At its root, we seem to have another Thano-esque paradox of ethic here when it comes to John Walker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and to be honest, Karli Morgenthau's Flag Smashers as well.
One of the variables that made Thanos such a compelling villain is that the writers of his character were able to have us understand his concerns and motivation if not approve of his methods for resolving them. That makes a nuanced and complicated character which is what we want for our villains. Too often what we see is a straight-line plot point character rather than a story arc of complexity. And why not? This is human nature after all. We are complicated beings. We should expect our heroes and villains to be the same.
From the beginning, fans hated John Walker in what was frankly misplaced loyalty to our beloved Steve Rogers. We simply can't see anybody else filling those shoes. And to go further, nobody truly can. But life goes on my fellow fans. Somebody will fill, or attempt to fill, the Captain America mantle and they will be flawed, I'm sorry to say, just as Steve Rogers was.
To be fair to Steve, even Baron Zemo reflected on the truth that there hasn't been another Steve Rogers and that he, in fact, of the few super soldiers that have existed (not a large sample pool here though to be honest), only he was able to resist the power-corrupting tendencies of the super soldier serum. What did Dr. Erskine say to Steve in Captain American: The First Avenger:
"The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. That is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength and knows...compassion." -Abraham Erskine
Most fans always understood this to mean that Steve was a good person inside, so the serum would merely augment that, and that has been shown to be true. Certainly, one doesn't need to go further than the 5 Siberian Super soldiers referenced in Civil War to augment this understanding. Their failure should have been seen from the beginning. Truthfully, the creators of that program were not looking for a Captain America, the point being, the kind of pathology behind the warrior instinct they wanted, could not be contained, or controlled.
As I dive a bit deeper, understand that Steve Rogers was an amazing character with a solid moral compass, and he maintained it throughout his lifetime as far as we can see. Nonetheless, it's important to point out that Steve Rogers killed people, not just in WWI, but a few others littered throughout his on-screen appearances. He also chose to keep an American-based superhero team outside of any type of jurisdiction or oversight. Something we probably would not be akin to today if this were 'real life.'
More specifically, as we look at one of our current heroes, is there a line between justifiable homicide and murder, of course! But as we look at John Walker, it becomes important to understand a truth beyond our emotions which is that none of our heroes are always on the pedestals we put them on. There is an understanding in ethics study that morality is a continuum. Most of us are not 'moral derelicts' and most of us are not 'pillars of virtue' which are the extreme points along this line. Ghandi and Hitler may be rare individuals who represent these extremes. However, most of society falls somewhere in between those two extremes. Likely, Steve Rogers was higher than the midway mark toward pillar of virtue, but the original Captain America is no more on the higher end of this continuum than John Walker is the moral derelict side of the equation.
"I liked that I was doing made people feel safe. Steve Rogers was the kind of guy that could do that. He gave me hope." -John Walker
Enter, John Walker the man set up to fail and the character fans now love to hate. He has shown signs of arrogance, impatience, impulsivity, and aggressiveness. Character traits that any of us may exhibit daily, but we expect more out of our next Captain America because of the shoes he has to fill. Living up to Steve Rogers is a likely impossibility for any individual, including Bucky and Sam. Their reluctance to take up the mantle does not, by itself, clear themselves of the blood they also have on their hands during their 'avenging' escapades although it does show some humility, an important factor for those who have power to be sure. Simply put, we don't hold them to a higher standard, so we shouldn't hold John Walker to a higher standard. Or are we providing a double standard to hero's we like to hero's we dislike? That's a rhetorical question.
In episode 2, we see John tell Olivia before his GMA appearance, "everybody in the world expects me to be something, and I don't want to fail them." And during his interview itself we see a genuine, introspective, respectful, and humble John Walker when he explains how he perceives his taking on of this important mantle, "I liked that I was doing made people feel safe. Steve Rogers was the kind of guy that could do that. He gave me hope. Even though I never met him, he feels like a brother." Later, when talking to Sam, he seems genuine when he tells him, "I'm not trying to be Steve. I'm not trying to replace Steve. I'm just trying to be the bet Captain American I can be." We certainly should take him at his word.
However, the converse of his human nature becomes more pronounced as he does not gain the respect he thinks he should get as the new Captain America, he often gets humbled in combat and his mission often gets jeopardized by our beloved Bucky and Sam who just broke a super-villain out of prison and work independently from both John and Lemar who are basically on the same mission, to bring the Flag Smashers to justice and their super-soldier leader, Karli Morgenthau.
In episode 4, we see John having a conversation with Lemar questioning the use of the serum. His mindset is not one of impulsivity but introspection and, ultimately, knowing what he knows, he believes he can better serve in his role better by taking the serum. Despite the concerns we understand as the audience, based on his recent failures, we can hardly blame him for his choice.
Earlier in the same episode, we seem to have no argument with the Dora Milaje who want to kill Zemo for revenge. Understood. However, in this case our friends Bucky and Sam are responsible for breaking Zemo out of prison because as Bucky puts it, 'he is a means to an end.' This is an example of instrumental value and frankly has been used to justify a variety of unethical acts through history. Intrinsic value, in contrast, is something that is desirable in and of itself. Likely, Bucky made the wrong decision and Sam is culpable in that decision once they began working together. One could further argue that the Dora Milaje are wrong in their desire for justice by murdering Zemo. One could also argue that their justification is also sound, depending on what ethical paradigm you subscribe to. Again, nuances. And this is what makes the debate enticing.
The final scene is indeed shocking as John Walker kills a helpless member of the flag smashers and we see the blood on Captain America's shield, a symbol we have come to respect. It's great movie work so let us at least give our showrunners props for that. I would never argue that this situation could have and should have been handled differently by John Walker. The outcome was not excusable. However, to add some perspective, let us remember a few things. First, Karli Morgenthau's group, noble as their ideal may be, are terrorists and were responsible for the death of innocents only one episode prior. Second, John Walker's best friend and confident was just murdered by a Flag Smasher only moments before. It is true that Nico is not personally responsible for Battlestar's death, however he is associated with the terrorist organization and is in full support of Karli's mission and therefore culpable in the deaths of people because of a political ideal. Perhaps it is another sad irony that the same character, only a day before said, "today's heroes don't have the luxury of keeping their hands clean." Was he right?
I would never excuse what John Walker did. However, the attack on the man itself, his intentions, motivations, and character should be curtailed. He is flawed, again, like many of the heroes we put on pedestals, even the one's in this series itself. The difficulties of the mantle of responsibility they all share should be respected to a greater degree and the decisions they make are much more nuanced and complicated than they may first appear. Baron Zemo is a prime example. Some of what he says we can relate to and understand, other things he exclaims as utterances of his philosophical manifesto, are completely ridiculous and contradictory. We understand and agree to some of his feelings and motivations and even enjoy his dancing...but let us not forget the untold damage he has done and the number of people he is responsible for killing, directly or indirectly. Is he less culpable of responsibility because he manipulated Bucky to kill than Nico is? We must be able to parse such things out as we examine our emotional reaction to these characters.
I think John Walker deserves a bit more understanding and empathy. Remember, our own history is replete with examples of people who crumble under the weight of scrutiny, expectation, or pressure. They turn to drugs, alcohol, and crime...and they destroy lives, relationships, marriages and even institutions. Are our heroes truly that different? Nonetheless, we are often a forgiving people when the situation warrants it and more sympathetic and understanding when it's somebody close to us. I understand John Walker is not Steve Rogers. But let us see how John Walker's character arc plays out before we judge him too harshly.