It’s still time for the penultimate installment of my episode by episode reviews of WandaVision, Marvel’s sitcom parody/Dickian faux reality paranoia. Previous installments may be found here. Also, may I remind you that Disney is still not paying Alan Dean Foster and others.
Warning: Spoilers and pretty significant ones at that behind the cut!
After all the build-up of previous episodes, this episode, not coincidentally entitled “Previously On”, is where we finally get some answers and also see some moments that the Marvel movies glossed over dramatised.
But before we get to the story of Wanda Maximoff, we first get some backstory for Agatha Harkness a.k.a. Agnes, your villainous neighbourhood witch. And so the story takes us back to Salem, Massachusetts (not to be confused with Salem in Westchester, New York, home of the X-Men) in 1693, where a bunch of hooded and cloaked figures are dragging Agatha Harkness into the woods and tying her to a stake, whereupon I started grumbling, “The Puritans didn’t burn witches, they hanged them (and pressed one to death, when he would not confess).”
However, when the hoods are dropped, the group turns out to be not a bunch of witch-hunting Puritans, but instead a coven of witches, who are furious that Agatha has engaged in black magic. And because the Puritans obviously didn’t decimate the witches of Salem enough, the coven decides to execute Agatha by shooting blueish hex energy bolts at her. Worse, the leader of the coven is none other than Agatha’s own mother. Agatha promises that she’ll be good, but it turns out that Salem witches are as fanatical as Salem Puritans and so they continue anyway. However, Agatha uses her own purple magic to fight back and suck the lifeforce out of the other witches. She picks up her mother’s cameo brooch, the same brooch we have seen “Agnes” wear throughout the series, apparently the only thing in Westview that’s impervious to Wanda’s magic. Okay, so cameo broochs were not a thing in the 17th century, but first showed up in Roman times and then became popular again during the neo-classical revival of the late 18th century, a hundred years after Agatha’s misadventure with the witches of Salem, and remained steadily popular well into the 20th century. Nonetheless, I do hope that Disney/Marvel makes a reproduction of Agatha’s cameo brooch, because it’s cool.
The opening scene is one we’ve seen a thousand times before. Pretty much every piece of American entertainment, which involves either witches or the supernatural, eventually turns up in Salem and gives us a “Puritans executing witches in more or less historically accurate form” scene. We’ve had scenes like that in Charmed, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (whose 1990s incarnation Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a sitcom), Poltergeist: The Legacy, American Horror Story, Practical Magic and umpteen other supernatural TV shows and movies. I think there even was a show called Salem for a while, which – judging by clips and promo photos I’ve seen – specialised in detailed recreations of young women being tortured and executed. But the trope is older than that and also shows up in the 1942 romantic comedy I Married a Witch, which was a finalist for the 1943 Retro Hugo Award, as well as many issues of Weird Tales and Unknown from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s (and even further back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was the descendant of a Salem judge and really, really hated his ancestors). Interestingly, Robert E. Howard’s Puritan avenger Solomon Kane never visited Salem or dealt with witches in any of his chronicled tales, preferring instead to fight vampires and harpies in Africa. This striking Margaret Brundage cover for the September 1938 issue of Weird Tales featuring Puritans executing a very attractive witch does not actually go with a Solomon Kane story (as I had always assumed, even though Howard had been dead for more than two years by that point and the last Solomon Kane story appeared in 1932), but a Seabury Quinn story.
The Salem obsession in the US has always struck me as a bit odd, though it is a lovely “Fuck You” to the Puritans, who are now mainly remembered because they succumbed to a case of mass hysteria and killed a lot of innocent people and who are forever associated with the thing they hated most. Nonetheless, there is no one place in the UK or Germany or elsewhere in Europe specifically associated with the persecution of witches, probably because the practice was much more widespread and every city or town probably has at least a handful of cases. In the US, however, the witch hysteria was concentrated in Salem, though it spread throughout New England.
In the comics, Agatha Harkness really does originate in Salem, Massachusetts, and is one of the surviving original Salem witches. She also almost did get burned at the stake in a Fantastic Four comic for supposedly betraying her fellow witches, but that did not happen in Salem, but in New Salem, Colorado, and the instigator was not her mother, but her son Nicholas Scratch. That said, Agatha’s origin story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quite close to her origin story in the comics, with one exception: Comic Agatha isn’t evil. MCU Agatha is.
The occasional The Crucible notwithstanding, most of the appearances of Salem, Massachusetts, in fiction, comics, movies and TV shows over the year are not intended to criticise mass hysteria and persecution in general or the Puritans in particular, but just to provide a convenient bit of backstory. Hey, look, they are descended from a Salem witch or are the reincarnation of one, which is why they have magical powers. The Salem sequence in “Previously On” fit this pattern, though the fact that Agatha’s would-be executioners are fellow witches rather than Puritans does break the mold and is an odd choice, especially since the scene with Agatha absorbing everybody’s lifeforce would have worked just as well with praying Puritans. In his review, Camestros Felapton points out that having the Puritans try to execute Agatha, who is after all not just a real witch, but truly evil, might be misconstrued as a posthumous justification of the persecution of alleged witches in Salem. He does have a point there. However, every piece of fiction with the premise that the people persecuted in Salem were real witches (and that’s pretty much all of them except for The Crucible) can be viewed as a posthumous justification of the Puritans. I guess the takeaway here is, “Be careful how you use real life tragedies in your fiction.” Though after 330 years, the Salem witch trials are fair game (just as they were for the Weird Tales writers of the 1920s and 1930s and even Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century), since they’ve long passed out of living memory.
After the Salem sequence, we’re back in the present day in Agatha’s positively Lovecraftian lair. Wanda tries to use her powers against Agatha, but can’t, because Agatha placed a protective spell on her lair. Agatha is also stunned that Wanda does not recognise the protective runes in her lair. Agatha also tells Wanda that she was attracted by the afterglow of so many spells cast at the same time and therefore infiltrated Westview to figure out how Wanda did it. That’s probably also why Wanda is so stunned when Agatha/Agnes suddenly barges into the house in episode 1, because she neither consciously nor subconsciously created this particular character.
Agatha’s attempts to question Wanda either as Agnes, the helpful neighbour, and later via the fake Pietro (who was controlled by Agatha, though she couldn’t take the real Pietro due to him being dead, full of holes and buried on another continent, so she took him from somewhere else, probably the Fox X-Men universe) are unsuccessful, so Agatha now wants to pry into Wanda’s most painful memories and uses the twins as leverage to get Wanda to comply.
We now get a replay of Wanda’s backstory in the MCU, but where those moments were previously only described in dialogue, we now see them dramatised, starting with Wanda and Pietro’s childhood in wartorn Sokovia. Wanda and Pietro’s father is trying to make ends meet by selling bootleg DVDs of American sitcoms. And in the evenings, he and his family watched his stock to practice their English. Now Wanda’s parents died in 1999, which is a bit early for DVDs, but maybe technological development is more advanced in the Marvel Universe. And the fact that Wanda associates sitcoms with happy times with her family is a nice explanation for her sitcom obsession.
One evening, Wanda gets to choose what to watch and settles on a specific episode of The Dick van Dyke Show (according to AV-Club reviewer Stephen Robinson, it’s this one). The Maximoffs are happy and laughing, but then tragedy strikes. Their flat is shelled, the parents die, Pietro and Wanda hide under the bed, when a Stark Industries missile lands right in front of them and fails to explode. Until now, Wanda – and we – thought that this was due to chance. Even Stark Industries occasionally produces duds. However, Agatha now reveals that Wanda used her latent magical powers to influence probability and turn a live missile into a dud. In the background, the TV is still playing The Dick van Dyke Show, which has to count as special torture.
Camestros Felapton is bothered by using the fictional East European country Sokovia as a stand-in for the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. However, considering how completely insensitively entertainment media from the US has handled the Balkan Wars – if they remember they happened at all, that is – using a fictional country is vastly preferable to messing with the recent tragic history of a real one. For unlike with the Salem witch trials, the Balkan Wars are still well within living memory and the “Don’t use somebody else’s tragic history as fodder for entertainment” statute of limitations isn’t up yet and won’t be for a long time.
Our next stop on Wanda’s Magical Memory Tour is the Hydra fortress in Sokovia where Wanda volunteered for human experiments. Again, the show tells us nothing we didn’t know before here, but so far we haven’t really seen these moments dramatised. Now, however, we see Wanda entering a chamber to be exposed to the Mind Stone, while two Hydra doctors (not actors we’ve seen in these parts before) look on and basically make bets whether she will survive, since so far, no one else did. The Mind Stone detaches itself from Loki’s sceptre and flies towards Wanda. She briefly sees the silhouette of what looks like Wanda in her classic Scarlet Witch costume and promptly collapses. Later, we see her again in a Hydra cell, watching what Stephen Robinson insists is The Brady Bunch on TV, though I initially thought it was a clip from Family Affair. But then, both shows date from the same era and feature little blonde girls with pigtails who have beloved dolls and brothers a little older, so the mix-up is understandable. And I have seen considerably more of Family Affair than of The Brady Bunch, because Family Affair was rerun in Germany, when I was a kid.
The absence of both Pietro (who after all also survived Hydra’s experiments, probably with a little help from his sister) and Baron von Strucker is notable in the Hydra scenes. I guess Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Thomas Kretschmann were unavailable to reprise their roles from Age of Ultron.
Now Agatha – and we – know that Wanda was born with her powers (Is this the introduction of mutants to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Okay, so Agatha calls it magic, but she is a seventeenth centurys witch) and had them enhanced by the Mind Stone, the next stop on Wanda’s Magical Memory Tour is the Avengers compound, where Wanda is moping in her room, watching sitcoms (Malcolm in the Middle, apparently, though Bryan Cranston look mighty young in that clip) and mourning Pietro, while Vision comes in (we’ve heard before that he tends to barge into people’s rooms, unaware that this is not how things are done, though he’s trying) and tries to cheer her up. By now, it’s very clear that Wanda uses sitcoms as comfort viewing, because nothing bad ever happens in sitcoms. I know that this is a large part of why sitcoms are so popular and that they apparently are comfort viewing to a lot of people, but they’ve never worked that way for me. I’m not sure why, but sitcoms tend to make me cringe on behalf of the characters. I also recall that when I was a kid, sitcoms frequently made me angry (whenever someone was mean to the younger kids in Family Affair) or worried for the characters, e.g. Jeannie and Tony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie were perpetually worried about being exposed and Tony getting carted off to a mental hospital, so I was worried, too. Instead, my comfort viewing are things like Star Trek (I’ve seen it a thousand times and know nothing bad will happen) or The A-Team (lots of fun and no one ever dies).
That said, it is nice to see Wanda and Vision interacting in the real world, because their relationship happened largely off-screen. We have a few longing looks towards the end of Age of Ultron, a brief scene of Vision trying and failing to make Chicken Paprika* for Wanda in Captain America: Civil War, which ends with Wanda running off and joining Captain America’s renegade Avengers (come on, surely the chicken wasn’t that bad) and then Wanda and Vision deciding to make a life together in Infinity War, before they are interrupted by Thanos. The romance between Wanda and Vision is certainly one of the stranger relationships in the Marvel Universe, though we accept it in the comics, because we’ve seen that relationship develop over many issues. The movies, however, glossed over that aspect almost entirely, especially since neither Wanda nor Vision ever had a solo movie, so it’s nice that the show fills in these gaps. And if there’s one thing that WandaVision does well, it’s making us care about the suburban family life of a Sokovian mutant witch, her andrid husband and their two kids. And interestingly, WandaVision is being watched by a lot of people who have never watched a single Marvel movie, let alone read a single comic, and therefore didn’t have any investment in the characters beforehand.
Though I also wonder why none of the other Avengers seem to care about Wanda’s mental state at all, neither after she lost Pietro nor after she lost Vision and was snapped out of and back into existence. Wanda wasn’t particularly stable to begin with, so why did none of the Avengers except for Vision check on her? Sorry, but the Avengers are pretty shitty friends.
The next flash forward shows us a distraught Wanda after she has been snapped back into existence after five years away. She is looking for Vision, because he was her partner and she just wants to bury him. It’s a simple human wish, but one that S.W.O.R.D. and particularly Director Haywood are not willing to grant Wanda. And so Haywood shows Wanda Vision’s disassembled body in a S.W.O.R.D. lab and asks hger, if she can resurrect him. Wanda tells Hayward that she can’t do that, because Vision is gone. All she wants it to bury him, whereupon Haywood tells her that she can’t have Vision, because the Vibranium that his body is made of is too valuable, whereupon Wanda freaks out and begins to glow and levitate. This was the doctored footage that Haywood showed Monica and the rest of his agents, when he claimed that Wanda stole Vision’s body. However, we now see that Wanda drives off alone, without Vision.
The dichotomy between Hayward, for whom Vision was never a person, but only a weapon and an asset, and Wanda, who is mourning her partner, is very notable in this scene. Of course, having watched Vision for three movies and seven TV episodes, we side with Wanda. To us, Vision is as much of a person, even if he’s an android, as to her. Haywood, meanwhile, is a monster without a shred of empathy.
On the passenger seat of Wanda’s car (a Buick, which surprised me, because normally the Avengers all drives Audis), there is an open envelope. Wanda looks at the contents and drives away. We see her on the highway somewhere in New Jersey, where she takes the exit that leads to Westview.
Now we and Wanda finally get to see the real Westview as it was before Wanda turned it into her own private sitcom paradise. And the real Westview is a badly run down town. The town centre is full of empty and boarded up shops. The swimming pool seen in episode 2 is dirty and deserted and the pretty suburban houses are in a bad state of disrepair. We also see some familiar faces such as Herb, the black guy, who is delivering pizzas, while Harold, the fellow with the moustache who is married to Queen Bee Dottie, is trying to get by giving piano lessons in a town where no one had either the money nor the interest to care. We also see Mrs. Heart sitting at a table in a coffee shop watching the world go by.
One reviewer – I forgot who – linked the sorry state of Westview to the fact that half of the world’s population had vanished for five whole years, which would leave a lot of deserted homes, etc… in disrepair. But personally, when I saw the real Westview, I was reminded of the dead or dying small towns in the US rust belt (of which New Jersey is a part). Towns which used to be prosperous and full of middle class people living happy sitcom lives in the postwar era, but which have long since fallen on hard times. I bet the Westview residents, at least the white ones, voted for Trump, hoping that he would make the town great again (only to find that they hate the result, when Wanda actually does make Westview great again). And of course, Westview also demonstrates the sharp difference between the American dream and the way it has been depicted in movies and TV shows and the reality of rundown towns and poverty. This culture shock is an experience that a lot of people visiting the US for the first time have, when they come across a dilapidated and rundown Westview and try to reconcile it with their rosy Hollywood image of the country. My parents had this experience it all the way back in the late 1970s in the South and many others have had it since. And remember that Wanda is an immigrant who got her image of America from old sitcoms.
Wanda drives out to the now run-down suburb to the spot where her house in the show is. But instead of a house, there is only an empty lot with nothing but the foundations left. Wanda parks her car, gets out with the piece of paper from the envelope in her hand. Now we see that it’s the property deed to this little slice of Westview, which Vision had bought as a gift for Wanda “to grow old in together”, as he’s written in a heart on the paper. The heart, of course, calls back to the heart on the kitchen wall calendar in episode one.
At this point, Wanda breaks down in the middle of the empty lot, when she realises that she has lost everything and everybody that ever mattered to her. Her powers flare and Westview, the perfect sitcom world, is born. We literally see the house assembling all around Wanda, just as we see Vision popping back into existence, wearing the same ugly cardigan that Dick van Dyke wore in Wanda’s favourite childhood sitcom. “Welcome home, Wanda”, he says, whereupon Wanda transforms herself into a 1950s sitcom housewife and decides to just go with it. And who can blame her?
Camestros Felapton points out that we have already seen a character retreating into an artificial world to escape overwhelming trauma, dragging other people into their illusion and doing a whole lot of damage in the process in season 3 of Star Trek Discovery two months ago. Considering that both WandaVision and season 3 of Star Trek Discovery would have been in production at the same time and couldn’t have influenced each other, I’m pretty sure that this is just a case of a theme floating around in the zeitgeist and manifesting itself in different contexts, such as the original Star Trek and Raumpatrouille Orion debuting within two weeks of each other in September 1966, two Robin Hood movies coming out in 1991 and two “asteroid hits Earth” coming out in 1998, after more than twenty years of no movies with this theme. Also, popular culture has been paying more attention to trauma and how it manifests for several years now.
Once Agatha learns how and why Wanda created Westview, she is appalled, because Wanda, though untrained, is so much more powerful than she is. Wanda can wield chaos magic and is capable of spontaneous creation, something Agatha will never be. “That makes you the Scarlet Witch”, she tells Wanda and then proceeds to strangle Billy and Tommy with her powers. Cue credits.
As cliffhangers go, this one is a bit strange, because everybody who has read the comics already knows that Wanda is the Scarlet Witch. After all, she has been known by that monicker since 1964, where she (and Pietro) first appeared as X-Men villains. And if you haven’t read the comics, Scarlet Witch is a just a name, which means nothing.
The post-credits scene (yes, there is one) is much moe intriguing, because we’re back with Haywood in the temporary S.W.O.R.D. retreat. Haywood is uncommonly pleased, because he has finally figured out a problem that has been bugging him. “All we needed…” he tells a female subordinate, “….was a little energy from the source.” The camera pulls back to reveal the reassembled and all white Vision open his eyes.
This actually happened in the comics, where Vision was dismantled by the pissed off governments of the Earth after trying to take over the nascent Internet, and returned to the Avengers in pieces to the horror of Wanda. When Vision was reassembled, he is not only white, but also an emotionless android who doesn’t remember his life or his feelings for Wanda or his kids.
Will Marvel go that route? It’s possible, though I doubt it. Especially since they’ve got the perfect excuse to bring Vision back, since there is now a Vision body without a personality or soul for lack of a better word and Vision’s personality recreated by Wanda, which doesn’t have a body. I suspect both Visions will fight, as will both witches with some assists from Monica Rambeau, Darcy and Jimmy Woo, and in the end both Visions will merge.
We will find out in the grand finale next week.
*This reminds me that it has been a long time, since I made Paprika chicken. Time to remedy that.