“Previously On” circles its attention back on the woman in the centre of the madness, in the most emotional the MCU has ever been.
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and Kathryn Hahn
With only the season finale yet to come, WandaVision thus far has certainly been a wild ride. From a black-and-white dinner party, to multiple mind-blowing cliffhangers, WandaVision has finally contextualised and given concrete answers to a whole host of questions that puzzled viewers since the beginning of the show. Though these plot revelations may not be as surprising or extreme as the intense fan speculation has been throughout the past week, “Previously On” places the attention firmly upon the incredible amount of strain and trauma placed upon its heroine, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and gives her emotions the breathing room that simply isn’t afforded with a typical MCU blockbuster.
One of the tremendous gifts of WandaVision is the way that its quirkiness has been such a point of conversation and speculation in between the episodes, often making the conversation in the intervening week almost as entertaining and exciting as the show itself. After the reveal of nosy neighbour Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) as none other than Agatha Harkness, one of the Scarlet Witch’s part-time friends and occasional adversaries from the comics, and the overall quality of the series so far, all eyes were on this episode to truly deliver, and expectations doubtless varied massively. It’s almost entirely certain that nobody quite expected the episode that we received.
Going into the eighth episode, it appeared as if all of the cards laboriously arranged into a pyramid were set to fall in suitably spectacular fashion. Monica (Teyonah Parris) has developed superpowers of her own, Vision (Paul Bettany) is aware of his own past, and Wanda’s responsibility for bringing him back to life, and also for creating the false reality of Westview, and Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg) seemed set to destroy Westview from the outside. The last minute reveal of Agnes as Agatha, and manipulating Wanda all along seemed to suggest a climactic bust-up as everybody collided, but “Previously On” instead provides an unexpectedly emotional exploration of Wanda’s life of love and loss.
Thanks to a handy piece of magic, Agatha forces Wanda to confront her reality, in the hopes of discovering just how Wanda had enough power to create Westview in the first place. Agatha, we discover, formerly destroyed her own coven during the Salem Witch Trials after she was found guilty of practising dark magic. This allows for the deliberate reframing of what we thought we understood about how Wanda’s powers previously developed, as they were explained away by vague experimentation with the Mind Stone in Avengers: Age of Ultron. (Ultimately, this was largely because the MCU was, due to contractual obligations, unable to include any references to mutants by that stage, but the diversification of the MCU into areas such as magic in Doctor Strange help these revelations fit more seamlessly within the larger MCU narrative).
Throughout the episode, we see the death of Wanda’s parents in Sokovia, as well as the specific experimentation with the Mind Stone and a quiet heart-to-heart with Vision in the aftermath of Pietro’s death. Kathryn Hahn plays her role as the devious and chaotic Agatha well, never coming off as too camp, but perfectly adapting to the tone of the different scenarios as she pries and prods behind the many self defensive walls that Wanda has erected. Olsen, for her part, is brilliantly compelling, demonstrating Wanda’s own mute shock, devastation and heartbreak, both curious and terrified by walking through her worst moments, as Agatha shatters the utopia of the fictional life she has created.
Of course, this all culminates with the emotional outburst. After seeing Vision’s deactivated body as SWORD, Wanda drives off to Westview, to a plot of land that Vision had purchased for the two of them to grow old in together. Formerly stoic, just about keeping her grief and pain contained, this is where Wanda truly breaks down. Howling in sadness, she erupts with magical energy, creating her perfect house and transforming Westview into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom. Meanwhile, Vision is entirely created from the power of her own mind and her connection to the Mind Stone itself, highlighting that Director Hayward lied about Wanda stealing his body.
This is where the intense speculation that dogs WandaVision almost manages to trip it up. With many viewers scanning previous episodes and comic books for hints, and proposed appearances from villains such as Mephisto secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes, many fans may have been disappointed to learn that what we assumed all along – that Wanda was the one who created Westview – is, after all, the truth. It is certainly the most expected choice, and the MCU shouldn’t have to surprise to be successful, and it adds a nice depth to the extremity of Wanda’s profound grief that really ties this season together with the rest of the MCU.
Emerging from a series of quirky sitcom-inspired episodes, “Previously On” also lends a context to this stylistic choice. As well as it obviously being a massively intriguing element of the storytelling, leading to the most original and creative output of the MCU to date, all of the sitcom references turn out to be Wanda’s favourite sitcoms, which she turned to in life to escape her problems. Scenes from the first episode echo those seen in The Dick van Dyke Show, which she commonly watched with her family in a war-torn Sokovia. We find her in the Avengers compound, cut adrift and alone in a foreign country, grieving the loss of her twin brother, watching Malcolm in the Middle for comfort and for escape. Wanda’s relationship with sitcoms as a form of healing therapy more than justify their inclusion within the beautiful escape that she has created within Westview, and even though there is the question of the significance of her powers, as Agatha calls her a “Scarlet Witch”, ultimately Wanda’s experience in Westview was a manifestation of her desire to escape her reality – something which many viewers will also have experienced and doubtless would have done if they had the power that Wanda had.
It’s also refreshing that this version of events continues to give Wanda agency, instead of having her powers being used by somebody else. Within the MCU, Wanda has often been overlooked, and this would in some ways undermine her strength and her intelligence to be used by an outside force though, of course, this still could happen – it wouldn’t exactly be surprising to see Marvel pull a last minute twist in the final episode.
What’s more, showrunner Jac Schaeffer and writer Laura Donney successfully eschewed any “mad with power” tropes, by exploring Wanda’s emotions as the outburst of her power, instead of her being driven mad or corrupted by her incredible abilities. Rather, it even suggests that it was her profound emotion that unlocked some of these abilities she’d previously held herself back from using.
Through showing us the moments that have defined Wanda as a character, it invites the audience to examine the incredible ramifications upon her psyche as well as the importance of Vision to her emotionally. In a world where everybody was returned from Thanos’ snap unharmed, Wanda is one of the few who fought, but also experienced a severe loss. Even Hawkeye, who lost Black Widow, still regained his family. Stacking this on top of Wanda’s already difficult upbringing, in which she routinely lost people close to her, she built her new life surrounding around Vision, only to find herself dramatically untethered once more. Surrounding herself by that which she found familiar, and safe, by transforming the world around her into her favourite sitcoms, Wanda sought to flee. With her utopia now shattered, unable to deny her grief any longer, let’s hope that the next stage isn’t anger. Regardless, Olsen continues to portray the various sides of Wanda spectacularly, whether it’s quiet, defeated and numb, desperately trying to keep her composure, or all-consuming grief, she is truly the anchor that holds both this episode, and the entire series together.
The mid-credits sequence brings with it a surprising reveal in Director Hayward’s shady plans, as he uses the missile aimed at Wanda earlier in the series to finally reanimate Vision’s body that he still had possession of. Using Wanda’s chaos magic (a wonderfully, and conveniently, ill-defined set of powers from the comics – hopefully set to get some more exposition in the next episode), Hayward brings this White Vision online, paving the way for a truly spectacular finale as two witches, a superpowered human, two sentient synthezoids and a corrupt military organisation collide. Oh, and Jimmy and Darcy are around too.
“Previously On” took a moment at a point where it was wholly unexpected to do so, and while it doesn’t deliver so much on the surprises that viewers have come to expect from earlier instalments, it does finally result in Wanda realising the truth of her false world. It delves into and explores, not the “How was Westview created?”, as that has been staring viewers in the face all along, but rather “Why was Westview created?”, demonstrating a nuanced and interesting version of Wanda as she realises her mantle as The Scarlet Witch.
WandaVision is streaming exclusively on Disney+, with new episodes released on Fridays.