“What If…?” Episode 4 Goes Fully Dark, And It’s Marvelous

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Although What If…? hasn’t ignited the same level of heated discourse or enthusiastic speculation as any of Marvel’s live-action Disney+ series’ (a sad testament to the fact that animation is still viewed by many fans as somehow inherently less canon), last Wednesday’s episode had become the subject of intense scrutiny after it became widely known that it would focus on the character of Doctor Stephen Strange…specifically, a dark and twisted version of him who goes by the title of Doctor Strange Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch).

What If...?
Doctor Strange Supreme | metro.co.uk

This was largely because, coming off the first trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home, one of many theories given for Marvel’s inconsistent characterization of Strange was that the Master of Mystic Arts had somehow been replaced by an evil doppelgänger from the Multiverse (or by Mephisto; yep, we’re doing that again). It’s a good theory: as a Doctor Strange fan baffled by some of his actions in the No Way Home trailer, I really like it. And then lo and behold, here comes What If…? with an entire episode built upon that very concept.

Now having seen the episode in question…yeah, I’m pretty sure this is another WandaVision situation where we played ourselves. I still love the evil Doctor Strange theory, mind you, and I’m not writing it off until we see how Doctor Strange Supreme’s character arc continues across What If…? season one, but I don’t know if there’s any real connection to No Way Home. And that’s okay, because like the WandaVision finale, What If…? episode four is great storytelling first and foremost.

Some of that is perhaps attributable to length: this episode is the longest of the four by a minute or two, and it enjoys a steady pacing that feels urgent without becoming frantic. But what sets it apart from the rest of What If…?, and elevates it to a place alongside WandaVision and the most sophisticated episodes of Loki and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, is the mature tone it’s able to capture. The episode earns and owns its darkest moments with a forcefulness that was once severely lacking from the franchise, and a sensitivity that evolves from WandaVision‘s nuanced handling of discussions about death and grief.

Usually, it’s Star Wars that’s not afraid to get bleak and depressing, even in their animated shows aimed (at least initially) at kids. But watching Doctor Strange Supreme lose his sanity, his soul, his loved ones, and ultimately his entire universe in a desperate attempt to cheat death that ends with him trapped in the crystallized remnants of what was once a timeline, begging What If…?‘s dispassionate narrator The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) for mercy, demonstrates quite powerfully that having an anthology of self-contained short stories in which to explore risky ideas can only be a good thing creatively.

The episode doesn’t even wait that long to go fully dark. The Nexus Event that kicks off Doctor Strange Supreme’s alternate timeline is the death of his girlfriend, Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), in the first few minutes. It’s admittedly an odd change, given that it relies so heavily on a chemistry between the two that was…never really there in Doctor Strange, but in this timeline apparently Strange really loves Palmer. The two surgeons are therefore on their way to a romantic dinner date when Strange’s car goes flying off a cliff – but in this timeline, Strange is miraculously unscathed and Palmer dies.

At first, this change doesn’t appear to have major ramifications: Doctor Strange still becomes a sorcerer and fights Dormammu (and somehow still survives that astral plane battle in the hospital where Christine saved his life in the original movie). It’s only when he gets his hands on the Time Stone that things take a turn for the worse, as Strange tries to revisit the moment of Palmer’s death and reverse it, only to discover that no matter what he changes in the past, all he does is weaken the integrity of his own universe. Christine still dies, over and over and over again.

And at a certain point, it starts to get really uncomfortable. Christine dies multiple times in the car crash, even when Strange has her drive. She dies of food poisoning the one time they actually make it to their destination. She gets shot dead in a pizza parlor when Strange picks a different location for their date. She dies in a random fire the one time he tries to abandon her for her own sake. It’s a lot, honestly. And maybe if Christine were actually a three-dimensional character, it wouldn’t be so questionable, but neither live-action nor animation did a very good job of fleshing out her personality and interests.

The problem only grows exponentially worse when the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) explains that Christine has to die…in order for Strange to become a sorcerer. It’s a textbook example of “fridging” – killing a female character solely to motivate a male character. There’s no attempt to subvert this trope, or even to comment on it. If anything, it only opens a frightening new can of worms because the Ancient One suggests that the universe itself needs Christine to die for Strange to rise. The Nexus Event caused by her death is referred to as an Absolute Point in Time that cannot be changed or undone without destroying the universe, and it’s left somewhat unclear why that is.

What If...?
The Watcher | mashable.com

Because if the whole point of Christine dying is to make sure Strange becomes a sorcerer, then it really shouldn’t matter how he gets to that point – just like it doesn’t seem to matter how Christine dies, only that she does die. I can totally get behind the idea that Doctor Strange is such a powerful mystic force that he (or some version of him) needs to exist in every universe and timeline; I don’t fully understand why his journey need be written in stone, especially since we know that other universes don’t require Christine’s death. Doesn’t that also throw out everything Sylvie and Loki did in the name of restoring free will to the Multiverse?

Interestingly, if Doctor Strange is so powerful that his universe literally balances upon him, that suggests he could be one of the MCU’s “Nexus Beings”, a group of characters in the comics who are considered the cornerstones of their respective timelines. Doctor Strange hasn’t been portrayed as a Nexus Being in the comics, but What If…? indicates that his power and influence puts him right up there alongside Kang the Conqueror, Vision, and the Scarlet Witch, all of whom are Nexus Beings in the comics and most likely in the MCU as well.

On that note, What If…? just might answer the burning question of what Scarlet Witch will be up to when we next meet her, in Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness. You’ll remember that Wanda Maximoff’s transformation into the Scarlet Witch during the WandaVision finale required her to absorb a large part of Agatha Harkness’ own magic and life-force into herself, weakening Agatha to the point of exhaustion. At the time, it seemed like a fairly simple way to incapacitate the witch. But What If…? reveals that power absorption has side effects, both good and bad. Mostly bad.

In the latest episode, Doctor Strange Supreme’s mission to bring back Christine leads him to the lost library of the ancient sorcerer Cagliostro, who was apparently one of the few people capable of undoing an Absolute Point in Time…but only by absorbing the powers of even greater mystical entities. Strange’s attempts to master this technique are not without some success (he gains the power he seeks, even if ultimately his universe implodes before he can spend more than a few moments with the resurrected Christine), but the experience transforms him into a horrible monster as he takes on the attributes of each creature he absorbs into his body: whether that’s a dragon, or the tentacled beast from episode one, or something that looks an awful lot like Mephisto.

It wasn’t until I rewatched the episode that I noticed the similarities to how Wanda’s first attempt at absorption also transformed her, albeit into a high-fashion sorceress rather than a grotesque demon. And that’s when I realized: if anyone in the main MCU timeline has reason to want to reverse an Absolute Point in Time, it’s Wanda. With the power she could gain from harvesting magical and cosmic forces far greater than herself, she could permanently undo the pain she’s experienced, and that her makeshift family suffered. She could even bring back her twin sons, whose voices she heard crying out to her in the WandaVision post-credits scene.

But first, she’d have to absorb a couple more beings – or perhaps, entire timelines and universes full of them. Good thing there’s an entire Multiverse gourmet buffet to choose from now, am I right? Maybe the demons and dark forces we once thought would be manipulating Wanda really ought to watch their backs because she could be coming to devour them. Though of course, the more powerful that Wanda grows, the more other entities will want to absorb her in turn…entities like, say, Mephisto. The possibilities are endlessly exciting, and I love how the MCU’s mystical side is developing its own complex ecosystem and food-chain.

What If...?
Doctor Strange | marvel.com

Doctor Strange Supreme’s journey in What If…?, however, acts as a cautionary tale for anyone trying to obtain that kind of ultimate power. Consumed in his personal agenda, he neglects his duties to his universe and allows it to rot and die. He does bring back Christine, but she returns only to witness the end of all things as Strange Supreme’s timeline finally collapses, leaving him trapped in a purple orb. Strange Supreme will likely return in What If…?, but it’s still unclear how he’ll be rescued from his prison, or who would want to do so anyway. My best guess is that at some point, The Watcher will finally break his no-interference policy to save the Multiverse from an interdimensional threat, bringing several timelines together so that a new team of Avengers can form.

But for now, we leave Strange Supreme right where he deserves to be – and with the tone and atmosphere of What If…? altered irrevocably by his tragic ending, I can’t wait to see what dark and ominous tale of suspense comes next.

Episode Rating: 9.5/10

“WandaVision” Episode 4 Snaps Us Back To Reality

SPOILERS FOR WANDAVISION AHEAD!

It seems we’re not the only ones who can’t get enough of WandaVision, and the opportunities it gives us to come up with theories, endlessly debate possible clues, and have fun in the vast sandbox that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coming off a shockingly strong third episode, WandaVision now turns its focus to events happening in the “real” MCU, outside the magical force-field encircling or entrapping Wanda’s suburban utopia of Westview…and allowing us to witness everything from new perspectives, putting many of the series’ most bizarre moments into context.

WandaVision
WandaVision | digitalspy.com

But the absurdity of the show hasn’t decreased a bit: how could it, with the reveal that WandaVision‘s sitcom adventures are indeed being broadcast onto every vintage TV within a 5-mile radius of Westview, giving familiar MCU heroes a chance to develop their own theories about what’s going on? It’s getting pretty meta around here, so let’s dive right in.

The fourth episode is roughly split down the middle by a small time jump, with the first ten minutes or so following S.W.O.R.D. Agent Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and the remaining twenty minutes mostly focusing on astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings): both are returning characters from other MCU properties who, for a variety of reasons, have gotten entangled in a bizarre missing persons case in rural New Jersey…or rather, a missing town case. These two characters form the crux of the episode, and their brilliant performances make this interruption from the regular program both worthwhile and entertaining, but neither are able to fully overcome an infuriating time constraint that forces them to jump from one plot-point to the next like pinballs.

Monica’s part of the episode starts off extremely strong, as she’s in the process of being spontaneously resurrected from scraps of floating dust and ash – in what Spider-Man: Far From Home humorously referred to as “the Blip”, the moment when the half of Earth’s population that had been snapped out of existence by Thanos was suddenly brought back to life in Avengers: Endgame. Far From Home used the concept as an excuse for light comedy, but WandaVision‘s darker tone allows the series freedom to explore the event’s catastrophic aftermath: in Monica’s case, a hospital suddenly overcrowded by hundreds of patients being resurrected in their beds or in hallways, causing a panicked stampede. But for Monica, who has no recollection of being snapped and no idea what’s going on, there’s a more pressing issue before her: the death of her mother, Maria Rambeau, who was being treated for cancer five years before when Monica snapped while waiting beside her hospital bed for her to wake up after surgery.

The reveal that Maria and her daughter never got to say goodbye is heart-wrenching, particularly because we in the audience knew how much Maria loved Monica just from her one appearance in Captain Marvel. I know I shouldn’t have to write a eulogy for a fictional character, but Maria Rambeau was instantly charismatic, vivacious, energetic, and a daring yet coolheaded adventurer. WandaVision reveals that she was also one of the founding members of S.W.O.R.D., and helped set up guidelines in case the vanished, including her own daughter, ever returned one day. I know that Maria’s death is probably real and irreversible…but oh, I want to believe that she faked her own death and is up in space on Nick Fury’s secret space-station, working on some top-secret mission. I theorized a while ago that Maria and Monica would be a mother/daughter S.W.O.R.D. Agent duo, and I was right, but not in the way I’d imagined. I’m disappointed that such a potentially dynamic relationship was pushed offscreen, and deeply sad that one of the MCU’s few Black heroines has already died so tragically.

WandaVision
Monica Rambeau and Jimmy Woo | syfy.com

Monica, who works at S.W.O.R.D. helping to observe and respond to threats posed by “sentient weapons” (and cautions her boss that S.W.O.R.D. shouldn’t be designing sentient weapons themselves, possible foreshadowing some future conflict), returns to work after the Blip only to find herself “grounded”, i.e. restricted to terrestrial missions. This at least confirms that S.W.O.R.D. has an interstellar presence, something we all questioned when the organization’s new acronym was revealed. It’s all part of Maria’s plan to stabilize agents left traumatized by the Snap and the Blip, but Monica is understandably upset until she becomes invested in her new assignment: helping the FBI track down an entire town in New Jersey, that’s disappeared behind a glowing force-field, leaving those outside the bubble with no recollection of the town, or its citizens. A bit like Beauty & The Beast – which also involves a powerful sorceress turning a group of innocent people into warped versions of themselves.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend much time with Teyonah Parris’ Monica before she vanishes into the force-field too, leaving the only witness, FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), horrified and in urgent need of backup. Maybe without that thirty-five minute mark looming on the horizon, we would have had more time to see Monica’s life beyond her work. A single scene of her visiting Maria’s grave could have gone a long way, as trope-y as it sounds.

The episode’s second half picks up twenty-four hours later, as an armored truckload of scientific professionals are escorted into the S.W.O.R.D./FBI camp outside Westview – one of those professionals being Darcy, whom we haven’t seen since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, back when she was still an intern to Jane Foster (who I guess is too busy being Thor to answer S.W.O.R.D.’s calls right now?). She hasn’t changed a bit: her unshakable sense of humor injects the perfect amount of levity into the intense atmosphere. And it takes her no time at all to discover that, for whatever reason, Westview is broadcasting episodes of WandaVision onto vintage TV sets: revealing to S.W.O.R.D. that superheroine Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is behind the recent disappearances.

I have to admit, I do love indulging in the nifty meta humor of watching S.W.O.R.D. Agents pick apart every detail in the WandaVision broadcasts, only to now do the same to the S.W.O.R.D. Agents myself. Marvel is lovingly teasing us keen-eyed fans, taking it right up to the brink of parody with visuals like Jimmy Woo’s giant whiteboard of theories (he seems perplexed by the hexagon imagery prevalent in Westview: it’s clearly because the number 6 is associated with the devil, a.k.a. Mephisto!). Darcy and Jimmy even get too invested in the series, sharing snacks while waiting for Wanda to have her twins. They’re like highly-trained fandom theorists, but we in the real world have an advantage over them: because WandaVision‘s broadcasts to the MCU choppily edit out all the scenes in which Wanda loses control over her reality – something that confuses S.W.O.R.D. nearly as much as it does me.

Dinner with the Harts, Dottie’s exploding lemonade glass, the beekeeper…all of it’s been cut by some supernatural network censor. S.W.O.R.D.’s attempts to break through to Wanda with drones, radio transmissions, and human agents, all end in failure as anything that goes into Westview becomes distorted by Wanda’s reality-bending magic. Unfortunately for S.W.O.R.D., that means they miss the best part of episode three, when Wanda turns on Monica and throws her out of Westview: they only experience the aftermath, as Monica comes flying out of the sky and crashes into the S.W.O.R.D. camp.

Thankfully, we the audience are treated to a flashback to that same encounter, but from Monica’s POV. Last week’s episode ended before we could see how things went down, but now we get to witness the violent power of Wanda’s hex-magic as she propels Monica through the side of her house and across town, hurriedly repairing the wall just moments before Vision (Paul Bettany) enters. As Wanda and Monica face off, the aspect ratio shifts as well as the style of Elizabeth Olsen’s acting (and nary a laugh-track to be heard), indicating that Wanda isn’t confused or conflicted about what’s going on: her fantasy has been disturbed by Monica’s presence, and to protect it she momentarily has to break the fantasy façade she’s built to deal with the intruder. This is followed by a freaky jump-scare moment from Wanda’s POV as she turns to greet Vision – and briefly sees him as a gray, corpse-like figure with blank eyes and a hole gouged out of his forehead. Her reality is splitting open, despite her claims that she has everything under control.

WandaVision
Dead Vision | comicbook.com

The strong implication of this week’s episode is that everything in Westview is entirely Wanda’s doing. Wanda says so herself, and Monica’s first words after her crash-landing are “It’s Wanda…it’s all Wanda”. But I’m not buying it, and I’m not willing to accept S.W.O.R.D.’s findings as fact when they’re not even working with the same information we have. As I’ve said before, I think Wanda has some control over Westview, but I believe that’s a small concession on the part of whatever greater power actually designed this pocket dimension for her to inhabit, and is now using it to ensnare her children.

At least this episode will encourage us all to step up our theorizing game if we’re to beat S.W.O.R.D. to the answers. Time will tell if it was wise to introduce the MCU’s next great wave of space-based heroes as essentially a group of over-eager Wanda stans investigating Lizzie’s every move, but hey, it gives us a weirdly fun challenge to look forward to as viewers, so…I’m not complaining.

Episode Rating: 7.9/10

Who’s Who In “WandaVision”

SPOILERS FOR WANDAVISION AHEAD!

As WandaVision‘s central mystery expands across several decades of television history and at least two distinctly separate realities, so too does its cast of characters, both major players and bit parts. And with Wanda raising the stakes dramatically in episode three, it’s becoming more important to tell characters apart and work out the most important details in any Marvel Cinematic Universe property – who’s connected to whom, and who’s working for whom? WandaVision hints at the idea that charming newlyweds Wanda Maximoff and Vision are being manipulated by dark forces lurking within their quaint suburban community of Westview: but after yesterday it’s looking more likely that Wanda herself has a hand in causing the strange events that plague her and her husband from day one of their married life together.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

Wanda Maximoff

WandaVision
Wanda Maximoff | cnet.com

Our series’ heroine has always been something of a lone wolf. After the events of Avengers: Endgame, with Vision dead, her strongest tie to the Avengers family was severed – and it looks like she decided to finally follow Hawkeye’s lead and just retire. But Hawkeye already had a family with which to settle down. Wanda first had to build one of her own, which would require her to do…whatever she did to bring back Vision back to life, possibly only in her dreams. Noting how violent her reaction has been to the S.W.O.R.D. logo whenever it pops up in Westview, many fans have speculated that Wanda was working with S.W.O.R.D. (which stands for Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division in the MCU) to resurrect Vision when she went rogue and decided to hijack the experiment, eloping with her android boyfriend into a pocket dimension that she created on the site of the real town of Westview…or which someone else created for her, in order to lure her into a trap. Either way, it’s beginning to look like the citizens of the real Westview are now trapped there with her against their will, and are the real victims in this messy situation.

Allegiance: let’s mark her down as a free agent for now. It may turn out she’s being too heavily manipulated to see the chaos she’s causing, but honestly, it looks like she has a lot of control over Westview and is enjoying her newfound power. So even if she’s not entirely at fault, I don’t think she’s blameless either.

Vision

WandaVision
Vision | indianexpress.com

How did Vision go from being killed by Wanda to being resurrected by Thanos, to being killed by Thanos, to being resurrected yet again in WandaVision? Well, extrapolating off the theory that Wanda was working with S.W.O.R.D. to resurrect the android post-Endgame, my guess is that S.W.O.R.D.’s tech was capable of rebooting Vision – but without any of his past memories, including those he shared with Wanda. Learning this could easily have spurred Wanda to betray S.W.O.R.D. and steal the android’s partially-rebooted body for her own purposes, and would explain why Vision’s memory seems so fragmented. He clearly remembers Wanda, or at least has been convinced to think he does, but he seems clueless about his past, and even his purpose in Westview: unlike Wanda, who enters the sitcom reality with a clear motive to settle down and fit in. But he’s also inquisitive, which will serve him well in the coming days/decades.

Allegiance: I believe he’s linked to Wanda, at least for now. He’ll probably try to exercise his free will as the couple clash in later episodes, but I have a nasty feeling Wanda will be able to tug him along whithersoever she goes. Doesn’t mean we won’t get an epic battle sequence out of it, though.

Agnes

WandaVision
Agnes | hollywoodlife.com

Many of us are so convinced that Wanda’s overly-friendly next-door neighbor Agnes is actually the evil witch Agatha Harkness from Marvel Comics that it’s become almost second nature to refer to her as Agatha. With literally every clue pointing towards this being the case (apart from the similar names, Agnes’ wedding anniversary is the same day the Salem Witch Trials started, she wears a witchy brooch, and even owns a rabbit named for Harkness’ son in the comics), it seems almost too easy a connection to make. Personally, I suspect Agnes will be Agatha in some form or another, and is probably still a witch, but I’m not convinced Marvel isn’t totally reinventing the character as a more sympathetic antiheroine, a victim of manipulative forces. My guess: she’s responsible for luring Wanda into the pocket dimension surrounding Westview at the orders of Mephisto, Marvel’s devil, and is thus aware of what’s going on – but isn’t fully evil.

Allegiance: Agatha Harkness being Mephisto’s right-hand woman in the comics paves the way for Agnes to fill a similar role. But her small panic attack in yesterday’s episode makes me think she’s unwillingly serving the devil and trying to escape from him. There’s an interesting story to be told there about the toxic and abusive relationships endorsed by the same patriarchal system that many classic sitcoms upheld.

Dottie And Phil Jones

WandaVision
Dottie Jones | decider.com

Dottie (and, to a lesser degree, her husband Phil) is perhaps WandaVision‘s biggest enigma to me at the moment, and I’ve cycled through several theories about who – or what – she is. Her high status among the citizens (particularly the women) of Westview strongly implies that, like Agnes, she may be a witch. And with witches and Mephisto going hand-in-hand in Marvel comics, it’s not too much of a stretch to extrapolate that she could be working with the devil to steal Wanda’s twins – after all, she did lead the eerie communal chant of “For The Children”. But I’m beginning to wonder if the lemonade glass exploding in her hand and revealing her red blood (in the black-and-white episode) was an attempt by Mephisto to alert Wanda to the fact that Dottie, whether she’s a witch or not, is also a third-party intruder with her own agenda in Westview.

Allegiance: if Dottie has an ulterior motive for wanting Wanda to hurry up and have kids, what is it? Like Mephisto in the comics, she could be trying to absorb young Billy and Tommy into her soul to increase her demonic power…or, if she’s not evil, she might be trying to protect the children before someone else has a chance to kidnap them.

The Townsfolk

WandaVision
Mr. Hart, Vision, and Mrs. Hart | dailyadvent.com

Despite how it looks, not everybody in Westview has some grandiose plan to steal Wanda’s babies – and now that episode three has confirmed that Westview is a real town in the real world, it would seem that most of the background players in WandaVision are just regular people who got sucked into the sitcom fantasy against their will. Judging by how close Westview appears to be to a large S.W.O.R.D. complex, some of these people might be low-level S.W.O.R.D. staffers, nonthreatening to Wanda. Vision’s co-worker Norm could fall into this category (his actor, Asif Ali, also played a low-level Cybertek employee in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Others, like Herb and possibly the mailman Dennis, might have a better idea of what’s going on – Herb even begins to disclose the truth to Vision, telling him that “Geraldine” arrived in Westview “because we’re all…she came here because we’re all…” before being stopped by Agnes, who confronts him with a panic-stricken expression. We’re all…trapped, I assume? Dennis has his own bizarre run-in with Agnes while walking past Wanda’s house, where they exchange what seems like coded banter.

Allegiance: most of these folks, with the possible exception of Herb and Dennis, probably don’t have any strong allegiances that will put them at conflict with Wanda, Mephisto, or even neighbors like Agnes. If that changes, I’ll be sure to point it out.

“Geraldine”

WandaVision
“Geraldine” | elle.com

Long before WandaVision premiered, it had already been confirmed by Marvel that Teyonah Parris would be playing Monica Rambeau in the series, so “Geraldine’s” secret identity was never much of a mystery. Set photos and promotional material had also revealed that Rambeau, last seen in the MCU as the young and impressionable daughter of retired test pilot Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel, would now be working with S.W.O.R.D. in some capacity. If WandaVision were following the comics exactly, this would totally make sense: there, S.W.O.R.D. deals with space and explores alien worlds, and MCU Monica grew up surrounded by aliens thanks to Captain Marvel’s dealings with her mother. But MCU S.W.O.R.D. tackles “sentient weapons”, making Monica’s chosen career path a little more confusing. In the comics, Monica also has superpowers – which I think Wanda might have accidentally given to her when she wrapped Monica up in a hex-magic cocoon and tossed her out of WandaVision.

Allegiance: Monica seems loyal to S.W.O.R.D.; though a conflict could arise if S.W.O.R.D. responds to Wanda’s actions with further violence, and Monica cautions them to go gentle. Monica was raised to see the good in everybody: I think she’ll sympathize with Wanda’s pain, and genuinely want to help her.

“Ralph”

WandaVision
Mephisto | looper.com

In the first three episodes of WandaVision, we’ve learned more random details about Agnes’ mysterious husband “Ralph” than we’ve learned about Agnes herself…but where is he? Who is he, really? Until he shows up in person, we won’t know – but my suspicion is that he’s none other than Mephisto himself, and that his marriage with Agnes is more metaphorical than anything (but literal enough that Agnes actively avoids her “mother-in-law”), a way of hiding in plain sight while observing Wanda. Agnes’ remarks about him paint a disturbing picture of a repulsive character whom Agnes wants to leave, but can’t.

Allegiance: if “Ralph” truly is Mephisto, he serves no one but himself, but freely manipulates those around him, like Agnes, Dottie, and of course, Wanda.

So what do you think? Which WandaVision characters do you want to know more about heading into episode four? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

“WandaVision” Episode 3 Welcomes Wanda’s Twins To Westview

SPOILERS FOR WANDAVISION AHEAD!

Now awash in technicolor splendor, Wanda Maximoff’s eerie suburban reality gets a shake-up in the third episode of WandaVision, with the series’ increasingly dangerous protagonist unceremoniously making room for two new additions to her faux family by kicking out an unwelcome visitor who had slipped through the cracks in last week’s episode. But as the invisible barriers around the town of Westview shrink ever inwards, it seems many of our characters – including Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) themselves – are starting to catch on to the fact that the world they know is actually some kind of custom-made, maximum-security prison…and Wanda herself is possibly the jailor.

WandaVision
Vision and Wanda | cnet.com

This week’s episode strands us in the middle of the 1970’s, an era of acquired tastes: from the over-the-top fashion and hairstyles (I could write a whole separate blog post about Paul Bettany’s hair alone), to a whole new line-up of beloved classic sitcoms to mine for material, including The Brady Bunch; which WandaVision subtly parodies with this week’s opening sequence graphics and new design aesthetic. But though the change in decades has spontaneously updated every character’s appearance and wardrobe (I feel for the citizens of Westview, never knowing what time period’s atrocious fashion sensibilities they’ll be saddled with on any given day), it appears that the story has picked up right where we left off…in the late 60’s. Wanda’s entire maternity spans about a day, during which the world around her moves ahead by years.

Time and space don’t seem to mean much within the poorly-defined boundaries of Westview. Not only is the year and decade changing with each passing sunrise, but the exact location of the town is hard to pin down too…since there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond its outskirts. Wanda’s doctor (played by Randy Oglesby) seems excited to head to Bermuda for a vacation, and even packs his bags and starts his car to leave, only to promptly change his mind with the ominous phrase: “Small towns, you know. So hard to…escape.” Taking all the clues into consideration, it’s safe to say Westview is a prison in that no one is able to leave – that is, unless you get Wanda mad and she telekinetically body-slams you through the side of a house and catapults you out of her mini-universe. I’m not sure that’s a risk worth taking just to get to Bermuda, but hey, it’s an option.

So who’s running the prison? The most likely candidate is still the devil himself, Mephisto, and his henchwoman Agatha Harkness from the comics – who’s probably already shown up in WandaVision as Wanda’s nosy next-door neighbor, Agnes (Kathryn Hahn). Once again, we hear from Agnes about her as-yet-unseen husband, “Ralph”, whom many of us believe will turn out to be Mephisto himself: Agnes’ comment that he looks better in the darkness only adds to the mystery surrounding this character.

But this week’s episode also puts a new possibility on the table, and it’s one I never initially suspected: could HYDRA be behind all this? The covert Neo-Nazi organization hasn’t been very active in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Age Of Ultron, where – interestingly – their last major act was unleashing Wanda Maximoff and her twin brother Pietro on the Avengers, in an unsuccessful attempt to divide and conquer the superhero team. But Wanda’s old HYDRA handler, Baron von Strücker, was referenced in one of WandaVision‘s tantalizing commercial segments, and this week’s commercial features another nod to HYDRA, spoofing the Calgon “Take Me Away” advert from the 70’s with an important message about the rejuvenating powers of Hydra Soak: a bath powder that comes in a cute little blue package and features the tagline “find the goddess within” – a possible reference to Wanda’s latent mutant powers, unlocked by HYDRA’s experiments on her? This ad diverges slightly from the pattern established in the previous two, but not so radically that we can throw out everything we’ve theorized.

WandaVision
Hydra Soak | newsweek.com

Some Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans have been quick to point out the similarities between Hydra Soak and the blue soap used by HYDRA to mind-control citizens of their alternate reality in The Framework, in the long-running MCU-adjacent series’ fourth season. If that is what WandaVision is referencing with Hydra Soak, it’s theoretically possible that HYDRA is using some form of Framework technology to keep Wanda’s mind and spirit trapped in her sitcom bubble, while her unconscious body would remain in stasis – perhaps at some other location entirely. I’m nervous to jump onboard this theory because S.H.I.E.L.D. fans have been burned before, but I can’t deny it piques my interest going forward. Forget Ultron infomercials – give me more of that HYDRA mind-control soap!

But I’m not ruling out Wanda as the series’ big bad either. Whether provoked to action by her “mama bear” instincts, or motivated by some subconscious agenda, Wanda once again displays the cool-headed confidence and decisiveness that suggests that she has at least some control over Westview and its people, including interlopers like “Geraldine” (Teyonah Parris), and is in fact holding them hostage as extras for the sitcom she wants her life to be. It’s still hard to say what’s her doing and what’s not – for instance, when Vision gets put on rewind for asking too many questions about Westview, is that Wanda trying to shield her husband from the truth, or someone else stepping in to shut him up? – but Elizabeth Olsen effortlessly conveys the brokenness and bewilderment that makes this mystery work. Wanda herself doesn’t seem to know whether she’s really in control, but she clearly enjoys the feeling: so watching her step into her power and struggle with the consequences should be thrilling.

Compare that to Vision, who needs irrefutable facts and data to back up any decision he makes, and is clearly uncomfortable living in a world where he doesn’t know his place or purpose. Again, we’re seeing the very highest quality of acting from stars who’ve never really had a chance to shine in the Marvel films – and I’m thoroughly excited to see Paul Bettany take us on a journey of self-discovery with the innocent Vision as he begins to exert his independence from Wanda, as I assume he will after learning that his wife re-animated his corpse.

But as the intertwined wedding rings in the closing credits suggest, these two are bound together by something – and now it’s clear that will be their twin sons, Billy and Tommy, making their long-awaited MCU debut at last. In the comics, both boys grow up to be Young Avengers; with Billy becoming a sorcerer like his mother (and one of Marvel’s most prominent gay superheroes), and Tommy inheriting his uncle Pietro’s super-speed (a power which Vision also possesses in the MCU). Billy, in particular, is incredibly powerful – but both boys spent their infancy in the comics being hunted by demonic entities who wished to absorb their strength. WandaVision has teased that storyline, with all of Westview pressuring Wanda to have children and possibly using magic to induce her sudden pregnancy. It’s understandable why the couple are trying to hide that they’re expecting throughout episode three.

“Geraldine” is unlucky enough to be on hand when Wanda goes into labor (nine months early), and helps deliver baby Tommy – after first having a bizarre run-in with the stork painted on Wanda’s nursery wall, which comes to life and pursues her fish-patterned pants. The chaotic scene is exacerbated by an incident on the front lawn, with Wanda’s neighbor Herb (David Payton) cheerfully sawing away at the fence separating his property from Wanda’s with a hedge-trimmer. Following the birth, Vision finds Agnes also outside, questioning Herb about “Geraldine”. Vision confronts the two, and gets a string of vague excuses for their strange behavior – culminating in Agnes implying that “Geraldine” shouldn’t be allowed around Wanda because she doesn’t have a family, husband, or even a home, and Herb trying to let Vision in on some secret about the town only to be silenced by an uncharacteristic outburst from Agnes, who frantically implores him to “stop it!”.

The brilliantly edited sequence cuts back and forth from Agnes’ sinister gossip to the scene inside the house, where “Geraldine” and Wanda are making small-talk while looking after the newborns. Wanda casually mentions that she has a twin, and namedrops Pietro, sparking a glitch in reality as “Geraldine” suddenly blurts out that “he [Pietro] was killed by Ultron”, exposing her true nature as an intruder to Westview. Wanda circles her around the cribs menacingly, and then pauses, catching sight of the sword-shaped necklace pendant around her neck: the same sword she saw last week on a helicopter in her rosebush, and on the mystery beekeeper who emerged from the sewer.

WandaVision
Monica Rambeau | metro.co.uk

But chillingly, when Vision enters the house just a few moments later and asks where “Geraldine” went, all Wanda says is that she had to leave in a hurry. There’s no happy sitcom ending this week: only a haunting shot of Wanda standing above her twins’ cribs, smiling down at her babies. And a final scene, set to “Daydream Believer”, of “Geraldine” flying through a night sky past a Westview billboard and hitting the earth hard, while armored vehicles and military personnel surround her. She’s been flung out of Wanda’s reality, clearly, and back into her own – confirming two things: firstly, that she is Monica Rambeau, an Agent of S.W.O.R.D.; and secondly, that Westview exists in the real world as well as in Wanda’s. In the real world, the town is encircled by roadblocks, force-fields, spotlights and barbed wire…but there are lights in the windows of visible houses.

So is WandaVision the harrowing account of an entire town being held captive by a mutant sorceress and distorted into a sitcom fantasy? I expect more answers when the series returns next week, with an episode some are speculating will recount Monica Rambeau’s adventure in flashbacks, explaining what’s going on outside the WandaVision bubble, allowing us to catch up with old friends like Darcy Lewis and Jimmy Woo, and hopefully clarifying whether the population of Westview is really being forced to wear 70’s clothes against their will.

Episode Rating: 10/10