God, the look on his face here - that smile, that absolute feral smirk when he knows the bullet’s connected, and the shot is fatal. I’ve seen meta suggesting this is where the programming breaks down because how could the Marvel universe’s deadliest assassin miss, but to me that’s not at all what’s happening here. Bucky’s just been strangled unconscious; he’s likely still stunned. Steve’s dislocated his human shoulder and twisted and warped the plates on his left arm in their previous fight. Bucky isn’t missing because he wants to; he’s missing because he’s stumbling, dizzy, unable to aim. He’s missing because his arm isn’t stable. Look at that third gif; he’s in pain as he’s shooting; the blowback from each pull of the trigger is making him wince and he’s having trouble keeping his arm steady. And through all of that, despite the fact his body — his ultimate weapon — is failing him, this is still his mission. More than that, the mission is personal. That, above all else, is where the programming is cracking: the Winter Soldier isn’t supposed to think in terms of personal; he isn’t supposed to want for himself, even if that want is violence, is retribution. He’s supposed to follow orders, and in this moment, he wants to cause harm to someone who’s getting the better of him. Tit for tat. He feels threatened by this man who’s making him feel, and he wants those feelings to stop. And he’s willing to push his broken, twisted body to the breaking point to do it.
We see this again, not long after, when he breaks down farther, is left backhanding Steve, repeated, distressed and sloppy hits that don’t mange to kill him, despite the fact that earlier we saw a single punch destroy concrete. In those final blows we can hear his arm squeaking, plates grinding against each other - we get a real sense of how damaged he is. But he’s fighting, not on the orders of others, but because the things Steve is saying are terrifying and he wants them to stop, no matter the cost.
And now compare this — how damaged he is physically, how much pain he’s in, and how much of that pain he’s willing to ignore if it will make the main causing the chaos in his head stop talking — to what he must go through, jumping in to the Potomac after Steve. Using his crushed and warped left arm to pull him to safety; using his dislocated right arm to move both of their bodies through the water. The amount of pain he’s ignoring to save Steve; to save something important to him; to complete a mission of his own choosing. And it’s completely, wholly altruistic. He walks away: injured and without any concept of his own identity or where he should go from here. The man on the ground — he’s the Soldier’s only link. Someone who’s repeatedly offered to help him, to save him. And the Soldier stays only long enough to make sure the man’s still breathing, to make sure he’s in clear enough view to be saved by his own team, before disappearing again.
For seventy years, Bucky’s entire existence has been a backdrop of pain that he’s learned to wear like a skin. But that moment marks the first time he’s used his resilience against it for his own ends, against those who have made him into a weapon of destruction.
I will never get over this final scene.