[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Whole World Is Watching.”]
John Walker (Wyatt russell) was always going to break down. Even if you never read any Captain America comics or knew about US Agent, it was clear by the end of Episode 2 that Walker already represented the banality of white supremacy, and that some kind of candid introspection and change was not in the cards for a guy who had received Captain America’s shield. . because it was the white face that the American military wanted.
Episode 4 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “The Whole World Is Watching,” quickly put an end to whatever kind of high moral standards Walker sought to occupy. Convinced of his own righteousness and the need to be the hero (the shield that feeds the ego feeds the shield in a cycle of self-aggrandizement), Walker takes two major blows in this episode. The first comes when he is beaten by Dora Milaje, and the show marks the character’s white supremacy. It’s not just that he was hit by two people who weren’t super soldiers. He’s a white guy who was beaten up by two black women. Instead of respecting ability, educating himself, and reevaluating his biases, Walker turns inward and, after a brief conversation with his friend Hoskins (Bennett key), feels justified in taking the serum.
However, the serum is not enough to save Hoskins. During a fight with the Flag Smashers, a super-powered Walker is fighting the group when Hoskins rushes in, gets punched in a pillar, and dies. Crazed with grief, Walker jumps out of a window, chases after one of Karli’s teammates (who had mentioned earlier in the episode how a huge Captain America fan he was as a child), and beats him to death with the shield. He’s surrounded by people recording the action on their phones, and the final shot is Walker standing over his prey with a blood-soaked shield.
The symbolism here is pretty obvious because it goes back to Sam’s warning in Episode 1: symbols are nothing without the people who give them meaning. The shield is just a piece of metal, but it takes on a new meaning when you put it in the hands of different people. Walker, on the surface, fits the profile of who should have the shield. He’s a war hero, he “sports” the role (read: he’s white and blonde, and therefore looks like Steve Rogers, as well as who America typically considers its heroes), and he’s a patriot. But this episode questions what it means to be a war hero when you are recognized for doing horrible things in the name of freedom. Also, being “successful” in war does not necessarily make someone “good.”
All of that comes to a head when Walker lets his pain and rage take over and murders a guy in cold blood because he has the power to do so. The shield is supposed to represent American ideals, but as the show points out, the America of Steve Rogers fighting the Nazis is very different from the America of the 21st century with its global community and moral ambiguities. But there are still moral absolutes and beating a defenseless man to death in the middle of the street is still generally considered bad. When you give a guy a shield because he looks cool, you take his actions out of the equation.
Ultimately, those actions speak to what America is rather than what it wishes it could be. If Steve Rogers was the ideal, then John Walker is the cold reality: insecure, fearful of non-white and masculine power, reckless, and ultimately violent and impulsive. Meet your new star sequin man.
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