The subtitle of this miniseries could really be “Screwed by the System”, because that’s what most of the important characters and even a few minor ones have in common with each other. From Sam to Bucky to Sharon to Zemo to Walker to Isaiah to the Flag Smashers, they’ve all been done dirty in one way or another by the world order that existed before the Thanos snap or the one that followed it being undone. And the choices represent the options that a lot of regular people are left when put the ringer by society, the government, their loved ones, etc. And that’s ultimately what this series is about, how you react and rebound when your life gets turned into crap by the people around you.
The choices you’re given usually aren’t great either. Leave the system entirely as Isaiah did, try to burn it all down like the Flag Smashers, try to manipulate it to your benefit like Zemo and Sharon, go rogue like Walker, or try against all odds to stay in and make things better. That last option is what Sam Wilson has been trying to do from his time in the military to serving as an Avenger. Meanwhile Bucky has been dealing with recurring nightmares from his days as an assassin with no success while trying to fit in a world 180 degrees from the one he grew up in.
The different characters stories all illustrate these choices pretty vividly. Start with Isaiah, tragic figure of the series:
Isaiah’s story, told in the comics miniseries Truth: Red, White, and Black is one that mirrors that of many Black men and women in America in that he went off to fight for his country only to be punished for it instead of rewarded, and the dark contrast between how he was jailed for rescuing his fellow soldiers against orders while Steve Rogers was hailed, promoted, and made a hero for doing the same is pretty chilling. Being experimented on to further science is another thing that pulls from the dark side of this country’s history in regards to how it’s treated Black people since it’s founding.
After being helped in escaping Isaiah makes the perfectly understandable choice to vanish from the world and spend the rest of his days as a recluse. His words to Sam that if you aren’t bitter you’re blind is the real place where a lot of Black people across generations have arrived, and it’s justified as a belief no matter how unhealthy it may be to live like that. After all what exactly does Isaiah Bradley really have to be thankful to this country for? To be honest I gotta say I agree with his decision here.
On the flip side of that there’s John Walker, the man chosen to take Steve Rogers place as the new Captain America. While he is a jerk Walker has been trained for this duty by his country and was thrown into situations that were way above his head, then makes some bad choices when things go sideways only to be left twisting in the wind by the very military and government that he’d served admirably for most of his career.
While Walker goes way out of line in his duties and deserves some kind of penalty, the way he is stripped of everything and left to fend for himself by the very people who set him up to fail is flat out wrong. Like a lot of his fellow soldiers in real life he was asked to bring home steak but when the camera caught him killing the cows we decided that we just couldn’t abide by that and that it was more important to keep the mask on even though the world already knows who we are. Walker deciding to go into business for himself later is a choice, like Isaiah going off the grid, that is more than understandable in the grand scheme of things. And his final decision to become US Agent and side with the mysterious Val, whose true allegiance he isn’t sure of himself, is one that is the fruit of the very rotten tree that he both ate from and watered along the way.
Was he right? I don’t know. While I don’t necessarily agree with him I completely get how he ended up where he did and why he chooses to be US Agent. This life is all he knows and either he does it in a way where he knows what he’s getting into or he goes out into the world of uncertainty. Like most people he chooses what he’s familiar with.
Also discarded by the system is one Sharon Carter, who went from hero to fugitive in a few short years and was left to fend for herself while her former employers looked to bring her in, and even after the events of the snap and the blip should have put a million things ahead of capturing her. Sharon has learned that the system and the establishment is not to be trusted, and the best thing to do is to get whatever you can out of it before the walls close in on you. Believing in SHIELD, and later the CIA only led to her being on the run and standing up to them for the greater good got her exiled so she decides the greater good just isn’t a thing that exists in either place.
When we meet Sharon here she has all but given up on rejoining the world that she left behind, and even Sam’s promise to get her pardoned seems like fool’s gold. And yet she ultimately helps he and Bucky take down the Flag Smashers as a brief return to her old duties. But even in that we find that she is still playing the system and not returning to it when after getting that pardon and her old job back she doesn’t leave behind her new life as the Power Broker. Instead of using the system from the outside she moves to doing the same from the inside.
Sharon’s choice is pretty fascinating. She’s been exonerated of the things that sent her underground, while what she did there hasn’t been traced to her and she gets to go back to operating above board again, but she chooses to play both sides of the street instead. Maybe she’s in too deep to get out, but we never learn that. Or maybe it’s just that she knows the system will throw her out again as soon as it’s convenient so it’s better to have a second home to return to just in case. As with Walker I get it.
That brings us to Sam. When first given the shield by Steve Sam finds himself unworthy and hands it over, naively thinking that the government would be content to leave it in a museum and not hand it to the first person they felt fit the part. Between that and his trouble getting a bank loan despite literally having helped save the world Sam finds himself betrayed the system as well, but in a civilized, white collar way unlike the very visceral way the others were. This is important because quite frankly that’s easier to overcome while maintaining some level of optimism, even though in it’s own way it’s very much a huge obstacle to just living a normal life.
That shred of optimism is what makes it possible to take in everything that’s done to everyone around him without going off one of several available deep ends. See, when you’ve been spared from the worst the world has to offer and can still look at each new day as a chance to do great things then you owe it to the people who have been broken by the world to go do just that – pick up the torch, or in Sam’s case the shield – and make it better for those who’ve been pushed too far to stay on the field and to inspire those who need it to join you or come after you.
The shield and the suit are tools, and while we look at those tools as symbols of this country and what we believe it stands for – all 330 million of us, each with a unique perspective – they are as good or bad as the person wielding them. We learn early on that absent someone like Steve Rogers the government is going to hand them to somebody so those who have a chance to make sure it’s the right person need to make sure that happens. From where I’m sitting that’s the moral of the series.
But the man or woman who chooses to take up the mantle has to do it for their own reasons. And that’s Sam’s journey. He couldn’t take it up just because Steve wanted him to, and he also couldn’t abandon it just because Isaiah found carrying it to be a fool’s errand. Finding his own reasons, his own motivations to become Captain America are what leads him to ultimately do it.
And while this is going on Bucky is struggling to get over his past deeds and just find some peace. And it’s Sam who gives him the best advice, to stop doing things to make himself feel better and start doing things to make the people he hurt feel better. Those are words we can all live by. Doing better by the people we’ve done wrong is something we should do for them and not ourselves. The point of making amends to help them get better, not for us to check a box for ourselves. Crazy as it may sound Bucky has the easiest road in the series and once he finds his way he takes it.
And lastly we have the tragic figure of the series, Karly Morgenthal, leader of the Flag Smashers. She represents those who were displaced by the return of half the population, people who had settled and started new lives after the snap only to find those lives completely disheveled once everyone was brought back. And having seen the failures of the world’s governments at every level they’ve resorted to terrorism to upset the world order and force a new one.
Karly and her followers represent the other side of the coin as everyone else chooses to play in the existing system one way or another, even Isaiah. They all acknowledge that it’s too big to tear down and decide to either try and make it better or use it to their own ends. The Flag Smashers on the other hand take up the quixotic quest to blow it up and make something new in its place. And unfortunately they find out the hard way that the system will come together from all corners to protect itself from that kind of thing.
Karly chooses to die on the hill rather than go along with the existing order. Sadly whether one is a terrorist or a revolutionary is often determined by the very people they’re railing against. While you can admire her unwillingness to conform it costs her her life and leads to the same result that surrendering would have. But that is the choice of those who would burn it all down – when the system has you cornered do you go down swinging no matter what, or do you find a way to have a positive impact even in defeat? There’s no good answer here to be honest.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said it comes down to your point of view. Seeing Sam take up the mantle of Captain America can either be inspiring or disheartening depending on how you look at the world. Sam isn’t out to prove to the world that a black man can be Captain America so much as he is out to do the job of Captain America because the position is going to be filled one way or another and he’s the best one for it. Because if he doesn’t don that uniform they’ll just find another John Walker and put it on him instead.
The lesson that I think you take from all this is that the seats of power are not going to be left empty and that we as people have an obligation to ourselves and fellow men and women to do what we can to put the best people into those seats. Even if you can replace what exists there is no guarantee that it’ll be better or that it won’t eventually get corrupted itself. And the fight to make it and use it better is one that never ends. We can never rest on our laurels because the bad guys never stop working to take it over to use to their own ends.
Very few of us have the access to power the Sam Wilson does here, and in his case it was born by a chance meeting with Steve Rogers while out jogging one morning. But if you do get it and you get the chance to use it or influence it some kind of way then you have a decision to make. Because if you’re worried about it falling into the wrong hands then you can’t just step aside and hope for the best, you may have to use it in your own hands instead.
And that’s what Sam does. The question of whether a black man is good enough doesn’t even enter his mind but the question of whether he is good enough lingers throughout the series until he finally answers it for himself. And the others who he encountered along the way make similar choices, from Bucky to Sharon to Isaiah to Karly, that this is who I am in this world so I’ll be that to the fullest instead of what someone else wants me to be. And that the path may change along the way but it’s still my path and I’ll walk it as long as I live. The path isn’t the one I drew up myself but it’s the one I have and the decisions I make while on it can change the whole world or even just a few people, like when Sam reaches out to his old neighbors to help fix his sisters boat. When you have a chance you make a choice.
Sam chooses to carry the shield, and I think he chooses right. What say you? And if your answer is no, then you have to ask yourself what choice would you make instead. Because no choice isn’t an option.