Now that's more like it.
The show is recovering from the stumble of episode 3, "Power Broker." This episode allows both the viewer and the characters to pause, take a breath, and come to terms with what has happened so far. It also slots the pieces into place for the finale. It does all this via a series of welcome character interactions that let Sam and Bucky, and Sam and Sarah, and Sam and Isaiah, and John Walker and his wife and a surprise guest....just talk to one another.
I don't care if anyone thinks that's boring. It's not, if you're invested in the characters. And you can't get invested in the characters by constant run-slam-bang-pew pew battle scenes (as much fun as watching the Dora Milaje whip John Walker's ass in the last episode admittedly was). This is one advantage these limited streaming series have over the big screen. They can slow down and look at the characters in a way the movies simply don't have time for. We saw it in WandaVision, and we're seeing it here.
Not that we didn't get a pew pew battle scene in this episode, but there's only one. It's at the beginning, and follows the horrific scene that concluded last week's episode, when John Walker murdered a man with the Captain America shield. He runs away to a warehouse, bloody and shaken, and has flashbacks of Lemar. Bucky and Sam follow him, and the resulting fight is not only a throwdown between the three main characters--it's a treatise on the future of Captain America himself. Wyatt Russell does fine work here (indeed, throughout the entire episode) in showing how Walker has become unhinged, either by taking the serum or the weight of his own entitlement (he repeatedly yells, "I am Captain America!" and re: the shield, "It's mine") But Sam and Bucky succeed in taking it from him, even though he rips Sam's wings off. Sam and Bucky knock Walker out cold, and Bucky picks up the shield and drops it to the concrete beside Sam (with a pointed look that clearly says, "Steve gave the shield to you, jackass").
This isn't the last blow this episode gives John Walker, as he's given what seems to be a combination Senate/military hearing (although one would think the legislative branch of government wouldn't have anything to do with military decisions, but I suppose that was so they could use a previously seen actor) where he's stripped of the Captain America title, his rank and pension, and given an "other than honorable" discharge. Which seems to be getting off awfully damned light for murdering a man in cold blood in front of the entire world, but obviously the gov't and military want to sweep this under the rug as quickly as possible. Walker tries to object: "I only ever did what you asked of me, what you told me to be and trained me to do, and I did it well. You built me." This goes over about as well as you'd expect, even though it's sort of true. Not to take away any of Walker's culpability, but he was never given the support, logistical/psychological and otherwise, a person should receive to take on the mantle of Captain America. (Not that Steve Rogers did either, as far as that goes. But John Walker is a helluva lot less stable than Steve Rogers.) It's at the end of this scene that we get our heralded cameo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a character that apparently has decades of history in the comics. She tells Walker that she knows he took the supersoldier serum and he doesn't have the shield anymore, and she'll be in touch.
Walker also goes to visit Lemar's parents, and he tells them the same lie he yelled at Sam and Bucky in the warehouse, that the man he killed murdered their son. This seems to be a lie he's also telling himself, in a sad and pathetic attempt to justify what he did. After he leaves, he walks down the alley and comes upon a poster tacked to the wall, put up right after his being made Captain America, proclaiming "Cap is back." This leads to the after-credits scene where we see him with a welding mask on, painting and hammering and firing metal--and making his own Captain America shield (festooned with his Medals of Honor). (Although a homemade welded shield sure as heck isn't going to hold up like the vibranium one does, and he should know that.) Again, Wyatt Russell's nuanced performance almost makes you feel sorry for the guy--but now he's on a collision course with Sam Wilson, who as we see in this episode, fully deserves to be Captain America and has finally made up his mind to embrace the role.
Before Sam does so, though, he takes the shield back to Baltimore to visit Isaiah Bradley and get his story. Isaiah sets Sam down and tells it, in a truly extraordinary scene (one of the two best scenes in the episode). Isaiah was part of a group of Black soldiers who were experimented on with various strains of supersoldier serum, trying to duplicate the initial success with Steve Rogers. This didn't work well and Isaiah's fellow soldiers started dying, even as they were being sent on missions. Some of them were being held in a POW camp in Korea and the powers-that-be were going to bomb the camp and kill the prisoners, to hide what they were. Of course, Isaiah could not abide this and busted them all out of the camp. But the attrition rate continued, until he was the only one left--and he was experimented on for 30 years, with government scientists trying to determine why he had survived. His wife was told he was dead, and died herself before Isaiah was released, with the help of a sympathetic nurse who faked his death.
Sam is understandably horrified by this and tries to talk Isaiah into going public with what was done to him. Isaiah, still bitter and justifiably so, refuses. He questions why Sam has the shield at all: "They will never let a Black man be Captain America, and even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever want to be." Sam doesn't argue with him, but as the camera lingers on his face, you can see he doesn't really agree, either. At any rate, after this he takes the shield and tells his sister he's coming home.
He goes home to Louisiana to think about what he has seen and learned, and figure out what to do next. But in these scenes, we get a deeper insight into who Sam Wilson really is--a man who has been taught by his family to give to the community (his parents did that for decades, and Sam calls in the favors owed to their family to get their boat fixed), and a man who cannot and will not squander what others have done for him. In another important conversation, with his sister Sarah, he finally hones in on what he has learned from Isaiah Bradley: "What would be the point of all that sacrifice if I wasn't willing to stand up and keep fighting?"
At that moment, in his face (and kudos for Anthony Mackie's performance), you can see it: he has made up his mind to take up the shield and become Captain America. There follows a training sequence, set to the show's terrific theme music, as Sam learns how the shield works (in defiance of all known laws of physics, but hey, vibranium seems to be like that) and hones his own body and reflexes to work along with it. In the last scene in the episode, his sidekick Torres says they have tracked Karli and the Flag Smashers to New York. Sam opens up the huge suitcase Bucky brought him earlier, containing one last favor from Ayo. We don't see what it is...yet.
Speaking of Bucky, he has his own epiphanies in this episode, and is led to one of them by Sam, drawing on Sam's counseling experience. After tracking down Zemo and surrendering him to the Dora Milaje (and collecting that favor from Ayo) he heads on down to Louisiana to give Sam his gift. He ends up working alongside Sam on the boat (and flirting with Sarah) and the two of them come to a genuine understanding, which includes an apology to Sam: "When Steve told me what he was planning, I don't think either of us really understood what it felt like for a Black man to be handed the shield. How could we? I owe you an apology." He also confesses that the reason he reacted so badly to Sam's giving it up was "that shield's the closest thing I have left to a family." Sam points out that what Bucky has been doing to make amends for his actions as the Winter Soldier isn't cutting it, and that instead of concentrating on what would make him (Bucky) feel better, he should focus on what would make the people he wronged feel better. "Start with one person," he says. Of course, we know that one person will be the elderly Chinese man we met in the first episode, the one whose son Bucky killed.
(In other I-Don't-See-the-Point-of-This news, Sharon Carter sends the villain from the very first episode, Baltroc, to New York to deliver weapons and explosives to Karli Morgenthau. Unless she plays a larger role in the finale--say, if she were revealed to be the Power Broker, driven to the dark side by her bitterness over basically being abandoned by the Avengers--I don't understand what the point was in having her in this series at all. Aside from Emily vanKamp's getting a hefty paycheck, which of course is sufficient motivation in and of itself. But the storyline sure hasn't done her character any favors.)
So. Everyone, including the viewer, had a chance to breathe, we see several important character beats, and all the pieces are in place for the finale. This series has been very uneven (and Karli's character has suffered the worst, with her wildly varying and contradictory characterization) but this episode got a lot of things right. Hopefully the finale will pick up on it.
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