‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Season 1, Episode 3: Friends in Low Places

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Season 1, Episode 3: ‘Power Broker’

Too often, TV series described by their creators as being “like a six-hour movie” have the kind of problems that actual six-hour movies might have. The pace can be unnecessarily slow, with characters spending a lot more time talking at length about what they’re going to do — or brooding over what they’ve already done — than taking action.

So far, this hasn’t been the case with “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which continues to rocket through its plot. This week’s “Power Broker,” for example, is so packed with incident that an entire prison riot and jailbreak gets dispatched in under five minutes of screen time. When Bucky gets back from meeting with the locked-up Baron Helmut Zemo, he says to Sam, “Can I walk you through a hypothetical?” and then proceeds to explain — quickly — how he sprung their old nemesis. There’s no time to dwell on the big brawl, because there’s so much more to do.

From there, this episode’s credited writer Derek Kolstad (the creator of the “John Wick” franchise and the screenwriter of the current box office hit “Nobody”) and the director Kari Skogland speed through multiple action sequences, mostly taking place in the rogue city-state of Madripoor, where Zemo has contacts who might be able to fill in some background on the Flag Smashers’ supply of the super-soldier formula. The Sam/Bucky/Zemo trio fight their way out of a seedy neighborhood in Madripoor’s “low town,” rendezvous with the fugitive Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) in “high town,” and corner the mad scientist Dr. Wilfred Nagel (Olli Hasskivi) in one of those labyrinthine shipping docks common to action movies.

Nearly any one of these big scenes in Madripoor — not to mention the opening jailbreak — could’ve anchored their own episode. So kudos to the show’s creative team for not dawdling, and instead trying to cram as much forward motion as possible into this hour. By the closing credits, our heroes (and Zemo) know all about Nagel’s involvement with creating a more “subtle, optimized” super-soldier serum, and they know more about how Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) has commandeered his doses for her Flag Smashers. There’s even a fun surprise at the end, when Wakanda’s Ayo (Florence Kasumba) confronts Bucky, demanding to see Zemo, who was responsible for the murder of her King T’Chaka. We’re zipping right along here, at the halfway point of the series.

That said, there’s such a thing as moving so quickly that everything becomes a blur. While entertaining — and visually impressive, with their elaborate demimonde sets and backdrops — the Madripoor set pieces are sometimes lacking in the kind of careful setup necessary for dramatic tension. We find out a little about where the characters are and what they’re trying to do, but the plans aren’t laid out in enough detail to make it as nerve-racking as it should be when things go awry. Very quickly in Madripoor, the objective becomes more about surviving, as covers get blown and the gangs of anonymous toughs start attacking. It’s all very exciting, but not at the same level as the action in the previous weeks, where the stakes and the opponents were clearer.

In the place of conversations about objectives and methods, the characters spend a lot of time this week talking about a few of the show’s major themes: namely, whether patriotism and heroism still matter, in a world where borders are blurry and it’s not easy to tell who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.”

Sharon, who has been on the run and embracing the mercenary lifestyle since the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” is especially cynical about the importance of ideals and virtues, grumbling, “You know the whole hero thing is a joke, right?” Meanwhile, in Lithuania, one of Morgenthau’s close colleagues gets troubled when she blows up an occupied building at the end of one of their missions. Even Sam and Bucky have to wonder what they’re doing when they see that they’re fighting alongside Baron freakin’ Zemo — who is sporting his ominous purple mask, no less.

Zemo baits Bucky throughout this episode, trying to see if some of the old Winter Soldier is still buried deep in his head — while also suggesting that Bucky was always somewhat “himself,” even when he was a brainwashed assassin. Like the Flag Smashers, Zemo sneers at heroic and nationalistic iconography, arguing that when people focus on symbols like Captain America’s shield, they forget that the men and women who wield them have flaws. Anyone could become the Winter Soldier — or a Flag Smasher — under the right pressure.

Whatever this episode’s failings when it comes to the construction of thrilling and emotionally compelling fights and chases, at least Kolstad and Skogland take the time to include some of those thoughtful conversations and pertinent asides — like the part where Bucky and Sharon explain to Sam that most of the great paintings and statues in museums are replicas. Even as the story races ahead, it’s always worth taking a few moments to think about what makes an image meaningful … and whether fakes and replacements can move and inspire people, the same as the originals.

The All-Winners Squad

Kolstad brings a little of that “John Wick”-style criminal mythology to his conception of Madripoor, a place so wild that Sam has to dress up as a stylish, platform shoes-wearing character named “the Smiling Tiger” — and consume a special cocktail containing snake innards — to fit in.

The banter between Sam and Bucky keeps this show from becoming too heavy, but at times the joshing can feel a little forced. This week’s conversation about the deeper meaning of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” soundtrack felt too much like an attempt to recreate “the modern man schools the man out of time” rapport between Sam and Steve. (Then again, given how conflicted Bucky feels about his place in the larger Captain America lore, maybe his unwillingness to play along and gush over Gaye was apt.)

Speaking of Captain America — the John Walker version, anyway — he also bops around Germany this week, chasing some of the same leads as our heroes. In keeping with this episode’s themes, he alarms his sidekick Battlestar with his willingness to bend the law to aid their mission. Walker may consider himself the rightful heir to Steve’s legacy, but there are clearly some issues there, likely to be explored in this series’s second half.

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