“My world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?”
Through three episodes, I kept asking myself “why did Steve pick Sam to wield the shield?”, and at the end of this episode, I FINALLY understood. When Dr. Abraham Erskine created the Super Soldier serum, he told Steve that it was not that he was a better soldier that made him the ideal choice over Hodge but that he was a fundamentally better person. Through his time in the MCU, Captain America’s arc was driven by two things: his willingness to be a better person regardless of the consequences and his constant belief in people. Sam Wilson, in this episode and really the entire series so far, displayed that in spades. He doesn’t want to break Zemo out, he wants to help Sharon, and, yes like Steve, he believes in Bucky. He doesn’t want to see the Dora Milaje beat up Walker; he, also, doesn’t want to beat him up himself despite Walker antagonizing him. This episode gave us our first confirmation that Sam was really the best person to wield the shield in a post-Steve Rogers world. What stood out was that the moment that solidified it came after some micro and macro-aggressions.
At this point, the Flag Smashers have been cast in an ambiguous light. More revolutionaries than terrorists, their goal is to ensure that everybody has what they need. That’s an equity lens if I’ve ever seen one, and them bombing a location in order to achieve that goal is no different than the Black Panthers being ready to kill law enforcement if need be. By any means necessary didn’t mean “except for violence” when uttered by Malcolm X, and Karli’s decision to use violence doesn’t suddenly make her a supremacist. Movements led by people who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) tend to always be labeled as such, and it was nice to see Sam push back when Zemo pointed that out: none of us are free if we’re all not free and all that. It reminded me of Steve Rogers’s willingness to trust Wanda Maximoff in Age of Ultron and to defend her when Tony Stark labeled her a weapon of mass destruction. Steve didn’t have to want to help Wanda the same way Sam didn’t have to want to help Karli, but they both chose to try because of who they are. Yet Walker is so blinded by a hate that had really been on the surface for most of the show but now really came out when a Black woman proceeded to wash him all over Zemo’s villa.
The writers gave Walker a Black partner and a Black colleague and, yet, in interactions with Sam you could tell he viewed Sam as lesser than him. When he referred to Wilson as Cap’s sidekick? Check. When he told Wilson to stay out of his way? Check. When he refused to acknowledge Cap’s last wish regarding who would get the shield? Check. All of this despite the fact that Sam’s military prowess is the stuff of legend, as highlighted by Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that they both enlisted to serve their country. That didn’t seem good enough for Walker, who has spent the entire series genuinely being annoyed at Sam. Our own Anthony Canton highlighted what finally broke Walker in this episode and I keep coming back to him not being able to punch his way through a Black woman. He thought he could flex his symbol in front of Ayo, a warrior from the Country that is responsible for that symbol existing. Steve respected T’Challa enough to call him “Your Highness” and it’s no accident that the first person through the portals in Endgame is the King of Wakanda: there is a nod of acknowledgment and respect from T’Challa to Cap because Cap had succeeded in bringing them back. Sam was there too, flying in out of the Wakandan portal with Ayo and the Dora Milaje, so there is that level of respect there as well. Walker doesn’t seem to pick up on it, to be generous, or he just doesn’t care, to be frank, and ceremoniously gets his ass kicked. When Bucky intervenes, Ayo proceeds to take his arm right off. A fate worse than beating him up, to be honest, because it serves as a reminder to Bucky that his loyalty should’ve been to the Wakandans and the woman who had a hand in giving him back his humanity. All Walker can say is “they weren’t even super soldiers”, and it’s in THIS moment that we get confirmation that Walker really never understood what made Steve a Super Soldier. The Dora Milaje didn’t need strength or a serum: they were there on a rightful mission to bring Zemo to justice, and Walker couldn’t fathom being both told what to do and then subsequently getting beaten up by a Black woman. This pushes him to the brink, despite Sam trying to reason with him beforehand.
The final straw, as Anthony mentioned, would seem to be Battlestar being killed by Karli. However, I don’t think its that at all: its that Sam tried to reason with Karli first instead of letting him handle it. It’s Sam taking the lead despite Walker being Captain America. It’s Sam being given the shield in the first place despite Walker feeling like he was more qualified. It was Sam not staying out of his way and not willing to work for him that set Walker off to the point where he killed a man of color in broad daylight with the whole world watching. As the Derek Chauvin trial is occurring, another white man who murdered a man of color in broad daylight, we are treated to a pan of people with their camera phones out recording the entire thing as art mirrors life. What we land on is Walker holding the shield that doesn’t belong to him as it’s covered in the blood of a revolutionary. Forget for a second that Zemo has escaped and that Sharon Carter has access to a satellite: the takeaway from this episode should be that Walker, in his anger, killed an innocent man of color in broad daylight because he couldn’t stomach his own insecurities without the serum and ended up taking it. Erskine said the serum magnifies who you are: we saw that with Emil Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk, and this seems to be no different as we see a man with insecurities try to circumvent them with something they don’t fully understand.
Sam looks on shocked at the symbol his friend gave him is no longer representative of what Steve meant. Sam has tried his hardest to carve his own path, but all along he was very much the person Steve saw when he handed him the shield. Walker spent the entire episode reminding us why Sam was the best choice and, like Steve, he just wanted to do the right thing. How often have people of color been brought in to clean up the mess that a beloved bigot makes? Our country is littered with moments like these in recent memory alone, and this show has done a really good job of touching on these themes without making it overt. You have to make it palatable, I guess, but every BIPOC person I know can relate to that very moment when Sam is looking at Walker. It’s the realization that the country you try and save still will lift up the worst version of you in your place.
Sam’s world may not matter to America, but he’s about to become its mascot.