The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 4 Analysis: The Whole World Is [SPOILER]
Talking about THAT scene, Bucky's characterization, and how acting choices highlight the differences between John Walker and Steve Rogers.
Here there be discussion of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 4 "The Whole World Is Watching." Read no further if you do not want spoilers!
It feels wrong to say I enjoyed an episode which ended with someone being beaten to death in the street. But if we ignore the brutal murder the episode was pretty well put together and that I liked.
("Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?")
I had feelings of dread coming into the episode because it was written by Derek "John Wick" Kolstad, same as last week. And you know my feelings about how things went last week. But no, this week was much better. Not perfect, but much better. People actually felt like people and not paper stand ins that action scenes happened around. Decisions were made which mostly felt based on what we know of the characters thus far. Depth was added. It was good!
Let's start by talking about THAT scene. Then I want to touch on what we learned about Bucky and also how directing and physicality added to the story that we saw.
Obviously John fucked up. We end the episode with him having killed a man. The blood dripping down the shield is as harsh as it's not subtle. There should be no question here that this is a bad moment which means bad things.
However the internet is the internet, so of course as many people as you can find saying "Steve would NEVER!" you can also find saying "I think John was justified and who are you to say he wasn't?"
There's a lot to unpack.
First and foremost let's appreciate that they built to the moment from the second we first met John. Anyone who knows John's history in the comics knew some version of this was coming. Personally I appreciated how they didn't make it something you could blame on his PTSD. There was no sense of "Ooo, he's crazy! Can't trust those crazy people!" about it, which happens far too often in entertainment media. (Herein lies my side eye in the direction of The Nevers, which I'm planning on talking about after it airs.)
Instead they showed how John was kind of a douchebag but someone who did want to do his job well. They showed the buildup of the pressure on him to be the public figure in spite of how he knew the shiny stars and stripes of it all was a façade over pain - both his own and the country's. They showed him having to take one L after another in a single day, culminating in the loss of Lamar, which is the sort of thing which would make anybody snap let alone someone who'd just injected himself with super powered steroids.
I think an important thing to notice is that during this entire journey John has hit point after point that are exactly things Steve also went through. Steve had to put on the suit and pretend to be patriotic happy guy for the cameras when he knew more serious things were going on. Steve broke Bucky out of jail for his own purposes. Steve absolutely tells people its his way or the highway and has done so on multiple occasions. Steve's even done the toxic masculinity moment of putting his helmet and shield aside to prove he doesn't need them to kick somebody's ass instead of just taking care of the bad guy and going the hell home like other Captains we could mention.
And of course Steve has used the shield to try to takedown somebody who hurt his best friend, aka the final fight with Tony in Civil War.
Now this is when people start to quibble about details: Tony had a suit on! Steve stopped when Tony surrendered! But the point is that Steve still did it. Anyone who doubts that there is a lack of clarity about Steve's morals in this moment need only look at the many people currently arguing that Steve having tried to bash the shield through the chest of someone with a heart condition is proof that what John did wasn't wrong either.
Which is precisely the point.
I know I go to the Kamala Khan well often but that's because she (and her teachers) are right: Good is not a thing you are, it's a thing you do.
Steve Rogers qua Steve Rogers isn't good. There is no elemental "good." Steve didn't have a beneficial reaction to the super serum because he was possessed of the morality version of midi-chlorians which meant that every action he did from then on, be it ignoring international law or forgetting where he left his car keys, was a Thing Of Purest Good [tm].
People love to bring up Erskine's "a good man" quote as evidence of why John Walker was never meant to be Cap but they forget the important part: this wasn't a proclamation it was a reminder.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man."
Catch that bit? PROMISE me. Not "This is your nature." Not "We picked you because this is a given." PROMISE me that you will stay a good man. Erskine knew that this would be a thing Steve would need to grapple with.
And if there is one thing that Falcon and Winter Soldier is both showing and reminding us it is that not only Steve Rogers but Captain America - both the living version in Steve and the conceptual version of the title - is something which likewise is not made of pure good. The treatment of Isaiah Bradley isn't Steve's fault but, as Sam pointed out, it is still the legacy of the ideal of what Captain America is supposed to represent. Let us not forget that part of Isaiah's story is not just to remind us about the horrors the United States has done to Black people but also that the mythos of Captain America is built on how easily we all nodded and said "Yes, of course!" when we were told that the best and only good version of Cap is a white, cisgender, Christian man.
So I absolutely come out on the side of what John did was bad, but I dispute that Steve was the platonic ideal of better.
Credit to SebStan for doing some good character work in this episode. He's got a rough job. It's hard to get attention when you're sharing a screen with Anthony Mackie who has charisma to spare, let alone when your role in any given scene is to be the broody guy known for silently staring at things.
The flashback to Wakanda was wonderfully done and I don't mean to undersell it. However like I've said before, if you want somebody to cry pretty you get SebStan on the line.
Instead what I'd like to focus on is the moment that Ayo takes Bucky's arm off, because that was a beautiful bit of acting.
Here's the thing: Bucky is a character with a disability. People tend to forget that because he's got super soldier powers and his prosthetic arm is made of vibranium. But that does not negate the fact that Bucky is a character who uses a prosthetic.
Ayo removing Bucky's arm is Ayo taking away Bucky's adaptive equipment. Yes, this tech is vastly more advanced than the average person's. But it is still something Bucky uses to mitigate the problems his disability gives him. Taking off his prosthetic without his consent is like yanking someone's wheelchair away, or removing their insulin pump, or hurting their service dog.
Had this been a real fight with life or death stakes someone should absolutely try to take any of Bucky's arms off. I don't dispute that.
But this was a fight of posturing, and Bucky trying, however reluctantly, to even the stakes for the at the time comparatively underpowered John. Ayo removing Bucky's arm is therefore a low blow. She's not attacking him as a person she's attacking his disability.
Which is not to demonize Ayo by any means! A consistent thread of the Doras is that they have shit to do and no time for nonsense. It is 100% in character for Ayo or any other Dora to do whatever it takes to get the job done so they can move on. (Also let's take a moment to appreciate the gift we got of the look on Ayo's face when John tried to talk to her, because that was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.)
What I am doing is pointing out how this moment of removing Bucky's arm could've been just that - arm comes off, fight is over - except SebStan adds so much more depth to it. When Ayo does it Bucky's face registers not only surprise but humiliation and betrayal. In that moment we're seeing the impact this has not only on him but on how he's reevaluating the dynamic between him and Ayo and if it's not what he assumed it to be.
I'd be interested to see how much of that moment was in the script and how much is what SebStan brought to it on his own.
Speaking of Physicality
The last major thing I want to touch on is the great job done by so many people in last night's ep when it came to saying a lot without speaking a word. I'm not familiar enough with the director's works to speak to how much of it is her influence vs the actors. But given how broad it is and how much involves blocking my gut tells me she deserves at least some of the credit if not all.
For example: Bucky consistently watches his and Sam's backs. An obvious instance is in last week's episode when he stays by the door of the first shipping container they go into and keeps an eye on the outside. In last night's episode he's frequently found a little bit behind the others and you can see him looking around instead of always focusing in front.
Sam's body language did a lot as well. One of the best examples being in the scene of him trying to talk to Karli person to person. He keeps his hands in his pockets. His shoulders are in a relaxed slump. At one point he not only sits but does so with his back to her. You can tell this is a man who has experience knowing how to build a rapport with a volatile and yet vulnerable person. He's projecting an aura of someone who is safe, someone who isn't a half second away from hurting her.
Then we have John.
One of the things about Captain America's shield is that symbolically it means protection. Captain America stands between us and danger. But, as Karli points out, another way to look at someone with a vibranium shield is that they're hiding behind it. Now in some ways this is a difference of personal philosophy. But, as last night's episode shows us, it can also be a difference in physicality.
Let's compare John and Steve bursting into a building to save the day:
This is the exact same moment. Like I said, they are doing this one for one callback with John and Steve a lot. In this particular case you can't get clearer than these two shots, John from last night and Steve from the first Captain America movie.
Same thing: Bursting through a door, their friends behind them, shield in hand, gun pointed towards potential enemies.
And yet because of how Wyatt Russell and Chris Evans hold themselves, these poses convey completely different things.
Look at Steve: he's got shield in hand and it's covering his chest, but that's all its covering. He's standing up straight. His face is exposed. His gun arm is outstretched and easy to see. His body language makes a statement: I'm here to fight if I have to but I'm going to do it honorably. I'm making my threat clear and I will look you in the eye when we engage in combat.
Now look at John: He's crouched down. He's got as much of himself behind the shield as he can while still being able to walk. His head is tucked down making it harder to see his face. His gun arm is behind the shield and the gun itself is poking out over the top. When John comes into a room you're going to see the shield first and long before you see the rest of him. John's body language says he wants to shoot you before you know there's a threat and that if you respond he wants to be well protected from it.
Which in and of itself isn't a bad thing. However the thing that truly takes this from using the shield as protection to hiding behind it is that John keeps staying in the background.
The reason why Lemar gets snatched is that Lemar goes ahead to scout. Lemar who not only does not have a shield but who John at this point knows is a normal human man, unlike John who just took the serum. John's got the vibranium shield and the serum running through his veins and he still lets Lemar take the risk of going first while John waits behind for Lemar to tell him it's clear.
Much as I keep harping on how Steve isn't perfect, I do think we all can agree that in this one area Steve would never.
And it's all conveyed through body language and blocking.
- I shared this over on Twitter but if you haven't seen it yet, this therapist's take on Bucky's treatment is definitely worth a read.
- These D+ shows are doing a great job of fleshing out characters. For instance I loved Ayo pointing out how hard T'Chaka's death was on the Doras because, of course, it was their job to protect him.
- I have no idea how well SebStan did but my gut tells me to extend my sympathy to any native Xhosa speakers who had to hear him attempt the accent
- Tití to mean aunt is from Spanish, which ties in to how Sam grew up in Louisiana which was owned by Spain before the US bought it.
- Most of the outfits are carryovers from the last episode but in scenes where it's Sam, Bucky, and Zemo Sam stands out as the only one wearing brown.
- Loved Sam calling out Zemo doing "that stupid head tilt thing." Also note the way Daniel Brühl straightens out his posture after Sam said it.
- Yet again we see Sam being the one to constantly play peacemaker. He does it with Bucky and Zemo, then later with Walker. Which could be a theme they're doing as part and parcel of presenting Sam as the one who shows empathy to everyone much like he did to Karli. However when Lemar also is the only one to play peacemaker you can't help but wonder how much of it is a racial commentary, either intentional or not.
- I don't care that his wife and best friend are Black, you cannot convince me that John wouldn't bust out some hardcore racial slurs about the Doras if he wasn't constricted by a PG-13 rating.
- "They need a leader who looks like them, who understands their pain" is a bit heavy handed in a series teeing up Sam as the next Captain America but on the other hand we've got people out there going "Hey did you notice Zemo offering Turkish Delight is like a Narnia reference?" as deep cut analysis so I can't fault the writers for occasionally aiming for the cheap seats.
- If, like me, you wondered why Sharon had a cut on her lip it's actually continuity from the last episode where she was hurt in the fight at the shipyard.
- For those of us keeping track of these sorts of details, Sharon refers to the Power Broker as "he" in her phone call with Sam
- There was some great character work in the fight choreography too. For instance, in the end fight the Flag Smashers had super soldier powers but they were going up against three men with military training and a super soldier assassin. The serum makes you stronger, it doesn't download the ability to do karate into your brain. So when you watch the fight you see how for the most part the Flag Smashers are rough brawlers compared to the disciplined movements of Sam, John, and Lemar. Also Bucky, who is light years ahead of them, sticks to quick, efficient attacks to put his opponents down. He's got no need to bat them around like a cat with a toy.
- Compared to last week, which felt like finding any excuse to make Sam look stupid, I appreciated how this week wasn't a study in multiple attempts to pull his pants down. For instance he was able to hold his own in a fight with the Doras. Not win of course because it's the Doras. But he's a guy who's fought in wars and against aliens. He's not without skills.
- I love the name "Gastronauts" for a place to get a bite to eat. Not sure if it's a real location or something made up for the show but I tip my hat to you, naming punster. Well done.
- I know the real answer is that Florence Kasumba was the one who had availability to film the series, but in terms of story explanation I like to imagine the reason why Ayo helped Bucky with his training is because she's the one who answered yes when Okoye asked who had free time that week and wanted to pick up some overtime pay.
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