‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Season 1, Episode 5: Shielded

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Season 1, Episode 5: ‘Truth’

About halfway through this week’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” Bucky Barnes shows up in Louisiana to spend some quality time with his old colleague Sam Wilson, who is taking a break from the superhero business to help his sister fix their family’s fishing boat.

Bucky and Sam tinker with the rickety tub’s water pump. They toss Steve Rogers’s old shield around in the backyard. They talk some about their hopes and disappointments. Then as Bucky gets ready to leave, the two men define their relationship as nothing all that special … just “a couple of guys with a mutual friend.” And now that the friend’s gone? They’re just a couple of guys.

This is, of course, hogwash. These “couple of guys” are the Falcon and the Winter Soldier — the main characters in an expensive Marvel Studios television show. But as the series approaches its finale, the writers and the cast apparently felt the need to take a little time in this penultimate episode, “Truth,” to reestablish their characters, and to clarify why these two are the protagonists in a story that up until now has been mostly about Captain America.

“Truth” is an unusually long episode — running a full hour — and is surprisingly light on traditional “action.” The most viscerally exciting fight scene comes at the beginning, when Sam and Bucky corner John Walker after he gets caught on video beating a Flag Smasher to death with Captain America’s shield. Even wearing Cap’s uniform, Walker looks more like a madman than like a symbol of hope. He’s stubbly and grubby, and is in a chemically induced berserker rage as he rips the Falcon’s wings off. It takes all the muscle our heroes have to subdue him.

Most of the rest of this chapter is about the aftermath of Walker’s rampage, which sparks an international incident that leaves him stripped of his military rank and benefits. Walker’s arguments in his defense — that he is just a product of his Army training, and that his victim had it coming — fail to impress the U.S. government.

His situation does, however, draw the attention of the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a deep-cut Marvel character who over the decades in the comics has been both a heroic agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a more morally ambiguous operative, working with shady organizations to change the world. As played (with snap and wit) by the unexpected guest star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, this version of the Contessa seems to be more on the “morally ambiguous” and “shady” side. She strides up to Walker after his “you’re fired” meeting in Washington, coolly hands his wife a blank business card, and then tells the ex-Cap to be ready to spring into action whenever she calls.

It is telling that for all that Walker has done to embarrass his country and to sully the name of Captain America, he still gets to walk away freely — and even potentially to land a new gig. (Given that there’s a mid-credits scene in this episode of Walker forging his own new shield, it looks like he will be game for whatever the Contessa’s offering.)

Contrast that with the story of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the forgotten super-solider Sam revisits this week, hoping to make the old man feel a little better by giving him Captain America’s shield. Bradley declines the gift and tells Sam his tragic tale: How the government injected him and a handful of other Black soldiers with the serum without telling them what it was, and how he was the only one in the experiment who thrived on the juice instead of being mentally or physically destroyed by it. Rather than returning to his normal life and his beloved wife after the war, Bradley was thrown in jail, so he could be experimented upon and so he couldn’t tell the truth about what happened to him and his fellow guinea pigs.

Sam insists that the country has changed a lot since then, but Bradley can’t believe it. “They will never let a Black man be Captain America,” he tells Sam. More to the point: “No self-respecting Black man” should want the job.

This conversation is at the heart of this episode, ultimately setting up a cliffhanger ending. After capturing Walker, Sam looks at Captain America’s blood-soaked shield with no small sense of responsibility for what happened. If he had taken the job, Walker wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to botch it so badly. But if Sam doesn’t want to be Captain America, why should he feel obliged? What is his responsibility?

After his meeting with Bradley, Sam takes the shield back and starts using it in training, though by the end of the episode we don’t yet know what he’s going to do with it — nor do we know what’s inside the fancy case that Bucky delivers to Sam from the Wakandans when he comes for his visit.

We do know though that Sam will try to finish what he started with the Flag Smashers, who have arrived in New York City — with their new hired gun, Batroc — to try to disrupt a Global Repatriation Council vote on sending free-roaming refugees back to their pre-blip homelands. As the episode ends, Sam gets ready to take on the Smashers and he finally snaps open that mysterious case, which contains … a new costume? New wings? Armor? Something else? We have to wait until next week to see.

In fact there will be a lot — maybe even too much — to resolve next week, including Walker’s future, the Contessa’s plans, and whatever Sharon Carter and the Power Broker may have in store. But as this week’s chapter made clear, the real story to resolve has to do with Bucky, Sam and the absent Steve Rogers. This series started with the question of what it means to be Captain America. It may end with question of what it means to be any kind of a heroic role model, regardless of whatever symbols are emblazoned across a costume.

The all-winners squad

The story of Isaiah Bradley was first introduced in the limited series “Truth: Red, White & Black,” written by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker, from an idea originated by the editor Axel Alonso. As you may have guessed, the title of this episode refers to that comic.

The Contessa tells Walker that he can call her “Val,” but adds that he shouldn’t actually call her that out loud. “Just keep it in your head,” she says. Louis-Dreyfus brings such a fun energy to this show; it’s a shame she’s arriving so late.

All the scenes with Bucky and Sam chilling out on the Louisiana waterfront are pretty darned delightful, from Bucky flirting with Sam’s sister Sarah to Sam ragging on Bucky for using his non-bionic arm to tighten a stubborn bolt. (“I’m right-handed,” Bucky shrugs.)

There has been some fuss on social media about the scene in last week’s episode where Ayo literally disarms Bucky, taking advantage of a fail-safe the Wakandans built into his bionics to deactivate and remove his arm. Some fans have insisted that this was an unconscionable betrayal of a man who has suffered enough. Others have noted that Bucky betrayed the Wakandans first, by working with and protecting Baron Zemo. Well, after all that arguing, what happens this week? Bucky helps the Wakandans capture Zemo, and neither party brings up the whole thing with his arm. Either the writers missed an opportunity here to explore the ramifications of a shocking twist or the moment was never meant to be that big of a deal. (Given that I didn’t think the scene was significant enough to squeeze into last week’s recap, I know where I stand.)

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