SPOILERS AHEAD … IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WANDA KNOWS IT — AND SHE FEELS FINE? NOT SO MUCH MAYBE …
This is a tale of two WandaVision episodes.
In the first, episode 8, “Previously On”, the title of which was a promotional staple of week-to-week episodic TV, we are treated to an emotional and psychological battle of the wills between Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) which comes across as the world’s strangest but ultimately most impacting and meaningful therapy session, while in the second, episode 9’s “The Series Finale”, it’s business as usual in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (assuming this holds for its TV output which thus far has been epically cinematic in scope and visuals) with a titanic battle between these two women, and two versions of Vision (Paul Bettany), neither of which is really the synthezoid Wanda fall headlong in love with.
One feels very much in keeping with the adventurous storytelling approach that has characterised this innovative seriees while the either, while good, felt like a settling into a familiar old rut albeit one with some seriously rich emotional undertones.
Let’s start with the good stuff though.
“Previously On’ gave us the big grief-stricken breakthrough that this reviewer felt was curiously lacking in episode 7, “Breaking the Fourth Wall”, which seem to promise the big breakthrough that Wanda, and all the people trapped in her grief-induced delusion of sitcom perfection, desperately need.
Thankfully, that arrived in episode 8 and how!
“Previously On” began with a visit to Salem in 1693 where Agatha Harkness has been summoned by her witches coven, led by her mother, to atone for her sins in acquiring magic that she has no right to: it doesn’t end well, however, with Agatha draining all their life forces and growing ever stronger as a result.
She’s a powerful witch and so she believes, after centuries to think about it, hone her skills and prepare, that she is going to be able to best Wanda too, whose boys are being held hostage and who, after Agatha takes her through a series of searing and often painful life events, including the death of her parents in Sokovia, her participation with Hydra and the death of her beloved Vision (we also see their tentative but touching courtship), will only be too willing to hand over her immense power to Agatha who acts like some sort of magic succubus.
What is so magnificently powerful about this episode is not simply the battle for supremacy between one woman who think she’s born to it and deserves it all, and one who is still consumed by grief and unwilling to accept that life as she knows it has changed completely, but how much rich humanity and empathy consumes each and every scene.
If you have ever experienced the cold, stilling hand of grief, you will be all too aware how hard it is to walk away from it.
While none of us have the power that Wanda has to create an actual alternate reality where all the pain that has changed her irrevocably never happened – it’s still present of course but covered over by delusion on a grand and damaging scale – all of us have, in our own non-superhero-y way, re-shaped reality to help us deal with loss unimaginable.
It’s this universality of humanity that has made WandaVision such a compelling watch and episode eight is bursting to it.
Yes, Agatha is playing the role of sumptuously cocky villain, with her goal to get Wanda’s considerable powers, but there is also a strange warmth and empathy between the two with Agatha almost mothering a clearly distressed Wanda who finally has to admit that she has lost all the people she loved and that there is no other way to deal with it but to accept that, horrendously painful though it is and move on.
It’s brilliantly realised, deeply affecting television that gives you a good old-fashioned clash of superhero beings showdown but with a real understanding of grief and broken, mourning humanity that elevates the events far more a simple fight to the finish.
We see how Wanda created Westview spontaneously after she witnessed how S.W.O.R.D. were dismantling her beloved Vision like some sophisticated lab rat past his prime, and how Wanda is, like Monica Rambeau (Teyonnah Parris) guessed, not the villain of the piece at all (that role falls to Agatha Harkness, of course), a victim of grief and abuse of her human rights as the wife of a being who deserved better than callous slicing-and-dicing.
As you might expect, Agatha doesn’t deliver on her cocky assumptions, bested by Wanda who is revealed to be the all-powerful legendary Scarlet Wicth who looks set to be a key player in the multiverse-heavy next phase of the MCU.
While there is a lot of WandaVision‘s trademark existential angst and honesty in episode 9, it does lamentably fall back on the big, showy fights that have come to characterise Marvel finales.
Sure, it’s a staple of the genre, but after eight episodes that delved deep into human psychology, the nature of grief and broken humanity, expressing it all in some supremely clever storytelling, episode 9 felt, a little at least, like an unimaginative return to the same old, same old.
It was impressive and highly visual but emotionally lacking … until, of course, Wanda has bested Agatha whose returned her nemesis to the genial nosiness of her onetime persona of bouyant neighbour Agnes, and Monica, FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) have not so much ridden to her rescue as proved to be valuable allies that even a super powerful witch needs.
It’s at this point that WandaVision rips your heart out as Wanda realises she has no choice, now she understands what she has done and why, but to reverse her grief-driven enslavement of Westview and return to the grimly painful, lonely surrounds of the real world.
That erasure of her creation means of course saying goodbye to Vision and her sons who exist only in this artificial construct, and watching her say goodbye to them is some of the most heartfelt, beautiful but agonisingly sad TV you will ever see.
She has in effect lost everything all over again but with the added deep sadness of her new world which promised so much but only at the expense of others’ pain which Wanda could no longer abide.
So, now, of course, Wanda is alone in a small cabin, biding her time, and steeping herself in the DarkHold or Book of the Damned, preparing for further adventures in the MCU though without the weight of grief which WandaVision eloquently and with great empathy and humanity showed is necessary but destructive is not faced up to and dealt with in a timely manner.
As TV shows of any genre go, this is going to be a very hard one to beat.