Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a show of two halves; the first is a bit of a boring mess, the second is a decent attempt at fleshing out these increasingly important characters with some excellent story beats. Honestly, it feels like they knew where they needed these characters to be before the next Avengers movie but no one ever bothered working out how to get them there, so they wrote a couple of TV episodes of exposition and then tried to stretch it out into a short season.
The result is that you could feel the story was just driving to a big end scene that it wanted to make happen, rather than being an organic narrative. Plot points just kind of happened; characters were introduced without any clear reason or back story; and the audience is largely left to fill in the blanks. Ultimately, they needed Sam to become Captain America, but they needed to do so in a way that didn't feel forced. That meant acknowledging the inherent problems with being Black and being asked to be a symbol of the USA. To do that, they needed him to have a big speech moment, where he can address this issue and look like a really great person, so the simplest solution is to create an enemy whose actions are villainous but whose ultimate message is righteous. A good show would have subtly woven those threats to a climax, but FatWS simply worked backwards. You can practically see the cogs whirring away in the writer's room: we need to give him a speech moment, so then this character needs to have a moment, so write that in, but why would they care? Right, let's give them a backstory moment earlier etc. etc. until you have the opening shot of Sam giving up the Shield. And scene, that's a wrap, let's go. No one ever seems to have paused and read from the start forwards again.
I mean, at the end of the first three episodes I had very little idea why the Flag Smashers existed. There had been some vague exposition about the Blip, about the fact that during that time period people had become accustomed to a world with more open borders, and that once everyone un-Blipped it had created a bunch of issues about who should live where, who was employed where, who was married to whom etc. But you have to wait until the final two episodes to learn that a) during the Blip a lot of countries actively encouraged immigration as a way to kickstart economies and so many borders were simply rewritten or removed, and b) the UN has set up a task force who are actively attempting to resettle all the people who utilised those new rules and return things to the pre-Blip status quo. Literally, the big finale speech explained the entire plot and purpose behind everything perfectly, but you needed that upfront.
Then there's the way Sam and Bucky are acting at the start. These are men who seem to have fight closely, side-by-side, throughout Civil War and the last tow Avengers films; men with shared goals and a shared reverence for Steve Rogers. Then in FatWS we get two people who seem to barely like each other, who are constantly arguing, and who are intent on turning every conversation into a pissing match. That's not the repentant Bucky we've seen in the past, nor is it the Veterans Affairs therapist we know Sam is. Again, in the second half of the season, Sam suddenly remembers his VA training and support-group mentality to great effect, and Bucky begins to act like someone with a soul again, they become friends, and it's a joy to watch. But it's another arc that only makes sense in hindsight, once you've had the various flashbacks and conversations between the two of them about how Bucky is struggling to make sense of a world where he is both free and without his best friend, or one where Sam is finding it hard to reconcile becoming a symbol that he knows will be seen as one of oppression, even with a Black man under the mask.
And then there's Sharon Carter and Zemo, two characters I was really excited to see come back. And it was fun getting to flesh out Zemo a bit more (including giving his purple mask a moment to shine) and nice to get some answers around Carter, but I'm not sure either were really all that useful. Zemo exists purely to drive the narrative forward, something that Torres (who is this character?) could have done just as well with intelligence gathering. No, all his real purpose is to be a trigger, someone able to kill off plot threads without the audience having to question our heroes. So in he comes, all deus ex machina and gunshots to anyone who no longer has a plot purpose, and then he's promptly back in jail. I guess we also get a pointless cameo from the dora milaje out of it, but there are so many better ways to have used him here. Even if his MCU presence is only to be a man who hates super soldiers (except Bucky, for reasons the show isn't going to bother explaining), he could have been involved in a more elegant way than this.
Then you have Carter, a character set up consistently in the Cap films to be the epitome of righteous good within the modern intelligence service, a literal reincarnation of her Aunt, and one of the only people consistently trusted by the likes of Nick Fury and Captain America due to her moral fibre. And now, she's a supervillain, just because she helped a bit in Civil War. For god's sake, Bucky has been given a presidential pardon. You're trying to tell me that Sharon Carter is still an FBI Most Wanted member because she stole a shield? That Steve Rogers never thought to seek her pardon? Or that a blanket pardon during the Blip didn't cover her? Or that Fury didn't immediately recruit her into whatever S.H.I.E.L.D has become? What about this new shady intelligence organisation that has created USAgent? Why weren't they knocking on her door? And why would someone like that become an individual so utterly corrupt as the Power Broker? Sorry, this was a lazy plot twist that guts an otherwise excellent character for no apparent reason.
Speaking of USAgent... here's another interesting yet half-baked plotline. If anything, I think New Cap was one of the better thought through threads, yet he still didn't get a whole lot of build-up or exposition. To be honest, I think the show would have done better to start with New Cap walking out onto the stage, make it out that he's been running that persona for a while. It would give the initial beef between Bucky and Sam some logic, as one blames the other for this perversion of their mutual friend's legacy. I dunno, I just think it could have been done better, but ultimately I was okay with where this particular plot thread went.
Ditto Elijah. His introduction was flubbed due to lack of context (a recurring trend), but his later scenes with Sam were some poignant and extremely clever ones. Overall, I thought the juxtaposition of how the first Black American supersoldier was treated in contrast to Steve Rogers was really useful, and they used these moments well. Not just to highlight historic injustices, like the well-documented testing of experimental drugs on Black and minority populations in the US (and elsewhere), nor the erasure of African American history by modern governments, but also for small moments between Sam and the rest of the world. Some of these were on-the-nose, such as Sam being pulled up by cops because he was arguing with Bucky (a white man) in the street, whilst others were subtler, such as how Sam and Elijah's grandson size each other up and come to a mutual level of respect. These are solid moments that wouldn't have been possible without Elijah, but again only pay off in the second half.
(I also wish we'd gotten more from Don Cheadle. I liked that he showed up at the start, but he's another character who would clearly sympathise with Sam: ex-Army, Black, best friends with a household-name superhero that is no longer with us, will likely be considering taking up the Iron Man mantle, will understand the personal and cultural dilemma Sam will face between being Black and being the embodiment of American exceptionalism etc. etc. Where were those conversations?)
Which is all to say that, by the end of the season, I was on board. It left me wanting more adventures with Bucky and Sam, more of them just working loosely together, more of the behind-the-scenes impact of the Blip. Once the show stopped trying to force cameos and narrative moments that never made much sense, it was enjoyable. Anthony Mackie and Sebastien Stan are great throughout, and the surrounding characters are all well cast.
Yet even at the end, it still stumbled. Sam's new outfit is a bit 😬 It looks good, close to the comics, but it didn't fit him well at all so it looked, well, very CW Arrowverse (and not in a good way). And then there was that "clever" renaming: Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Cool, nice touch, except Bucky has literally just been shown finally putting the Winter Soldier behind him. He cleared out his book, he made amends, he received closure. Both characters have gone on highly important arcs, so why only highlight one? Once again, the show gets halfway to a good moment and fumbles it. It should have read Captain America and Bucky Barnes.
I think that's symbolic of everything here: at the core there's a solid idea, with some great moments, and some genuinely interesting and impactful points to make. But it needed another couple of passes through editorial to refine it into something great. And it deserved that attention, because those points are so important. Ironically, our new Black Captain America would probably have a few things to say about the treatment of a Black-focused show seemingly being half-arsed by a mega-corp like Disney...