That’s really all I could think at the end of episode 4 of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. In an episode that didn’t lack in any category (I’d say this is easily the best episode of the series to date), the ending left its mark on me and the people I was watching the episode with. When the symbol of Steve Rogers becomes corrupted, where does that leave the Marvel Cinematic Universe and us as an audience?
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the episode.
The episode begins six years in the past in Wakanda. Ayo is Bucky Barnes outside the city. She is reciting the code words that activate Bucky’s Winter Soldier persona. By far, this has been the best work Sebastian Stan has done as Bucky Barnes across all of his appearances. You can see it in his face as he’s waiting for the programming to take over, waiting for himself to be turned into a mindless killing machine. And then…nothing happens. The tears flow and it is beautiful to see Bucky have hope in his eyes for the first time in decades.
Which cuts to the present and picks up where the previous episode left off: Ayo staring down Bucky, demanding that Zemo be handed off to her. Ayo is a no-nonsense character and I absolutely love how she is firm but respectful with Bucky. She gives him a deadline of eight hours to conclude his business with Zemo and then turn the wanted fugitive over to the Dora Milaje. Setting the episode to a running clock is an excellent narrative device, pushing the team to find Karli and the Flag Smashers before time runs out.
The scenes in the refugee camp are heartbreaking, particularly as Sam does his level best to connect with the people there. You can’t help but feel for them. All of these people had found new homes and purposes in the post-Snap world, only to lose it all when everyone came back five years later. They’re angry and resentful, which are the perfect breeding grounds for radicalization and revolution, as history has shown time and time again. We all want to think that we’re good, moral people. But everyone of us has a breaking point. Who we become on the other side of that point tends to be far more cynical, far more distrustful, and far less hopeful.
Which brings me to Karli Morganthau, who got quite a bit more to work with in this episode. Karli’s quest is a noble one. I can concede that, as does Sam during their brief conversation. But her methods are fast becoming too extreme, too vengeful. And I can understand where she’s coming from. But like Sam, I agree that the bodies she’s leaving on the floor are only going to lead the story one place: more destruction and death. Zemo’s comment that anyone who seeks to take the Super Soldier serum is a Supremacist is not inaccurate, with the exception of Steve Rogers. Karli’s admission that the people’s she’s killed were roadblocks in her path is telling because it reveals her ideology has shifted from helping people to extracting physical recompense for the world’s transgressions. And her killing of Lamar Hoskins, however accidental it was and however horrified she felt afterward, shows that she isn’t thinking through her actions. If she expected to just be able to kill the new Captain America without Lamar intervening, she clearly doesn’t understand what role is trying to take on at this point.
And that leads into John Walker, aka Fake Cap. This was the breaking point episode for Walker where he transforms into the villain we know from the comics. Already too cocky for his own good, Walker disrupts Sam’s conversation with Karli, killing any chance Sam had of resolving the Flag Smasher situation peacefully. Walker may carry Steve’s shield but he doesn’t carry Steve’s spirit. Steve would have given Sam all the time he needed to talk with Karli, reason with her, and he would only have resorted to violence as a last resort. Walker thinks the same way many chicken hawks and arm-chair war hawks think: kick ass first and enforce peace from the end of a gun.
The fight with the Dora Milaje changes everything. Walker could somewhat handle getting beaten by Super Soldiers: they’re faster, stronger, and more resilient than him. But the Dora Milaje are “just” normal women to Walker. Never mind that these women are trained to serve the King of Wakanda as his personal guard and are among the most formidable fighters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even Steve at his best would think twice about taking on three members of the Dora Milaje at one time. Walker’s arrogance escalates the situation, allowing Zemo time to escape and causing a potentially permanent break between Ayo and Bucky, who looks crestfallen when Ayo curses him.
Using the last vial of Super Soldier Serum available (off-screen), Walker is able to go toe-to-toe with the Flag Smashers in an attempt to find Lamar after he’s been taken hostage. With this new-found arrogance and some brutal fighting moves, Walker is able to trounce the Flag Smashers that get in his way. Until Lamar is killed by Karli after he stops her from sticking a knife in Walker.
Seeing his best friend dead on the floor, something breaks in Walker. He chases down Nico, who had earlier in the episode expressed an admiration for Steve Rogers as Captain America. And in front of a crowd of onlookers, many of whom are recording with their phones, Walker beats Nico to death with the shield. The symbol that Steve Rogers carried with honor and dignity is covered in the blood of a defenseless man. The framing of the sequence is reminiscent of the ending of Captain America: Civil War between Tony and Steve. Unlike Steve, who sought to disable Tony so he could prevent Bucky’s death, Walker pounds on Nico’s chest until blood covers the lower portion of the shield.
“Captain America” just killed a man in front of the whole world. And he felt good, even righteous, about it.
And all I could think at the end was this: what happens when the symbol of all that is noble in the MCU is corrupted?