This was originally supposed to kick off the Disney+ Marvel series and after watching the premiere, it clearly was meant to bridge the audience from the films to the slower paced series. It doesn't ask as much patience as the first couple of episodes of Wandavision did but this first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier is much more character focused than some might have anticipated.
While there are a couple of good actions sequences, in particular Sam's introductory sequence, the episode was much more focused on fleshing out both of our title characters that while well liked by fans, did not get much focus in their previous film appearances. Having the episode split it's storyline focus on each character individually was well executed, allowing each character storyline it's own identity while still exploring the episode's themes of legacy, trauma, and guilt.
The opening scene perfectly captures Sam's conflict as he looks at Steve's shield knowing fully well that Steve wished for him to pick up the role but not knowing if he's worthy or if he's making the right decision. Even the way he packs up the shield shows some resentment at having such a heavy burden, knowing how much the shield represents to so many people and to his friend.
The following action scene does serve to establish what Sam has been up to since the end of Avengers Endgame and also well executed, easily comparing to action set pieces seen in previous MCU installments. While exciting, the scene does feel a bit disjointed given the tone and pacing of the rest of Sam's storyline in the episode. The ceremony where Sam relinquishes possession of the shield to the Smithsonian continues to show Sam's inner but conflict but Rhodes (with a nice unexpected cameo by Don Cheadle) questioning Sam's decision/motivations a bit was the real standout of the scene.
The following scenes with Sam's family were the real highlights of the episode, giving Sam more dimension with his well realized family and their ongoing issues. The setup is so well executed, this could have been the entire focus of the episode and would have been satisfying. It's quite impressive that so much was setup in such a short amount of time.
Bucky's storyline also kicks of with an action scene but being much more poignant flashback action scene seeing Bucky during his fully brain washed days as the Winter Soldier. He awakens on the floor in an a mostly empty apartment, perfectly setting up the tragedy that is Bucky's situation. While their situations are very different, it's interesting to see how both Sam and Bucky are haunted by the past in their own way.
A topic that was brought up in both stories that hopefully get's addressed in the upcoming episodes is the financial and integration back into society in a post Avengers world. Bucky is a civilian who has been pardoned and is forced to attend mandated therapy sessions to deal with his condition.
This provides much needed insight into Bucky's mind and current mental state and introduces his list of individuals he's currently trying to atone for. While still mostly showing Bucky's brooding, cold demeaner, it does allow Sebastian Stan to inject some much needed personality to the character. The therapist unfortunately falls into a hardass military cliche but serves it's purpose as the scene as a whole was effective.
The following segment while having a bit of a shallow cliche date with a bartender, is especially executed well with a fakeout that leads to a very emotional reveal tying back to Bucky's Winter Soldier opening action scene. He's isolated, left without any friends or family and what is apparently his only current friend, is just another reminder of his past. While Bucky's storyline might come off as quite not as fleshed out as Sam's, the episode does an amazing job at showcasing just how tough and unique Bucky's situation is.
Clearly the two will team up at some point down the line, and will be joined by at least one other recurring MCU character, I really hope there continues to be such an emphasis on both Sam and Bucky's personal struggles along with the overall plot of the Flag Smashers and Captain America's government replacement. This episode surprised me by it's balance of action and thoughtful character development that while not as unique as Wandavision, manages to straddle the line between the expected MCU action with a more character focused drama series.