This episode was quite a turnaround, thankfully. If the show had produced another stinker like last week's "Power Broker," I would have seriously considered dumping it. Fortunately, that wasn't the case.
(And Marvel? Let this be a lesson to you. Don't let the John Wick writer anywhere near your properties from now on. Keanu Reeves is in a class by himself; Sam and Bucky don't need to be Wick-ified.)
This episode moved the plot forward quite a bit, while still allowing for the nice character-based conversations and scenes that, as far as I am concerned, should be the heart of any story. The opening scene is wonderful, in Wakanda six years ago (and thus a year before Thanos snapped away half of the Earth's population), with Bucky and Florence Kasumba's Ayo, the Dora Milaje we saw in the final scene of the previous episode. Ayo has been working on deprogramming Bucky, and here she puts her work to the test. She says Bucky's trigger words, one at a time, while he winces and cringes and waits for his Winter Soldier programming to take hold, and flashbacks to his time as the Winter Soldier flash across the screen. But nothing happens, and at the end of the scene Bucky is crying with relief. Ayo says, "You are free. You are free."
See, this sort of thing, the character exploration and nuance, is exactly what was lacking in the previous episode. We also get good character-based scenes with Sam, who draws upon his VA counselor training to attempt to talk down Karli Morgenthau. He tells Bucky and Zemo that Karli's not wrong; after the Snap, international borders pretty much ceased to exist as immigrants were welcomed to help countries rebuild, and world governments (or whichever governments were left, I suppose), came together to manage the remaining population and keep civilization running. Then, after the world population was restored, all those people were tossed into the street. In his conversation with Karli, Sam says he understands her motivations and agrees with her fight; just not the way she's going about it. It looks like he's found common ground there, and he might very well have succeeded in stopping her...if a certain red-white-and-blue bull in a china closet hadn't charged in, which I will get to.
(Honestly, Marvel is better off not tackling the ramifications of the Blip at all, because the more they try to do so, the murkier and more unbelievable it gets. My blogpal Steve J. Wright discusses some of those ramifications here. Frankly, someone should have set the Avengers down in Endgame and made them debate whether or not the Snap should be reversed. It's five years later and the planet/civilization is probably starting to recover; and climate change and environmental degradation, like it or not, would have been greatly mitigated by the halving of the population. It seems to me reversing the Snap is tiptoeing toward the proposition of the cure being worse than the disease. That should have been a discussion for ethicists, not superheroes.)
Zemo is back to his smarmy manipulative kinda-villain self, using a bribe of Turkish Delight (which I've never eaten, but I've heard from several different sources that it's just yucky) to talk some kids into revealing the time and place of the funeral of Karli's adoptive mother, Donya Madani, and who later, after all hell breaks loose at the end of the episode, pursues Karli and tries to kill her. She drops the world's final remaining bottles of supersoldier serum, and when Zemo realizes what they are, he stomps them into tiny shards. Bucky had said, a couple of episodes back, that while Zemo is crazy he also has a code, and that seems to be true.
But the biggest beneficiary of this much better written episode is John Walker. In "Power Broker" he was just an asshole; here, he seems to be morphing into a tragic asshole. He's obviously in over his head, burdened with the weight of the shield and the legacy of Steve Rogers. The second best scene in the episode takes place after the Dora Milaje--Ayo and another warrior--come in and try to take Zemo and end up kicking everyone's asses (which Sam tries to tell Walker is precisely what will happen; he says, "You're better taking on Bucky than the Dora Milaje"). This includes a stunned Walker, who starts out condescending to Ayo and says after she whups him, "They weren't even supersoldiers." Wyatt Russell is doing some very good work here--indeed, the acting throughout this episode is stellar--and the bewilderment on his face is almost enough to make the viewer feel sorry for the guy, as least until you remember his oozing condescension and entitled arrogance. Anyway, going back to the previous scene where Zemo destroys the serum, Walker shows up afterwards--and finds the one remaining vial. He looks at it for a long minute and tucks it in his pocket.
The scene I'm talking about is right after that, when Walker and Lemar are trying to recover from having their butts kicked. Walker asks Lemar straight out if he would take the serum if he had it, and Lemar says, "Hell yeah." (When Zemo posed the same question to Sam, Sam's immediate reply was "No.") Lemar justifies this by saying that (paraphrasing) "power only amplifies who you already are," and when Walker says, "And me?" Lemar notes that he's earned three Medals of Honor and "consistently makes the right decisions in the heat of battle." (An opinion that, sadly, as shown by the ending of this episode, turns out to be dead wrong.) Walker notes that day in Afghanistan that earned him those honors was "the worst day of my life," and then states the motivation for him wanting to be Captain America: "We both know the things we had to do in Afghanistan to be awarded those medals felt a long way from being right. Being Cap is the first time I've had the chance to do something that actually feels right." Lemar counters, his mind still on the serum: "God, the lives we could have saved that day if we'd had that serum."
I rewound that scene three times to write down the dialogue, because it defined what's going on with John Walker's character. At the end of the episode and the final confrontation with Karli and her crew, Walker bursts in and you realize he's taken the serum (among other things, he hurls the shield against a wall so hard it buries itself halfway into the sheetrock, and kicks one of Karli's followers through the air and down a flight of stairs). Karli's minions kidnap Lemar and tie him up, trying to lure Walker in so she can kill him. As Walker, Sam and Bucky battle to get to where Lemar is, he pulls a hidden knife out of his uniform and cuts himself free. When Karli comes running up, ready to kill Walker, Lemar throws himself between them--and Karli's superpowered kick sends Lemar smashing back against a concrete column and breaks his neck.
Karli and her crew take off running. Walker completely loses it and chases a random follower, pursuing the poor guy into a courtyard where they're surrounded by people. Walker doesn't care; he screams, "Where is she?" The man, realizing what is about to happen, tries to protest: "It wasn't me!" But Walker raises the shield like a scythe and drives it down into his body. We don't see it actually hit; we see the fellow's hand go limp and blood splatter across the flagstones, but when Walker stands up and away and the camera focuses on the shield, the bottom third of which is drenched in blood, you realize he probably decapitated that man. And the whole thing has been filmed on the phones of all the people in the courtyard, and Sam and Bucky, arriving too late to stop Walker, stand there looking at him in horror.
My goodness. Watching it again, this episode was riveting. That's what I mean about John Walker being turned into a tragic asshole--but make no mistake, he's still an asshole, and Sam and Bucky need to take him down.
Two episodes remaining to do it.