One of the challenges in writing serialized seasons of a TV show is whether or not you write it as several episodes of a show that tell a single story or if you write it as a single story that’s broken up every 45 minutes or so. A challenge in releasing it is that sometimes a show works better released all at once with the implication that it should be marathoned all in a row, rather than the more traditional episode-a-week model.
I have the feeling that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was written to be marathoned. But, much like Star Trek: Discovery’s first season, which was almost definitely written for marathon-viewing, this show is being released weekly. This gives us an opening episode that sets everything up nicely—but that’s also all it does.
“New World Order,” the premiere episode of FWS, is 40 minutes of really good television, which is only a problem insofar as the episode is 50 minutes long. In order to get to those 40 minutes, we have to sit through a ten-minute action sequence that does a great deal to show how big a budget the show has and almost nothing to advance the plot. It does show that Falcon is going on missions for the government that require a level of plausible deniability, in this case rescuing an Air Force captain from Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre, reprising his MCU version of longtime Captain America villain Batroc the Leaper, last seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier). But that could’ve been accomplished in a much shorter scene, and with a lot fewer absurdities. (Why didn’t he fly through the helicopter and grab the captain at the beginning of the sequence where he chased the helicopters through the canyons instead of the end? Where did Batroc get all those helicopters? How did that flight suit carry the weight of an additional person? Where’d those canyons come from when it was entirely flat desert prior to that?)
Once we dispense with that, however, the episode gets much much better. Both Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are trying to move forward with their post-Thanos lives (the series explicitly takes place six months after Avengers: Endgame). In Wilson’s case, it involves reconnecting with his family; in Barnes’s case, it means seeing a therapist and making amends for his actions as the Winter Soldier.
Wilson’s backstory—already significantly changed from the comics’ version—is revealed here. He grew up on a boat in Louisiana. His sister Sarah (phenomenally played with exhausted frustration by Adepero Oduye) is trying to keep the family business afloat, and that means selling the boat. Wilson isn’t happy about that, and Sarah isn’t happy about him sticking his nose into things and rehashing arguments that Sarah already tried and rejected during the five years that Wilson (and half of humanity) was blipped by Thanos.
Anthony Mackie and Oduye have excellent sibling chemistry, and I like how Sarah is not particularly willing to humor Wilson as he tries to play hero, but finally lets him try to help her even though she knows it won’t work. In the post-blip world, banks are overloaded with loan requests, and Wilson’s belief that their bank will help them out—more to the point, help him out because he’s an Avenger—proves false.
Malcolm Spellman’s script does a nice job of threading the needle here, as the fact that the Wilsons are black is very obviously a factor in why they’re rejected for the loan, for all that it’s couched in the changed reality of the post-blip world. But it’s done subtly, mainly through Sarah’s resigned frustration. Wilson is angry about it, but it’s obvious that his sister already burned through that anger, and just needs her brother to catch up.
(While I like this aspect of the plot from a storytelling perspective, from a world-building perspective, it has a flaw: why doesn’t Wilson just call Pepper Potts and ask the head of Stark Enterprises to co-sign the loan?)
Meanwhile, Barnes’ side of the episode involves making amends. The Winter Soldier has been pardoned, but with caveats. He has to see a therapist and he has to make those aforementioned amends within the confines of the law. The therapy scenes with Barnes and Amy Aquino’s Dr. Raynor are some of the episode’s best stuff, as Raynor takes precisely none of Barnes’ shit, which is good, because he dishes out quite a bit of it. Aquino is, as always, brilliant in the role, and I hope we get to see more of her as the series goes on.
The form of Barnes’ amends is an issue for him. Some are easy: he works with the feds to bring down a corrupt senator whom the Winter Soldier helped put in place on Hydra’s behalf. But others are harder. Via a nightmare that Barnes refuses to talk to Raynor about (or even admit he had), we learn that he killed an innocent bystander who witnessed one of his assassinations. He has befriended the victim’s father over the course of the last six months (they have regular lunches), but has yet to find a way to properly make amends to him, or even admit who he is.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of Cap’s shield. In Endgame, Wilson told the elderly, time-displaced Steve Rogers that the shield felt like it belonged to someone else. That feeling is powerful enough for Wilson to reject Rogers’ bequeathing the shield to him, and instead donate it to the Smithsonian. The press conference he gives (which includes a welcome surprise cameo by Don Cheadle’s Jim Rhodes) is quite touching, though I keep thinking that he’s dishonoring Rogers’ memory by not doing what he asked. However, a government official (that’s literally how he’s credited, “Government Official,” played by Alphie Hyorth) tells Wilson he “did the right thing.”
The punchline is at the episode’s end: that same official gives a press conference announcing that there’s a new Captain America, and he introduces a white guy named John Walker in the red-white-and-blue outfit and carrying the shield that Rogers gave to Wilson. Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, plays Walker, and he’s got his Dad’s jaw, which is perfect for the role. And of course, it was the “right thing” for the black guy to give up the shield, not because it really still belongs to Rogers, as Wilson said in his press conference, but because it enables the government to give it to a white dude. The anger and sense of betrayal on Mackie’s face in the closing moments absolutely nails it.
Both Barnes and Wilson are trying to figure out how to live their lives in the titular new world order. When Raynor tells Barnes that he’s free now, he plaintively and frustratedly asks, “To do what?” And Wilson’s attempts to reconnect with his family is nowhere near as successful as he’d like, especially since Sarah has to constantly remind him that he’s the one who went off and joined the military, leaving her to run the family business alone after their parents died, and it’s a bit late in the game for him to be trying to be the responsible brother.
Just as with WandaVision, FWS is providing the opportunity to flesh out a couple of characters who’ve gotten very little development in their film appearances. And whatever development they did get in the movies has been more about how they relate to Steve Rogers. So it’s good to start to get a feel for who they are, though the spectre of Captain America hangs over them both. Certainly both Mackie and Sebastian Stan are more than up to the task, as one of the reasons why the characters are so compelling despite that lack of development is due to these two actors’ superlative charisma.
Still, it’s frustrating to have all this setup. Let’s hope at least one or two things start paying off next week.
Odds and ends
- The only part of Sam Wilson’s backstory they kept from the comics is that his sister is named Sarah. The four-color version is a social worker from Harlem who never entered the military, and also has an affinity for birds. I’m actually fine with transplanting him to New Orleans, as even this native New Yorker thinks that the Marvel Universe is a little too heavy on the Big Apple.
- Related to that, FWS continues the MCU’s internationalism, as we have scenes in Tunisia and Switzerland, as well as New York, D.C., and NOLA.
- The current status quo of the Winter Soldier in the comics is also that he’s been pardoned, but is working it off, as it were. He’s on call to go on missions for the U.S. government.
- Besides Batroc, we have another antagonist of Captain America’s from the comics, though it’s an organization instead of a person: the Flag Smashers. Both the comics character and the TV organization are about getting rid of borders and the oppression of national rule. Flag-Smasher in the comics is named Karl Morgenthau, and Erin Kellyman is credited in this episode as playing a character named Karli Morgenthau (all the Flag Smashers we saw in this episode wore masks, and Kellyman was obviously one of them, since her face wasn’t seen at any point in the episode that I noticed).
- The Flag Smashers were uncovered by Lieutenant Joaquin Torres, who serves as Wilson’s intel officer in the opening sequence, and who I really thought was going to get killed by the Flag Smashers in Switzerland. Glad they didn’t redshirt him, as Danny Ramirez plays him with a nerdy charm.
- The cameo by Jim Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine, is a nice surprise, as Don Cheadle wasn’t mentioned in any of the show’s publicity as appearing. Makes you wonder if any other Avengers might turn up.
- Speaking of that, neither Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter nor Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo are in this opening episode. I have a sneaking suspicion that Zemo will be connected to the Flag Smashers…
- John Walker was the first person to be Captain America not named Steve Rogers after his revival in modern times by the Avengers. Chafing under the government trying to exert greater control over Cap, Rogers quit being Cap and handed the uniform and shield over to the government. They then assigned Walker—who was a hero called the Super-Patriot—to the role. This story played out in Cap’s comic as written by the late Mark Gruenwald from 1986-1989.
Keith R.A. DeCandido provided a guide to the history of Falcon and the Winter Soldier in the comics earlier this week. In addition to reviews of FWS, his Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch appears every Monday and Thursday. His takes on the MCU films can be found in his “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” that started on this site in 2017.