Not an Imaginary Story! (One Thing I Like About WandaVision Episode 8)

Episode 8 of WandaVision has what I believe are some great ideas about what’s actually “real”

Lots of spoilers for the entire series of WandaVision in this blog post, obviously, so read at your own peril.

Once again, WandaVision has taken us out of the fantastic bubble of Westview, dumping us into the mundane real world of the MCU, with its boring old stories of centuries-old covens of witches, and top-secret government facilities building fantastic sci-fi weapons to keep super-powered heroes in check.

Like you might expect from an episode titled “Previously On,” this one was full of exposition, delivered via speeches and flashbacks. Like you’d expect from WandaVision, it’s all so well-written and performed and executed that it’s almost a shame that the series’s weird and novel format distracts from how well made the show is.

But right as it ended, I felt a little disappointed. All along,1You’re humming the tune now, aren’t you? my favorite thing about the show has been that I’ve felt completely in sync with the storytelling, even though I recognized almost none of its Easter eggs, comics lore, or ever-growing MCU internal lore.2I nodded sagely when the videos pointed out that Strücker was the name of a Hydra agent, then felt kind of dumb when they pointed out that he was a fairly significant character in a movie that I’ve seen twice. This episode had the most genuinely moving moment in the series so far, if not the entire MCU: of course, it’s Vision’s description of grief as being not emptiness, but “love persevering,” which is especially relevant to everyone who survived 2020. But then it ended with a moment that felt so jarringly artificial to me that it knocked me out of the story so hard, you’d think that I’d just mentioned Ultron.

When Agatha Harkness declares, “It’s chaos magic, Wanda. That makes you… The Scarlet Witch!” it was delivered with so much self-important drama that I felt deflated. The moment was foreshadowed back when bad-guy Hayward made a point of clarifying that Wanda Maximoff didn’t have any “funny nicknames,” so clearly it’s something the series has been building to. But making it the climax of the penultimate episode? I didn’t get it.

Episode 4 occasionally had me wondering what the show wanted me to think vs what I was actually thinking, but this moment was the first that made me wonder Who is this for, exactly?

I can imagine some long-time fans of the comics got a little thrill from hearing the character’s super-hero name explicitly called out for the first time in the MCU. But it felt to me that the only people who’d be that excited about it would be the Marvel and Disney execs and lawyers who’ve spent years transferring byzantine IP rights from one set of super-rich people to a different set of super-rich people. It seemed inconsequential and jarringly tone-deaf, implying that this entire series that I’ve thought was so ground-breaking and risk-taking was ultimately just about nothing more than solidifying comics continuity.

But then, a couple of those “Easter eggs” videos on YouTube — in particular this one from ScreenCrush and this one from Mr Sunday Movies — walked me back by pointing out something that seems obvious in retrospect: Agatha talks about “Scarlet Witch” as if it were more than a super-hero name. With all of Agatha’s build-up, it sounds more like Phoenix in the X-Men. It’s not just a forced introduction of her character name, but a legendary being who can use chaos magic.

It’s still not the most significant thing about this brilliant series, by a long shot, but I’m a lot more excited about Wanda’s character getting the real origin story that Age of Ultron never really gave her, than about some people fist-pumping over naming rights.

If there’s a common thread among the moments when WandaVision threatens to lose me (even if it’s a result of my own not paying attention), it’s that I don’t want the “real world” to creep into this fantastic, beautifully-constructed bubble. Which seems thematically appropriate.

But the “real world” I’m talking about is the world of Disney+ producing a massively popular, high budget television series, loosely based on a series of popular comic books, as part of a global entertainment franchise. Not an aversion to real, serious subjects. With all entertainment, there’s a tendency to conflate suspension of disbelief with mindless escapism, but it’s especially severe when the entertainment is based on comic books or other genre fiction. Gatekeepers of various, completely predictable, stripes have spent decades telling us that the stuff some of us like isn’t “real.”

What this episode, in particular, does so well is to demand a more sophisticated answer to the question of “what’s real?”

It’s a question raised in several key moments by several different characters. When Wanda discovers that she’s pregnant, the first thing she asks is, “Is this really happening?” When Vision asks Darcy, “What am I now?” she tells him that she can’t explain his existence, but that “The love you two have is real.” When Monica is trying to snap Wanda out of it, she says that she doesn’t want to deny or control her grief or pain, because “it’s my truth.”

On top of the explicit story moments, that distinction between “real” and “not real” has been all over the series: there’s “inside the hex” vs “outside the hex,” the various changes in aspect ratio to indicate which “reality” you’re currently watching, the themes of keeping up appearances or pretending to be something you’re not, the duplicitous nature of Hayward and the rest of SWORD, and of course all the examples of reproducing or subverting familiar sitcom conventions. Not to mention the theme that’s so well-worn in sci-fi and comics that the show barely even mentions it explicitly: the idea of a human3Okay, probably mutant sorceress in love with a robot.4Okay, synthezoid construct

I especially liked how this episode said young Wanda’s favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show was the walnut episode, since it was a fantasy episode (spoiler: it’s all Rob Petrie’s nightmare), and also it was kind of groundbreaking for doing something weird and different with the traditional sitcom format. The image of Laura Petrie sliding down a mountain of walnuts is one of the most memorable images of that entire series, up there with Rob tripping over the ottoman. Significantly, the episode is memorable and relevant decades later, even though it was deliberately not a “real” story in the show’s continuity.

My favorite thing about this episode of WandaVision is how the flashbacks to Wanda’s memories from Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and (I think?) Infinity War take moments that were originally written for plot development instead of character development, and turn them into something more real.

Wanda Maximoff’s entire purpose in the MCU so far has been to have terrible things happen to her that spur the next conflict. Her parents were killed to give her and her twin brother a grievance against Tony Stark and create the usual Marvel “heroes fight each other then team up to fight the bad guy” format. Her twin brother was killed because Joss Whedon likes to make stories where a sympathetic character is killed off for Maximum Dramatic Impact, and he’d spent the whole movie trying to make people think that it was going to be Hawkeye. She found herself inadvertently responsible for the deaths of innocents in Lagos because Civil War needed an MCU-compatible way to set up the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man. And she had to kill Vision and then watch him murdered again because Infinity War needed a bleak, apocalyptic, cliffhanger ending.

To be clear: I think it was very clever how Age of Ultron updated Wanda and Pietro’s story into one about people growing up in an Eastern European country devastated by violent conflict. In terms of screenwriting, it fits in with the tone of the MCU perfectly. But it’s not “real,” in a similar sense that 70s super-hero comics about drug addiction or the experience of being black in America didn’t feel “real.” They’re well-intentioned attempts to be relevant instead of frivolous or escapist, and the movie is obviously more sophisticated and better-written than the comics were, but they’re not really true or accurate representations of real people.

And honestly, they don’t have to be. They’re action and adventure stories, not documentaries. But what I like so much about WandaVision is how it’s been exploring the idea that there’s more to being real or true than just setting, format, or even subject matter. As I mentioned earlier, having an argument over end-show credits, or hovered in super-hero pose in the middle of a living room, felt more real, relevant, tense, and dramatic to me than the same episode’s showdown against special forces snipers.

Black Panther is another great example of this. It’s not a particularly realistic movie, not even necessarily in the parts set in Oakland. But amidst all of its fantastic elements, it tries to make its conflicts and the concerns of its characters real. I still think it was too far when people said, “Maybe Killmonger had a point,” because he didn’t. But you could understand what motivated him, and it seemed to come from a place that felt genuine, whether or not it led to a fist fight between armored super-heroes on a futuristic train track in a non-existent African nation.

My second favorite Thing I Like about this episode is that it made it clear that what Agatha was doing all along was trying to break Wanda’s escapist fantasy world, to find out how it worked. She didn’t create it. That’s important because it makes it clear that the central conflict of the series is an emotional one. It’s not simply a hero vs a villain. The real “villain” of this series, obviously, is grief.

And we’ve finally gotten to see a real exploration of an absurdly unrealistic amount of grief and trauma. It’s a fantastic, meta-textual, deliberately unrealistic take on things that are universally relevant to all of us, even if we didn’t grow up in the midst of a war, and even if we don’t have super powers.

Even amidst all the layers of meta-text and affectations — Wanda notices the studio audience and lights on a stage of a TV show because of a spell created to remember another spell that created a pocket reality within a TV series within a movie franchise — the core is something undeniably real.

It’s notable that the series has also embraced the mid-credits sequence over the past two episodes, which places this whole bizarre experiment firmly back into the world of the MCU. That’s always been a reminder that this movie or show has been one installment in a long-running, interconnected story, but I think it has a little more significance in WandaVision. The series has spent so much time building up and tearing down walls and subverting formats, that using the mid-credits sequence seems to suggest that it’s an affectation of these stories, every bit as much as a laugh track or an animated opening sequence.

In other words: This is an imaginary story… aren’t they all?

And since this is the last chance I have before the finale next week, I’m going to make some (probably wrong) predictions. It looks like my prediction from last week is extremely unlikely, and the mailman probably isn’t Doctor Strange incognito. Dang.

I’m more confident in predicting that they’re setting up Agatha Harkness for a “redemption,” whether it’s in the finale episode, or a future movie. Over the course of this episode, her role seemed to shift from villain to psychoanalyst. Like Monica, she’s reminding Wanda to explore her grief instead of just pretending it doesn’t exist. Because she pleads with her mother at the beginning of the episode, “I can be good,” and because she seems at the end to be more concerned with Wanda having a dangerous amount of power, instead of wanting that power for herself, I’m predicting that she settles into a similar role than the one she has in the comics: teaching Wanda about the history of magic and how to control it.

I don’t know what to think about the kids, since they’re not really developed characters. Maybe they’ll be ongoing characters, or maybe they’ll disappear along with the hex, to reappear later. I can’t imagine Disney or Marvel passing up the opportunity for a Young Avengers series, but that’s one of those things that seems more franchise-driven than story-driven.

There’s been a lot of speculation on YouTube and elsewhere about Paul Bettany’s mention of “an actor I’ve always wanted to work with” appearing later in the season. I 1000% love the idea that he’s talking about himself, and a battle between Vision and the Blank Vision we saw in the mid-credits sequence. It would be such a good gag on Bettany’s part, and it would make so many uptight people so, so angry. I love it.

Finally, how’s it going to end? The only thing I’ve heard is that the series is supposed to tie in directly with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, in some form. I’m hoping that that’s a mid-credits cliffhanger in the finale episode, instead of the entire series ending on a cliffhanger.

Because really, if any characters deserve a happy ending, it’s Wanda and Vision. And if any series seems as if it’s been designed to justify a happy ending for two characters who’ve gotten nothing but grief, it’s this one. I predict that Vision and Blank Vision end up battling it out (obviously). Vision ends up having to sacrifice himself yet again because he can’t survive outside the hex, but his soul/consciousness/essence gets transferred to his old body in its blank version.

I hope that Hayward sticks around as an antagonist, mostly because he’s slimy, manipulative, and evil in an interesting way that is rare for MCU villains.5And also, yes, because the actor playing him is hot. I hope that Monica’s involved in talking Wanda down, but that the bulk of her character development as a new super-hero is left for Captain Marvel 2. And it’s possible that Agatha’s redemption comes from dying heroically, which lets her become Wanda’s ghost mentor like in the comics, but that might be too much for this series.

Whatever the case, I hope we’re not being set up for a “bittersweet” ending. There’s a long-running, pernicious idea that happy endings are fake, simplistic, and unrealistic. This series has spent eight episodes showing us that there’s nothing inherently great about being realistic, and that unrelenting tragedy and conflict isn’t any more truthful than love and joy.