With its sixth episode, “One World, One People,” in the books, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has come to a close, and the path foward is clear for most of its major players as the MCU chugs ever onward. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has officially adopted the Captain America mantle, debuting a new red-white-and-winged costume and putting a stop to the Flag Smashers’ plan to take GRC members hostage. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) made a major leap toward self-forgiveness, crossing out every name on his to-make-amends-with list. Both men are visibly in love with each other but Disney won’t let them say it. Over on the villainous side, Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) was revealed to be the “Power Broker” pulling the Flag Smashers’ strings; because the U.S. government hasn’t learned a single lesson about background checks after the whole HYDRA incident, Sharon receives a full pardon in a mid-credits scene and immediately gets to stealing government secrets. It’s all pretty cut-and-dry…except in the case of John Walker (Wyatt Russell), who gets a whiplash-inducing 180 redemption arc that marks The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s biggest whiff by a mile.
As you might recall, Walker smashed a guy’s head to jelly with his shield in front of the whole world a few weeks ago. It was arguably the most self-reflective moment in the MCU’s history, coming during a historically self-reflective moment in America. If you want to boil down rot at this country’s core into a single image, look to the striking end to “The Whole World Is Watching,” Walker’s media-ready red-white-and-blue costume and his shield—that symbol of pure, unfiltered ‘Merica—stained with blood. Think about what it means for a super-cop, given free reign and approval by the U.S. government, gave way to emotion in a high-stakes situation and deemed himself judge, jury, and executioner. Episode 5, “Truth,” took the idea further; the government immediately washed its hands of Walker’s actions, giving itself a clean out despite Walker’s truthful statement: “I only ever did what you asked of me, what you told me to be, and trained me to do.”
Heading into the finale, it felt clear that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had a clear idea of what it wanted to say about John Walker, tragic American-made monster. Leaving the finale, it feels like that idea went out the window. Walker shows up during Sam and Bucky’s NYC showdown with Flag Smasher leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and strides straight into redemption. There is a moment in which he’s given a choice—pursue vengeance on Karli or save a van full of people teetering on the edge of a ditch—and he chooses innocent lives. The reward for doing that bare human minimum is that he gets fully Marvel-ized; he just becomes a Goofy Hero Guy, quipping at the wrong times, bantering with Bucky, and undercutting any hard-earned emotional tension at every turn.
The most generous reading of Walker’s arc is that it’s too easy on purpose, a commentary on who America lets off the hook. While Sam Wilson, a proven hero, is still wrestling with wearing a costume that was specifically given to him, John Walker—who, again, beheaded a man very recently—is gleefully excepting his new costume and title (U.S. Agent!) without question. Because of course. Look at this man’s jawline. The John Walkers of the world have been failing upward since the invention of success. It’s not hard at all to imagine the media spin reserved for only a certain demographic of American criminals: “Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he tried to save that van. He’s learned his lesson.” It would be a genuine commentary for the show to make…but it’s the show itself doing the spin for John Walker. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier let John Walker off the hook, because in the end, the character had a recognizable comic book name and costume to take on.
And, yes, because the MCU is designed to never end, there’s always the possibility that this wrinkle will get ironed out down the line, especially with the involvement of Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ supremely sketchy Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. But you can’t absolve a 2021 TV show of its storytelling mistakes because of a hypothetical plot point in 2025. We’re talking about what happened in this story, right in front of us, right now, which got so close to making a vibranium-strength point that crumpled, right at the end, like John Walker’s cheap knockoff.
Here’s what the first round of critics and journalists had to say.
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