Written by David Holland
I have been thinking about symbols again.
This thought process started back in the preview stage for Falcon and the Winter Soldier. At that point I was speculating purely based on what I saw from previews and what I could glean from internet snoops. Obviously Steve Rogers’ shadow will loom large over a show that centers around Sam and Bucky with Zemo, Sharon Carter, and US Agent thrown into the mix. Now that we have all six episodes behind us, let’s take a moment to assess the role of symbols in the MCU and in the stories we tell. In the interest of space I am going to skip the recap and assume you have seen the episode, otherwise we will be here all day.
From Steve to Isaiah to Sam:
Sam Wilson making the role of Captain America his own is the throughline of this episode. It is clear that when the government gave John Walker the shield, they just wanted another Steve Rogers. But Walker isn’t another Steve and, more importantly, neither is Sam. He has his own past, his own struggles, and his own way of solving problems. His new uniform doesn’t come from Stark Industries, the usual outfitter of Avengers. Rather it is a gift from Wakanda, an African nation that was never colonized. The new uniform combines Captain America’s shield with Falcon’s wings, making it clear that Sam isn’t leaving his own past behind as he steps into this new role. Sam brings his experiences as both a soldier and a counselor who helped soldiers through trauma to the table. During his fight with Karli he uses the shield offensively at first, the way Steve did, but then changes tactics. He starts using the shield purely for defense while he attempts to reason with her. It’s a clear contrast to Walker’s use of the shield when he murdered Nico. After the fight is over, Sam tenderly brings Karli to the emergency services before turning his attention to the GRC. He may have failed to help Karli see the light (thanks a lot, Sharon!), but he reasons with and humbles the GRC members into realizing that, much like Karli, their power over other people blinded them to the consequences of their actions. Walker saw the role of Captain America as accomplishing a mission and neutralizing targets. Sam sees it as standing up to people with power, even if they are on your side.
Perhaps the most powerful scene is Sam’s reunion with Isaiah Bradley. Steve Rogers’ legacy pulled Sam strongly in the direction of optimism and believing in the power of everything Captain America stood for. Isaiah Bradley was the other side of that, an uncomfortable history covered up, forgotten by most, filled with sorrow and bitterness. How could the story of a character named after America not include both? Ultimately, Sam carves his own path. It’s not quite Steve’s, but it’s also not quite Isaiah’s. Bradley looks on approvingly as Sam shames the GRC about their blind use of power, and at the end of the episode Sam brings Isaiah to the Captain America exhibit where the series began. Now there is a wing dedicated to Bradley. Isaiah’s decision to disobey orders to save his comrades mirrored the decision made by Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger”, but instead of commendations he received condemnation. Now, Sam seeks to set the record straight by bringing that history to light. Now no one will forget, he tells an emotional Bradley.
When we meet Bucky at the start of the series, he is isolated, avoiding his therapist, and failing to make amends to those he wronged. He has befriended Yori, but doesn’t have the heart to tell the old man that the Winter Soldier murdered his son. As Sam points out later in the series, he is most comfortable when he is Avenging rather than amending. He sleeps on the floor, hides his metal arm, and doesn’t play well with others. All of that changes by the end of this episode, as illustrated by Bucky and his Found Family. At Sam’s party Bucky brought food, has an easygoing smile, and has kiddos dangling from his metal arm. He’s basically Uncle Bucky.
Ever since he shook off the Winter Soldier persona, Bucky has been looking for belonging. He doesn’t belong in the US military, SHIELD, or even The Avengers. He is exhausted by all the fighting, but he can’t stop. Steve, his one most stalwart companion, is in the past with his girlfriend. Bucky is rudderless when the series begins. By the finale, Sam and his family have grounded Bucky. We see him comfortable, smiling, playing, laughing and painfully making amends with Yori. It’s an incredible amount of character growth for someone whose story has been filled with pain and loss.
John Walker’s Questionable Redemption:
John Walker returns in the climactic fight with a shield of his own (made of what, exactly!?). Vengeance is clearly on his mind as he calls out Karli. When Karli springs the classic Villain Getaway Trap, Walker sets his vendetta aside and rescues the hostages. It is the most Captain America thing we have seen him do all series. By the end of the episode, it seems that he has been rehabilitated, at least in the minds of Sam and Bucky. After all, he helped defeat the Flag Smashers and save the hostages and he didn’t do anything too crazy. But in his last scene we see him in a new uniform, fully in the clutches of Contessa Valentina.
In the comics, Valentina is Madame Hydra, using her influence in SHIELD toward her own nefarious purposes. In the show she has given Walker what he wants – a second chance. Now he doesn’t have the burden of Steve Rogers’ legacy, but he can still be a symbol of his own. The problem is that symbol owes its existence to Madame Hydra and seems to be firmly in her pocket. If I know the MCU, there is no way they are going to waste Julia Louis-Dreyfus on five total minutes of screen time. This story isn’t over.
Power Broker in the Hen House:
We got the big reveal that it seems like everyone had predicted already: Sharon Carter is the Power Broker. After the events of “Civil War” and her decision to go on the run, she ended up in Madripoor, where she became the most feared international criminal kingpin. Now she has used Bucky and Sam to score a pardon and get welcomed back to “her old department” – which must be referring to the CIA, right? Because last time I checked, SHIELD crashed and burned.
As far as I can tell, this is a new direction for the character of Sharon Carter, away from her comic book roots. She plans to use her access to state secrets to continue expanding her influence as the Power Broker, and the series neither redeems her nor inflicts any consequences. In fact, at the end of the episode she emerges as a clear winner. It seems certain that we will see more of her in a future MCU project. Her story is a darker turn for the MCU since she is a character whose previous appearances both showed her faith in the heroes. In “Winter Soldier” she sides with Cap during the fall of SHIELD, while in “Civil War” she returns the shield and wings to Cap and Falcon respectively. The consequences of those actions have left her bitter, and she is yet another example of the collateral damage the heroes leave behind.
The Fall of the Flag Smashers (and Zemo’s finished work):
I really enjoyed the Flag Smashers. I love a relatable villain and I think they made a lot of sense. The Flag Smashers felt like desperate people with a righteous cause who had finally obtained a little bit of power. In the past, Karli has seemed tortured by the use of violence, like she only wanted to use it when it was absolutely necessary. That changed when she executed the GRC workers, and we have watched her go down the path that Zemo laid out for her. In this episode she was willing to kill hostages simply to give her group a chance to get away. And she continued to fight, even as Sam urged her to see reason. Not only that, but she begged him to fight back. Violence was no longer a last resort or a way to achieve her ends, it had become an end unto itself. It’s hard to say how much of that is a result of the serum, but either way over the course of the show she became a true villain, regardless of the nobility of her cause.
Zemo, via his butler, comes one step closer to his goal of ending all enhanced people. Just when it seemed the remaining Flag Smashers might have a shot at avoiding life in the Raft, a bomb killed them all and we see Zemo rest easy. Zemo’s journey with the heroes was one of the most unexpectedly interesting parts of the series. What began in Civil War as a single-minded quest to lead The Avengers to destroy each other has become a complicated character with an ideology – super people shouldn’t exist. Both Bucky and Sam carry their own trauma through this series and Zemo brings his to the table. He’s a damaged man without a country and as long as his interests align with the heroes’ interests, he isn’t to proud to form an alliance. Of course, that doesn’t mean he is above murder.
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