“The Whole World Is Watching” marks a return to form. Better yet, it finally establishes that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has a form. Before every episode so far, I’ve been at a loss as to what to expect from this show in terms of tone, plotline, focus, or even characterization. I don’t mean that I’ve always gone in spoiler-free (although I’ve done my best to do so). I just mean the show’s objectives are so much a mystery that the tone is less suspenseful than it is directionless.
In its fourth episode, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier returns to the emotional through line that hovered in the first two installments. I alluded to this in my recap of episode two, but the show feels like it’s more about veterans than it is about soldiers. We already know Sam is a veteran, but with the Avengers no longer a team (would you call them disbanded?), so is Bucky. Both of the title characters have struggled with returning to the line of duty (and fire), while others, like Karli Morgenthau and the Flag-Smashers, would rather assume the mantle of “soldiers” than “refugees.” Some people are looking for a fight—or, perhaps more accurately, can’t avoid one.
Nowhere is this more evident than in John Walker. The way that his character has been built this season has been impressive, partly thanks to the excellent acting of Wyatt Russell. Despite his claims that he doesn’t know what he’s doing in the MCU, Russell really strikes an amazing balance between John’s frustrations and fears. This is made abundantly clear when John plaintively says, after losing and losing badly to the Dora Milaje, “They weren’t even super soldiers.” It’s really a testament to Russell’s acting that the moment isn’t pathetic or self-pitying. Instead, as Russell’s next scene highlights, he takes the failure to heart. He and Lemar discuss the main thematic moral dilemma in this episode: Would they take the super soldier serum if they could?
Lemar points out that John already has three medals of honor, so he shouldn’t question his abilities, but his partner counters that he won those to celebrate “the worst day of [his] life,” and that their time in Afghanistan involved them doing things that felt “anything but right.” For him, being Cap is a way to right those wrongs, and do so with a morality he felt he had to sacrifice before.
At first, I thought we were going to flashback to John’s worst day, but then I realized that for John, those flashbacks are happening all the time. The devastating end of this episode, where he brutally kills a Flag Smasher after Lemar is killed in a fight with them, feels all the more horrible and inevitable after that sequence. I mentioned the way that soldiers in war are depicted in media in my recap of “The Star Spangled Man.” Well, this episode goes a little deeper into the way veterans are depicted. Two similarly excellent examples I can think of in terms of shows with storylines about modern-day veterans are You’re the Worst and Barry.
There might be more, which I invite you to share, but my taste skews comedy. But even the non-drama shows don’t shy away from the disturbing aspects of their characters’ pasts, and the way their pasts live in their presents. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk tells a similar story of a veteran—in this case, of the Vietnam War—remembering or reliving a time when a buddy died in combat and he took out his pain and rage on someone nearby. There’s a reason PTSD became a recognizable health condition after the Vietnam War, graduating from the less formal “shell-shock” that was discussed post-World Wars.
One could put all this blame on John, especially since he took the serum himself before that last fight (as evidenced by the way he bends a gun). But what about the people who chose him? The fact that John wouldn’t go to therapy but Bucky has... obviously, neither of them seem like the type to go, but it’s interesting that Bucky was given court-mandated therapy while Walker was allowed to roam free, despite holding many heavy memories. Even if the government did psychological testing, you wonder how the hell they would’ve overlooked his obvious PTSD and decided he was a good candidate to put in a war zone.
Of course, then there’s the way “The Whole World Is Watching” contrasts both Bucky and John with Sam. Sam has done the work—not only has he done the work, he knows the work that needs to be done and how to encourage others. He worked at the VA hospital discussing these traumas and leading group therapy with veterans, and encouraged Steve Rogers to do the same. It’s a way for the show to go back to Sam’s introduction to the MCU and reframe the way he gets Steve to open up to him, as if telling his origin story. It’s also why he feels like a true de facto leader in this episode, unlike John, who even tries to fight him in order to asset dominance. Oh, John. Sam’s empathy and emotional intelligence are what pulled Steve in, and what got Steve to trust him incredibly quickly.
Sam does the same with Karli when he attempts to defuse the situation after Donya’s memorial. Before John messes things up, Sam gets Karli to see he empathizes, but that her methods are off. Like a lot of you commenters, I found Karli bombing a building a frustrating turn for the worse for the Flag-Smashers leader. It seemed to come out of nowhere. But the fact that Sam shows sympathy for her efforts highlights that the show is trying to be more nuanced than that. And it does so by partly using Karli’s actions as a cautionary tale on the serum.
Zemo hates the serum, and says anyone who believes in it is “a supremacist.” He delights in how Sam immediately says he wouldn’t take the serum, but Sam doesn’t agree with Zemo’s philosophy. “Isn’t that how gods talk?” Sam asks, in a way that leaves Zemo without an answer. Zemo pinpoints Steve as the only person to be good after taking the serum. I don’t agree. In fact, the way that the characters deify Steve as the only person to respond well to the serum feels remarkably unfounded. It’s not that Steve was a better person than anyone, but the situation behind him taking the serum has yet to be repeated. Not only was he much younger and more naturally idealistic than any of the other people who’ve taken the serum—Bucky and the Bruce Banner of The Incredible Hulk come to mind—he was also the most frail.
As someone who has (or has had) at least half the ailments on Steve’s enlistment forms, my immediate answer is yes to taking the serum. It’s not hard for me to see how Steve taking the serum would make him a better person. It’s much easier to be kind to people when your lungs are stronger, your body’s bigger, your mind isn’t desperately making assessments on how much energy you have for the day, especially after years of struggling. But also because you understand how fragile other people are, not just physically but emotionally. As my friend and healthcare journalist Cat Ferguson has told me, the brain and body separation is largely a myth. Perhaps the serum works not because of some mysterious element in the body, but because changing a body, making it stronger than a normal human’s, making your recovery time less, making it harder to kill you… naturally devolves your sense of other’s mortality. And speaking as someone who has had a lot of health problems in recent years that have needed regular medicine, it’s amazing how much of a difference just having stronger lungs that can make you feel as a person. Not being able to rely on your health consistently changes your personality. You become grateful for things other people take for granted.
Heck, you could say the reason Bucky became the Winter Soldier rather than a beacon of compassion like Steve is because he took the serum after he’d been in the war. He was experimented on by Hydra before they gave him the serum, so even then Hydra must’ve had an eye on him as potential to be a brainwashed assassin. Perhaps he was chosen because of his combination of an urge to be good and a sense of obedience. It’s a fact that Bucky is probably more aware of than he’d like, and that’s why the giant hole in his heart for Steve weighs so heavily on him. He doesn’t know who to follow or to trust.
That’s what made Steve more than a soldier. There was something empathetic and diplomatic about him—and when I say diplomatic, I don’t mean he appeased others, or he negotiated with people’s lives. Instead, his first response wasn’t brutality, but understanding. Just like Sam. Unfortunately, this is exactly what both Karli and John are missing. Karli says things like “If I killed you, it’d be meaningless” to Sam because to her, other people are symbols rather than people. And this is why I highlighted why it was slightly suspect that John had scored high in “intelligence.” Being strategic and able to command people and make quick decisions is a very different form intelligence than being able to connect with others and lead them when they have no reason to be led by you. And for both Karli and Johnny, it seems the serum will be their downfall.
- I know I didn’t write too much about Ayo, but it was a dream to see her and the Dora Milaje, especially the way they fight. The way they took care of Bucky is really amazingly compassionate, and it makes me wonder if that’s another thing Bucky holds against himself.
- Donya’s funeral and memorial were beautiful. Props to production design.
- Bucky, about John: “I know a crazy when I see one. Because I am crazy.” Sam: “No one’s arguing with that.”
- Also, Sam trying to tell Bucky to get the Dora Milaje to lay off of John—man, Bucky really hates that guy.
- So basically Shuri installed and upgraded Bucky’s arm, but with a surefire way for the Dora Milaje to literally disarm him? Nothing is ever free. That’s some “The North Remembers” shit.
- I wonder if we’ll get to see the Battlestar logo Lemar would add to autographs.
- “What’s with all the knives?” quips John during one of many very good and creative action sequences. What is with all the knives?
- Have you seen this clip of Zemo dancing for a straight hour?
- Of course the way Zemo draws in the children with the Turkish Delight reminded me of the White Witch from the Narnia books, but it’s also a little bit of the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The show balances out Zemo’s warmth so the scene is sinister and compelling rather than creepy.
- Why is Zemo always making and bringing them tea?