In my review of the premiere of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I noted, “on the one hand, the series could delve into some very worthy considerations of what it means to serve, to come home, to feel unmoored by a world that has moved past you; it could even reach Wanda-levels of introspection and emotional resonance regarding consequence. On the other, it could devolve into more of how this first episode starts: Call of Duty-esque mumbo jumbo, murder, explosions […] But six episodes is not a lot of time to spend time doing both, at least not well. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will need to pick a side: for America’s sake, I hope it’s the right one.”
Four episodes in, and the answer is no, it wasn’t the right one. The most interesting thing about the show’s leads is the processing of their trauma, and the reckoning of what it means to be a hero. This could have dovetailed perfectly into the corruption of John Walker, and why Steve Rodgers was such an anomaly among Super Soldiers. The weight of the shield is a lot to bear, and coming to terms with that—with your responsibilities and your limitations—is a fascinating character study.
Instead, FAWS is just a mess. In this latest episode, “The Whole World Is Watching,” Sam suddenly remembers he used to be a therapist—something ignored in the premiere where he was hostile and glib regarding therapy with Bucky (and Bucky’s own therapy, which remains unfinished). It’s just one of a myriad of examples of moments where FAWS could have done more for Sam and Bucky by focusing on the aftermath of Endgame, of the Blip, and on the difficulties of leaving war and conflict behind to adjust to civilian life.
Instead we have… this. A show where the leads are the least interesting characters, because they aren’t really characters at all, they’re just shells of what we recognize from the movie franchise. At the start of “The Whole World Is Watching,” there was a fantastically affecting scene where Ayo of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje frees Bucky of his Winter Soldier programming. Sebastian Stan is stunning here, conveying the fear and fight and relief of the experience. But it was presented without context for those not steeped in various movies’ plots, and served mainly to introduce Ayo briefly as hunting Zemo for (more of) his former crimes. It teased a better story than the episode delivered.
FAWS seems to have been based almost entirely on that one scene in Civil War where the two men sat in the car together and had some cute banter. To try and sustain an entire season (or series?) on that brief chemistry—which is not replicated naturally in this show at all—was folly. With Ayo and Zemo, you have two characters whose presence instantly outshines Sam or Bucky. Baron Zemo made a splash in Episode 3, “Power Broker,” with his fur collar, killer dance moves, and suave confidence. This was a good character to bring back after Ultron and flesh out, even though the show hasn’t really done enough of it. Daniel Brühl is doing all of the heavy lifting here, and like with the re-introduction of Florence Kasumba’s Ayo, the performance and the premise are full of promise.
The same is true of Sharon Carter, another character whose time offscreen seems far more compelling than Sam and Bucky’s onscreen. Her brief introduction in “Power Broker” saw her living large in the criminal sanctuary of Madripoor while hiding out as a fugitive from the U.S. government. I mean!! Tell me more about this story. Then the show’s gaze shifts back to Sam and Bucky running somewhere else, and it all loses steam.
FAWS wants us to care about Sam and Bucky, and it wants us to care about Karli Morgenthau—a completely flat, stereotypically stock “revolutionary” character—without giving us a single reason why. Making John Walker an antagonist from the beginning also ruined any potential arc there; Sam and Bucky just stand to the side, mouth-agape while he goes off the rails avenging his friend, hyped-up on Super Serum. Had they been working together, had they missed those signs, their culpability would have been something fascinating to explore. Would they condemn him or protect him? Would they make excuses that this is the cost of war? That would be the kind of morally grey character work the show seems to want to explore. Instead, they always hated him and never trusted him and, oh guess what, turns out they were right!
Like The Mandalorian, FAWS often feels like a collection of side quests by side characters, but it lacks the overwhelming cuteness of Baby Yoda to make it interesting while we wait for a plot to manifest. From the start, there has never been any forward momentum to FAWS. Bucky and Sam are working to quell the Flag Smashers… ok. That’s just a series of find and fetch errands. The opportunity the Marvel TV shows have that the movies could not achieve is to do deeper character work, and to mix the action sequences of the movies with nutty comics lore. It’s something WandaVision achieved with aplomb. Wanda worked on a variety of different levels: those who wanted comic book and franchise Easter eggs got them, those who connected with the show’s exploration of grief and depression found a home, and those who just wanted a zany show that was different from anything else on TV were well-served.
Falcon and Winter Soldier, meanwhile, is full of unexplored potential, but it just keeps choosing the most boring, rote, and expected paths to its eventual end. But like the MCU films, where even the worst ones are still fine, the same is true for FAWS. There are moments where the show is actually good, presenting something interesting, something to catch our attention and fire up a few synapses. The frustration is that it never leans in to that. Like Bucky and Sam themselves, its story is caught between a fascinating past and an uncertain future, but instead of taking a risk to do something great, it remains safe, inert. And with only two episodes left, there’s sadly very little chance that will be rectified.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier airs Fridays on Disney+
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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