Captain America and the Pledge of Allegiance

Why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier worked for me, even though its finale didn’t

After watching the episode six finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, my initial impression was that it was a really strong five-episode series. There were some pretty great action sequences, and a few really good character moments. I even liked Sam’s extended monologue lecturing all the selfish politicians about how everything was their fault. But I still felt like the finale had betrayed much of what had made the previous episodes so strong, tossing out the attempts to show complexity and nuance in favor of the over-simplified action movie morality that the MCU is too often accused of glorifying.

Now, though, I think that’s both unfair and inaccurate. The series did have things it wanted to say and new ideas it wanted to bring to the MCU, and I think it did end up being tonally consistent. My problem with it is that it wanted conclusions that it didn’t quite earn.

If nothing else, it got me invested enough to be yelling back at the screen through much of it, which is something I haven’t done in a while. But to explain why requires spoilers for the entire series.

I don’t want to sound like I’m completely down on the series, because I think it told its main story pretty well. The entire point of the series was to establish Sam Wilson as the new Captain America, and to show why he’s the best choice for Captain America.

I admit I would’ve been satisfied if they’d just picked up from the end of Avengers: Endgame, so it was really good to see the scene where Bucky apologizes for not considering all the implications of Sam taking up the shield. It was important to see the MCU — and Marvel, and Disney — acknowledging that there’s a lot of baggage associated with symbols of American patriotism that non-blacks are unlikely to even be aware of, much less appreciate.

Most of the stories surrounding that core idea were strong, too: the series contrasted Sam with a bunch of different characters to show that being a super-hero isn’t just about having super powers, being Captain America is not just about having the title, and that what makes Sam a hero isn’t just the shield or the wings he was given. I liked how they had fight scenes that called back to Civil War, to illustrate how John Walker lacked the things that made Steve Rogers heroic. And I especially liked how they handled most of Isaiah Bradley’s story, showing how you can empathize with someone and share in their anger and frustration, but still not agree with them.

So they ended up with Sam Wilson as Captain America, and Bucky as a better-adjusted part-time Avenger, for that matter. That was handled well; where they lost me was in all the other resolutions that wanted me in a certain place, but didn’t do anything to actually get me there.

I was supposed to think that John Walker had redeemed himself as a flawed hero, instead of my still thinking of him as a liar and a murderer. It’s pretty apparent that they’re setting up Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’s character as the MCU version of Amanda Waller with their own Suicide Squad, including US Agent and Baron Zemo — but only Zemo was given a real opportunity to be “charming anti-hero.” It felt like they wanted the audience to be intrigued by “Val” just by the casting (and to be fair, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is pretty much always interesting), and Walker to be redeemed by failing to pull a truck and then getting a friendly nod from Bucky.

Worse than that for me, though, was the entire showdown between Karli Morgenthau, Sharon Carter, and then Sam Wilson. By the time they were drawing guns and revealing secret identities, I was entirely through thinking of Karli as a sympathetic character at all. And I was still on Team Carter, for getting screwed over after being a deus-ex-machina hero in the last two Captain America movies, but then turning that around to her advantage.

But the show seemed to think that as soon as Sharon revealed she was the Power Broker, I’d be a) at all surprised, and b) immediately against her. I wasn’t; I was even more impressed.

So shots are fired and all the characters are wounded, but Sam arrives and loses his shit over Karli. He carries her out of the building to the ambulances on the street, holding her with all the gravitas of the Pieta, while he left Sharon to bleed out in a basement somewhere in Atlanta I mean New York City. Sam was not only better friends with (and more in debt to) Sharon Carter than to this woman who murdered several people and threatened his sister, but he didn’t even know Sharon was now a “bad guy” because he’d missed that whole dialogue exchange.

It was such an odd ending, for the show to be making decisions about where my allegiances must obviously lie, considering that it had been trying to bring some moral and ethical ambiguity to the MCU. And doing a fairly good job of it so far. Ultimately, I feel like the series was a mechanical bull that had me engaged for a month, then only threw me off in the last 30 minutes. I wasn’t surprised by any of the plot developments, but I was surprised by the changes in tone and focus.

And I suppose I can’t be too critical of the series for so aggressively and arbitrarily choosing the heroes and villains for me, since its lack of moral relativism is probably my favorite thing about it. It’s relatively easy to be cynical and say that your characters all exist in an ethical gray area, and that’s what makes them mature and complex, and leave it at that. I think it’s a lot stronger to take a stand, even knowing that it’s going to be dismissed as simplistic or even jingoistic. I prefer seeing a series acknowledging that we’re surrounded by injustice, but still insisting that we have a responsibility to step up and do what’s right.

4 thoughts on “Captain America and the Pledge of Allegiance”

  1. One thing I wish they’d made a little *less* specific was how Bucky was frustrated that Sam had rejected the shield because it felt like if the shield wasn’t this all-perfect thing, what’ll did it say about him?

    Bucky’s relationship with Steve makes it a very character-specific moment – it’s about Steve & Bucky, and the symbol they shared. But it’s such a reflection on how a lot of privileged folks react to someone trying to make symbols they take for granted more nuanced and complex.

    The rejection feels personal. I thought it was such a lovely moment, but if it could have been about Bucky and Sam and America, it’s have been a lot more impactful than it being about Bucky and Sam and the Shield.

    Still a nice moment, tho.

    1. I think I get what you’re saying, but I also think that having characters conflate symbols, ideals, groups, and individuals was a big part of why the show worked for me. (Whether it was intentional or not). We’ve got so much lazy discourse now, where people refuse to meet each other from where they’re coming from, and instead either try to make everything too simplistic, or just say “it’s complicated” as an excuse to do nothing. Like someone wears an American flag pin, and the response is, “Oh, so you’re in favor of drone strikes against civilians, then?”

      1. Hrm. Re-reading the original post, I’m not sure I was that clear.

        The moment: Bucky says to Sam that he understands why Sam turned down the shield. But he feels hurt, because the shield was this symbol he’d fought for for so long, and it was his only “family”, and so Sam’s rejection of it felt like a rejection of him.

        My initial reaction: Bucky’s talking about the shield and its relationship with his *friend* Steve, and their relationship, and so Sam rejecting the shield was a disservice to *Steve* and his ideals, which then felt like Bucky & Steve & the Shield lacked value in Sam’s eyes. I don’t know if that was the intended reaction – but Steve + Bucky is such a strong tie that instead of it being about the symbol of *America*, it’s a symbol of their relationship and their friendship and what it stands for.

        What I wish had happened, and maybe what was actually intended but didn’t come across clearly to me: Bucky realizes that Sam’s rejection of the shield is because his relationship with the America it stands for is complicated (this is clearly something that is intended and delivered clearly by the writers in many other areas of the series). But I wish that Bucky had more explicitly acknowledged that the symbol (the shield) was about *America* and its *reality*, and not Steve. And this would have been super obvious coming from anyone *but* Bucky, but because of Bucky + Steve, it’s unclear whether he’s talking about Steve, Shield, Bucky, or *America*, Shield, Bucky. So I just wish it had been *slightly* more specific, because I think it would have made a huge impact on how direct that point was delivered.

  2. And by “more specific”, I mean more explicit about Bucky’s perception of the Shield & its symbolism, and how it’s not just about Steve, it’s about America, which is what I meant by “less specific” in the initial post.

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