(Before we begin I want to direct you to a Twitter thread with a great list of pieces about this show and this episode written by Black writers. As a white woman, I don’t feel qualified to dig into this episode from the point of view of someone with Sam Wilson’s specific experiences, so I hope you check out their thoughtful and personal pieces that say things better than I ever could.)
“You must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are: not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Captain America’s shield stands for a lot of things, and not all of them are good. In “Truth,” we see the characters of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, especially Sam Wilson, grapple with the challenging legacy of that shield and all it symbolizes—the courage and the heroism but also the pain and racism.
It’s hard to feel patriotic toward a country that’s abused, vilified, and worked hard to erase you from the pages of history for centuries.
It’s from that honest, conflicted, and nuanced place that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier really finds its footing as the character-driven story I always hoped it would be.
This is a story of two men from two different worlds—two different eras, two different personality types, two different relationships with the one friend they shared, and two different experiences of America. And when the action slowed down long enough to focus on these two men and how they deal with those differences not in a snarky way but in a sincere one, it gave the show something I’ve felt has been missing.
Spurred on by his eye-opening conversation with Isaiah Bradley, Sam explains to Bucky that the legacy of Captain America’s shield is complicated. And he’s right. It’s a legacy of service and heroism—but it’s also a legacy of secrets and racism. And for the first time, Bucky doesn’t push back. Instead, he admits that his privilege—and Steve’s privilege—blinded them to what it would mean to a Black man to be given a symbol of a nation steeped in systemic racism, a nation that often struggles to see the basic humanity in the face of Black man, much less the potential to be a superhero.
Bucky’s sincere apology is accompanied by an important gesture—the offering of the shield again. And Sam accepts both Bucky’s words and the shield, but it’s still not wrapped up in a nice little bow. It’s still not a perfect moment.
There’s still a lot of pain etched into that shield.
But Sam Wilson is a man who understands pain and lives with it without shame. He’s a man who’s devoted his life to helping others understand and live with their pain. He’s a man driven by empathy, by a desire to serve—maybe his country at first, but now, even more importantly, a desire to serve people. Not a nation. Not ideals. Not symbols.
To Bucky, the shield symbolizes Steve. It’s all he has left of the one person he knew loved him, and that’s why it hurt so much for Sam to say he didn’t want it. To Bucky, the most important thing was keeping that part of Steve alive.
But the shield isn’t Steve, and Sam sees that clearly. As Sam told Bucky, Steve is gone. And they both can’t spend their lives in his shadow, clinging to the last bits of his legacy left behind.
Steve wouldn’t have wanted that.
Steve would have wanted them to stop caring about what he would have done and to start doing what they know is right.
That’s why he gave Sam the shield.
Because Sam always saw the human behind the hero. He always saw Steve—not Captain America, not the shield.
Sam Wilson sees people—not symbols.
And that’s why he’s the only man who could ever take up that shield after Steve.
Sam Wilson is the kind of man who asks Bucky if he’s still having nightmares, not to chastise him about it or to hold it against him but to help. And Sam Wilson is the only person Bucky Barnes tells the truth to about the fact that he still has them almost every night.
Because Sam gets it. Sam’s been there. Sam has spent a large part of his life helping soldiers with PTSD talk about their feelings, work through their trauma, and begin to heal. If ever there was a person made to help Bucky Barnes, it’s Sam Wilson.
And Sam knows it.
So he pushes a little. He reminds Bucky of the difference between atoning and avenging—and between doing a good thing to make yourself feel better and doing a good thing strictly to help someone else.
As Sam stood his ground and told Bucky that selfless service to others is the only path forward, I kept thinking one thing: Sam Wilson is a good man.
Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
Sam Wilson’s superpower is his empathy. He genuinely wants to help people; it’s been the driving force behind everything he’s done since the moment we met him. And it’s because he sees them, he feels for them, and he understands them on an almost superhuman level.
There’s a lot of pain etched into that shield, but Sam Wilson’s entire life has been built around helping people make peace with their pain.
And by taking up the shield, he starts to make peace with his.
He can’t erase generational trauma by wielding that shield. He can’t fix everything in this broken country. He can’t be a perfect hero.
The weight of the shield feels heavier for him than it did for Steve, and that’s what makes his choice to pick it up again so powerful. It’s his choice this time—not Steve’s—and he makes it with full knowledge of the complex legacy behind it.
But Sam isn’t the shield any more than Steve was. Sam isn’t a symbol; he’s a man.
A good man.
And that’s going to save the world.