During the first weeks of coronavirus quarantine, I binge-watched a lot of television but not the newest Netflix offerings. Instead, I retreated into classic TV sitcoms, shows I’d grown up loving, most of which I hadn’t seen in years. (My 7-year-old has a new appreciation for I Dream of Jeannie.) These programs were comforting during an uncomfortable period. They transported me to a simpler time.
Life was never simple for Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), which WandaVision’s second-to-last episode, “Previously On,” achingly demonstrates. TV sitcoms were a refuge from the relentless trauma in her life. She watches The Dick Van Dyke Show with her family in war-torn Sokovia as gunfire is heard outside. The Brady Bunch plays on the TV in her holding cell at a Sokovian HYDRA base. She finds solace in reruns of Malcolm In The Middle while mourning her brother, Pietro, before the events of Captain America: Civil War. There’s a touching moment when Wanda invites Vision (Paul Bettany) to stay and watch with her. TV is sometimes isolating in its escapism, but Wanda trusts Vision enough to share this simple joy. He’s amused but wonders if Hal (Bryan Cranston) was seriously injured during one of his comical hijinks. Wanda reassures him that “it’s not that kind of show.”
A character-driven episode that presses pause on the larger plot could’ve been a a momentum killer so soon to the series finale, but I appreciate that the show took the time to explore Wanda’s motivations. Answers are also provided for questions we should’ve asked as far back as Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Wanda created a dream world in Westview, not maliciously or even intentionally but from immense grief. Her WandaVision was the “kind of show” where no problem was so great it couldn’t be solved in 30 minutes. The outlandish “shenanigans” are silly but rarely scary. Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) has yanked away this security blanket, but unlike Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), she’s not interested in saving Westview’s residents, including Wanda herself, from this false reality. Agatha’s like a twisted child pulling the wings off a bird to learn how it flies. She wants to know why Wanda’s so powerful.
Agatha herself is no slouch. “Previously On” begins with a flashback to 1693 Salem, Massachusetts. When young Agatha’s coven puts her on trial for practicing dark magic, she vanquishes them all with her hands literally tied behind her back. She saves her own mother for last, and it’s her brooch that Agatha wears prominently to this day. So you can imagine her annoyance that this newbie Wanda, who doesn’t even know the fundamentals of magic, has whipped up a spell to beat all spells. Hahn plays Agatha’s frustration like a comic-book Salieri, which adds spice and depth to her supervillain monologue. She’s straight-up terrifying as she reveals the full scope of her machinations: Fake Pietro (Evan Peters) or “Fietro” as Agatha calls him was her mind-controlled puppet. I’d noted that it seemed as if Fietro was trying to pump Wanda for information. This also freed Agatha to leave Wanda’s side long enough to explore the outer limits of the Hex, where Wanda was maintaining illusions without her conscious control. “Magic on autopilot!” Agatha seethes.
I’ve compared WandaVision to the 1960s cult classic, The Prisoner, and I’m sure decades from now, geeks like myself will still obsess over the smallest details and symbolism in this show. That’s a compliment, by the way. Frequently on The Prisoner, a seemingly benign character would reveal themselves as an enemy whose true purpose was to extract information from our hero. That’s Agatha’s aim here as she ruthlessly interrogates Wanda, using her children as leverage to force Wanda to relive the most traumatic moments of her past.
Agatha’s sadism isn’t without a purpose. She quickly realizes that the mortar shell that landed near Wanda (Michaela Russell) and Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) wasn’t simply defective. The young witch had unconsciously cast a probability hex that made the bomb a dud. She was already rewriting reality, years before Hydra experimented on her. Wanda and Pietro were the only volunteers to survive exposure to the Mind Stone, and that probably wasn’t random chance, either.
S.W.O.R.D. Director Tyler Haywood (Josh Stamberg) is a more banal villain than Agatha, likely because he doesn’t have a viral theme song. However, he’s no less sadistic. We see that he lied in “Very Special Episode” when he claimed Wanda broke into S.W.O.R.D. headquarters and stole Vision’s corpse. She only wanted to bury him. Worse, Haywood cruelly shows her his scientist dissecting him. It’s horrific. Despite the wires and circuits, Vision was a person, arguably more human than Haywood and Agatha. S.W.O.R.D. has tried and failed for years to bring Vision “back online” as a weapon. Haywood not-so-subtly suggests that Wanda resurrect Vision, but she won’t help S.W.O.R.D. violate him. No longer sensing the man she loved inside his shattered body, she leaves peacefully. There is something sad and poignant about seeing Wanda getting into her car and driving away. That normal act grounds her grief.
Wanda and Vision had bought property in Westview where Wanda at least would “grow old in,” but it now stands barren as a reminder of the normal life Wanda can never enjoy. She collapses in anguish amid her broken dreams and the resulting Hex is a spontaneous primal scream. The Vision created within their restored dream home isn’t real in a conventional sense, but as Vision once said, “What is grief, but love persevering?” Her love for Vision is so great that her fantasy husband still possessed his inherent kindness and nobility. The Westview Vision is more real than the abomination Haywood has finally reassembled and powered with Wanda’s own magic.
Agatha doesn’t comprehend love or grief beyond her ability to manipulate those emotions in others. Once she’s learned how Wanda created the Hex, she’s appalled. She knows what Wanda is: a “mythological being capable of spontaneous creation.” I’d hoped for a Darth Vader-like “let me complete your training” pitch from Agatha, but she apparently considers Wanda too dangerous to live. Agatha doesn’t hide her disgust as she chokes the life from two of Wanda’s creations—her sons. This whole reality she’s created is “chaos magic” and Agatha officially dubs Wanda “the Scarlet Witch.”
- Agatha confirms that she arrived in Westview after sensing “the afterglow of so many spells cast at once.” The passage of time within the Hex is hard to pin down, but Agatha is the first “resident” Wanda meets. So she must have arrived almost instantly.
- The show has gone to great lengths to make clear that Agatha is irredeemably evil. There are few glimpses of her comic-book counterpart, nor is there any indication she’s working for someone else (sorry, Nightmare/Mephisto truthers).
- Still curious as to what role Dottie (Emma Caulfield Ford) will play in all this.
- Rewatch the Fietro scenes in “All-New Halloween Spooktacular” and you can almost hear Agatha speaking through him. Solid writing there.
- “Previously On” appears to disprove the popular online theory that the actors in the fake WandaVision commercials were Wanda’s parents.
- Wanda’s favorite Dick Van Dyke Show episode is “It Might Look Like A Walnut,” where the scary events are revealed to have just been a nightmare Rob Petrie was having. Young Wanda wishes for a similar resolution when her parents are killed.
- Oleg Maximoff has DVDs of Malcolm In The Middle but he died in 1999. The series didn’t debut until 2000 and wouldn’t be available on DVD for years later. This could just be a Mandela Effect in Wanda’s memory.
- The reveal about Wanda’s powers is the ultimate “duh!” moment for comic books. We should’ve known that the Scarlet Witch makes her own luck.
- When Wanda is exposed to the Mind Stone, a woman’s outline is visible within the yellow glow. It looks like she’s wearing the Scarlet Witch’s comic book headpiece.
- Before the Hex is unleashed, Harold Proctor (David Lengel) is seen putting up a flyer for piano lessons. It’s his piano that Vision and Wanda use during their magic act in “Don’t Touch That Dial.”
- I almost lost it when Wanda drove up to her razed home. The poor girl can’t catch a break.
- A stark white Vision without emotion is call back to how John Byrne revamped the character in West Coast Avengers.
- During the cliffhanger, Kathryn Hahn is almost unrecognizable as Agatha. It’s not just the outfit and makeup. Her register and delivery are distinctly different. Damn, she’s good.
- Agatha’s line about how Wanda is “capable of spontaneous creation” but wastes her power to “make breakfast for dinner” reminds me of Ultron’s similar contempt for how humans had squandered vibranium’s potential: “The most versatile substance on the planet and they used it to make a frisbee.”