‘Falcon and Winter Soldier’ Episode 5: Can a Black Man Be Captain America and Can You Believe That New Villain?

Anthony Mackie Falcon and the Winter
Chuck Zlotnick / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read if you haven’t seen Season 1, Episode 5 of Disney Plus’ “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

In the best scene in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) asks Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) why Erskine chose him — a skinny, small, sickly kid who desperately wants to serve his country in World War II — to become a super-soldier through Erskine’s serum.

“The serum amplifies everything that is inside — so good becomes great, bad becomes worse,” Erskine explains. “This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.”

It’s a straightforward calculation — only a truly good person would not be corrupted by superpowers. It’s also, in hindsight, a kind of thesis statement for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: In their struggle to be good people, these characters find their heroism.

That ideal is something “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has been attempting to interrogate through several different characters this season. Zemo (Daniel Brühl), his family killed due to actions of the Avengers, believes superpowers are all-corrupting in all cases. Sharon (Emily VanCamp), abandoned after doing the right thing, now believes the hero gig is a dumb joke. Karli (Erin Kellyman), a forgotten person who thrived during the Blip, believes her new superpowers will even the scales in world rigged for the powerful. Bucky (Sebastian Stan), brainwashed for decades as a brutal assassin, grapples with reconciling his actions with the man he desperately wishes he could be.

It’s still unclear exactly whose perspective the show ultimately favors — if it favors any at all — but in “Truth,” the penultimate episode of the season finally turns its attention back to its lead title character, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Throughout the season, Sam has always strived to be the good guy, but as a character, he’s also been a little recessive, reacting to the actions of others rather than commanding the narrative himself. Even Sam’s motivation for stepping back from the mantle of Captain America has remained just out of reach, as if Sam himself didn’t quite understand it either.

Witnessing the new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), murder a man using Cap’s shield, however, finally forces Sam to directly address the question that he — and the show — have only glanced at all season: Can a Black man ever become Captain America?

It’s one of several questions “Truth” raised — we haven’t even gotten to the shocking appearance of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a Marvel villain! — and with only one episode left to go, there’s not much runway left for answers. So let’s get to them!

Who is Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine?

Hopefully, you were not spoiled in advance that Marvel Studios has tapped the Emmy-laden star of “Veep” and “Seinfeld” to put a streak of metallic purple through her hair as the enigmatic SHIELD agent-turned-Madame Hydra. At least, that’s who she is in the comics. Vanity Fair reported on Friday that Louis-Dreyfus was actually meant to make her debut as the Contessa in “Black Widow,” but the pandemic made quick work of those best laid plans.

So how will the Contessa factor into the MCU? It’s clear her interest in John is all about the fact that he took the supersoldier serum, and it’s also clear she couldn’t give a crap about John murdering a man in broad daylight. Which is to say, she sure doesn’t seem like one of Erskine’s good people.

She could be the mysterious Power Broker, but my own Spidey-sense is still telling me that title belongs to Sharon, whose been pulling strings from her sleek Madripoor compound while surrounded by armed goons. (More on Sharon in a bit.) Madame Hydra seems like a more likely bet for the Contessa — i.e. a bigger Big Bad who will factor into the MCU beyond “FAWS” and “Black Widow.” Indeed, in the comics, the Contessa plays a significant role in the “Secret Invasion” storyline, which just so happens to be an MCU series set for Disney Plus in the coming years.

Whoever the Contessa is, let’s hope she last for a very long time so we get plenty more scenes of Louis-Dreyfus being casually villainous in killer heels.

Will we see Zemo again?

Bucky tracked Zemo to Sokovia, and brought Ayo and the Dora Milaje with him. It’s unclear whether Zemo’s attempt to goad Bucky to kill Karli will still bear fruit — though Bucky literally dropping bullets at Zemo’s feet seemed to underline where Bucky stands on the matter of killing people.

Zemo seemed resigned to his fate of re-incarceration, this time in the aquatic prison called The Raft that we first saw in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” But his mission to eradicate super soldiers was far from finished. I would not expect Zemo to escape the Dora Milaje as ably as he broke out of his first prison, but to paraphrase T’Challa from “Civil War,” the MCU is far from done with Zemo, either. I would be surprised if he sat out the finale.

What is Karli’s plan? And what is Sharon’s?

The underlying goal of the Flag Smashers — to restore the world back to the cooperative, unified idyll it was during the Blip — has always been clear, but how Karli plans to achieve it never really has. Karli’s creeping radicalism still comes off like someone trying on clothes that don’t really fit, and her latest plan to…take over?…the GRC vote to repatriate 20 million refugees to their original homes feels similarly underbaked.

Then there’s that scene in which Sharon hired Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) over the phone to do…something…for her, followed by Batroc bringing a suitcase of weapons to Karli in Central Park. If Sharon really was wanting to help Sam and Bucky, she would have already alerted them to Karli’s plans, and Batroc’s desire to kill Sam. She did not.

Maybe Sharon genuinely wanted to help Karli realize her goal, with the belief that it would somehow lead to her ability to come home again? Then again, Sharon didn’t come home during the Blip, either. Which leads me back to my suspicion that Sharon is the Power Broker, and she hired Batroc to infiltrate the Flag Smashers to get back samples of the super solider serum by any means necessary.

My only real question is when Sam and Bucky are going to realize that their old friend isn’t just awful, but has become evil.

Is the Global Repatriation Council evil, or just boring?

I don’t have much more to add here. That last scene — in which the random unnamed senator who dressed down John Walker and was also representing the US in the GRC wondered aloud whether it was worth even bothering to vote on displacing 20 million people — was what some may charitably characterize as a hot mess. I wasn’t sure what was worse, the redundant giant TV broadcasting what people were saying to each other in the same room, or the TV reporter who lamented “these difficult times of international politics.”

It was a deeply weird way to end the episode, so let’s instead rewind to the best scene instead.

So…can a Black man become Captain America?

After getting Cap’s shield back, Sam’s first instinct was to pass it along to the man who, in Sam’s mind, was always its rightful heir, Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). Instead, Sam ran headlong into Isaiah’s bone-deep believe that a Black man in America will never find justice, let alone be held up as a hero — borne from how the US chose to treat his own heroism.

The story Isaiah tells Sam was eerily familiar: With his compatriots captured behind enemy lines, and his superiors indifferent (or much worse) to their rescue, he defied orders and successfully brought them all home. This is exactly what Steve did in “The First Avenger,” and as a result, he was heralded as a war hero and allowed, finally, to join the fight in WWII.

Isaiah, by stark contrast, was treated like a criminal, locked up in prison, and experimented on as the US government tried in vain to uncover why the serum had worked on Isaiah. Had Erskine still been alive, he might have pointed out the obvious answer: Isaiah was an innately good man, and the serum brought forth that goodness inside him.

But decades of degradation at the hands of his own country had shredded Isaiah’s idealism and left him embittered and in hiding — a ghost whose legacy had been erased. He laid out his worldview in blunt terms to Sam: “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 was, needless to say, shook by what was effectively an ultimatum: If he takes up Cap’s shield and all it symbolizes, he’s betraying everything Isaiah and every other Black person has suffered at the hands of America.

So instead, Sam went home to help out his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye). He rallied the community to help repair his parents’ boat, shoring up the Wilson family legacy with the aid of the people his family has most closely affected. The experience seemed to restore something in Sam, and led him back to his own sense of idealism in why he chooses to fight the good fight. He understood why Isaiah would see the world as permanently rigged against Black people, but he decided it doesn’t mean he should walk away.

As he said to Sarah, “What would be the point of all the pain and sacrifice if I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?”

Sam trained hard to master the shield’s boomerang-like abilities. But does this mean Sam’s decided to become Captain America? Or will he choose a different path?

What’s in Sam’s box?

When Bucky came to Sam’s home to help out, and flirt with Sarah, he also brought with him a box containing something from Wakanda. After John Walker clipped Falcon’s wings, one would expect something meant to replace them. If it’s anything like what Sam gets from Wakanda in the comics — well, we’re in for a treat!

But what about the broken wings Sam left behind with Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez)? Will Torres fulfill his comic book destiny and become Falcon II? Some other questions about the finale: Will the Contessa return? Will the Power Broker’s identity be revealed? Does the shield John’s crafting in the post-credits scene mean he’s going to become the Super-Patriot? And will Bucky finally, finally get a date?

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” streams new episodes Fridays on Disney Plus.