WandaVision Became a Nightmarish Web of Cathartic Reruns

WandaVision Became a Nightmarish Web of Cathartic Reruns
Wanda recalling the first time she met Vision. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)
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WandaVision’s first season transformed Marvel’s Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s been a newlywed, a mother, and something far more fascinating and complex than all of her other new identities combined. It’s all been in service of its larger overarching story about the Avengers’ least understood hero who will presumably come to be known as the Scarlet Witch.

“Previously On,” WandaVision’s eighth chapter (and the season’s penultimate) could be considered the series’ first attempt at riffing on the kind of sitcom clip-show episodes that look back at events from throughout the season, something meant to hammer home where the show’s characters began versus where they are now. But rather than just zeroing in on familiar moments the Disney+ series previously explored in Westview’s show-within-a-show, the story lets the glamor fall in order to reveal multiple truths about what really went down with Wanda in between the time that she made Thanos blink on the battlefield and when she decided to make New Jersey home.

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The number of clips from previous Marvel movies featuring Wanda spotlighted in the general recap before “Previously On” begins rolling is the first hint that the episode’s going to be a tad bit different. We pick up more or less right where “Breaking the Fourth Wall” left us last week, in a thematic sense. Before bringing us back to Wanda, who most recently discovered the truth of Agatha’s identity (Kathryn Hahn), the episode actually jumps back further into the past, to a pivotal moment in Agnes’ own origin story.

Long before she became Wanda’s newest frenemy, Agatha spent a significant amount of her life in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts (lol), experiencing a very specific kind of ostracisation that Wanda would one day come to suffer for herself. The story doesn’t explain exactly what Agatha did to incur the wrath of the coven of witches led by her mother Evanora (Kate Forbes), but it’s easy enough to glean the gist of it from the way the women all handle her trial.

Agatha turning on her fellow witches. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Agatha turning on her fellow witches. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

Though Agatha pleads with her mother and the coven to forgive her for her actions, and begs them to help her understand her powers, the other women are barely fazed by her protests. It makes you feel as if Agatha was well-known for her theatrical outbursts even then. Manipulation or not, Agatha’s cries suggest that whatever the witch did wasn’t something the others were unfamiliar with, but rather something they understood all too well, which is what drove them to come together to seemingly destroy her.

When Evanora and Agatha lock eyes as the elder witch begins chanting to aid in her daughter’s destruction, it clearly pains both of them that things have gotten to that point, and Agatha screams in agony as the other witches blast her with beams of mystical energy. While the ritual appears to be working for a brief time, Agatha’s demeanour begins to shift as the witches’ blue-hued energies flow through her, prompting her own signature purple magic to spring forth and turn the women’s power against them.

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Even though it’s unclear whether Agatha truly set out to become a malicious person, the scene of her hexing at the stake makes it appear as if her own natural gifts lend themselves to the draining of others’ magical emanations, something you see as the other witches’ spells also turn purple, and the life force begins to drain from their bodies. The whole of this scene establishes an entirely different community of magic users distinct from the powers and cultures we’ve previously seen in the MCU (Doctor Strange, Runaways, and Helstrom). Significant as that fact is on its own, “Previously On” goes the extra mile of conveying that this branch of the magical tree has a narrative centrality and mythos all its own.

You get the first glimpse of that as Evanora takes it upon herself to kill her daughter by hitting her with everything she’s got. Whether it’s because she was the leader of the coven or because her powers simply eclipsed the others’ isn’t clear, but as Evanora hexes Agnes, a peculiar construct vaguely resembling a horned headdress forms around her head. Though Evanora’s energy crown vaguely resembles the protrusions on Game of Thrones’ Night King, it also looks a lot like the diadem that Scarlet Witch has traditionally worn in Marvel’s comics (the one Wanda actually conjured up for herself as a comics-inspired costume in “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!”). Whatever the significance of the thing emanating from Evanora’s head is, its presence isn’t enough to stop Agatha, who just moments before swore that she could learn to be good, something her mother believed to be a lie.

Evanora trying to stop her daughter. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Evanora trying to stop her daughter. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

As villainous origins go “I killed my mother and all of her little friends for trying to kill me for using my taboo powers” is somewhat run-of-the-mill, but it adds an interesting element to the way WandaVision’s framed Agatha/Agnes as a manipulator whose very first sin was being ambitious. In another world where Evanora’s coven sought to understand Agatha’s magic better rather than snuff it out, there’s a chance that she could have gone on to become the kind of person who felt some sort of moral qualms about framing other witches for terrorism. But because cycles of abuse beget more cycles of abuse, present-day Agatha is all too ready to destroy Wanda after she brings her out of her expository spell and begins to have a bit more fun with her.

Having now begun to understand that, despite all her own deep-seated trauma, she truly isn’t the sole source of the trouble in Westview, Wanda drops any pretense of just being another American homemaker (and her put-on accent) as she demands to know what Agatha’s done with Billy and Tommy. Formidable as Wanda’s powers are, Agatha gives her a crash course in how much she still doesn’t know about what she’s capable of, and how magic works as a whole, after Wanda discovers that she’s unable to attack Agatha with her signature red blasts. It’s amusing to Agatha that Wanda somehow has no knowledge of how a witch’s runes can give them a distinct advantage over other magic users foolish enough to wander into their domains. As Agatha explains all this, the camera trains its focus on two of Agatha’s symbols, one of which sort of looks like Digimon’s crest of knowledge, while the other resembles an upper-case “M.”

Much as “Agatha All Along” clued everyone into Agatha’s role in messing with Wanda’s mind, she provides some context for a number of the show’s false commercials that have all been dancing around the secret truth, much like witches around a maypole repurposed as a broadcast tower in the pale moonlight. Every bit of magic — because that’s truly what the red-tinted energy Wanda wields is — that’s gone into reshaping Westview and keeping the town “running” is something Agatha can wrap her mind around conceptually. She actually goes on to recreate many of the spells on a smaller scale that Wanda’s managed to cast over the entire town. Mind control, illusions, and transmutation are all things witches can do after spending years honing their craft, and it’s likely that having an entire coven of other magic users working together makes those kinds of spells more manageable.

Agatha doing her best Mary Sanderson. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Agatha doing her best Mary Sanderson. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

What Agatha doesn’t quite understand, though, is how Wanda, a Sokovian refugee with no formal training, went from being someone who could move blocks with her mind and give people short-lived nightmares, to being able to pull off multiple feats of large-scale, persistent magic that hums along in the background without her really having to work all that hard.

To Agatha, someone who’s spent centuries fighting tooth and nail to become the kind of witch her coven tried to keep her from being, Wanda embodies a kind of unearned privilege that she’s more than willing to relieve her of. It’s tough to gauge how well Wanda’s processing everything Agatha reveals to her, and to be fair, it is all quite wild even considering the other things Wanda (and viewers!) have witnessed in the MCU. When she again tells Agatha that she doesn’t know how Westview came to be warped, the witch responds by slapping Wanda around the basement with a ferocity that would likely kill a person if Agatha weren’t trying to keep them alive.

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What’s interesting about the entire interaction is how Agatha points out that, initially, her plan was to let Wanda do her thing in Westview because even though Agatha’s been pulling strings in the background, she stands by her assertion that it all began with Wanda. Agatha explains how she resigned herself to being a supporting character in Wanda’s charade, believing that eventually, Wanda would either slip up or reinvent herself into a person more willing to share the source of their strength. Ultimately, Wanda’s self-doubt is what made it possible for Agatha to hide in plain sight even though there were signs of something being amiss.

Tight-lipped as Wanda is, Agatha still has a few tricks up her sleeve, and she resolves that it’s high time she kicked things up a notch to get the answers she’s been seeking. With a strand of Wanda’s hair (more on that later) and an incantation, Agatha conjures up a different sort portal into the depths of Wanda’s mind that both women step into as “Previously On” gets into the meat of its story by revisiting Wanda’s past.

Wanda recalling a fond memory that Agatha doesn't care for. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Wanda recalling a fond memory that Agatha doesn't care for. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

There have been bits and pieces of information about Wanda’s family sprinkled throughout films like Age of Ultron that gave you just enough detail to understand how Wanda first came to be in league with Hydra. Though we knew that there was a point when Wanda blamed Tony Stark for her parents’ murders, there’d never been all that much exploration of her and Pietro’s childhood beyond the anger that originally brought her to blows with the Avengers.

Wanda’s at a loss for words when Agatha’s spell brings them back to a happier moment from her past before the Avengers, Ultron, and Vision, when Wanda’s family was still whole and surviving through the ongoing conflict that was already tearing Sokovia apart. In a devastating twist on WandaVision’s use of television, Wanda quickly realises that the memory Agatha’s conjured isn’t just an illusion that will play out for them to watch, it’s something Wanda has to participate in. After transforming into a younger version of herself (portrayed by Michaela Russell) she recalls the very night she and Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) became orphans.

Leading up to WandaVision’s premiere, there was much speculation around how the show would end up explaining the emotional significance of its sitcoms and how they played into Wanda’s actual identity. One of the prevailing theories was that television was a crucial part of Wanda’s childhood, and while that’s correct, it’s a bit more than “Wanda grew up learning English from American reruns.” When Wanda’s father Olek (The Blacklist’s Daniyar) returns home with a case of DVDs of classic American sitcoms, Wanda’s mother Iryna (Ilana Kohanchi) is clearly dispirited that her husband wasn’t able to sell her merchandise, but she understands how difficult it is given the literal war in the streets. But at the same time, there’s a powerful love flowing through the Maximoff household. They’re a family who had to rely on one another at a time when their world was falling apart, and one of the ways they found comfort with one another was by sitting down in front of the television to escape from the horrors of their reality, if only for a half-hour at a time.

The Maximoffs watching Dick Van Dyke. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) The Maximoffs watching Dick Van Dyke. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

Were Agatha watching WandaVision here in the real world, she’d likely comment on how markedly more convincing all of the actors’ Sokovian accents are compared to Elizabeth Olsen’s — always on the more questionable side of things — but she’s much, much more focused on paying attention to the rest of the mental scene, as it’s how Wanda reacts to her parents’ oncoming deaths that stand out to the witch. The bomb that changes Wanda and Pietro’s lives comes swift and without warning, and leaves the twins stunned and shrouded in the dark ruins of what used to be their home. True to previous accounts of that night, the twins are stuck in the middle of the conflict with an armed, but undetonated Stark missile blinking before them. Even though Wanda’s parents were dead at that point, they were still with her in the emotional sense and present in her mind, because the only thing that survived the explosion other than the kids was their television that somehow managed to remain powered and playing The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The MCU’s previous stories went out of their way to frame Wanda and Pietro as two of the first “enhanced” beings on the planet whose powers, like Captain Marvel’s, came from exposure to an Infinity Stone. The framing worked to establish the Maximoffs as non-mutants on screen at a time when Marvel’s comics were distancing the characters from the X-Men, presumably because the film rights were then split between Disney and Fox (which has now changed). What Wanda recalls and Agatha realises, though, is that there was magic in Wanda long before she ever crossed paths with Hydra. The reason she and Pietro weren’t murdered by the active missile was actually her instinctively weaving a probability hex that kept the weapon from detonating. In addition to nodding to the Scarlet Witch’s original probability power set from the comics, this detail gives Agatha reason to further question the how of it all.

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People with magical potential, it seems, aren’t exactly uncommon per se, but the fact that Wanda’s abilities didn’t fade in absence of nurturing is what makes her distinct. After seeing Kathryn Hahn chew up the scenery first as a busybody neighbour and then as a deliciously unhinged villain, the Agatha she brings to this episode is equal parts maniacal and genuinely curious about what makes Wanda tick. Even though it’s more than likely that the two witches will end up battling, you can also see significant traces of the adversarial friendship that Wanda and Agatha have in the comics in the way that Agatha’s torture here is also a very intense, almost therapeutic, experience for Wanda. Some of that therapy, like when Agatha brings her back to the Sokovian facility where Strucker experimented on her with Loki’s staff, is traumatic in and of itself, as it’s rooted in Wanda’s pain.

But out of that pain comes one of the biggest surprises “Previously On” has when the episode shows you how Strucker’s experiments had little to do with anything the Nazis themselves anticipated. When Wanda’s put into a room with the staff, it reacts to her without prompting, and the blue jewel containing the hidden Mind Stone within flies over to her, opening up as if it wants to speak with her. The casing explodes, the blinding flash of light is difficult for Wanda to look at, but in the glow, she briefly witnesses a figure that bears a striking resemblance to some of the Scarlet Witch’s more classic comics guises. Within the context of the episode itself, it comes across like Wanda witnessing what the future has in store for her. Also interesting to note is that, while this all apparently happens on camera within the facility, Wanda’s knack for messing with televisions goes deeper than WandaVision’s let on, and the footage of her vision is erased from Hydra’s recording.

Wanda seeing a vision of the Scarlet Witch. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Wanda seeing a vision of the Scarlet Witch. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

While Agatha’s usually gagging and rolling her eyes in the background in moments when the story takes on a cathartic energy, the show lets you know that both women are getting something more than they’re saying aloud from the time they’re spending together — it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of their bond going forward. Olsen delivers one of her strongest performances as Wanda yet when Agatha brings her to the Avengers compound some time after Ultron and her feelings about the Avengers were still largely undecided. Still drowning in grief over having witnessed Pietro’s death in Sokovia, Wanda throws herself into an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, a callback to the series’ ‘00-focused episode. She barely reacts when Vision (Paul Bettany) enters her room unannounced, and while there have been mentions of the days when Vision didn’t understand that it’s impolite to just come into people’s spaces without being welcomed, here, he’s obviously taken the admonishment to heart (though still working on it).

What seems to be very well established, though, is how drawn to Wanda he is, perhaps because of how the Mind Stone once recognised something distinct about her. At that point in time, neither Wanda nor Vision was really what one would describe as “good with people” for different, valid reasons, but in their differences, the two were able to cultivate that first spark of mutual affinity into something meaningful. When Wanda explains that the Avengers compound was the first home she shared with Vision, she’s being quite literal, but she’s also talking about the emotional home and shelter that she was able to find in him, and likely the same that he was able to find in her back when he was still mostly clueless about how humans are.

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If Wanda first began to build out a “home” in her mind as Vision was helping her process her grief, it’s worth considering whether small details like Wanda’s hair colour and her disappearing accent were her personal ways of trying to make that new home real by divorcing herself from her past. In a similar way to how Black Widow refused to let go of the blonde she was rocking when Thanos defeated the Avengers in Infinity War, Wanda’s whole rejection of markers of her past could have been signs of her coping with, but not fully processing, the emotions that have come to the surface in WandaVision.

None of this, however, is enough to satisfy Agatha who, to be fair, has likely seen all sorts of things that Wanda can scarcely imagine, and because the trip down memory lane reveals no answers, she presses even more closely to the recent memories in Wanda’s brain. Previously, WandaVision made the strong case for why SWORD director Hayward (Josh Stamberg) was justified in his fear of Wanda by having him show his colleagues footage of the day she broke into their headquarters and absconded with Vision’s corpse. However, this episode makes clear that while everyone’s been preoccupied with Wanda’s magical deepfakes, Hayward was busy producing technological falsehoods of his own specifically designed to make everyone believe Wanda was a threat.

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Wanda finally recalls that after realising Vision was truly dead, she returned to her car to find a document meant for her that conveys one of Vision’s last wishes for the both of them. No reason is given as to why Vision decided to buy a plot of land in Westview for him and Wanda to start a new life, but one imagines that it has something to do with the synthezoid being a sentimental dork who got a kick out of a “W” and “V” appearing together in a small town. As Wanda drives through Westview for the first time, you see glimpses of residents who go on to become the show-within-a-show’s characters, and something “Fietro” said earlier in the season touched back on.

Normal as everyone’s life in Westview was, “Previously On” shows them all as being somewhat listless. They can easily be read as just kind of going through the daily motion of things, and you can see how Wanda internalised these brief glimpses of the civilians and used them as a basis for the characters and plot lines she created within the Hex. When Wanda arrives at her and Vision’s piece of land, though, what little charm there is to the scene turns into a moment of devastation mirroring Wanda’s breakdown in Age of Ultron when she felt Pietro’s life slip away.

Rather than destroying things the way she did in Sokovia, though, Wanda begins creating an entire house with her powers, and while the previous episode made it seem that Agatha was in control of things, here we see that while Wanda’s not wholly in the driver’s seat, she is truly the engine powering all of this. What’s alarming about this scene is that, even then Wanda did not likely know how and what she was doing, and the experience appears incredibly taxing and out of control.

Wanda's chaos magic conjuring a simulation of Vision. (Gif: Disney+/Marvel) Wanda's chaos magic conjuring a simulation of Vision. (Gif: Disney+/Marvel)

Moments after the house forms, the Hex explodes out of Wanda, rewriting the town, but also revealing where the Vision we’ve been seeing this whole time came from. At the same time Wanda’s turning Westview into something it’s not, she’s weaving a new Vision out of pure energy in a sequence teased in some of WandaVision’s commercials (just without the colourful effects). When it’s all said and done, there are no questions asked, and Wanda settles right into the illusion that we now know Agatha was tweaking from the shadows.

Back in the present, though, Agatha’s quite out in the open and certainly perturbed at the fact that she’s gotten what she wanted, albeit in a roundabout way, but with an answer she’s none too pleased about. We get our first look at Agatha in her full, ridiculously Hocus Pocus witch regalia as Wanda bursts out onto the street in Westview to find her floating in the air, threatening to murder Billy and Tommy. In a rare moment of Agatha agreeing with the mortals, she tells Wanda that she is quite the danger, though not for any reason that most people know. Wanda’s ability to wield magic in ways that defy the laws of the natural and metaphysical worlds might have been helped along by her exposure to the Mind Stone, but the true source of Wanda’s power lies in the fact that she’s not just a witch, but rather the Scarlet Witch, a mythic being with the unique ability to perform chaos magic.

Here, chaos magic seems to mean magic of pure creation that other practitioners could never do. The Scarlet Witch, Agatha explains, was supposed to be a myth, and yet there she is chilling in the suburbs doing dead-on impressions of Modern Family’s Julie Bowen. Between Evanora sporting some sort of magical headgear, and Wanda’s apparently prophetic vision of the Scarlet Witch, one can see why Agatha, who’s worked hard for her power, is somewhat jealous of and angry at Wanda, and how the next episode’s almost certain to feature a massive battle of the hexes.

The new Vision coming online. (Gif: Disney+/Marvel) The new Vision coming online. (Gif: Disney+/Marvel)

But the real tease for the conflict that’s to come doesn’t show up until the episode’s post-credits scene that clues you in to what chicanery Hayward and SWORD have been up to. Though WandaVision could have gotten away with the specter of “dead” Vision being its nod to Vision’s time spent being white and emotionless in the comics, the teaser introduces us to Vision’s reanimated corpse that’s been brought online using residual magic from the drone Wanda dragged out of Hex.

When this White Vision shows up next week, he’ll be powered by the very same magic that Wanda first manifested out of a desire to be reunited with him. Their next meeting, though, is likely to end with more than a few of them bearing deep wounds — both physical and emotional — that they may never recover from.

WandaVision’s season one finale debuts next Friday on Disney+.