SPOILERS FOR WANDAVISION AHEAD!
Trying to devise ways for characters to spew exposition and backstory organically is always a stumbling block for writers (I speak from personal experience), particularly when that exposition has to introduce complicated concepts like Chaos Magic and “probability hexes”. Which is why it’s so awesome that WandaVision sidesteps this issue by simply devoting all but a few minutes of episode eight (the series’ penultimate installment) to a series of exceptionally well-written and well-acted flashback sequences that allow us to see everything in real-time without being wordy or dull. What commentary there is, is dry, witty, and delivered with characteristic dark humor by onlooker Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), who describes it as looking “at some real reruns”, an ingenious way of tying everything back to the sitcoms that started it all (quite literally, as we soon find out).
Even before those real reruns get started, though, we’re treated to some more flashbacks of Agatha’s own tragic past. Last week’s “Agatha All Along” musical recap sequence was the campy cultural reset we all needed, and even though episode eight doesn’t provide us with any more tunes to get us through the weekend, we have instead been blessed with Kathryn Hahn hamming it up for an over-the-top ridiculous Salem Witch Trial flashback that reveals how Westview’s resident sorceress (well, one of many) got her start, by stealing forbidden knowledge of dark magic from her coven – and then transforming them into withered corpses, including her own mother (whose pendant she now wears as a creepy reminder). I don’t mind me some Agatha wearing colonial attire – the energy of that outfit is not heterosexual, that’s all I have to say – but I do find it interesting that WandaVision is radically altering the witch’s backstory to remove Mephisto from the equation. Suddenly I have to wonder: will the devilish Hell Lord even appear, or did Marvel play us?
There are still possible nods to Satan early on in the episode, and Agatha’s rabbit in particular is beginning to look suspicious, but for the most part the focus is on dark magic, and its many varieties. The MCU has notoriously been reluctant to ever admit that magic is actually magic: from trying to claim that gods are actually technologically-advanced aliens in Thor, to never calling Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) by her comics alias Scarlet Witch (we’ll get to that), the franchise has historically been more comfortable in the realm of quantum physics and nonsensical science lingo that might as well be magic, rather than the real deal. But that changed today, with Agatha giving Wanda – and WandaVision audiences – a schooling on the subjects of magic, mind control, transmutation, chanting mysteriously in Latin, and opening portals through space and time (yes, I know the latter is something Marvel heroes do on the regular: but rarely does the process require a single hair extracted from the unwilling victim).
Agatha’s basement, filled with macabre trinkets and guarded from Wanda by seals of protection on the walls, is only the threshold of a harrowing spirit journey for Wanda, who is about as clueless to the inner workings of magic as we are, and for Agatha, who’s intent on discovering how the young sorceress accumulated so much power. All along, that’s seemingly been Agatha’s goal: not to summon Mephisto up from hell, or resurrect the dead, but to learn the secret behind Westview’s spontaneous creation, something she had no part in…and honestly, same. Isn’t that what we’ve all been trying to figure out for the past few weeks? Okay, okay, so the vast majority of us probably didn’t steal people from the Multiverse to act as spies in Westview, but the point still stands: Agatha is just a misunderstood Marvel fan-theorist whose been driven to the brink of insanity by WandaVision‘s twists and turns.
But with Wanda unable to give Agatha the information she craves, the cunning sorceress decides to do some digging into Wanda’s past to get to the root of it all – that feeling of emptiness that Wanda claimed was the only thing she could remember about the beginning of her time in Westview. Together, the delightfully dynamic duo set off through one portal after another, reliving Wanda’s trauma in real-time as Agatha inches closer to an answer. They start in Sokovia, when Wanda and her twin-brother Pietro are still children, learning English with the help of classic American sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and Wanda’s personal favorite, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Perhaps even more so than the sitcom-inspired WandaVision episodes, this brief yet touching scene beautifully captures the magic of being immersed in old sitcoms – and subtly explains why Wanda in particular finds them so enchanting: they’re low-stakes. Every ridiculous predicament, every fantastical shenanigan, every little problem gets sorted out in under thirty minutes with no lasting consequences.
But this is Wanda we’re talking about, so she never gets to enjoy such mundane mischief. Moments later, the screen goes black as an explosion rocks the Maximoff family household, killing Wanda’s parents and stranding the twins under a bed while a Stark Industries missile sits a few feet away, beeping ominously, and Dick Van Dyke keeps playing in the background (somehow the TV survived). We learn that it was Wanda who kept the second bomb from exploding, using a probability hex to protect her and her brother for two days. Agatha’s suspicions piqued, they quickly move on to HYDRA’s laboratory in Sokovia. The trailers had previously revealed a snippet of this sequence, which sees Wanda being goaded by HYDRA doctors to touch the Mind Stone: but the resulting collision of powers is a spectacular lightshow, amidst which Wanda glimpses a stunning premonition (the most breathtaking visual in the episode) of herself in silhouette rising from the Mind Stone’s shards, wearing her half-moon tiara and a version of her comics costume, all accompanied by her soaring instrumental theme.
The HYDRA doctors are baffled by Wanda’s strength, but Agatha comments that the Stone only amplified her existing powers. And while that might seem to point towards a mutant origin reveal…that’s not where this is going. The next flashback doesn’t expose anything huge, and Agatha seems disappointed in it, but it’s a brilliant showcase of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany’s talents, as the couple share a tender emotional moment in Avengers Compound soon after Wanda’s arrival in the States, and illuminates the thematic heart of the series – the intersection between inconsolable grief and unquenchable love. You get an Emmy, and you get an Emmy, and you get an Emmy too, Kathryn Hahn.
Finally, we get to witness events from just a few weeks prior to WandaVision‘s start, and an unedited account of Wanda’s arrival at S.W.O.R.D. headquarters looking for the Vision’s body. Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) framed Wanda’s actions there as those of a delusional and dangerous woman overcome by grief – but like any misogynist trying to portray a powerful woman as a villain, he left out vital context where it benefitted him: like the bit where Wanda actually just wanted Vision’s body to get a proper burial; or the bit where Hayward invited her in and showed her that S.W.O.R.D. had secretly been operating on the android for years, before trying to emotionally manipulate her into violently seizing the body; or, most damningly, the bit where she considered doing just that and then decided against it, exposing Hayward as a liar. I had always wondered how, even with all the magic available to her, Wanda would have lugged Vision’s splintered corpse hundreds of miles from S.W.O.R.D. HQ to New Jersey…but she never did. She got back in her car (Wanda owning a car is somehow weirder to me than her dragging body parts across America), and drove off to Westview alone save for a single piece of paper: a blueprint for a house that she and Vision had planned to build there together, where they could settle down, start a family, and grow old. I didn’t know WandaVision could retroactively make me hate Thanos even more, but I’ve never been so eager to rewatch Endgame just to enjoy the look of horror on his face as he got snapped out of existence.
If you’ve been following along with my reviews, you know I’ve been dubious that Wanda created The Hex. Well, I was completely wrong. Not only did she create it, but we get to witness the moment her reality-altering powers finally exploded outwards over Westview, redesigning the rundown hamlet into a quaint fantasy world, as grief and pain brought her to her knees. No Satanic influences, no Nightmarish manipulation; but one woman standing in the eye of the hurricane, ripped apart from the inside by a love so powerful it could change the very fabric of the universe.
When Darcy wondered aloud why Vision (Paul Bettany) can’t leave The Hex, I thought it was because his body was dead in the real world – but I was operating under the assumption that there was only one Vision, that Wanda really had stolen and reanimated his body. She never did. She made her own, from memory, using her own power to give him life. Which is…still not great from a moral standpoint, but certainly a step up from having kids with a mutilated corpse.
Speaking of kids, Wanda remembers hers are in grave danger as Agatha finally lets her go, and the two confront each other on the soundstage for WandaVision episode one (like, they’re actually on the literal set – and the camera turns to pick out Agatha in the empty auditorium, mockingly clapping in an echo of the live studio audience applause heard in the pilot). Agatha has what she needs: she vanishes, and suddenly Wanda hears her children screaming for help. She breaks another fourth wall and runs from the stage, from Agatha’s basement, out into Westview.
And Agatha is levitating there, Cher-style hair blowing dramatically in the breeze, gripping Billy and Tommy Maximoff by two leashes of purple energy. It’s a bizarre visual, but it’s hard to focus or care (sorry, kids) as Agatha begins talking, and delivers the episode’s big zinger:
“You’re supposed to be a myth. A being capable of spontaneous creation…this whole little life you’ve made, this is Chaos Magic, Wanda. And that makes you the Scarlet Witch.”
It’s a crowd-pleaser moment, for sure: we’ve waited years to hear the Scarlet Witch title used of Wanda in the MCU, and Marvel’s aversion to the supernatural delayed it far longer than necessary. But from Agatha’s words, it seems like the Scarlet Witch is much more than a nickname – it’s an identity, and the implication is that other Scarlet Witches have existed in the past, similarly gifted with the power to wield Chaos Magic (the most powerful magic in Marvel Comics, capable of rewriting reality and destroying the universe). Is she some kind of goddess? A force of nature? A metaphysical construct? My best guess is that WandaVision is adapting the concept of Nexus Beings, living creatures whose mere presence balances the universe – much like the Infinity Stones. These beings, deified archetypes with immense power, have no alternate versions anywhere in the Multiverse: and what do you know, Wanda is one in the comics.
The mid-credits stinger revisits Tyler Hayward, whose planning his attack on Westview and has brought in new equipment to help – or rather, old repurposed equipment. Before the reveal happened, I knew it had to be Vision (as in, the real one that Wanda didn’t steal). But I didn’t expect the White Vision to finally make his MCU debut like this. A hollow emotionless vessel outfitted for war, the existence of the White Vision actually gives me hope that Vision (as in, the fake one that Wanda created) will be able to inhabit this new character’s alabaster body after his old one disintegrates, as it inevitably will when The Hex comes crashing down next week.
Episode Rating: 8/10