no the future Captain America handed him and giving up the shield – but in the absence of their chemistry, the pilot lacked any warmth or cheer.
SM: Do you think the show did justice to either Sam or Bucky overall?
GS: Bucky's arc is incredibly compelling on paper – this is a man from the 1940s, brainwashed into becoming an assassin for the Nazis, now recovering and trying to come to terms with his past. The show's handling of this though is very inconsistent. Bucky's early therapy sessions play out like jokes (at best) or queerbaiting (at worst). The series mines his trauma for big gut-punch moments (Ayo telling him he's free of the codes that controlled him is one of the show's standout sequences) but perversely compounds his trauma so the plot can progress. Someone needs to break Zemo out of jail? Great, Bucky will do it even though Zemo tortured him and framed him for murder. Someone needs a distraction? Great, Bucky will pretend to be the Winter Soldier again in Madripoor, and do it well, but how is the slipping on of an identity he's tried so hard to shed affecting his mind? I love that he goes from waking up from a nightmare to waking up to the sounds of Sam's nephews laughing. I love that he's finally found some semblance of family after decades in isolation. It's a great ending but the journey is extremely iffy.
Sam's a bit more complicated because more than an individual in his own right, he really felt like a medium that the show used to deliver its messaging about what it means to be Black in America today. If Bucky didn't verbalise his feelings enough, all Sam did was deliver the show's messages of empowerment and upliftment.
SM: I agree on the Bucky front, he's had a more compelling arc overall up till the show, which started on (what looked like) a very promising note. There's so much to be mined there, between the trauma, the pain, the identity crisis and a world without Steve. I can think of no character more suited to a series to really explore his head and story. This show did that …sometimes, maybe. The Wakanda flashback scene you mentioned really hit home, but aside from moments like that it was a lot of missed opportunities. Like Zemo asking him to play act as The Winter Soldier in weird Mandripoor nightclub, which could have been such a big conflicting, messy character moment. But they didn't seem interested in that. I think one of the reasons we're more invested in Bucky this season is Sebastian Stan's performance. But yes, I like where he started and where he ended up on the show. It's only literally everything in between I had an issue with.
With Sam's arc, there was the entire burden of the shield and what it means to be a Black Captain America. But there was also Sam's personal arc, which I barely got a sense of. I actually forgot who Sam was as a person till episode 4 when we see him as the compassionate therapist to Karli (less said about that whiny woke 'villain' the better). When he was her voice of reason, suddenly it all came rushing back to who he actually was. The loyal friend, the soldier, the counselor to soldiers dealing with trauma. The guiding, supportive voice.
GS: This is such a great example of how inconsistent the show's writing has been. It completely forgot that Sam was a therapist who counselled war veterans with PTSD when it needed him to needle Bucky (a war veteran suffering from PTSD) in the initial episodes and then remembered who he was when it needed to utilize his skills. It did the same with Karli. Her goals of preventing forced displacement across borders weren't unreasonable and in line with the show's theme of tackling current issues. I'm not sure why the series decided to make her a villain, and in supremely lazy fashion, made her blow up a building to get that point across to the audience. I think John Walker might've had the most consistent arc of all the characters, until the finale decided to blow it up. He went from decorated war veteran to a Captain America harbouring a deep insecurity under his costume to an illustration of the darkest secret of American Exceptionalism – a man representing a country forged on blood and violence, forging a legacy built on blood and violence. Then the finale decided to make him…a good guy?
SM: You mentioned the J man, John Walker, so we have to discuss him. I think (until the finale) he's the one thing about the show that really worked for me. I hate everything about him, but unlike the other things in the show I felt that about, me and the show were in sync on this one. It's the one aspect of the series where I felt how they wanted me to feel. I hated that John exists, but I'm not at all surprised he does and that the government would capitalise on the superhero wave by making one of their own. I love how grey he was. Weak but well-intentioned, until he was tipped over the edge and showed his true colours (as you pointed out bloody well in your piece about that shot of him holding the bloody shield at the end of episode 4). He was also such a great reminder of everything Steve stood for and everything that made him what he was, not a symbol, not a weapon, not a soldier but, as Erskine said, a good man.
GS: We've spoken about The Flag Smashers and John Walker as having varying degrees of effectiveness on the villain scale. How do you feel about Zemo?
SM: Ahh, Zemo. It's clear based on the internet that I'm in the minority on this, but I think the show came close to undoing Zemo, someone I consider to be one of the MCU's greatest villains. It bordered on undoing everything that makes him such a compelling villain. In a world of gods, monsters, space villains and super soldiers, he was just a man in pain (albeit a brilliant man), who'd lost everything as a result of the Avengers' unintended destruction of Sokovia. A human being who wanted to crumble the system of supers – the good, the bad, all of it. He even says it in Civil War, "Avengers..hydra..shield…they're all the same."
He was the antithesis to silly all-powerful villains. Here, they undid all that by sticking him in that silly purple costume and making him a campy unhinged villain. Also total side note but since when Zemo is rich? I'm sure they never mention that in Civil War. There, he was just the brilliant military strategist out for revenge. Now he's bad guy Bruce Wayne? While Daniel Bruhl is so compelling to watch in any situation, the whole point of what made Zemo great was that he was never about the fancy resources. He was sheer pain and determination and ingenuity. Just a common man on a mission who brought down the gods. Here all of that is reduced to him…on a dancefloor?
GS: Hey, you know a man has range when he can tear up a dancefloor just as easily as he tore apart the Avengers. This series left me with an even greater appreciation for his skills, but more importantly, his conviction. Zemo is adamant in his belief that becoming a superhero is tied to supremacist ideals. Given the chance to take the super serum, a lesser man might've succumbed to the temptation, but he never wavers. It says a lot that viewers trusted Zemo more than the new Captain America, John Walker. Only one of those men was consistent in their ideals. The show also left me with a lot more empathy for Zemo than I had originally. When he thinks Bucky's about to shoot him, he accepts his fate and is almost disappointed when the chamber's empty. Here's a man who's dedicated his life to breaking up The Avengers as revenge for the deaths of his wife and son. Now that he's accomplished that, the implication is he's ready to die too. He simply has no reason to go on living. It's heart-breaking.
GS: I know you're a massive fan of Captain America and this is a show about two people in the MCU who've always been defined in relation to him. Did the show make you feel Steve's absence?
I'm asking because it weakened Steve's Endgame ending for me, in hindsight. He passed on a mantle to a friend who saw it as more of a burden, without asking him how he felt about it, and abandoned another friend who spends the initial few episodes lonely and sleeping on a nest (?) on the floor. Steve's the MCU's moral centre but this show puts the flaws of his ending under a spotlight.
SM: It's a great question. How does a show about Steve's legacy impact our thoughts about him? It's interesting how you always go back to his Endgame ending and the scene with Sam and Bucky. It always sticks out for you and for good reason. It's weird, but despite him being one of my favourite movie characters, I rarely think about that end because I still don't quite know what to do with it and whether he got the end he deserved. You're right though about him passing it on to Sam without thinking it through.
I spend more time thinking about how the show changes my opinion of Steve's arc overall. I was genuinely afraid it would make me think differently of him. But I think for the most part, it hasn't. What I still see is his compassion and what he meant to Bucky and Sam and the hole he left when he left them. Also the whole show is in some sense about the unrealistic standard he set and the exception that he really was. The man out of time. The soldier who always did the right thing, even if it meant going against his country. John's entire arc is a glaring reminder of everything Steve did right. Steve never asked to be symbol. He never asked to be an Avenger or any of the things they've made him, especially after his death. He just wanted to do the right thing at every turn and stick up for the little guy. Also I appreciate him more because his movies represent the best storytelling of the MCU, something which only appreciates with time, especially considering how inconsistent and messy this show was.
GS: I found it interesting only because of how later Marvel instalments have actively urged viewers to revisit old ones with greater appreciation – WandaVision did this with Age Of Ultron, Endgame did this with Thor: The Dark World – but TFATWS makes the Endgame ending a bit shakier for me. Still, the show does a great job of establishing just how one-of-a-kind Steve was, but also reminding you of how parts of him live on in Sam's desire to do the right thing, Bucky's friendship and Isaiah's courage, which mirrors his.
SM: I don't know if it does make me revisit the old ones with greater appreciation. For me the jury is still out on the post-Endgame MCU and how it's all shaping up. That's why I'm more inclined towards new origin stories rather than these shows continuing the journeys of characters I'm already invested in because I'm scared they'll undo or mess with great arcs. Exactly like this show did to some extent. Because Sam and Bucky both deserve better.
GS: WandaVision was all about grief and coming to terms with the fact that it's not something you overcome but something you live with and learn to make peace with. TFATWS has been a muddled show, cramming in too many plots in too short a runtime, but is there anything that's been the big takeaway for you?
SM: I don't really know if I have one. I guess it makes me nervous for more shows like this which continue the journeys of characters I like. It was so scattered, even though these shows need to be specific in what they set out to achieve. Now all our hopes rest on the timeline-tweaking trickery of Loki, which I'm quite excited for. I hope it's completely insane and far more unabashedly out-there and wackier than anything we've seen so far from this world.