The Falcon and The Winter Solider episode 5 marks one of the most extreme course corrections of any show in recent memory – a standout episode of a flawed series.
No sense beating around the bush here – there’s one thing I want to talk about most: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. What a flex by Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige. As the MCU realm enters television – The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was intended to launch the Disney+ level of the “real” MCU – it only makes sense that they might want to add perhaps the greatest actor in the history of television. Julia Louis-Dreyfus might be TV comedies’ Michael Jordan. She has two truly peak performances (Seinfeld and Veep), and, even if the MCU is her Washington Wizards’ run, she remains nothing less than the most interesting thing on the court. Here she appears as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a spy-type character of regularly shifting loyalties in the comics. Her one scene absolutely pops with energy as a titan takes the stage. Every little choice she makes in her two minutes of screen time pops. I do not suspect we’ll see her again on The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, but her presence in the MCU is a source of deep joy for me. She’ll elevate any project blessed by her presence.
So… the rest of the show! Last week, I analogized it to the last two seasons of Game of Thrones. To be fair to Thrones‘ most-maligned season, it does have one absolutely elite episode: “A Knight of the Seven Kingdom”. A smaller, character driven episode in the show’s final year, it serves as the “night before” the giant battle with the White Walkers. While we know the show wraps up in a – let’s be kind – rushed manner, that episode allowed each character to have warm, emotionally fulfilling beats before what they believe to be an approaching doomsday. For now, this is The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, a bastion of character and light in a season of rushed television. Here’s hoping it manages to keep up the momentum next week.
I was surprised to find in episode 5 that so many of the little plot threads that didn’t work in past episodes absolutely seem to be clicking this week. I complained in week one about the structure of Sam’s relationship with his sister, and the relative plot contrivances generated to create tension. Here, those beats are played out with a sense of community and good humor. What’s frustrating is that I don’t think this show needed the machinations of selfie-taking loan officers to get Sam to this place. A Sam Wilson faced with a prideful sister who wouldn’t accept a handout, but earns her blessing by investing his hands-on labor and his place in the community, is a more interesting arc than a Sam Wilson who is thwarted by plot machinations. It’s impossible to ignore that Sam manages to solve the problems of the first episode with a few phone calls and a montage, but it’s a fun, touching sequence. Watching Sam and Bucky rebuild a dilapidated boat gave me more joy than nearly everything else in this show.
The John Walker plot really works this week too! The Sam/Bucky/John fight is not quite as visceral and impressive as the similarly structured Tony/Steve/Bucky fight from Captain America: Civil War, but the grounded stakes work. While I have some fight choreography quibbles, the image of Bucky and Sam quite literally snapping Walker’s arm to rip the shield away is stark. The allegory here is smart as well – the entrenched system would rather wage war than give ground to something that upsets the establishment. Walker’s intransigence in the fight, and Sam’s subsequent inability to wipe the blood clear from Captain America’s shield, is a sharper, smarter thematic framework than any pro-Thanos, anti-borders nonsense we get from Karli Morgenthau.
And Walker leads us to the show’s most effective discussion of race. Aided by a splendid Carl Lumbly to sell the hell out of a giant exposition dump, we finally receive (the expected) clarity on Isaiah Bradley’s history. Lumbly brings to life the trauma of a man who sacrificed profoundly for his country and was rewarded with incarceration and degradation. Anthony Mackie is excellent in episode 5 as well – he’s such a gifted listener as a performer which is a surprisingly rare skill. Together, in just a few minutes, they explore the show’s view on race in America in a way the prior four hours missed.
After the MCU’s first HGTV show, Sam and Bucky engage directly on race as well. Their conversation is well-written, direct, and smart. Both actors elevate the material. We’re dealing with superheroes, it’s ok for them to deal with societal issues in big, broad strokes. And I think it’s important that seeing Sam and Bucky discuss race as they do, here, makes these issues the middleground. The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is about as clear an example of the pop culture zeitgeist as we have in 2021, and the show is normalizing complex questions of structural injustices in American society. I’ve spoken ill of the show for weeks for missing the mark on issues of race, for relying on too cute plot machinations. Here, both in the Isaiah Bradley scene and the Bucky one, the show conveys its thesis concisely and movingly in a way that services all of its characters and their long struggle living in the shadow of Steve Rogers’ legacy.
And the Flag Smashers… well, at least they now have Georges St-Pierre’s Batroc the Leaper to give them an actually compelling and believable villain presence. It feels like the show has not left enough time to earn Sharon Carter’s heel turn (as she’s shown arranging for Batroc’s release from Algerian jail), but at least Batroc gives us a fun, physical force in the mix.
So where is all this going? It seems likely that Julia Louis-Dreyfus will now occupy a place akin to Nick Fury in the MCU Disney+ shows. Contessa Val is a logical fit to serve as a sort of Amanda Waller-type character (most famously depicted by Viola Davis in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad) who serves as the adult in the room for Marvel’s own time traveling mash-up of ruffian anti-heroes: Thunderbolts. It is, for now, unannounced, but Louis-Dreyfus makes perfect sense as the common thread that picks up supporting characters from the various other MCU shows to craft a comedic team-up adventure. The CW DC Arrowverse has done this formula well with Legends of Tomorrow, and I’m cautiously optimistic that Marvel can nail the character-driven humor of that show with Marvel’s stronger production values.
It makes sense that John Walker, a very human scale character, will remain in the “human” Disney+ stories and appear in the future in Armor Wars, especially after Don Cheadle’s brief appearance on The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Zemo also heads off, ostensibly, for superhero jail at The Raft. As he’s with a bunch Dora Milaje, it seems more likely that he’s headed for Ryan Coogler’s Wakanda show. Florence Kasumba seems perfectly positioned to take a lead role on that deeper dive into everyone’s favorite fictional African nation. We’ve had so many White Wolf quips at this point that it would probably count as a surprise if Bucky doesn’t appear in either Black Panther 2 or Wakanda.
One of the most remarkable things about the way the MCU is structured is that Kevin Feige has managed to so elegantly interweave the worldbuilding and spinoff set-up that he has me genuinely excited about shows that might be 4 years and 45 properties away. The heavy-handed shoehorning of Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron feel a universe away. Marvel doesn’t merely excite with the tease of future adventures, it has earned faith that they’ll pay off these various story threads.
I find myself wishing this was The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s third episode. In episode 5, that much of the nonsense we were subjected to the last few weeks was whittled away and we were able to reset the board and move the story forward with this frame. Alas, it’s too late. It’s hard to criticize a show that’s only six episodes long for Netflix-style bloat (boy oh boy did some of those Netflix Marvel shows grind to a crushing halt in the middle of their seasons!), but it really feels like the show worked with a simpler, more direct plot and felt the need to expand it, distractingly, to fill time and set up a bunch of spin-offs. While WandaVision, taken as a complete story, feels like it deserves the structure of television, I’m worried that this show really is just a very long movie chopped into six parts and left without the focus and fine-tuning that the structure of film allows. Nevertheless, for the first time in weeks, I’m truly excited to see where this story goes next week. And I’m again enthused about where the Disney+ MCU may expand in the future.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 5 is now available to watch on Disney Plus.