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Confession: I wanted to like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier more than I ultimately did. The various trailers seemed so promising, giving off vibes of a “buddy cop” action flick, with a bit more room to flesh out the character development and themes. What we got was a show that was trying to do too many things at once—including setting the stage for the Phase 4 films coming down the pike—and as a result, it never did any of those things as well as it could have done.

(There are a few major spoilers below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

F&WS picks up in the wake of Avengers: End Game, when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) handed his Captain America shield to Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson (The Falcon) and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier), having chosen to remain in the past and live out his life with Peggy Carter. Sam and Bucky must grapple with losing Steve and the burden of his legacy. Meanwhile, the US government has named their own new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a decorated veteran and ultimate “good soldier” who thinks he can better embody “American values” than Rogers. (The nerve!)

All three men find themselves battling a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers, led by a woman named Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kelllyman) , many of whom have been enhanced with the Super Soldier Serum. Where did they get it? From a mysterious person known only as the Power Broker. The Flag Smashers are targeting the Global Repatriation Council (GRC) set up to help those who disappeared in the Snappening (or the Blip), and then returned, re-acclimate to a very different world. (Apparently the Flag Smashers liked it better before everyone came back.)  

“On a macro scale, the pilot’s plot revolves around superheroes who wrestle with personal matters while trying to make the world a better place,” Ars Tech Culture Editor Sam Machkovech wrote in his review of the first episode. “But unlike Wandavision, F&WS seems less confident in trusting its audience to immediately sink its teeth into an atypical setup.” He concluded:

This first episode is filled with moments allowing two underdeveloped superheroes to stop fighting, look up at the camera with eyes wide open, and come to terms with who they are as characters and people. Exactly how the full series will pull that off remains to be seen, but from the look of the premiere (and previous series trailers), the answer seems to be more rote than Wandavision‘s approach: some CGI-filled combat, some tenuous agreements between the titular heroes, and likely, the typical Marvel conclusion of “heroes eventually save the day, perhaps at a cost, to set up the next Big Thing.”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about the series as a whole. F&WS struck me as relentlessly formulaic, adhering so strictly to the Marvel playbook that my overall response was mostly “meh.”  But as always, taste in film and TV is highly subjective; even internally, we don’t always agree. Ars Technica Creative Director Aurich Lawson was much more impressed with the full series than I was, so it’s worth sharing his general thoughts from our Slack discussion for some added perspective:

I’ve really enjoyed the transition from the MCU films to television, as someone who’s seen all of the movies, but was starting to experience burnout after Endgame. WandaVision was a really welcome change of pace, I enjoyed all of it, from the early sitcom concepts onwards. I never felt like it was too slow, or was impatient to get to a resolution. The Falcon and Winter Soldier was a shift back away from the experimental stuff to a much more by-the-numbers approach, but again, the pacing of it all has been really refreshing. If you condensed everything into a 2.5-hour movie, you would lose all of the quiet moments, the ability to slow down and let the characters breathe and feel human. Sam and Bucky’s relationship development felt natural, instead of rushed.

Comic books, as a medium, work best when they’re allowed to have an arc that doesn’t cram the three acts into a handful of issues. Television is just a much more natural vehicle for comic stories, in my mind, and if the MCU can keep delivering stories that are slower and character-driven, then I’m going to remain an interested viewer. I don’t think that the way F&WS treated the black super hero experience could have worked in a film. It would have been too superficial; the show was able to do moments that would have been cut to make runtime otherwise.

I agree with Aurich’s larger point: Marvel’s shift to character-driven standalone series, in between major film releases, is a welcome move, for precisely the reasons he cites: it provides the opportunity to slow down and flesh out the characters and their relationships, as well as develop and explore interesting themes. It’s why I was such a big fan of the various Marvel/Netflix series. I think it’s especially welcome given the traumatic events of Infinity War and End Game. No character emerged unscathed, and both WandaVision and F&WS are focused on exploring the devastating aftermath of those events, albeit in very different ways.

Unlike Aurich, I just don’t think F&WS pulled it off; even the treatment of the “black superhero experience” struck me as pretty superficial. If you’re not going to make the most of the extended TV format to really delve into complicated issues like that, then just make a 2.5-hour movie.

(WARNING: spoilers below. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the entire series.)

Case in point: Sam and Bucky are both processing their grief over the loss of Steve Rogers, while navigating personal challenges (Sam’s tense relationship with his sister, Bucky’s guilt over a young man he killed while being controlled as the Winter Soldier). There are a couple of nice, introspective moments here and there, but those ultimately get drowned out by the complicated central plot of foiling the Flag Smashers, and the big reveal of the Power Broker’s identity.

That’s in stark contrast to WandaVision, in which Wanda’s grief over losing Vision literally drove the entire plot, and also neatly set up Phase 4, with Wanda coming into her full powers (for better or worse) as the Scarlet Witch. And frankly, Mackie and Stan just don’t have the same onscreen chemistry—as performers—as Olsen and Bettany do in WandaVision, and that makes them less interesting to watch, week after week.

The strongest parts of F&WS were those scenes delving into the nuances of Steve Rogers’ complicated legacy, post Civil War, and of Sam’s conflicted feelings about being a black Captain America. I loved the reveal of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Korean War veteran who had been secretly imprisoned and given the Super Soldier Serum against his will, enduring 30 years of experimentation. He tells Sam he can’t imagine how any black man could take up Captain America’s shield because of what it represents to people like him—and can you blame him?

Bradley’s character juxtaposes beautifully with that of John Walker. Steve Rogers became a patriotic symbol during World War II, when US troops were righteous heroes beating back the Nazi scourge. But the world has changed a lot since then, and Walker is haunted by some of the morally questionable acts he committed on his country’s behalf. It is inevitable that he will crack under the pressure of trying to be the new Captain America, brutally killing a Flag Smasher with his shield in full view of public onlookers, who capture it all on their smartphones. Americans still like to think of ourselves as the righteous heroes in global conflicts, but that powerful image of blood dripping from Cap’s shield is a painful reminder of how much of the rest of the world often views us.

It’s a show-stopping moment that deserved sober reflection, and I wish the show had taken the time in the next episode to fully parse all the nuances engendered there. Instead, we get a knock-down fight between a serum-enhanced Walker, Sam, and Bucky, ending with Sam’s wingsuit destroyed. (Walker escapes with a broken arm, sans shield, and we see him in a post-credits scene melting down his military medals to make a new shield.)

So even here, everything else that’s going on serves to water down the overall impact, particularly in the final showdown, where Sam—in his new Captain America-themed wingsuit—gives what is supposed to be a stirring speech to the GRC members he has just rescued from assassination. Alas, the speech is not especially profound or insightful, and falls flat. It’s clearly supposed to be the defining moment of the show, but Walker and his bloodied shield proved far more memorable.

I wish the writers had just fully leaned into that contrast between Sam and Walker, the way WandaVision leaned into Wanda processing her grief—no other subplots as distractions, no apologies. And I wish they had delved more deeply into Bucky’s lingering guilt; it’s treated as more of an occasional afterthought, instead of a central inner conflict that defines his personal growth over the course of the series. I mean, we’re told he’s finally made his peace in his journey to make amends, but we didn’t really experience his process.

Marvel recently announced a fourth Captain America film in development, with Mackie’s Sam in the titular role. And while F&WS was, like WandaVision, intended as a standalone series, there have been hints of a possible second season. Regardless of what Marvel decides, we’ll always have the memory of Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) dancing:

A full hour of Dancing Zemo, courtesy of Marvel Studios, who saw all your memes.

All episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are now streaming on Disney+.

Listing image by Marvel/Disney+

Demons are defeated, a long-running feud finally comes to an end, personal rifts are healed, and a hotly anticipated wedding finally takes place in the decidedly upbeat series finale of Wynonna Earp, SyFy’s supernatural Western/horror series. SyFy canceled the series earlier this year, although showrunner Emily Andras has not ruled out the possibility of additional seasons, should the series find a new US distributor. But for now, we must bid a fond farewell to the boozily irreverent, tough-yet-vulnerable protector of the fictional town of Purgatory.

(Spoilers for prior seasons below. All major S4 spoilers are below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, the series is based on the comic book series created by Beau Smith in 1996. Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) takes on “revenants,” the repeatedly reincarnated outlaws that Wyatt Earp killed. They won’t stay dead until the Earp heir—Wynonna—offs them with Wyatt’s famous 16-inch-barrel revolver, dubbed Peacemaker. Over the course of four seasons, she has battled witches, vampires, vengeful spirits, nutty sister-wife cults, possessed neighbors, demonic nuns, and killer trees, among other threats. She is not without allies, however, including the immortal being, Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon), with whom Wynonna becomes romantically entangled (and yes, it’s complicated). Then there is her baby sister, Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), who falls for local deputy Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell)—a popular pairing dubbed “Wayhaught” by shippers—and the local sheriff, Nedley (Greg Lawson), who becomes a father figure and demon-hunting ally.

In the first season, Wynonna sought out the band of revenants responsible for the deaths of her father and eldest sister, only to find her sister’s fate was something quite different. In S2, she wrestled with her mother’s mysterious abandonment of the family while contemplating her own impending motherhood, courtesy of Doc. At the same time, she discovered that Waverly might not be an Earp after all.

In S3, we got some answers, as Wynonna discovered that her mother, Michelle (Megan Follows), was a patient in a high-security psychiatric hospital, and Waverly—well, Waverly turned out to be half-angel, thanks to Mama Earp’s affair with an angel named Julian (Sebastian Pigott). Wynonna also finally had the chance to confront the demon Bulshar (Jean Marchand), the one who cursed the Earp family (and by extension the revenants) in the first place. The finale pretty much blew up the show’s original premise. The Earp curse appeared to be lifted, the revenants vanished, and Peacemaker disappeared after being used as a key to enter the Garden of Eden. Waverly was forced to remain in the Garden as its prisoner to keep the portal closed, and Doc volunteered to remain there as well, to keep her safe.

The fourth season aired in two parts after the pandemic shut down production mid-season. The first part focused, by narrative necessity, on getting Waverly and Doc out of the Garden of the Eden, with subsequent episodes dealing with the aftermath as everyone returns to a radically altered Purgatory. Wynonna must track down Peacemaker, learns about the darker side of her ancestor, Wyatt Earp, and encounters the rival Clanton clan—which has its own longstanding family curse and a revenge-fueled mission to kill all living Earps.

(WARNING: Major spoilers for the series finale below. Stop now if you’re not finished watching.)

Part 2 gave us some strong “case of the week” episodes. To celebrate her engagement, Wynonna takes Waverly to a strip club, where they encounter a disillusioned, heartbroken cupid named Demetri (Christopher Jacot, Eureka) who insists that true love isn’t real. He makes a bet with Waverly, and hijinks ensue by way of a magical glitter bomb. On Halloween, a demon named Rotten Jack goes on a killing spree just as Wynonna and Waverly stumble into a thick fog and lose their memories. There’s even a cynical, constantly texting amoral genie (Nikki Duval, New Eden) whose wish-granting threatens Trivia Night at Shorty’s. It’s a fun storyline in the same vein as the S7 X-Files episode, “Je Souhaite.”

Most of all, S4 gave us a killer character arc for Wynonna, exploring the toll being the Earp heir has taken on her, as her binge-drinking becomes more severe and she increasingly cuts herself off emotionally from family and friends. I noted back in 2018 that Wynonna is the anti-Buffy: “She’s a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, promiscuous, bar-brawling free spirit with a chip on her shoulder. She never even had a shot at being Homecoming Queen in high school.” That self-sabotaging bravado stems from her insecurity and feelings of unworthiness as the family black sheep; it serves her well as a demon hunter, but it’s also what keeps her from a meaningful relationship with Doc. Wynonna finally confronts her personal demons in the series finale and gets the happy “at least for now” ending the character has earned. Scrofano plays it to perfection.

The final season certainly wasn’t perfect. The storytelling got a bit sloppy in places; the usually crisp, sparkling dialogue was occasionally leaden; and the jokes sometimes felt more sophomoric than clever, especially in the final two episodes—which seemed unfocused and disjointed, as if the writers had to rush to wrap things up.

I mean, Waverly turns into a dark avenging angel with vague plans for ending life in Purgatory. She strikes Wynonna blind, but it wears off after ten minutes, so what was the point? Somehow Doc stops being a vampire—after turning a dying Mercedes into one, at her request (“We all know I was born to be a vampire”). He briefly becomes the Clanton heir with a mission to kill all Earps, but then he isn’t because—honestly, I have no idea, but Dark Angel Waverly eventually intervenes. Then she just as quickly reverts back to being Waverly, thanks to Nicole’s loving sacrifice.

Then we rush right into, “Hey, time for a wedding!” as if all that supernatural drama never happened. Props to the writers for coming up with a cursed wedding dress subplot that was more amusing than horrifying (despite its blood-soaked history). But it was introduced and resolved so quickly; it deserved a bit more time and attention before we jumped right back into the Wayhaught nuptials.

That wedding? That was pure fan service, and the diehard Earpers deserved it. There would not have been a S4 without them. Big speeches in big moments are the hardest to pull off, especially if there isn’t quite enough time to build up to them and make the words really sing, which was the case here.  But I’d wager the Earpers were delighted.

We can always nitpick about the many loose ends, the cheesier elements, the completely insane plot twists, and so forth, but in the end, all that matters is that this series somehow always worked anyway. I chalk it up to the show’s big heart. Back in 2011, NPR’s TV critic, Linda Holmes, wrote an insightful review about why ABC’s lackluster reboot of Charlie’s Angels was so much worse than any number of other silly, cheesy, and/or trashy shows that nonetheless manage to find an enthusiastic audience. (She used the same network’s over-the-top soap opera, Revenge, as a comparison, which debuted the same year and ran for four seasons.) Holmes argued that nobody involved ever really loved the reboot. “You can always spot a show nobody loves or has ever loved,” she wrote. And she’s right.

The reverse is true for Wynonna Earp. Everyone who worked on this show, from showrunner Andras to the entire cast and crew, loves it deeply and passionately—”that bottom-of-the-deep-dark-well way,” as Wynonna says to Doc when she finally admits she loves him. It’s something you just can’t fake. It’s what has always given Wynonna Earp that special creative spark, despite (or perhaps because of) its flaws. That love always carried us through the rough patches. In the end, Wynonna Earp was just as endearingly imperfect as its titular heroine, and just as captivating.

Wynonna Earp is available on SyFy (on demand) and for purchase on Amazon Prime.

The unexpected arrival of the presumed-dead Mr. Wilford throws a wrench into the revolutionaries’ plans to reform governance aboard the train, in the second season of Snowpiercer, TNT’s TV adaptation of the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Bong Joon-ho. Most of the talented ensemble cast members who made S1 so worth watching are back and as good as ever, but ultimately S2 belongs to Sean Bean, whose portrayal of Wilford gives the series the charismatic, larger-than-life (human) villain it needed to really raise the emotional stakes.

(Spoilers for S1 below. Major spoilers for the S2 finale below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, TNT’s series is set seven years after the climate catastrophe that produced the Freeze. Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, Blindspotting) plays Andre Layton, a prisoner at the tail end of the train (aka the “Tailies”)—those without tickets for the train who managed to climb onboard at the last minute, before the train departed and left the rest of humanity to die. In S1, Layton gets caught up in a revolutionary struggle against the strictly imposed social hierarchy aboard Snowpiercer. The conditions in the tail are squalid and typical punishment for insubordination is having one’s arm stuck through a portal into the cold outside until it freezes solid and shatters off. There’s also a prison car to punish more serious infractions, whose occupants are kept in suspension in “the Drawers.”

Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) co-stars as first-class passenger Melanie Cavill, who is the Voice of the Train, responsible for daily public announcements and the train’s smooth operation (both mechanically and socially). The show’s large ensemble cast also includes Alison Wright (The Americans, Castle Rock) as Ruth Wardell, who works in hospitality and is devoted to Mr. Wilford, as well as Mickey Sumner (The Borgias, and daughter of musician Sting) as brakeman Bess Till, whose move to second class in S1 to be with her romantic partner is threatened when she starts to question the train’s status quo.

S1 ended on a cliffhanger.  Melanie eventually confessed to Ruth that Mr. Wilford had never been aboard and that she had abandoned him to die at the boarding site, convinced the passengers had a better chance of surviving without him. In the penultimate episode, Layton and his revolutionary Tailies finally succeeded in wresting control of Snowpiercer—albeit at a cost, since Layton was forced to disconnect seven cars and send all the people in them to their inevitable deaths. Melanie told him this was the kind of hard choice she has had to live with ever since the train began its endless journey.

Layton assumed leadership of the train, with plans to set up a democratic style of government on board. But as the train approached Chicago, a mysterious signal was detected from a supply train called Big Alice, running on a prototype of Snowpiercer‘s eternal engine. Melanie feared Wilford was aboard. Thinking the supply train had things they could use, the engineer, Bennett (Iddo Goldberg, Peaky Blinders), slowed down Snowpiercer and Big Alice clamped on, stopping the train. A young girl emerged: Alexandra (Rowan Blanchard, Girl Meets World)—aka Melanie’s daughter, whom Melanie believed was dead—demanding that everyone aboard surrender to… Mr. Wilford. And, scene.

As I noted in my S1 review, “This is one of those slow-burn shows that takes a while to build, which could try viewers’ patience. But that patience is rewarded when everything kicks into high gear for the final few episodes, ending on one last cliffhanger twist.” I’m happy to report that those minor pacing issues have been resolved with the second season. Freed from the burden of building out an elaborate fictional world, showrunner Graeme Manson and his team of writers delved into the complicated relationships. political machinations, and shifting political loyalties that inevitably arise with Wilford’s unexpected return.

“Invisible” effects

Snowpiercer S1 boasted some eye-popping visuals, and S2 maintains those high production values. While VFX specialist Damien Thaller (who worked on Game of Thrones before Snowpiercer) and his team were able to reuse some of the effects from S1, the second season expands the storytelling environment a bit beyond the train’s interior, giving us exterior shots not just of Snowpiercer and the icy terrain around it, but also of frozen, decaying city skylines in the distance, such as Minneapolis. “The focal point was always about what was happening in the story, so our visual effects needed to be [mostly] invisible,” he told Ars.

One example is Melanie lying on her back in the snow beside the train, watching a single exquisitely rendered snowflake fall from the sky. It’s significant for the plot, since this is the first indication that the Earth might be finally starting to thaw from the Freeze—until now, it has been much too cold for snowflakes to form in the atmosphere—but it’s also an impressive achievement from a VFX standpoint.

For that scene, Thaller and his crew researched how the geometry of a snowflake would interact with light. “We realized that that they would start to look glassy and unrealistic in a lot of ways,” he said. “The Snowpiercer world is an Ice Age, so our snowflakes needed to feel not too soft and fluffy; they needed to feel more icy, with more colors, more bling.”  Thaller even recalled borrowing his wife’s diamond engagement ring one day, holding it up to the sunlight to observe not just the reflections but what kinds of colors it picked up from the surroundings. Much of that opening sequence was shot in the studio on front of a green screen, with almost none of the original shot left after all the CGI had been added.

(Warning: some major spoilers below this gallery. Stop reading now if you haven’t finished watching the season.)

Each S2 episode opens with a voiceover from the perspective of a different character, providing rotating perspectives. Those voices include Miss Audrey (Lena Hall, Girls), who runs the Nightcar in Third Class and turns out to have a complicated history with Wilford, threatening her loyalty to the revolution; Alex, whose loyalty to Wilford is tested when she begins to bond with her mother; Josie (Katie McGuinness, The Borgias), who miraculously survived extreme exposure to the cold and is nursed back to health aboard Big Alice (acquiring a remarkable resistance to cold in the process); and Ruth, who has one of the most dramatic arcs this season, transforming from her almost fatuous devotion to Wilford into another ally for Layton. In the process, she must reckon with the cruelty of her past actions, as well as what life on the train under Wilford’s iron-fisted rule would truly be like.

But it’s Bean’s portrayal of Wilford that drives the main narrative engine in S2. He brings just the right mix of sadistic flamboyance and playful cruelty to the character—the proverbial match thrown into what was already a potentially explosive situation. Diggs’ Layton remains the moral compass of the train—at one point he taunts Wilford by calling him “an old white dictator with a train set”—while Wilford describes himself as “morally dyslexic.”

He’s being generous; Wilford’s only “morality” is centered on whatever is best for Wilford, and his generosity and favoritism can turn on a dime. That’s why Melanie stole Snowpiercer in the first place, and based on what we eventually learn about his “governance” of Big Alice, she made the right call. Yet he’s also utterly brilliant, making him a truly formidable opponent He’s able to always stay a step ahead of Layton and his allies with his machinations, and superficially charming enough to seduce the hearts and minds of many of the passengers who don’t (yet) know any better.

TNT renewed Snowpiercer for a third season in January, even before S2 premiered.  That’s great news, since the finale ends on another game-changing cliffhanger: Wilford eventually regains control of his train and abandons Melanie to die in the cold. Ruth joins Layton, Bess, Alex, Josie, and Bennett to create a ten-car pirate train, breaking off those cars and the eternal engine from the rest of Snowpiercer (now propelled forward by Big Alice) to go save Melanie. They are too late: Melanie sacrificed herself by walking into the Freeze, in order to conserve the remaining heat at the station, thereby ensuring that the data she has collected survives. That data shows Melanie was right: parts of the Earth are indeed beginning to thaw. The pirate train crew resolves to go get the rest of Snowpiercer back, setting up yet another new train configuration for S3.

The real question is whether Melanie somehow miraculously survived the frozen expanse; Connelly’s role in S2 was significantly reduced due to scheduling conflicts. But executive producer Becky Clements said in an interview with Deadline Hollywood that the actress will be returning for S3. It could be in flashbacks, or it could be as a major player—we’ll have to wait and see. As for the season as a whole, Clements said there would be “a bit of a time jump” to establish the new world order, so to speak, and teased a “big new character.”

All episodes of Snowpiercer S1 and S2 are now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Listing image by TNT