Admittedly, I have been pretty hard on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Soured a bit from the taste of the recent WandaVision finale, I had serious doubts about Marvel Studios’ willingness to commit to the bigger ideas the show promised to explore at the outset. I’ve criticized the chemistry between its stars and the storytellers’ difficulty settling on a tone. But this week’s episode, “Truth,” actually left me with very little to complain about. The penultimate episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a character-centered recess from the show’s action and heavy plotting, a deep and enriching breath before the action finale ahead.
“Truth” picks up moments after the end of “The Whole World is Watching,” with John Walker (Wyatt Russell) fleeing the scene where he murdered one of the Flag Smashers in retaliation for the death of Lemar Hoskins. Walker stops in an empty warehouse to take a breath and collect himself and settle his initial panic. He’s racked with guilt over Lemar’s death, but when Sam and Bucky catch up with him, he immediately makes justifications for killing Nico, who he knows is not actually responsible for Lemar’s death. Sam tells Walker to hand over the shield, but Walker won’t give up the symbol of his authority without a fight, and the fight itself is intense enough to justify being this long episode’s only action sequence. The staging calls attention to the utility of Falcon’s wings and the creative ways he can use them, which makes it mean something in the moment when Walker rips them off his back. This episode also presumably marks the end of the Falcon as a persona, and it feels appropriate that his last battle should get the most out of the gimmick.
After defeating Walker and remanding him to US custody, Sam and Bucky are sidelined from the search for the Flag Smashers leader Karli Morganthau (Erin Kellyman) and go their separate ways for a time. Sam’s first stop is Baltimore, where he has an overdue conversation with Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the aged Black super soldier who he first met in “The Star-Spangled Man.” In my review of that episode, I expressed concern that the plot moved along from Isaiah’s introduction so early and hoped that Isaiah himself would be allowed to tell his own story, and “Truth” delivers exactly that.
Isaiah tells Sam how he is the lone survivor of a secret test program that injected several Black US soldiers with super soldier serum variants without their knowledge. Utterly unconcerned with him or his peers except as subjects for their experiments and afraid of the public learning of their existence, the US government locked Isaiah away for 30 years while they attempted to reverse-engineer the serum from his blood. He likely would still be imprisoned, if not for a sympathetic nurse faking his death, but by the time he sees the sun again, his beloved wife has died never knowing what really happened to him. This story is told with no flashbacks, and none are necessary — we don’t need to witness his suffering in the moment, and Lumbly’s performance alone is more than enough to convey the tragedy and cruelty.
“They will never let a Black man be Captain America,” Isaiah tells Sam, “And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would wanna be.” While he might never have articulated it himself, this is a version of the same sentiment that led Sam to hand over the shield in the first place. Now, with the shield back in his possession, Sam has to decide whether or not he still believes it. Setting aside what “they” will allow, can Sam become a version of Captain America that he can respect? That Isaiah could respect? What can he do to change the meaning of the symbol, beyond simply being the one to wear it? That The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is even asking these questions is a great improvement over more superficial attempts at more diverse representation in superhero fiction.
A Quiet Place
Sam then comes home to his sister Sarah (Adepero Odoye) in Louisiana, where plans to sell their parents’ fishing boat have fallen through. In the first chapter, Sam attempted to solve his family’s money woes by asking for help from the bank, who did nothing for them. This time around, Sam decides to call upon his community for help instead, and they pull through in the form of the tools and parts they’ll need to repair the boat, which Sarah eventually decides to use rather than sell. There’s a compelling message here, one that should feed into Sam’s philosophy as a superhero going forward — institutions of wealth and power will never be as interested in helping the people as the people are in helping each other.
After tracking down Zemo and delivering him to the Dora Milaje, Bucky, too, comes to Louisiana to deliver a gift from the Wakandans — a suitcase that presumably contains Sam’s new Captain America outfit. Bucky sticks around and helps the family Wilson fix up their boat, which is the first time on the show when its two leads feel as if they’re genuinely bonding. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan’s difficulty selling oil-and-water buddy cop banter has been a drag on the show, but scenes in which they’re warm to each other are much more convincing. Sam and Sarah’s dynamic is also a welcome return to the show, and the (admittedly spare) moments of flirtation between Bucky and Sarah are a cute addition. While obviously the entire show could not have been like this, part of me wishes that this soft, pleasant family drama feeling had been present more often. It’s the piece of the Lethal Weapon equation that’s been missing.
Sam and Bucky finally have a real heart to heart, no mediator required, in the Wilsons’ backyard in which they each acknowledge what the other has been dealing with throughout the series. Bucky admits that neither he nor Steve could possibly have understood what it meant for a Black man to inherit Captain America’s shield and apologizes for giving him such a hard time about his reluctance to wield it. Sam, in therapist mode, tells Bucky that the redemption he seeks can only be found in directly addressing the pain of the Winter Soldier’s victims, not in simply punishing his accomplices. This moment of vulnerability is staged via a twist on a classic male bonding exercise — a game of catch, with each of them throwing the shield against padded trees that send it ricocheting toward the other. There’s something about framing this conversation in such a primal yet gentle ritual that makes it very comforting and creates a sense of peace and balance so that Sam’s decision to commit to the shield feels right.
I do, however, wish that they’d scored the following training montage with something other than Henry Jackman’s bland main title theme, which plays again not ten minutes later.
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- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 2 “The Star Spangled Man” Review
Pawns, Queens, and Castles
Remarkably, John Walker faces some actual consequences for the murder of Flag Smasher Nico, as he receives an other than honorable discharge from the US Army and loses his rank and title as Captain America. (Not charged with a murder, of course, but that practically goes without saying.) Walker is indignant, maintaining that he only ever did what his country demanded of him, and while he may be a messed up dude who should not be entrusted with power, he’s also correct. As an American soldier, Walker has spent his adult life killing at the command of his government. Even as Captain America, Walker carries a sidearm, a lethal weapon. Suddenly, he’s being condemned for doing essentially the job he was sent to do. (Again, this is how it looks to Walker, not to me.) Still, making a public example of Walker for getting caught on camera murdering an unarmed man is a way for an institution of power to protect itself from its own responsibility as an organization that routinely kills people. The problem can’t be that they train young people to be killers and then send them into other countries with guns, the problem has to be this one guy, otherwise they might lose public support for all the other people out there killing for them right now.
There’s at least one person who seems to agree with Walker, and that’s Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep), who has been keeping close tabs on him. This is Val’s first appearance in the MCU, though it may not have been intended to be. Vanity Fair reports that she’ll also be appearing in Black Widow, which would have been released last year if not for COVID-19. Still, this introduction seems to get its point across: She’s powerful, she’s scary, and she has a plan for Walker that he’ll have no choice but to go along with. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a terrific comic actor, but her performance of Val’s too-witty dialogue feels out of place in the otherwise grounded tone of TFatWS, and this episode in particular. (By the way, stay tuned for a mid-credits scene of Walker forging his own replica Cap shield.)
Meanwhile, our other wayward super-soldiers in the Flag Smashers are regrouping for a major operation. After yet another of their allied settlements is raided by the Global Relocation Council, Karli Morganthou plans to strike back against the GRC before they vote on the Patch Act, an aggressive relocation of 20 million refugees. For their strike against the GRC’s headquarters in New York, Karli has enlisted the aid of Georges Batroc (returning guest star Georges St-Pierre), the same baddie who the Falcon chased down in the series premiere. Perhaps unbeknownst to Karli, Batroc’s assistance has been arranged (brokered, you might even say) by Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). Closed captions confirm that Batroc is the muffled voice speaking French on the other end of the phone during Carter’s one scene appearance this week, but honestly, it could have been no one else.
The Flag Smashers are poised to strike at an authority that we have seen cause nothing but harm, and Sam is prepared to stop them. It seems that Sam’s defense of the GRC from the Flag Smashers will be his debut as Captain America, but if Sam Wilson wants to signal a real change in the meaning behind that symbol, he’ll need to do more than to simply protect the houses of power from those they abuse. One hopes that, after five weeks of build-up, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will leave us with a closing statement worthy of its themes.