Well. This has been quite a ride.
You can't help but compare this show to WandaVision, because that show set such a high bar I think all the following Marvel series will suffer by comparison. WandaVision's laser focus was Wanda's grief and the actions she took as a result, and the show benefited because of it. While this show had its highlights (episode 4, "The Whole World Is Watching," and episode 5, "Truth," were the two best episodes), it seemed unfocused and thematically, it was wandering all over the place.
This is not to say the characters, for the most part (with some glaring exceptions, especially Karli Morgenthau) weren't well treated. The whole point of this show was to prove that Sam Wilson is the worthy successor to Steve Rogers and deserves to take up the shield and the title of Captain America, and there the show succeeded admirably. (I read somewhere about some wag complaining that Sam ends up in the same place here as at the end of Avengers: Endgame, with the shield in hand, and thus the entire show was superfluous. Well yeah, we the audience always knew Sam was worthy, but Sam had to decide that he was worthy. He had many conflicting emotions to work through before he felt he could take the shield back, with the end result being he has no reservations about stepping up and taking on the shield and title.) Bucky also has to deal with his lingering trauma and guilt over being the Winter Soldier, and that storyline succeeds as well (with some help from Counselor Sam, utilizing his background at the VA).
John Walker, however, is another kettle of fish. This is not to take away from Wyatt Russell's excellent performance in a pretty complicated role. But I almost wish the show had left him where we saw him in the mid-credits scene of Episode 5, pounding out his own handmade Captain America shield after being stripped of the title (and after visiting Lemar's parents and lying to their faces about how their son died). As far as I was concerned, his character did not need the BIG, FAKEY REDEMPTION SCENE in the finale, where he had to decide between killing Karli Morgenthau and rescuing the people in the truck. That long-drawn-out shot of Walker shaking his head, rubbing his eyes, visibly hesitating and finally, almost grudgingly, moving to try to drag the truck back from the edge was just too much. And then afterwards, to show some back-slapping camaraderie with Bucky, when just two episodes prior Walker had murdered someone in cold blood? Nope nope nope. I was reading an interview with the show's director, Kari Skogland, explaining how they structured the finale so viewers would end up liking John Walker, and I just rolled my eyes. At best, John Walker is a smug, complicated, entitled villain who tried to be Captain America and failed miserably, and that's how he should have been portrayed. I wish they had not included him in the final fight at all, and just showed him at the end with the Countess Valentina and his new U.S. Agent anti-Captain America suit. He would've still gotten to hug his wife and exclaim, "I'm back," four times over, and the audience (and the show) would have left with everyone knowing he's still an asshole.
But my irritation over that pales to the manner in which Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers were treated. Honestly, I think the MCU's biggest blunder so far is having Bruce Banner undo Thanos' Snap, as this opened an enormous wriggling can of worms they seem to be completely unprepared to deal with. (But of course had they not made Avengers: Endgame, Kevin Feige wouldn't have gotten to boast [at least temporarily] of having the biggest money-making film of all time, and presumably we wouldn't have all these Disney Plus MCU shows paid for.) Just as in WandaVision, this show dances right up to the edge of saying something serious about the consequences of Blipping three and a half million people back into existence five years after they left...in this case, through the storyline of Karli and the Flag Smashers, who are trying to return Earth to what they view as the superior state of "One World, One People." But each time we started to think, "Huh, she's making a helluva lot of sense," the writers wound up putting some gratuitous "let's kill the hostages" dialogue in Karli's mouth to rob her of any nuance and turn her back into a cliched terrorist. Her characterization and motivation were inconsistent and contradictory, and while actor Erin Prettyman did her best with the often bad material she was given, that whole storyline just left a bad taste in my mouth.
But Anthony Mackie showed everyone that the shield and title are in good hands, and I wanted to post his climactic speech in the finale in its entirety (as transcribed here):
"You have to stop calling them terrorists," Cap responds. "Your peacekeeping troops carrying weapons are forcing millions of people into settlements around the world, right? What do you think those people are going to call you? These labels...terrorist, refugee, thug. They're often used to get around the question, 'Why?'"
When it's pointed out that Sam has no idea how complicated the situation is, he responds: "You know what, you're right. And that's a good thing. We finally have a common struggle now. Think about that. For once, all the people who've been begging, and I mean literally begging for you to feel how hard any given day is, now you know. How did it feel to be helpless? If you can remember what it felt like to be helpless and face a force so powerful it could erase half the planet, you would know that you're about to have the exact same impact. This isn't about easy decisions, Senator."
When the Senator reiterates that Sam doesn't understand, it's then the hero really strikes a chord.
"I'm a Black man carrying the stars and stripes. What don't I understand? Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people out there who are going to hate me for it. Even now, here, I feel it. The stares, the judgement, and there's nothing I can do to change it, yet I'm still here. No super serum, no blonde hair or blue eyes. The only power I have is that I believe we can do better. We can't demand that people step up if we don't meet them halfway. You control the banks. Shit, you can move borders. You can knock down a forest with an email; you can move a million people with a phone call. The question is, who's in the room with you when you're making those decisions? Is it the people you're going to impact? Or is it just more people like you?
"I mean, this girl died trying to stop you and no one has stopped for one second to ask, 'Why?' You've gotta do better, Senator. You've got to step up. Because if you don't, the next Karli will and you don't want to see 2.0. People believed in her cause so much that they helped her defy the strongest governments in the world. Why do you think that is? Look, you people have just as much power as an insane God or a misguided teenager. The question you have to ask yourself is, 'How are you going to use it?' "
This is where the show excelled, in the story of Sam and Bucky...and for a while, at least, the downfall of John Walker, before the misbegotten attempt at redemption. It fell on its face with Karli and the Flag Smashers, and the unnecessary inclusion of Sharon Carter (in the end, I really don't know what she was there for, other than to give Emily VanKamp a fat paycheck). Overall, the show was ambitious, spotty and muddled, and only partially succeeded.