“The Whole World is Watching” is the best episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier yet and my jaw is on the floor. Wow! What an episode!
I almost don’t know where to start with my analysis of “The Whole World is Watching.” As a Sebastian Stan Stan, however, I’m going to start chronologically because that first scene absolutely broke me and it just feels right singing his praise off the bat. Well done, Sebby. That was amazing. You should not have that much power over my emotions.
The concept of how Bucky overcame the mind control trigger words is something that has been explored in depth in fanfiction, so while showing it explicitly in the MCU feels like we are getting Jossed a bit, I find myself not really minding at all. First of all, we got some more Wakanda, which is always welcome. Second, Sebastian Stan absolutely killed it. I had to pause and cry a bit. It broke me. It broke me real bad, guys.
This heartbreaking introduction to “The Whole World is Watching” also acts as a launching point to one of my favorite themes in fiction: the complicated and messy middle ground between good and evil. Both Bucky and the Dora Milaje exist in this space, where the questionable things that they’ve done have some damn good reasons behind them. In Bucky’s case, much of the outright evil things he’s done occurred while he was under mind control, and the questionable things he’s done since then were aimed at making amends or sorting himself out as he regained control of himself. The Dora Milaje’s questionable actions are part of their efforts to seek justice for the murder of their King. Them choosing to seek it out themselves instead of relying on the International community to sanction it comes from their long history as a secretive and isolated nation.
How either Bucky or the Wakandans are perceived really depends on where you’re coming from personally. In fact, me even saying that they exist in a gray area is likely to ruffle some feathers by both those who see their actions as justified, and those who have a hard moral line about acting within the rules of the global community. If me placing them in this space upsets you, good. You’re going to question your morals a lot this episode, so we might as well start now!
And that brings us back to Zemo, who is a ‘means to an end,’ for Bucky and Sam, but has his own complexities and motivations. I’m finding myself loving Zemo more and more with each passing episode, partially due to him being a messy villain, and partially because of the new layers Daniel Brühl is bringing to the character. He’s much more sarcastic than he ever was in either Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Infinity War. There’s a humor to his scenes that wasn’t there before, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.
(Also, we now have the Zemo Cut. Congratulations, fandom!)
In fact, the Zemo-Bucky-Sam trio is probably my favorite team up in the entire MCU so far, and I’m not quite sure how to grapple with that quite yet. I expected to fall in love with the Bucky-Sam team up, but the addition of Zemo really hit me like a brick. This chemistry between the three of them is best captured in the scene where Zemo is explaining supremacy and compares the Nazis, Ultron, and the Avengers. Sam warns to be careful, ‘you’re talking about our friends,’ to which Bucky clarifies ‘the Avengers, not the Nazis,’ without missing a beat. This entire conversation flowed brilliantly, and gave me some severe emotional whiplash from minutes before when a crying Bucky gave me a major case of The Sads.
This absolutely incredible dynamic pops back up again later in the episode when John Walker is battling the Dora Milaje. The dynamic trio is standing back, not really part of the fight, but each dealing with it in their own way. Zemo continues nursing his drink as the battle ensues. Sam feels they should intervene somehow. And then Bucky, at Sam’s prompting, intervenes with a simple ‘looking good, John!’ without really doing much of anything. Zemo then uses the chaos to slip away through a sewer grate in the bathroom while Sam and Bucky finally convince themselves to join in the battle, though they do so with much reluctance.
The conversation they were having in the ‘Nazis, Ultron, Avengers’ scene also plays into the larger theme of the complexities of good vs. evil. Zemo is trying to water down Karli’s motivations into something black and white, which was my fear about her and the Flag Smashers going into the show. But Bucky and Sam argue that there’s more to it than that, and, indeed, we see this play out for most of “The Whole World is Watching.” I asked for an explanation for how a temporary global population decline could lead to the formation of a globalist terrorist cell (or ‘revolutionaries,’ depending on where you’re coming from), and they spelled out the steps that led them to that very clearly. And it makes sense. Good job, writers! I’m sorry that I doubted you.
Karli killed people. Killing people is bad. This isn’t a dispute. The narrative even humanizes the people she killed, explaining that one of them was a father of two who had only been on the job for a week, so we know that they aren’t trying to frame these deaths as something inconsequential. But showing the displaced people who are suffering the consequences of half the world returning explains why she felt she was driven to such extreme actions. Killing people is wrong, but we can see why she would feel this is the best option given what she’s been through.
Not everyone is going to be comfortable sympathizing with Karli after what she’s done, but I think that’s the point. You are meant to feel uncomfortable. You are meant to question your own sympathies and not be able to take a hard stance in either direction without doubting your own morals. Feel that discomfort. Force yourself to be in that gray area for a minute. If you are unable to do so, this episode is going to be a difficult one to process.
The discomfort continues when a Flag Smasher compares Karli to the original Captain America. For those who have already made up their mind about Karli and view her as an irredeemable villain, this sounds preposterous. But for those of us who have made ourselves at home in the gray area, it actually makes a lot of sense. In a way, she’s more comparable to Cap than John Walker is. While Steve Rogers would have never killed innocent people as Karli has, at the very least she’s fighting for the marginalized in society, which is what Cap would have done. He would have done so with much less loss of life, but it’s still the side he would have taken in the long run.
John Walker is…. well, not doing that.
So let’s talk about John Walker here, because wow.
Throughout the entire episode, the point is driven home that the ‘whole world is watching,’ as the episode title implies. When Walker and Battlestar are walking down a random Latvian street, people can be seen in the background filming them. When they’re sitting down at a cafe, people come up to them asking for autographs. The whole world knows who John Walker is and they are, in fact, watching.
So then when we get to the end where he brutally murders a Flag Smasher, we can expect that the repercussions of that act will reverberate throughout the entire world in no time. Whenever a major event happens, it’s live streamed on social media, and everyone gets to see what’s going on in real time. So now the whole world knows Captain America is a murderer and I’m not sure how things are going to unfold. He used the shield to murder someone, so is the shield’s legacy forever tainted with that blood? Is it time to hang up the shield forever? Or will Sam or Bucky be able to bring dignity back to that symbol?
I’ve hated John Walker since the beginning, but I admitted I didn’t have much backing other than the fact he’s simply not Steve Rogers. But I have more than enough reasons to hate him now. But even his murder of the Flag Smasher is murky and falls into a weird gray area that makes my hatred of him feel… complicated. He’s been clearly struggling on the inside over his worthiness to hold the shield and take up the mantle. He even hints that his medals of honor were earned after doing some rather terrible things, so he’s conflicted about what he’s supposed to do with this.
Then he’s driven to murder by the loss of Battlestar (or at least we’re supposed to assume he’s dead at this point, but I’ve learned to not put my foot in my mouth about deaths in the MCU). He has a lot of emotions going on, and unfortunately let them drive him to something terrible.
The cutting and framing of this scene leaves the extent of how gruesome this death is up to our imaginations. Seeing the blood on the shield is horrific enough, but are we meant to assume he straight up beheaded that guy? He’s hacking away at him in the neck area, and then every subsequent scene carefully leaves his head out of frame. Just how gruesome was this murder? I’m genuinely nauseous.
So I guess this brings us back to who is closer to Captain America: Karli or John Walker? They’ve both killed people. Karli killed innocent people who were part of an organization that was actively harming a vulnerable population. Walker killed someone who was part of an organization that had killed innocent people. Neither of these is black and white. Both of them are uncomfortable. So, again, feel that discomfort. Put yourself in that gray area. Question your own morals. That’s the point. If you are placing either of them in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ box without considering the middle ground, you’re missing the point entirely.
This isn’t an easy narrative to lay out for people, so I applaud the writers of Falcon and the Winter Soldier for their boldness. There are going to be people who hate what this story is forcing them to consider, but they’re doing it anyway. So far the series is receiving mostly praise from both critics and fans, but there’s bound to be a few hot takes from people who refuse to examine this type of complexity. They want good to be good, and evil to be evil, and they are afraid that entertaining any other thought will paint them as ‘problematic.’ The hot takes on this are coming. I can feel it.
I can’t let this review end without talking about Sam’s sister Sarah. Karli reaches out to her as a trustworthy go-between with Sam, but their conversation reveals a lot about each of them. Sarah doesn’t buy into the patriotism and symbolism surrounding the Captain America title as she feels America doesn’t really care about her or people like her. Karli identifies with this feeling, which again puts us in a weird place of sympathizing with the story antagonist. Points have been made here. And, again, not everyone is going to jive with these points, but they were made nonetheless. Though she hasn’t had much screen time, I adore Sarah and look forward to whatever the MCU has in store for her.
We only have two more episodes left, and I feel this episode brought us to a great place to launch into the final arc. We know all the players except for the Power Broker (read an interesting theory about that here). We know what makes them tick. And we’re all feeling pretty confused about our own morals. So let’s wrap this up and then move onto Loki, which I’m sure will force us into even more of an uncomfortable gray area once more. I’m counting on it.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.
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