WandaVision offers up “The Series Finale”

It’s time for the final 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 behind the cut!

After a brief recap, this episode picks up right where the previous one left of, with Wanda facing off against Agatha a.k.a. “Agnes”, who’s holding the twins hostage. Wanda also wants it to be known that she is not a witch, thank you very much.

After a red and purple energy bolt throwing magical slap fight, Agnes managed to drain some of Wanda’s lifeforce like she did with the Salem witches last episode, leaving Wanda with a withered hand. Wanda, on the other hand, throws her car at Agatha and manages to free the twins. “Run to your room”, she tells them, which they do thanks to Tommy’s superspeed. But when Wanda goes to investigate, all she finds under the car in Agatha’s garden are Agatha’s boots in a Wizard of Oz homage. Agatha herself has escaped, for now.

But before Wanda can go after Agatha, she is distracted by the reappearance of Vision. However, it’s the white version of Vision that Hayward rebuilt from the disassembled original, the Vision who’s nothing but a living weapon without emotions or memories. The first meeting between Wanda and White Vision plays out almost as it does in the comics. An overjoyed Wanda hugs White Vision. But while White Vision in the comics merely has no idea who Wanda is and what this strange woman wants of him, the MCU White Vision has been programmed to kill Wanda and promptly tries to strangle her and/or break her neck. Come to think of, there is a lot of strangling going on in this episode.

Luckily, the real Vision shows up just in time to rescue Wanda and we get a quick family reunion of Wanda, Vision and the twins. Wanda apologises to Vision for not telling him the whole truth, Vision says that it doesn’t matter. However, they still have to deal with not one but two supervillains, White Vision and Agatha.

So the battle continues with the Visions slugging it out in the sky above Westview and later in the Westview library. However, the battle is decided not by brawn but by brains, when red Vision uses the Ship of Theseus problem to make White Vision question his identity. White Visions laments that he has no memories, whereupon red Vision restores his memories, most prominently those of Wanda. Very confused by all this, White Vision takes off. I strongly suspect we haven’t seen the last of him, unless Paul Bettany is sick of spending hours in the make-up chair. In his review, Camestros Felapton wonders whether the Ship of Theseus scene is a reference to the inexplicably popular multi-Hugo winning afterlife sitcom The Good Place, which has a thing for philosophical discussions, while Tor.com reviewer Emmet Asher-Perrin views it as a take on the time-honoured tradition, going back at least to Isaac Asimov’s early robot stories of the 1940s, of reasoning a robot or computer to death. Both are possible, though I simply like the fact that even though the final episode was very much superbeings slugging it out, the resolution to both conflicts was more innovative than “The person with the harder punch wins”.

Some people seem to be a bit disappointed that the pay-off after nine episodes was yet another CGI heavy superhero fight. However, in spite of the sitcom trappings (which have been gone the past two episodes anyway), WandaVision is still a Marvel superhero show at heart. And we all know that superhero stories, whether Marvel’s or DC’s inevitably climax in a big, no holds bared fight featuring multiple beings with superpowers. So I honestly wonder why so many people seem to be surprised that WandaVision ended with a massive superbeing fight, since that’s as much of a genre requirement as the laugh track is a genre requirement for sitcoms. Several people also seem to be disappointed that the many fan theories did not come true (but then fan theories rarely do) and that there was no big twist at the end. But then, as Font Folly points out in his review, twists are overrated.

While Vision and Vision are duking it out, Wanda confronts Agatha in the town centre. Most of the familiar Westview residents are there – the mailman, Norm, Herb, Harold, Dottie, Mrs. Hart, Beverly, etc… Agatha now releases Dottie from Wanda’s spell. We learn that Dottie is really a woman called Sarah who just wants to hug her eight-year-old daughter again and would even let her daughter play with Wanda’s twins. Agatha also releases the rest of the townspeople, who all beg Wanda to let them go or let them die, because they are hurting and also experiencing Wanda’s nightmares every night. Wanda is horrified – after all, she never wanted to hurt those people. She also deactivates the Hex to let them go, which unfortunately causes Red Vision as well as the twins (for of course, Billy and Tommy did not stay in their rooms, while their parents were having a superhero fight – which kids would?) to begin to dissolve.

Now Agatha twists the knife even further and points out that Wanda can either save her family or the people of Westview but not both. However, Agatha has the solution. If Wanda will only surrender her powers to Agatha, Agatha can repair Wanda’s spell. Anybody with half a brain of course knows that Agatha is lying.

Meanwhile, Hayward is still doing his best X-Men villain routine. He has arrested Jimmy Woo, but Jimmy uses his escapology skills (Darcy is not the only one with those) to free himself from his handcuffs and steal the phone of one of the S.W.O.R.D. goons, which he then uses to phone up the FBI and calls for help. I wonder why he didn’t do so before. However, the FBI still needs some time to get to Westview. And time is something the characters don’t have, because once the Hex starts to break up, Hayward orders his troops to move into Westview. “Different century, same thing”, Agatha remarks, once Hayward shows up, “They’ll always try to burn witches.” As a survivor of the Salem witch trials, Agatha should know.

Meanwhile, Monica has been captured by the fake Pietro and was dragged to a weird attic room. When Monica asks where she is, Pietro says it’s his man cave, because he needs to escape “the missus” from time to time. Now Monica realises that the house isn’t Agatha’s home at all (logical, because Agatha only arrived shortly after Wanda created the Hex). It’s the home of the fake Pietro who is really an actor called Ralph Bohner and Agatha/Agnes’ unseen husband. So fake Pietro is not Pietro Maximoff borrowed from the Fox X-Men universe, but just a brilliant bit of stunt casting. It’s not quite clear how Ralph Bohner came to have Quicksilver’s superspeed, but maybe that was Agatha’s magic, too.

Monica uses her newfound superpowers and realises that Agatha is controlling Pietro/Ralph via the necklace he always wears. She rips it off and frees the terrified Ralph from Agatha’s and Wanda’s control. Then Monica sets off towards the town centre to help out with the fight. She arrives just as Hayward arrives with his goons and his guns.

Since there are now multiple villains and threats to deal with, Wanda, Vision, the twins and Monica split up to deal with the threats separately. Vision deals with White Vision, Wanda with Agatha, while the twins and novice superheroine Monica deal with the lesser threat, namely Hayward and his goons. “We never really prepared you for this”, Wanda and Vision tell the twins, “But you were born for this.” And indeed, as second generation superheroes, they were.

Billy uses his powers to freeze the soldiers, while Tommy uses his superspeed to steal their guns. Hayward is furious to have been shown up by superpowered ten-year-olds. He gets out of his car, draws his pistol and fires at the twins, which is a true boo-hiss moment, because whatever else Billy and Tommy may be, they’re still ten-year-old kids. However, Monica steps in front of the boys and stops the bullets with her new superpowers. One gets past her, but Billy uses his telekinesis to stop it. A furious Hayward now jumps into a car to run down Monica, Billy and Tommy, but Darcy shows up with the ice cream truck she and Vision appropriated and rams it into Hayward’s car.

Meanwhile, Wanda uses a repeat of the trick she used to take out the Avengers in Age of Ultron and shows Agatha her worst nightmare, which is the night the other witches tried to burn Agatha at the stake. Now Agatha really does seem panicked, but she still has an ace up her sleeve. She tells Wanda that she is the Scarlet Witch, a witch with no coven and enormous powers stronger than that of the Sorcerer Supreme, a title currently held by Doctor Strange. Furthermore, Wanda is fated to bring about the end of the world, as is written in the Darkhold, Agatha’s Necronomicon style grimoire. The other witches, though they had their lifeforce sucked out by Agatha, promptly rewaken to do the same to Wanda, because Wanda is obviously even worse than Agatha. I find that I don’t like these witches very much.

So Wanda is tied to the stake and the other witches begin to attack her. However, Wanda manifests horns which look very much like her classic headpiece. She frees herself and tears Agatha out of the dreamworld into the real one, where Agatha and Wanda slug it out for another round. Wanda hurls her powers at Agatha, telling her that she does not want them. Agatha absorbs Wanda’s powers and lifeforce, while Wanda literally withers. Once Wanda is seemingly depowered, Agatha informs her that she lied (now there’s a surprise) and that she cannot fix Wanda’s spell and Westview. “This world will always be broken”, she tells her, “Just like you.”

Then Agatha calls up her powers to deal Wanda the death blow, only that nothing happens. Now Wanda reveals that she’s tricked Agatha. The Hex is still active, albeit smaller than before, and Wanda has etched the same protective runes that Agatha used in her basement lair into the walls. “Only the witch that cast the runs can use her magic”, Wanda tells her, “Thanks for the tip.” Wanda also gets a new costume, which is a great update of her classic Scarlet Witch costume. I’ve always found Wanda’s costume in the Avengers movies somewhat underwhelming, though the classic comic costume obviously wasn’t an option for a superhero movie made in the 21st century. This new costume, however, is much better and incorporates elements of the classic costume such as the cape and the headpiece.

Agatha is now thoroughly beaten and depowered, but she still tries to bargain with Wanda. “You need me”, she tells her, because Agatha has all the magic training and knowledge. Wanda, however, manipulates Agatha’s mind and turns her back into the nosy neighbour character she played in the fake sitcom. “You live her now”, she tells a horrified Agatha, “I know where to find you.” It’s a fitting punishment for Agatha and besides, Marvel – and we – get to keep the brilliant Kathryn Hahn around for further use. I do feel a tad sorry for Ralph a.k.a. fake Pietro who’s now stuck with a partner he never chose.

It’s a well-known that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has something of a villain problem, since the villains are almost always less memorable than the heroes and exist mostly so the heroes have someone to fight. There are exceptions – Loki, Thanos, Killmonger – but they are rare. Agatha, however, was one of the most memorable villains we’ve seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic and TV Universe – just as brilliant, insane and memorable as Loki. And can we have a Loki and Agatha team-up please? Cause that would truly be a match made in hell.

As for Kathryn Hahn, so far I only associated her with her role as the grief counsellor Lily in Crossing Jordan more than a decade ago. And while there was nothing wrong with her performance, it also wasn’t particularly outstanding. Her role was basically the stock understanding best friend character. Kathryn Hahn’s performance in WandaVision, however, was brilliant, both as the nosy sitcom neighbour Agnes and the over-the-top supervillainess Agatha. I do hope she gets an Emmy and/or Golden Globe nod next year. Ditto for Elizabeth Olsen, who portrayed a woman wrecked by grief, a superbeing with ambiguous powers and motives, and five different variations of a sitcom wife/mother all in the same show. And Paul Bettany was wonderful as the android who thinks he’s a sitcom husband. And his comic timing in the magic show episode was brilliant.

I’ve seen some grumbling online that “those Marvel stans” apparently truly think that a mere superhero show would be in any way award worthy, when there is real acting(TM) going on in the usual awards bait programs. Considering that most of the TV acting Golden Globes, which were awarded last weekend, went to The Crown and Schitt’s Creek, I honestly wonder what those people are smoking. Now I have no idea what Schitt’s Creek is (likely exactly the sort of family sitcom WandaVision is parodying), but The Crown strikes me very much as an example of make-up and costume doubling as acting. Also, what is more challenging, convincingly portraying an amnesiac android, a malicious 17th century witch and a grieving, unstable woman with superpowers pretending to be sitcom characters or playing some of the most photographed and recorded people in history? Never mind that many of the actresses Elizabeth Olsen’s parodied in WandaVision have won Emmys and Golden Globes, so why is their performance more valuable than hers?

It’s not exactly news that the major film and TV awards – the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Emmys – tend to snub genre films and TV and particularly the actors who appear therein, exceptions such as Peter Dinklage, Gillian Anderson (her win for The X-Files, not The Crown) and Tatiana Maslany notwithstanding. Meanwhile, how many TV actors have won Emmys and Golden Globes for playing stock characters like “the grumpy cop”, “the kindly doctor” or “sitcom Dad” and “sitcom Mom”? Are all genre performances award-worthy? No, of course not. But I think that Elizabeth Olsen, Kathryn Hahn and Paul Bettany would deserve recognition. Ditto for Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian, who for much of the series only had body language and his voice to act with (and Din Djarin doesn’t exactly talk much) and yet managed to do so much with so little. Fine performances can be found in all genres of films and TV shows. And “An actor was made up to resemble a famous historical figure who looks nothing like them” does not necessarily mean that a performance is great, even though the Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmys seem to think so.

Richard Lawson’s review at Vanity Fair is a typical example. Lawson is disappointed by the WandaVision finale, because it ties in too much to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (well, it is a Marvel show, duh?) and was just an entertaining rollercoaster ride in the end instead of something deeper. Never mind that WandaVision tackled plenty of themes other than “See superheroes beating each other up”, e.g. grief and trauma and how to deal with it, the fakeness of the US sitcom, the quiet horror of the American suburb, the hollowness of the American dream, the familiar people fearing and hating what is different theme from 58 years of X-Men comics, etc… Meanwhile, what deeper themes does a regular sitcom tackle beyond Michael J. Fox weeping over the death of a character who only appeared in that one episode, while the laugh track still plays in the background?

Richard Lawson writes:

It was probably best to not watch WandaVision through a humanistic, emotional lens to begin with. The show was, at its best, a fantastical what-if lark, a show that let us spend some time with a couple of second-string Avengers characters in a curious new setting. Marvel wasn’t actually invested in mining deeper truths about life in the world. That was, in essence, marketing. Marvel also tried really hard to convince us that one of the Captain America movies was a 1970s conspiracy thriller, and not just another (good! fun!) Captain America movie. WandaVision advertised itself from within, adding a new layer of argument each week that it was about something more.

My reaction to this is, “Why on Earth should we not watch WandaVision or any superhero movie or show through a humanistic, emotional lens?” But then I have been a longterm reader of the comics and am invested in the characters. I know these people, so of course I am invested in them. Meanwhile, I am not invested in the interpersonal drama of the British royal family or in the travails of a white middle class guy with cancer who feels the burning need to become a murderous drug dealer because of reasons. At their heart, superhero comics are long-running soap operas, only with superpowers, fights for the fate of the universe and all sorts of cool stuff added in. So of course, we’re invested in these characters. It’s okay, if Richard Lawson is not invested in these characters or their stories, but he shouldn’t claim that superhero stories can never be more than entertainment, when many of them are. And besides, what is The Crown if not entertainment?

Back to Westview, where it’s all over save the mopping up. The Hex is still retracting and both Wanda and Vision know what this means. So they go home, tug Billy and Tommy into bed one last time. Then they kiss and say good-bye in a touching scene, before the Hex vanishes, leaving Wanda alone in an empty lot once more. As Wanda wanders through the Westview town centre (she no longer has a car, because she threw it at Agatha), the people of Westview all glare daggers at her. Monica briefly talks to Wanda and tells her that those folks will never understand what Wanda gave up for them. Monica also tells Wanda that she understands grief and that given the chance, she would bring her mother back, too.

I suspect I should feel more sympathy for the people of Westview who were after all drawn into Wanda’s personal trauma through no fault of their own and literally put through hell. However, when they glare at Wanda at the end, all I could think was, “Here’s the next torches and pitchforks mob – Agatha was right, after all” and “Boy, I so didn’t miss the endless ‘Everybody hates and fears mutants’ stuff from the X-Men comics.”

I’m not sure why I had this reaction. Part of it may be that Westview itself looks very much like the dark side of America. Without Wanda’s reality manipulation, it’s very much a shithole, a fading and rundown town, whose inhabitants probably voted for Trump, because they thought he’d make Westview great again. We’ve seen loads of Westviews in the past few years, whenever some newspaper or magazine decided to run a feature about the forgotten white America and why those people were forced to vote for Trump. And yes, I know that not everybody in Westview is white, but the town is very much that sort of place, though a bit more diverse. So in short, Westview elicited negative emotions, which stem both from four years of “Won’t someone think of the neglected white America?” articles and from more than twenty years of X-Men comics. And indeed, it’s interesting that WandaVision is leaning so heavily into the “Feared and hated by a world they’re trying to protect” theme of the X-Men comics, both with Hayward and the people of Westview, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely ignored that aspect so far and was all the better for it.

Also, Wanda now has a new costume and some nifty new powers, but otherwise she’s back where she began. She’s lost Vision – again – and she’s lost her kids, too, (though they’ll be back eventually) on top of everything else she’s already lost. Hell, she’s even lost Pietro a second time. She’s still grieving, still unstable and now even more powerful, which is not a good combination. The post-credits sequence sees Wanda alone in a cabin in the wilderness somewhere. Her astral form is studying the Darkhold, which she appropriated from Agatha, while her physical form is moping, when she hears her kids calling for help.

There’s a second post-credits sequence, too, where Monica meets up with an FBI agent, who reveals herself to be a Skrull and informs Monica that an old friend (Nick Fury, Captain Marvel?) needs help in space. Monica grins. Sadly, we don’t get a lot of Darcy and Jimmy Woo in this episode, but I hope we’ll see them again somewhere else, because they’re both great.

Considering that I initially wasn’t even sure whether to bother with WandaVision at all, I largely enjoyed the show, even if I found the ending rather depressing. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will have to be very good indeed to live up to this one.

Regardless of what the Richard Lawsons of this world say, Marvel is actually quite willing to take chances and tell a large variety of different stories within the framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the movies, we’ve had war movies, gonzo space operas, Wagnerian fantasy, 1970s style political thrillers, afrofuturism, caper movies and much more. And yes, they’re all about superheroes in the end, but that’s like complaining that sitcoms are about families or cop shows about cops.

WandaVision is certainly an example of Marvel taking a gamble, because here we have Marvel taking two of the most complicated characters in the comics, plugging them into a genre that normally is about as far from superhero stories as you can get, namely the sitcom, adding in a big dash of Philip K. Dickian weirdness as well as a couple of other genres (X-Files style mystery thriller, paranormal fantasy) and pulling it off. The pay-off may have been not quite as good as the build-up, but the fact that Marvel made a show about the family life of an East European immigrant magic user and her android husband work at all is almost a miracle in itself.

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