On Your Left

John Walker isn't the new Captain America. He's the new Winter Soldier.

“This is all really easy for you, isn’t it?”

Words are weapons, sometimes even deadlier than guns and ammo. For Bucky Barnes, a certain series of words haunted him throughout his life, inflicting more damage than a punch to the ribs ever could. But in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 4, Bucky finally hears three words that are nothing short of music to his ears: “You. Are. Free.”

In a flashback set during his time in Wakanda, we watch as Bucky breaks free from his HYDRA programming. The Winter Soldier dies in a Wakandan cave beside a roaring fire, with no one there to witness except for Ayo of the Dora Milaje. “You are free,” she tells him repeatedly, as tears stream down Bucky’s face in one of the most powerful scenes of the entire Disney+ series thus far.

If only the same were true for John Walker, the man running around the world as the new Captain America — when, in reality, he’s much closer to being the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Winter Soldier.

John Walker isn’t the new Captain America

John Walker goes into Winter Soldier mode.Marvel Studios

Throughout Walker’s time in the MCU, we’ve been invited to look hard at the soldier’s dark heart. First, it’s in the locker room before his big Captain America homecoming. Episode 4 makes it even more pronounced in his penultimate scene with Lemar Hoskins, aka Battlestar.

In the scene, Walker, struggling mightily with the weight of his star-spangled crown, asks Lemar if he would use the super-soldier serum, even if it meant becoming someone different. Lemar insists it wouldn’t change Walker for the worse; he’s a man with multiple Medals of Honor to his name, a hero in every sense of the word.

Walker doesn’t see it that way.

For Walker, he can’t shake his past. He’s a decorated soldier, but he knows the truth about what happened when he was at war. When he speaks with Lemar about it, he talks about how “the things we did were a long way from being right.” To that point, he feels like being Captain America is the first time he’s ever done something that feels right.

It’s actually heartbreaking, seeing the wear and tear of war take its toll on Walker — and it’s even more devastating when he loses Battlestar, John’s best friend, a man who intimately knows the specific ordeal they went through together.

It used to take ten words to activate the Winter Soldier. For Walker, it takes losing his best friend, right in the immediate aftermath of imbibing some Super Soldier Serum. It’s perfect storm stuff, a dark-heart lightning bolt that turns the current Captain America into a cold-blooded, unthinking killing machine. When he’s on the other side of murdering a Flag-Smasher in broad daylight, with a bloodied shield at his side, Walker looks like a ghost.

The Winter Soldier and the Ghosts of America

A bloody and broken “Captain America.”Marvel Studios

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is, in many ways, a ghost story.

In practical terms, it’s building up to the moment that Sam Wilson assumes the shield, title, and responsibilities involved with being Captain America. Walker won’t keep these things forever. But the show is also about the past, and the ghosts that refuse to die. It’s an angle one can see so clearly through the stars and stripes surrounding Captain America, but it’s perhaps even more pronounced when viewed through the Winter Soldier’s lens.

As much as Falcon involves the history of Captain America and the nation he represents, Winter Soldier and his legacy are central ideas as well, fundamental to understanding the themes at play in Marvel’s second Disney+ series. Bucky still lives with the horrors of his past life, but he’s working his way through it, even if it’s at the expense of some shoddy therapy. With Walker, he’s the one who is picking up the Winter Soldier persona that Bucky’s trying so hard to leave behind, arriving at his very own ice-cold Terminator moment.

Interestingly enough, for Bucky, his way out of the Winter Soldier weeds was through the same words that got him there in the first place. He may further find his way out of that forest with help from Sam Wilson, who uses his own words to try to counsel Karli Morgenthau away from the cruelest parts of her cause. As the series drives toward its conclusion, maybe the only way to stop Walker from the same fate Bucky suffered for so many decades is with words of wisdom from Sam Wilson.

Consider it a moment of history repeating: Steve Rogers saved Bucky once upon a time. Can the real Captain America save the fake one?

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is streaming now on Disney+.