Each week, the creators behind The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — showrunner Malcolm Spellman, director Kari Skogland, and company — seem to slice themselves a thick cut of meat to chew on, like issues of racism or nationalism, then spit it out and cut another without fully digesting anything. While there’s still hope that all of the show’s related themes will fold into one by the end of its six-episode run, this week’s chapter tacks on yet another. Punctuated by the series’s best action so far, “The Whole World is Watching” unfolds into a thought experiment testing whether or not anyone who seeks power can possibly wield it responsibly.
At last, “The Whole World is Watching” gives us some quality time with Flag-Smashers leader Karli Morganthou (Erin Kellyman, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and some important details about what it is she’s fighting for. We learn that during the Blip, many nations relaxed their immigration policies to account for their sudden massive loss in population. Presumably, this means people who had previously been locked out of wealthier nations with more stable infrastructure were now welcome and, moreover, that the very idea of nationalism lost some of its power as more people traveled freely across borders. When the billions snapped away by Thanos suddenly returned, those who had moved to those countries were forced to go back where they came from, places where life is likely even harder now than it was when they left. This seems to be the purpose of the Global Relocation Council: to return those immigrants to poorer countries, with the promise of aid and support that never comes.
Last week saw Karli up the stakes of her war against the Powers That Be, as she ended her supply raid of a GRC site by blowing up a building with security and staff still inside. The deaths of three of their own have led the GRC to accelerate their relocation program, but Karli is steadfast and generally unburdened by guilt, threatening more attacks if her demands aren’t met. (We are not told her specific demands.) Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl, The Alienist) believes that her graduation to murder is proof that she, like anyone with super powers, places herself above the rest of humanity, but everything we see of Karli’s fight is deeply rooted in the needs of others. In addition to distributing warehoused food and medical supplies, Karli aims to share her remaining samples of the super-soldier serum with more downtrodden displaced youth, creating champions for those who need them most.
Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and Zemo trace Karli to Latvia, where she is delivering a eulogy for her late mentor and caretaker. Sam, calling upon his experience as a trauma counselor (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), comes to talk peace with Karli, voicing support for her cause, but not her methods. Karli ties her fight with the one Sam is facing back in Louisiana, with his family at risk of losing their own home, and it seems as if they understand each other, but this attempt at connection is spoiled when Captain America John Walker (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) barges in with a far more aggressive attitude. Her trust broken, Karli takes another turn for the colder, threatening Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye, The Feels) over the phone and plotting to kill John Walker.
The interruption also comes before Sam can offer Karli any kind of alternative solution to what she’s doing — what does Sam suggest should be done about the people left homeless or starving by forced relocation? By making Karli a killer using familiar terrorist tactics, the storytellers have made it easy to dismiss her war even as the lead character endorses the ideology behind her revolution. Would they be having the same conversation if they’d had the opportunity to meet when the Flag Smashers were just playing Robin Hood, stealing supplies to deliver them to the people they’re supposed to go to in the first place? To make Sam’s sympathy mean something, the storytellers need to show us what he’s willing to do to solve the immediate problem. Otherwise, he’s not the hero this story needs.
Speared No Expense
“The Whole World is Watching” opens with a flashback to six years in the show’s past, between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, when Bucky is living on the outskirts of Wakanda. There, we are treated to a scene in which the Dora Milaje warrior Ayo (Florence Kasumba) tests whether or not Bucky’s Winter Soldier programming has been successfully removed. While surely the result of Wakandan Princess Shuri’s advanced science, the scene is framed as a warm, spiritual experience. Bucky’s face, lit only by campfire, transitions from fear to anguish to tearful joy as Ayo recites the Winter Soldier’s activation phrase, confirming his freedom. It’s the most (and best) acting Sebastian Stan has done in his entire decade-long tenure as Bucky Barnes.
After the prologue, however, we jump back to the present day where Stan resumes his usual understated performance, fitting to his underwritten character. In the context of this episode, this scene serves to establish the respect between Bucky and Ayo, who has been dispatched from Wakanda to arrest Zemo for the murder of King T’Chaka back in Civil War. Their prior relationship buys Bucky’s team eight hours to use Zemo to find Karli, setting up a fight scene later in the episode when their time runs out.
The fight doesn’t disappoint in the least, and watching the Dora Milaje perform their pike-fu is as fun as ever. For an action sequence shot in a fancy living room, the battle of Ayo and her two lieutenants vs. Captain America and Battlestar (Clé Bennett, Jigsaw) and eventually Sam and Bucky utilizes its space well, has clear geography, and makes the Dora Milaje look like absolute champs without totally humiliating our leads. Sam and Bucky do lose, but the narrative weight of the defeat falls entirely on the head of John Walker, whose story this episode is about failure. This theme gets underscored further in the episode’s other strong fight scene, a larger-scale scrap between the four American superheroes and the Flag Smashers. This final setpiece of “The Whole World is Watching” is a skillful dance between fun and danger that takes a sudden but inevitable turn for the tragic, easily the best action sequence of the series so far.
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After two dozen films and a handful of spin-off television shows, the decades-long debate as to whether or not superheroes are inherently fascist has finally come to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Zemo, whose family was collateral damage in the Avengers’ battle with Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, argues that if someone pursues super powers then they are inherently buying into the idea that some people should hold more power than others, that they should hold more power than others. This is hard to argue against — after all, the superhero power fantasy is typically “what if I could fly?” not “what if everyone could fly?” The belief that some can and should stand above others, reasons Zemo, is dangerous regardless of intent. Karli Morganthou and her cadre of young super-soldiers may seek a more equitable world, but they made themselves gods to do it, and therefore will fall victim to the temptations that come with greater power, as anyone would.
Anyone, Zemo, Sam, and Bucky seem to agree, except for Steve Rogers. All three of them hold Steve as an exception to the rule, while ignoring how he embodies the way superhero stories typically sidestep this dilemma — Steve did not pursue power. Steve was asked to take the super-soldier serum, and accepted out of a sense of duty to others. Bucky, who Sam also points out as someone who hasn’t been corrupted by the serum, didn’t even consent to taking it in the first place, since he was an unwilling Hydra test subject. Their peers Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Hulk, and Scarlet Witch all acquired their superhuman abilities by accident. Thor and Black Panther inherited their powers, as, in a sense, did Vision. They did not have to believe that they or anyone else were worthy of greater power, but they made the decision to try to be worthy of it after the fact, subscribing to the essential Marvel adage that “with great power comes great responsibility.” (Thor’s powers even disappear when he uses them selfishly.) The MCU exceptions, of course, are Iron Man and Dr. Strange, whose stories are centrally about setting aside ego. The bedrock of superhero fiction is the premise that if you, presumably an “ordinary” person, woke up with the power to change the world, you would choose to make it better for everyone, not just for yourself. That choice is, typically, what separates superheroes and supervillains from each other.
Which brings us back to Karli Morganthou. Zemo believes that simply by granting herself this power, she is doomed to abuse it, and classic superhero tropes tend to back him up. Sam Wilson, however, believes that the intent of the wielder makes a difference, and since Karli took the serum in an effort to win justice for the downtrodden, she can still be redeemed. We see Karli’s slide into more brutal methods throughout this episode, indicating that Zemo is right, which would be a cruel twist for a superhero show but still permissible within genre conventions. But late in this episode, a new variable is introduced when John Walker, insecure after a string of defeats and cracking under the strain of the Captain America mantle, injects himself with the last surviving dose of the serum. While Walker was also selected to serve by the US military (which the show has established to be an institution of dubious character), they did not make him superhuman. Walker feels he needs superpowers in order to achieve worthiness, which implies that it’s power itself that makes you worthy. That’s what Zemo’s afraid of.
The final action sequence of the episode hammers home the difference between Karli and the new Cap, even as they each needlessly take a life. During the battle, Karli lands a super-strong punch into Lemar “Battlestar” Hoskin’s chest, knocking him several feet into a stone pillar and killing him instantly. Her reaction to his death makes it clear that this was an accidental misuse of her power — a manslaughter for which she should absolutely answer, but an accident nonetheless. Karli rabbits, and Walker ends up chasing another Flag Smasher, Nico (Noah Mills, The Enemy Within). Enraged over the death of his friend and partner, Walker kills Nico by driving the edge of his shield into Nico’s body again and again. Surrounded by dozens of bystanders filming on their phones, Walker calms himself and straps the bloodied legacy of Steve Rogers back onto his arm. No accident there. How important is the difference by degrees between Walker and Morganthou? What kind of consequences will each of them face, and how will they handle them? The message of the show will be discovered in how the storytellers answer these questions.