We don’t get to see the titular characters of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier interact with each other at any point during the show’s premiere, but the episode definitely lays the groundwork for their respective arcs in the series, as well as how they will intersect.
As hinted at in the show’s trailers, Sam Wilson’s arc appears to be that of learning to accept the shield as given to him by Steve Rogers and taking his place as Captain America. We already knew from Avengers: Endgame that Sam had difficulty seeing the shield as his own, but as it turns out that feeling runs much deeper than many fans anticipated. The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier throws a curveball at the audience pretty early on, as Sam voluntarily turns the shield over to the authorities six months after Steve passed it on to him.
It’s likely that many factors – such as the pressure to live up to his old friend’s legacy and the added implications behind a Black man carrying the shield – were behind this decision. But beyond the scene at the Smithsonian with Rhodey, we don’t get to hear much about it in this episode. Instead, the remainder of Sam’s screentime after giving up the shield is focused on his personal life. He spends time with his sister Sarah and her two children – the nephews he missed out on seeing grow up during the five years he was Blipped – and his passion for keeping the legacy of his parents alive and not wanting to lose the family business is evident.
Bucky Barnes, on the other hand, doesn’t have a family, and the closest thing he had to one is now out of the picture. This not only makes him the only (known) Super Soldier on Earth, but also the only person with the experience of growing up nearly a century prior to present day but not having the life experience of the few other living people who also did. Basically, he’s a man with no real place in the world.
Between all of this and the decades of torture he faced from HYDRA during his Winter Soldier days, Bucky is extremely resistant to trust or develop a meaningful relationship with anyone. The closest he gets in this episode is the man he meets for lunch once a week, but even that turns out to be a reminder of his past since, as he discovers towards the end of the premiere, he murdered the man’s son while he was still the Winter Soldier.
Our two leads are living very separate lives during this first episode. It’s inevitable, though, that they’ll come together sooner rather than later (the series is only six episodes long, after all) and there’s a good chance the announcement of the new Captain America is going to be the event that sets this reunion into motion. There was one brief moment in this episode, though, that likely foreshadows the result of both characters’ arcs.
When Bucky’s therapist demands to see his phone (something that would probably never happen in real life, by the way) she mentions that Sam has sent him multiple texts that he has not replied to. While the content of these messages is unknown, their existence tells us that Sam is trying to reach out to Bucky and maybe make sure that he’s okay, just like he does with his sister in this episode, and just like he does for Steve and Natasha in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Despite the prevalent scenes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s marketing featuring its two leads claiming they’re not friends, only co-workers, I highly suspect this will change by the end of the series. Bucky has been set up for an arc where he learns that there are people he can trust, and Sam is obviously going to be one of those people. But Bucky learning to trust again isn’t only going to serve his own arc, but Sam’s as well. Steve Rogers was chosen for the experiment that resulted in him becoming the original Captain America because Dr. Erskine deemed him as “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” This is also a great description for Sam Wilson; he’s not a supersoldier, but he truly cares about people and is willing to go to bat for what he believes is right. Once he realizes that – and possibly succeeds in convincing others of it as well – he will be ready to accept the shield, and all that comes with it.
I guess the joke about “custody of Bucky” coming along with the Captain America shield just might actually ring true after all.