With “The Whole World is Watching,” The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continues to continue. That’s all it feels like at this point; it’s going through its paces to get to the end. There are bland characters (some of whom used to be fun and cool), weak humor, dull conversations written by people who seem to think throwing around a few buzzwords makes a story relevant, and the occasional action scene to keep the viewers awake. It adds up to nothing week after week, and now that it’s mostly over, there’s no one to care about and nothing to look forward to seeing.
Sam, Bucky, and Zemo get closer to the Flag Smashers, but Walker and Battlestar complicate the operation by forcing themselves into it. Ayo gives Bucky an ultimatum about Zemo. Karli Morganthau plots the Flag Smashers’ next move.
“The Whole World is Watching” opens with one of those scenes that inadvertently sums up the entire show. It’s a flashback to Bucky’s time in Wakanda, where Ayo recites the series of trigger words drilled into him by Hydra to activate the Winter Soldier. Though Bucky is clearly struggling, the words don’t work this time, and Ayo pronounces him cured of his sleeper-agent hypnosis. This could have been a good scene; it could have shown how Bucky was deprogrammed, or at least part of how, and made that relevant to the episode’s plot. Instead, it shows us things we already know – Bucky is no longer a sleeper assassin, and his rehabilitation was done in Wakanda. Aside from imploring the audience to remember a hugely popular movie while swallowing this gruel, the idea is to establish a relationship between Bucky and Ayo since we never saw them interact in the films. But for all we know, Ayo may simply have been assigned to test the words one more time. It would have been better to show her actively helping Bucky, going through his painful journey with him. It also would have helped to have seen this before she showed up again last week; it’s hard to lay groundwork once you’ve already seen the structure. But little care went into this scene, as it’s clear little care went into the show.
In the present, Ayo agrees to give Bucky eight hours to get what he needs from Baron Zemo before she and others from the Dora Milaje make him face justice. That adds a bit of a ticking clock to “The Whole World is Watching,” which is good because none of the other threats are particularly threatening. The Flag Smashers feel like they should have been a distraction from the main villain, but every episode focuses on them, so I guess they’re it. I know some of them have super soldier powers, but they look like a bunch of dopey college activists whose self-righteous drivel would make Lenin roll his eyes. Karli’s diatribes about the nobility of her cause are excruciating to sit through, and Falcon finding a kinship with her after her unrepentant murder of innocent people is too much to take from the guy who’s supposed to be the hero of the show and Captain America’s rightful heir. (Remember when the Chitauri were going to blow up a lobby full of people, and Cap said, “I can see his side of it”?)
Then there’s John Walker, who is a better antagonist than the Flag Smashers are, but still hasn’t ascended into full-on villainy. I’m glad of that to an extent because I think his corruption should have been an even slower burn than it is. But it’s getting late in the series to still be holding back the true antagonist, and if it’s Walker, it’s time to let him loose. He does something pretty dark at the end of “The Whole World is Watching,” but he does it to someone who kind of deserves it, and for understandable reasons, so it isn’t the mustache twirl he needs if he’s to take evil center stage. This is a problem stemming from the small number of episodes: Walker’s arc is simultaneously too rushed and too slow. Is he still the dorky Eagle Scout who wants to do good, or is he drunk with power and demanding deference from everyone he encounters? A gray period where he’s a little of both could have been neat, but again, it’s too close to the end, and he’s still teetering.
Not that I want to wish for more episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at this point. This show is such a slog, even before it trips over itself with ham-handed social messaging. (Does Sam’s sister exist solely to be threatened and talk about how much America hates black people?) The biggest problem, one to which I keep returning, is that Sam and Bucky aren’t good leads, and “The Whole World is Watching” reinforces that yet again. They’re the least dynamic people in every scene, and not in a mysterious Batman way; they fade into the background while Walker or Zemo or Ayo or Sharon or – dear God – even Karli steal the spotlight. The best action scene in this episode is one where the Dora Milaje face off with Walker and Battlestar to take Zemo away. When the fighting starts, Sam and Bucky just hang back and watch, spectators in their own series. Even once they enter the fray, the Dora Milaje and Walker are much more impressive and fun in their technique. Why bring in a guy like the Winter Soldier and give him nothing to do? In the chase earlier on and the last battle with the Flag Smashers, the focus is not on them, and that’s a problem for a show named after them.
Accordingly, the bright spots in “The Whole World is Watching” come from other people. As with “Power Play,” Zemo is the most entertaining part of the show, despite feeling like a completely different character from his appearance in Civil War. He’s genuinely funny, and he radiates danger because he can’t be trusted. The moment where he sings “Baa Baa Black Sheep” to some children could have been corny, but Daniel Brühl plays it just right, and he makes it endearing and creepy. And while Walker may be too erratic due to the time constraints, Wyatt Russell gives it his all, and he shows believable confusion and anger in both the quieter and showier scenes. And when Ayo and the Dora Milaje show up, you wish the series were about them instead, and not just to see some more kinetic fights; they have a presence Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan don’t, even when they’re just standing around and waiting.
It’s good some of the actors care because no one else seems like they do. Aside from the poor pacing, the heavy-handed messages, the stagnant plot, and the featherweight humor, “The Whole World is Watching” makes some truly lazy filming and production choices. In that Wakanda scene, there’s a wide, faraway shot of the futuristic city before the camera focuses on two people sitting by a campfire in the middle of nowhere. It’s probably the result of a TV budget not being what a summer blockbuster’s would be, but it still feels cheap, like they wanted to evoke the memories of Wakanda without showing it. Then, later, there’s something even weirder. At one point, Walker and Battlestar are arguing with Sam and Bucky. In one shot, Walker is talks Bucky, but he’s facing Sam, whose back is to the camera. Then, bizarrely, Bucky walks to the other side of Sam, then Walker addresses Sam… while looking at Bucky. It’s like nobody cared about positioning the actors properly, and it gives the impression that this series was an afterthought, something that Marvel/Disney maybe felt they had to do, but didn’t really want to do. Such is the case for those of us who watch it.
“The Whole World is Watching” is another boring waste of time from a show that was probably a bad idea from the get-go. The story is rushed in some places and slow in others, the villains are ill-defined or underwhelming, the socio-political arguments are nonsensical, and while some of the supporting actors are good, the leads are floundering in roles they should never have had. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is shaping up to be one of the MCU’s biggest missteps.