The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was successful on different fronts. But it failed to do justice to Bucky Barnes’ story and let the character down. Played by Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes made his debut in Captain America: The First Avenger. Despite falling to his death, he returned and became one of the longest-serving members of the franchise. After a life of 70 years as a brainwashed HYDRA assassin, Bucky later reclaimed his mind.
After helping to battle Thanos’ army for two times, Bucky was officially confirmed to be an Avenger in the eyes of the public through the show’s fourth episode. When The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was announced, fans relished the potential it afforded. People were eager for Bucky and Sam Wilson to be gifted the MCU spotlight. This passion was exacerbated by how things were left off in Avengers: Endgame. There we saw an aged Cap passing the shield to Sam.
The evolution from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was surely a compelling one. It incorporated comic book characters like Isaiah Bradley and John Walker. Sam at first understandably rejected the mantle and accepted why he was singularly perfect for it. The final episode of the Disney+ show saw the culmination of that arc. Sam at last suited up to defeat Karli Morgenthau and her group of Flag-Smashers. Bucky’s struggle was similarly an internal one. Sam wrestled with the idea of being a Captain America within a global and historical context.
But Bucky’s journey operated on a more narrowly personal level. Having unwittingly amassed a legacy of his own as the Winter Soldier, Bucky embarked on a path to actually atone for his crimes. The first step on this path proved to be a promising and weighty one. There were also some deeply affecting flashback moments. But still, Bucky’s arc did not conclude anywhere as successfully as Sam’s or others. Here’s how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s finale could have improved upon things on Bucky’s end.
The new title fails Bucky’s redemption
The credits of the Disney+ show had a surprise that was pleasing as well as a disappointment. The traditional title card removed The Falcon for Captain America. The move actually served as a tribute to Sam Wilson’s new Captain America. But Bucky still being designated as the Winter Soldier felt like a misstep. Parts of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were about Bucky finally climbing out from under the shadow of the Winter Soldier.
During the show, the alias was described as a completely separate entity altogether. Being the Winter Soldier consumed his dreams, shaped how people viewed him and dictated how he viewed himself. Everything he did was about amending the view. Repeatedly, the Disney+ show hinted that Bucky was healing. Towards the end, as he arrived at the New Orleans cookout, the show suggested that Bucky’s demons had been actually put to rest, making it confusing that his former moniker remained.
Surely, there could be power in Bucky having resolved to make the Winter Soldier name one synonymous with good instead of bloodshed. This would make a little sense. It is because the most integral part of Bucky’s therapy had been a mantra that eschewed the Winter Soldier name in favor of reclaiming his identity as James “Bucky” Barnes. So, to leave the Winter Soldier’s name intact on the title card felt at odds with that notion. This betrayed the entire journey that had come before.
Bucky deserved better than what he got
The failure with Bucky’s arc can be linked to the wider issues of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier pacing and balance. Episodes felt more catered to one character over another. In terms of the finale, it looked more skewed towards Sam. But considering Sam’s decision to become Captain America, this is understandable. This also made sense for some characters to be given less focus. With Bucky being so popular, the show could have benefitted from another episode and should have dedicated some extra time to him.
In the finale episode, time should have been carved out equally for both the arcs to share the spotlight. With some extra time, the Bucky and Yori scene could have had more room to breathe. Similarly, instead of the conversation with Yori being part of the larger breakthrough, the show could have contented itself to that. Instead of rushing directly to Bucky being cured now, his confession could have conveyed a single new step forward and away from his life as the Winter Soldier.
Instead of just being an unearned end, it could have been a moment that was or a new beginning. Towards the end, instead of bidding Dr. Raynor an unceremonious farewell, Bucky could have finally arrived for honestly engaging in full therapy. As well as offering a resonant mental health message, it would have demonstrated that he was healed enough to finally start ‘doing the work’ and foreshadowing an even more together Bucky later in Phase 4.
The show didn’t give true closure and atonement to Bucky
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed that Bucky had a list of people to make amends with. The writers shrewdly introduced an emotional example of what those names meant in the form of Yori Nakajima. Firstly, he looked like somebody from Bucky’s neighborhood that he’d merely formed a bond with. But in reality, the circumstances were more tragic with Bucky murdering Yori’s son after witnessing an assassination.
Since that time, fans have waited for the excruciating moment where Bucky would reveal the awful truth and give Yori the closure he had craved for so long. But with every episode, that thread was shifted further and further into the background. The moment ultimately came in the last episode of the show. But it collapsed under the weight and felt little more than a footnote in comparison to other storylines. The ending failed to live up to the beginning. It neither delivered the catharsis nor the sense of closure that had been so fervently anticipated.
It just looked like Bucky imparted the words and then left with a momentary glance back en route to the overtly happy ending that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to leapfrog straight over to. The problem was exacerbated by how it fell counter to Sam’s previous words of wisdom. In the fifth episode of the Disney+ show, he suggested that Bucky had not been atoning but avenging. Sam advised that Bucky needs to ‘do the work’ and truly ‘be of service’ to those that he’d wronged.
Apologies should not be about Bucky Barnes making himself better, but making the victims on his list better. But there was no sense of doing any of that for Yori. The entire finale felt lesser for it. But it was made worse by the fact that along with Yori, every name on the list had been crossed out. It was treated even more dismissively than the moment with Yori had been.