Flourish! (My Take on WandaVision’s Finale)

WandaVision’s excellent finale somehow did everything it needed to do and so much of what it wanted to do

I avoided the internet for any risk of spoilers before watching the finale episode of WandaVision (titled, appropriately, “The Series Finale”), and you should, too. This post is going to be about the finale and the entire season so far.

Despite my precautions, I did manage to see one tweet saying that it relied too much on spectacle and tried to pack too much into one episode. As somebody who’s been an unabashed fan of this series from episode one, who thinks it’s been groundbreaking and near flawless in execution, and who’s spent hours thinking about each episode, my reaction to that opinion was: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

I mean, this series is kicking off the next phase of the MCU.1I think Spider-Man: Far From Home is “officially” the start of the next phase, but it felt to me more like an epilogue than a kick-off. But it’s been noticeably light on superhero battles so far, and the past couple of episodes have been setting up four separate showdowns between hero and villain all converging in one place.

It seemed inevitable that this intelligent, relentlessly self-aware, character-driven series would have to wrap up its experiment and settle into its place in the MCU franchise. And that’s not such a bad thing: I liked Infinity War and Endgame a lot, but there’s no denying that they were unapologetically overwrought and overstuffed.

Not to mention that my own expectations have been overwrought and overstuffed. Other people on the internet have been spending weeks getting more and more hyped up about secret cameos, introductions of the multiverse, tie-ins with mutants, layers on layers of hidden references, Mephisto, Nightmare, Wundagore, and introducing decades of conflicting comics continuity into a 9-episode TV series. Meanwhile, I’ve been building up the show as this multi-layered, meta-textual masterpiece that has as much to say about the very nature of storytelling as it does about infinity stones. I had to prepare myself for Marvel to say, “Nah, we just wanted to parody some old TV series. Did you catch our hidden message about how sitcoms represent escapism?”

But after watching the entire finale of WandaVision, I think it did stick the landing.

It’s not perfect: it is absolutely full of a shit ton of CG superheroes zipping around, making three-point landings, flinging cars at each other, shooting each other with lasers (excuse me: lazors), and blasting each other with magic spells. And for the first 10 minutes or so, I did feel worried that it was going to overrun everything, ending this thoughtful and innovative series with nothing but shallow spectacle. Not to mention that the CG was surprisingly artificial-looking in places, especially compared to genuinely novel and interesting effects elsewhere in the episode, like when Vision and the twins are being torn apart along with the hex.

But this series, which has always been acutely aware of how popular media works, is aware of how superhero stories work. The beat-em-ups and explosions are as much a part of the format as the wacky misunderstanding is to sitcoms. The fights are there to establish the stakes, and for pacing. Without them, I think the episode would’ve felt anti-climactic.

As it is, the series ended up accomplishing everything it needed to do, and somehow also the things it wanted to do. It pulled off the amazing trick of using the format of sitcoms to tell a super-hero story, and then use the format of that super-hero story to tell a story about grief, acceptance, and empathy.

Here are the things it delivered that impressed me the most:

A real origin story for The Scarlet Witch

Ever since Age of Ultron, it’s seemed like Wanda and Pietro were an afterthought at best, an embarrassment at worst. I’ve already said that all of the grief that Wanda’s been put through has never been about her, but about how it affects the other characters — the characters we’re supposed to really care about.

On top of that, the MCU before WandaVision has always felt a little hesitant to jump into the comic book movie with both feet. That may seem like an odd claim, since so much wacky stuff has happened over the past decade of movies, but there’s still been this invisible line of “Comic books are silly” that the filmmakers seem reluctant to cross.

To be fair: so much of Wanda and Pietro’s origin stories are so wacky, convoluted, and frequently retconned, that there’s not much worth preserving, in my opinion. The only comic version of Wanda that I’ve genuinely liked was James Robinson’s series, which essentially just turned her into kind of a cross between Starman and Doctor Strange. Even in the comics, the approach to her continuity has been to try and ignore it, because it’s too comic-booky.

It’s not just the MCU; X-Men had to include a line mocking the original yellow suits to make certain the audience knew they were in on the joke.2And still had Professor X wearing that goofy helmet in Cerebro. Baffling. Captain America and Black Panther both did a good job of embracing their comic book heritage without fear of looking foolish, but most of the rest has insisted that the comic book simply can’t translate directly into live action.

So it was always Wanda and Pietro Maximoff instead of their “silly hero nicknames,” and they were more or less Disney-bounding through their cinematic appearances. They’d have the same colors as their comic counterparts, but not the actual costumes, and definitely not the hair, because that would be silly.

And then WandaVision had an entire episode with her wearing her original costume. I believe the comic book costume got even more screen time than the new MCU version. (Which looks amazing. Just a perfect translation to the movies IMO). I never got the impression that it was “lampshading,” either: the series always seemed to treat everything it showed — except maybe circuses — with genuine affection.

The actual events of the MCU version of Wanda’s story haven’t changed all that much, with the crucial exception of establishing that she had her powers before she encountered the Infinity Stones. Which is a big deal post-Endgame, since Marvel’s had a tendency to blame everything on either “because mutants” or “because Infinity Stones.” (I hope that Monica Rambeau’s powers will be the only case of “because Wanda.”)

But devoting more time and depth to the character — even as translated into broad sitcom characterizations — was a huge move, since she’s been shown to be a super-powerful hero (or maybe villain, even) and we’ll now understand where she’s coming from. Contrast this series with Captain Marvel, which I think hit all the right notes in introducing a new super-powerful hero, but which was kind of restricted in that there’s just not a whole lot more to the character than “a chick who can hang.”

A super-hero story about more than heroes and villains

I kept saying how I felt “in sync” with WandaVision, and most of that was because it simply respected my intelligence. It wasn’t overly concerned that it was blowing my mind, as if I’d never read a comic book, and it didn’t waste time over-explaining things.

Maybe even more remarkable was that it was a super-hero story in which the villains weren’t actually the major threat. From the start, it implied an over-arching story familiar to super-hero comics: Trapped by a sinister villainous mastermind! Who’s responsible? Will our heroes be able to escape? But even after it revealed its villainous mastermind, it quickly became clear that the villains were just complications. The real obstacle was Wanda’s grief.

Considering how much punching, supernatural choking, and explosions were involved in the finale, it’s easy to forget that the entire nine-part series ended with only one death: an imaginary dog. The fights were mostly character-driven, emotional ones. And every character was treated with compassion and empathy. Agatha’s flashback established some measure of sympathy for her, and the kind-hearted conclusion left an opening for her to come back, in an advisory capacity. “I’ll be seeing you, Agnes.”

Even though Hayward was a sneering, irredeemable villain, you could even understand where he was coming from.3Before he started shooting a gun at children, imaginary or not. This series showed the chaos of “the blip” and a town full of people powerless against weird super-heroes who seem to be able to do whatever they want. I doubt anybody would argue with Darcy that Hayward was a real dick, but you get the sense that the characters in Westview would have some amount of sympathy.

I also loved how the show quickly and repeatedly made clear how Hayward was never an actual threat: “Boys, handle the military.”

And it deserves pointing out that even with all the spell-slinging, lazors, and phasing, the two main showdowns were resolved by the heroes not being more powerful, but by being more clever or compassionate. I predicted that Vision and “The Vision” would merge together in the finale, and I’m happy that they chose an ending that was so much better than that.

The finale surprised me in a couple of very significant ways. One was the scene in which Agatha gives the people of Westview control over themselves again. Ever since it became evident that the townspeople were real people, I’d been thinking of this scenario as a kind of repeat of “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone: people held captive by some all-powerful being, terrified of them and desperate to keep them happy. I expected — and I’m sure Agatha expected, too — that once freed, the people would turn on Wanda like a zombie horde, overwhelming her until she was forced to fight back.

That’s not exactly what happened, though. They were extremely, understandably scared of her. And they made desperate pleas for her to release them — Dottie/Sarah’s in particular was an amazing gut punch. But the genius of this scene was that they surrounded her… and tried to make her understand what she was doing and what they’ve been going through. They’ve spent days effectively inside her mind, so they knew that she wasn’t some capricious villain, torturing them out of malice.

“When you let us sleep, we have your nightmares.” “We feel your pain.” “Your grief is poisoning us.” They know too well what she’s been going through. And when she leaves town at the end of the episode, their expressions show that they’re angry and afraid that someone would have the kind of power to put them through that — she was torturing them, whether it was intentional or not — but they also understand completely how and why it happened.

The other big surprise was that the series did more than deliver a metaphor for grief and acceptance, like I’d thought — it expanded on it, to make something more nuanced and more hopeful than I’d ever expected. Vision’s question “what am I?” and the whole analogy of the Ship of Theseus4“Too on-the-nose,” some talentless chucklefucks are no doubt still shouting somewhere in their embittered resentment. weren’t just a set-up for Paul Bettany to remain in the MCU and the writers to deliver yet another iteration on the familiar sci-fi premise of “what makes an android human?” Instead, they used that familiar premise to expand on the question of how we’re even able to move on, after it seems that we’ve lost everything.

In the last episode, we saw in a climactic moment how the Westview incarnation of Vision was created. People watching this as a comic book series were excited to declare the importance of this scene: Wanda can actually create vibranium!

I think the real importance is that it created a kind of anti-Solaris. Solaris5At least the Steven Soderbergh version, which is the only one I’ve seen is about the horrific idea that we’re all doomed to solitude, and our connection to other people is ultimately illusory. The memories we have of people we’ve lost — “the part that lives within us,” as the grieving are often told — are imperfect at best, a subset of what they were, because we can never truly and fully know another person.

The finale of WandaVision suggests that our memories of the people we’ve lost are actually the best versions of them, because they’re all the aspects that made us love them.

Even the parts we don’t realize that we love. It gives a new context to the second half of the season, as Vision began to question and become suspicious of the world around him. When they’re arguing, and he says “you can’t control me,” and Wanda asks, “can’t I?” it’s clear that she had started to think of him as just a figment of her imagination. But he began questioning the limits and even the nature of his own creation, not because of Agatha’s meddling, but because Wanda’s version of him was too accurate, and filled with too much of what makes him a super-hero.

A serialized super-hero story that celebrated all of its influences

Finally, I was pleased that my increasingly lofty and postmodern interpretations of WandaVision weren’t suddenly revealed to be a ridiculous overreach on the scale of claiming The Shining was Kubrick’s penance for faking the moon landing.

It does actually place the MCU within a long tradition of popular storytelling. It demonstrates the potential for popular media to speak to us directly, since we’re so intimately familiar with how it works. And it celebrates all of the popular media that inspired it — including the silly bits like laugh tracks and brightly-colored, skin-tight costumes — as part of our shared language.

I’m not saying that everything I see in the show is necessarily explicit or intentional, and I’m definitely not saying “this is what the show is all about.” Just that they ended up delivering a series that was multilayered enough to deserve more analysis and interpretation than just matching the reference to the comic book issue or TV episode.

One theory that I’m getting increasingly attached to: each episode represents not just an era of television, but a format of TV storytelling. Most of them were obvious, and they explicitly said what era or style they were spoofing in the title or the title sequence. But even the outliers not part of “the broadcast” fit:

  • Episode Four was a procedural drama about special agents assigned to an unusual case, like The X-Files.
  • Eight was essentially a “bottle episode,” except instead of being done to save money, it was used to re-contextualize and/or retcon Wanda’s established story, to give more agency and depth to her character.
  • Nine was, I’m assuming, the near future of Marvel Cinematic Universe television series. Essentially, WandaVision “became itself,” and demonstrated how this round of series is going to adapt the existing MCU to a televised format, in tone, scope, and style. (As opposed to, for instance, Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil).

And again, it’s never seemed like simple parody, or just stylistic gimmickry. For a series that’s spent so much time bouncing between different realities, I don’t believe it ever established a Pleasantville-style hierarchy of them. It did suggest that the shows have gotten more “realistic” over time, by showing how each break in Wanda’s fantasy world would advance the timeline by a decade or two. But I never felt as if it were saying that one type of storytelling were “better” or more “true” than the others. Even the more modern, “realistic” series have their own set of gimmicks and affectations. And by wearing its comic-book-and-action-movie heritage out in the open — and even pointing directly at it, several times over — it acknowledges that the storytelling gimmicks and flourishes extend to the Marvel universe as well. Why should there be an obsession with “realism” with something whose main draw is that it can be spectacular and larger than life?

I’ve seen some rumbling from people disappointed that the finale was so relatively straightforward. There weren’t any earth-shattering cameo appearances, no big introductions of Thanos-level villains, none of the tie-ins to comic lore that people had been speculating about, no introductions of multiverses or mutants, no widescale reality-altering events on the level of House of M. I’ve even seen the comment that it would’ve been so much better if Disney+ had released all the episodes at once, so that fans wouldn’t have wasted so much time getting hyped up and ultimately being disappointed about things that never paid off.

To which I respond: “what in the hell are you talking about?”

The point of the speculation and fan theories and hype isn’t just to be proven right or wrong by the series finale. The point of the speculation is the speculation. And the week-long gap between episodes isn’t just an anachronistic holdover from the days of broadcast TV and fighting for limited air time. It’s the aspect that makes the show feel participatory, instead of just a dump of Entertainment Content onto a server to be retrieved via your streaming platform.

Keeping the audience in sync, and giving each episode a week for the audience to process, is what activates the engagement. It gives viewers a chance to re-watch, speculate, theorize, and discuss it online. When the show is as popular as WandaVision turned out to be, it becomes a shared cultural moment. And it’s not just about “water cooler moments,” where people talk about something that’s already happened and already concluded; it’s about anticipation for what’s going to happen next.

I’m reminded of the first season of The Walking Dead video game, and the complaint that the choices weren’t “real” because they didn’t actually affect the outcome of the story that much. It was a reasonable complaint, since the publisher went all-in on marketing it as being stories completely driven by the player’s choices. The most memorable marketing gimmick for the series and its successors was basically just the game making an explicit promise to the player that the story would be dramatically and visibly changed at some point in the future.

My opinion now is pretty much the same as it was then, which is that that marketing was completely missing the point, and the studio never truly understood what made the game and its format so special. A system that responds exactly to your choices is a simulation, not a narrative. The power of the choices in the best narrative games is all about potential energy: the moment when you in the audience are most precisely in sync with the storytellers, because you’re all thinking about the myriad directions the story could go. Those moments when you recognize all the implications of what you’re seeing, and are anticipating what might happen next. That’s so much more powerful than deciding whether you’d rather watch pre-generated cutscene A or pre-generated cutscene B.

It’s not just limited to games. The prospect of what we were seeing was more powerful — and more varied — than anything they could’ve fit into a finale even this crowded with showdowns and plot resolutions. That’s something they’ve been doing throughout the show: who was watching the show at the end of the first episode? Who is the beekeeper? What did Wanda’s flash of seeing dead Vision mean? Why did she see Quicksilver riddled with bullets? I had answers for each of those questions, which got thrown out or changed or re-introduced as the episodes went on. The fun of wondering about the answers was always going to be more enjoyable than actually getting the answers.

Over the course of the finale episode, what had seemed like rushed and overstuffed spectacle gradually started to feel more like shorthand. We already know how these stories work; we’re not like Vision sitting confused as to whether it’s funny when the dad on Malcolm in the Middle suffers grievous injury. We in the audience understand the reality, which is that Malcolm in the Middle was never actually all that funny. Or I guess the real message of that scene was what Wanda said: “this isn’t that type of show.”

The zipping-around, phasing-through-each-other scenes may have felt rushed because the fighting wasn’t the point, and they were just there to establish the stakes, and to acknowledge that after 8 episodes of being super-hero adjacent, this had finally become “that type of show.” That’s not to suggest that it was just going through the motions, but that it didn’t need to linger on the stuff that we’ve all seen before. Just one example: I’ve seen the complain that Darcy only got one line in the finale, but my response is that one line is all she needed. It was the cap to her satisfying hero moment, in an episode that gave everyone an opportunity to be a brave, compassionate, or clever hero.

(Not to mention that when the previous entry in the franchise with all these same characters had every hero in the universe jumping through dimension gates to battle armies of villains led by a menace ten years in the making who had the ability to rewrite time and reality itself… you’ve got some major plot-and-spectacle-inflation going on, and you need to pump the brakes a bit).

What had seemed like a mass-market popular media metaphor for the grieving process turned out to be a surprisingly insightful (and somehow fun?!) take on the most beautiful aspect of grief: the idea that we grieve because we carry so much of the people that we love with us. That well-written line of dialogue was just making explicit something that the entire series had been built to say.6As Wanda told the twins: “You were born for this.”

And what had seemed like a fun, genre-busting, post-modern take on TV history turned out to be a celebration of episodic, serialized storytelling, in all of its goofy and gimmicky forms. I’m skeptical that the other series will be as daring in their premise or presentation — although Loki and Secret Invasion in particular seem promising — but if they can all keep up this tone and spirit, I’m really excited about the future of the MCU on TV. The key, I think, is being committed to the type of story you’re trying to tell, respecting the audience’s intelligence and experience, and remembering that it’s possible to be fun and fast-moving without being completely frivolous.