Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 1: New World Order

Welcome to the first of our episode-by-episode examinations of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  A minefield’s worth of spoilers lie ahead, and Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America:  Civil War (2016), Avengers:  Infinity War (2018), and Avengers:  Endgame (2019) will all prove pertinent to events we’ll see in episode 1 of this series.

“How does it feel?”

“Like it’s someone else’s.”

“It isn’t.”

The it in question is the iconic shield and symbolic mantle of Captain America, passed on at the end of Avengers:  Endgame from Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and the words — literally the first we hear in Falcon and the Winter Soldier — serve as a kind of thesis statement for what this series is all about.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its fair share of swings and misses — me personally, I find the movie versions of the Guardians of the Galaxy near unendurable, and don’t even get me started on Thor — but one thing the MCU has done almost all the way right is its treatment of Captain America.

In the Marvel Universe of the comics, Steve Rogers, a.k.a Captain America, is the hero.  The hero’s hero.  The gold standard against which all such things are measured.  The bravest and the best.  Like a Lancelot or a Galahad, the superiority of Captain America’s ability is a direct result of his superiority of character.  Consider the comic series Civil War (2006), which largely provided the source material for Captain America:  Civil War.  In both comic and movie, the heroes aligned with Tony Stark are believers in a governing system that may be flawed, but nonetheless provides the only reliable framework for dealing with super-humans and the potentially negative effects of their actions.  The heroes aligned with Captain America, on the other hand, are believers in the cult of Captain America.  Policy has nothing to do with it, isn’t even part of the argument.  If Captain America’s not for it, they’re not either.  Simple as that.  Case closed.

Avengers #4, Mar 1964 – A policeman reacts to Captain America’s return, by Stan lee and Jack Kirby.

In a world where grown-assed men have been known to burst into reverential tears at the mere sight of Captain America, it’s not hard to see how the two people closest to the man and his legacy would feel unworthy of filling his shoes.  For Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, the title characters of this series, their proximity to Steve Rogers has enhanced his legend rather than dimmed it.

Lest anyone labor under the delusion that this series is some kind of introspective meditation on the nature of responsibility, the opening statement and title card are followed by an eight-minute aerial action set piece over Tunisia — featuring cargo planes, helicopters, wing-suited terrorists, machine guns, missiles, canyons, and our old friend Batroc (Georges St. Pierre) from Winter Soldier — that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the beginning of a James Bond movie.  Director Kari Skogland, a veteran of high end TV (she’s directed episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Punisher for Netflix, The Walking Dead, The Americans, and House of Cards, among others), knows her way around an action scene, and uses her big budget to good effect.  The sequence is introduced with the concise immediacy of a video game:  a criminal group called the LAF has targeted a military liaison for a kidnapping, and it’s up to the Falcon, who the US military is using as their own in-house super-hero, to stop them.

Sam has an intel assistant, a young soldier named Lieutenant Torres (Danny Ramirez), who alerts him to a globalist terrorist outfit calling themselves the Flag Smashers, who are dedicated to ‘a world that’s unified without borders.’  Sam tells Torres to keep an eye on them, and call him in if anything gets out of hand.

Back in Washington, Sam is part of a ceremony donating Captain America’s shield to the Smithsonian.  A government official assures Sam that donating the shield is the right decision, but James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a.k.a. War Machine, isn’t so sure, and wonders openly why Sam didn’t take up the mantle.  There’s the merest hint of accusation there in Rhodey’s question:  Steve Rogers gave the shield to you.  He could’ve given the shield to the Smithsonian himself if that was the direction he wanted to go.  He could’ve given the shield to Congress, or to the Stark Foundation, or just kept it in his garage.  He didn’t do any of those things.  He gave it to Sam Wilson, because he felt Sam was worthy of it, and while Rhodey seems to understand it, he can’t quite hide his disappointment that Sam is choosing to pass on the cup put before him.

The other title character of this series, James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes, is busy seeing his court-appointed psychiatrist — it’s a condition of his pardon — and denying the nightmares his past operations as the mind-controlled Winter Soldier have given him.  We see one such operation in flashback, that ends with the murder of a young man who witnessed the Winter Soldier killing his primary target.  Bucky is a haunted, lonely man, his friends and family long dead, his life twisted out of shape by decades of violence and murder.  He’s kept himself occupied since Endgame in making amends to the survivors and victims (and, in one case, beneficiaries) of his time as the Winter Soldier, but amends are far easier in theory than in practice…and there may be some things for which no amends are possible.  It turns out that the young man Bucky killed in the flashback has a father, Yori Nakajima (Ken Takemoto), still grieving over his son’s unsolved and unexplained murder.  Bucky has developed a relationship with the old man, but understandably hasn’t quite worked up the nerve to tell him about his part in his son’s death.

Sam returns to his childhood home in Delacroix, Louisiana, to his family’s fishing boat and his sister who’s decided to sell the business.  Sam attempts to procure a loan to save the boat and the business, but it seems not even an Avenger’s status and good reputation counts as collateral for the post-Blip banks.  (Hard to believe that there wouldn’t be someone in the echelons of power who wouldn’t call up the bank and say, “You’re denying a decorated veteran and active Avenger a fucking small business loan?  Are you high?”  But I digress…)

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Torres, on the trail of the Flag Smashers in Switzerland, gets his ass stomped by a super-human terrorist while trying to foil a bank robbery.  He contacts Sam with the video footage he took with his phone — Sam, perhaps troubled by the super-human angle, tells him for now to keep his Flag Smasher info on the down low — and no sooner has the call with Torres ended than Sam’s sister alerts him to breaking news on TV.

It’s the government official from the Smithsonian, “on behalf of the Commander in Chief and the Department of Defense,” ominously introducing “a real person who embodies America’s greatest values…someone who can be a symbol to all of us.”

Your new Captain America.

Oh, boy.

____

One of the reasons, I think, for the enduring popularity of Marvel’s heroes is that their creators and later caretakers were (and remain) devout, passionate believers in the ideals that made those characters heroes in the first place.  Whatever else you might say about them, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were embarrassingly sincere about their ideas concerning fairness, equality, justice, bravery, and taking responsibility for the welfare of one’s fellow man, and they passed their zeal for these heroic qualities on to their successors.

The first black character in mainstream comics was Gabe Jones, one of Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos, who made his debut in Sgt. Fury #1 (May 1963).  Jones wasn’t a mascot, wasn’t a sidekick, but was a full and equal member in good standing, serving right alongside his fellow Commandos, which included an Irishman, an Italian, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, and a southerner among their ranks.  Stan and Jack were both World War II veterans.  They knew damn good and well that black soldiers didn’t serve in the same units as white soldiers, and they certainly weren’t accepted as commandos.  And more, I doubt the Marvel offices in 1963 were exactly inundated with letters demanding a larger black presence in their war comics.

Stan and Jack put him in anyway, and when the colorist got it wrong, assuming there’d been a mistake and coloring Gabe as a white man…?  Stan and Jack made sure the coloring was corrected for subsequent issues.

Fantastic Four #52, Jul 1966 – First appearance of the Black Panther, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

A few years later, the first black super-hero, the Black Panther, made his debut in Fantastic Four #52 (Jul 1966).  This character was noble, brave, and brilliant, the king of the most technologically advanced nation on earth.  Decades later, I sat in a Cinerama in Seattle watching a movie bearing this character’s title, surrounded by a good many fans of color, some wearing dashikis and no few with tears in their eyes to see, at long last, a hero on the center stage who they could identify as themselves.

And I’m telling you, gentle reader…Jack Kirby, the co-creator of both Captain America and the Black Panther?  He’d have loved it.  He’d have loved it with every fiber of his being that these fans felt included, that the heroism and nobility of the Panther, a character he helped create, would resonate so powerfully with so many people…

…the same way he’d be saddened that the prospect of a black Captain America would still be seen as some kind of negative by so many people, in real life no less than the movies.  A Captain America who’s eminently qualified, by the way:  brave, capable, kind, and inspirational.

Sam being a black man doesn’t affect his status out in the field at all.  Torres and the active military don’t care that Sam’s black; his capability and competence are all that matters when it’s show time.  But back home, it’s a different story.  Back home, though no one ever comes right out and says so, Sam’s blackness is an ever-present factor, the inescapable elephant in a claustrophobically small room.

It’s a factor for James Rhodes, who might be eager to for reasons of his own to see a black man carry the shield and wear the name of Captain America.

It’s a factor for the bank to which Sam and his sister apply for a small business loan.  The bank doesn’t say they’re turning down the Wilsons because they’re black — the bank representative certainly doesn’t seem to see himself as any sort of overt racist — but would this same bank under otherwise equal circumstances really send white Avengers like Clint Barton or Carol Danvers packing?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

And it’s clearly a factor for the otherwise unnamed Commander in Chief and his Department of Defense, for whom a “real person who embodies America’s greatest values” clearly is not and never could be a black man.

____

Ask and ye shall receive:

  • Captain America’s shield in the comics is a unique item, made of an alloy of vibranium and adamantium, two fictional super metals.  The vibranium allows the shield to absorb and dissipate energy, while the adamantium makes it as close to indestructible as a man-made object is likely to get.  Like Captain America himself, no one’s ever managed to duplicate the process that created the shield.  Wakandan vibranium of the type in Captain America’s shield made its first appearance in Fantastic Four #53 (Aug 1966).  Adamantium was first referenced in Avengers #66 (Jul 1969).
  • Captain America #117, Sep 1969 – First appearance of Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, by Stan Lee and Gene Colan.

    The Falcon’s first appearance was Captain America #117 (Sep 1969), created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan.  Sam Wilson has no military background in the comics, nor is he from Louisiana; he’s a social worker, born and raised in Harlem.  Curiously, the Falcon didn’t actually fly until getting a winged flight apparatus courtesy of the Black Panther in Captain America #171 (Mar 1974); before that, he swung around town on a cable and grappling hook sort of number.

  • The Redwing of the comics is an actual bird with whom Sam has an empathic / telepathic link.  If Sam concentrates on it, he can mentally link up with birds other than Redwing.
  • Captain America #11, Nov 2005 – Winter Soldier cover by the great Steve Epting.

    Bucky Barnes first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 (Mar 1941), created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.  The current Winter Soldier version of the character was created by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, and first appeared in Captain America #1 (Jan 2005).

  • Though he shares almost nothing with the character in the show other than the name, the first appearance of Joaquin Torres was in a photograph in Captain America:  Sam Wilson #1 (Oct 2015); he made his first ‘in-person’ appearance in issue #3 of that series (Jan 2016).
  • French mercenary and career criminal Georges Batroc — Batroc the Leaper! — is a classic Captain America villain who first appeared in Tales of Suspense #75 (Mar 1966).  The Batroc of the comics is a little like a costumed French version of Omar Little from The Wire, in that he does what he does because he thinks it’s fun and it’s profitable, but is inclined to exclude innocent people who aren’t in the game.  He’s most definitely a criminal, but doesn’t tend to be a murderous one.
  • The Flag Smasher of the comics is a person, not an organization, created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary.  He first appeared in Captain America #312 (Dec 1985).  The motivation given the group in the show, however, is roughly the same as the character in the comics.
  • James Rhodes in the comics is a little more blue-collar than the character played by Don Cheadle in the MCU, but the essential traits are the same.  Rhodes made his first appearance in Iron Man #118 (Jan 1979), created by David Michelinie and John Byrne.  Not unlike Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, both of whom have worn the mantle of Captain America in the comics, Rhodes took a turn as Iron Man, beginning in Iron Man #170 (May 1983) and ending in Iron Man #200 (Nov 1985).  He began wearing heavily weaponized Iron Man armor as War Machine in Iron Man #282 (Jul 1992).
  • A title card in the credits confirms the new Captain America is John Walker, created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary.  Gruenwald described the character as someone “who embodied patriotism in a way that Captain America [Steve Rogers] didn’t.”  We’d think of him now as a MAGA, America First version of a patriotic super-hero, with all that that entails.  He first appeared as the Super-Patriot in Captain America #323 (Nov 1986), and assumed the mantle of Captain America by government mandate in Captain America #333 (Sep 1987).

Questions or comments, please let me know!  Otherwise, I’ll see you all for episode 2!

Categories
Television

WandaVision: Final Thoughts

I’ll let you in on an uncomfortable secret, gentle reader:  while the life-long comic geek in me is thrilled (often against his better judgment) by the credible appearance of super-heroes in shows and movies, the snooty movie critic in me thinks that…well…they all too often just aren’t very good.

I mean, they tend get the surface stuff right.  The popcorn stuff (and no, I don’t mean that in any dismissive way).  Costumes and heli-carriers and the like.  Most of it looks great.  Music is suitably loud and awesome and swells in all the right places.  But once you get past the surface glitter of special effects and beautiful people, what’s left tends to be bland pablum.  Movie-making on auto-pilot.

In advance of the release of his movie The Irishman in July 2019, Martin Scorcese sat with Empire magazine for an article about his life and work.  Buried down near the bottom of the otherwise routine retrospective was this quote about the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

“I don’t see them.  I tried, you know?  But that’s not cinema.  Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.  It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”[1]Empire, July 11 2019

And holy shit, Geek World lost its collective fucking mind.

Murders have gone unpunished, empires been overthrown, and entire civilizations vanished beneath the waves in violent cataclysm that elicited less foaming at the mouth outrage than Scorcese’s comments about Marvel movies to Empire.  Because nothing — and I mean nothing — agitates a certain kind of fan’s sensibilities more than the suggestion that his favorite comic book movie somehow isn’t the equal of Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Taxi Driver.

It led to a great deal of uninformed silliness with irate Twitter warriors whose knowledge of film begins with Batman and ends with Captain America coming out of the woodwork to deride Scorcese as alternately out of touch, jealous of Marvel Studios’ success, a gatekeeping racist / misogynist, and an intellectually and creatively stunted hack who’s only ever made gangster movies.[2]The Passion of the Christ, Age of Innocence, Kundun, Hugo, and Silence would argue otherwise, but sure…gangsters.

But here’s the thing, and I say this as someone who’s read thousands upon thousands of comics, who’s seen the MCU’s every last entry and likely read all its source material, and who’s devoted an unwisely and embarrassingly large percentage of his mortal existence to stories about super-heroes:

Martin Scorcese’s got a point.

Scorcese concedes outright that Marvel movies are often well-made by talented professionals giving it their all, and that’s true.  There’s no reason to doubt the commitment to excellence felt by the caretakers of the MCU, from its producers to its directors to its actors.  It’s also true, however, that the movies and shows of the MCU are by neccesity  commercial ventures first and foremost.  They cost a lot of money to make.  The kind of money that carries genuine risk for a studio’s financial well-being.  WandaVision cost nearly $25 million an episode, making it easily the most expensive television show ever made on a per episode basis.  As of this writing, of the ten most expensive movies ever made, adjusted for inflation, fully half of them are super-hero movies, and three of those are MCU movies.  When and where art for art’s sake exists in the MCU, it’s at the very least constrained by the obligation to make money.

Lots of money.

And money by and large gets made in popular culture by aggressively occupying a comforting PG-13 middle ground, where we have the appearance of challenge, high stakes, and danger without much in the way of actual challenge, high stakes, or danger.  I can’t think of a single franchise tent-pole sequel — Harry PotterStar Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, the MCU, the DCEU — that doesn’t adhere to this model.  And hey, those ten most expensive movies ever made, adjusted for inflation?  Eight of them were franchise sequels of the very sort I just listed.[3]The two outliers were Titanic and a Disney animated film, Tangled

We know damn good and well that the likes of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and Jack Sparrow and Captain America and Batman aren’t in any real danger.  They’re zillion dollar properties who need to stay alive and in one piece for another sequel.  There’s nothing wrong with this — indeed, the comforting routine of it seems to be an intrinsic part of the appeal for most people — and I’ve little objection to people being entertained with no higher aspiration than entertainment for its own sake.  Nothing wrong with entertainment.

So…what do Martin Scorcese and all these semantic acrobatics have to do with WandaVision?

I’ll tell you:  the best and most successful of the MCU movies and shows are the best and most successful precisely because they attempt to break out of this middle ground routine.  In short, the closer they come to being what Scorcese calls ‘the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,’ the better they are.

The things that stand out to me about WandaVision — the elements that push it towards being something special — aren’t things that really have much to do with super-heroes.  I don’t much care about Jimmy Woo’s magic tricks, or Darcy’s snappy one-liners, or Monica’s glowing eyes.  I could go the rest of my natural born life without seeing anything like another Vision vs. Vision CGI puppet fight, full of noise and property damage and little else.

WandaVision‘s quality doesn’t lie in how it emulates the well-worn path of the 23 MCU movies that came before it, but in how it defies that formula and occasionally dares to embrace something altogether different.  It’s in Wanda’s grief, in her sad farewell to the Vision, and in the way the Scarlet Witch wins the battle, thereby ensuring that Wanda Maximoff loses the war.

What stands out are the little moments of truth and revelation.

The quiet stuff.

The human stuff.

The Scorcese cinema stuff.

____

We’ll continue exploring some of these same themes in future editions of Opposite of Cool.  Feel free to leave any opinions and questions in the comments.

Next up:  Falcon and the Winter Soldier!

References

References
1 Empire, July 11 2019
2 The Passion of the Christ, Age of Innocence, Kundun, Hugo, and Silence would argue otherwise, but sure…gangsters.
3 The two outliers were Titanic and a Disney animated film, Tangled
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep. 9: The Series Finale

Welcome to the last of our episode-by-episode examinations of WandaVision.  There are potentially fatal, life-threatening spoilers ahead, and the public health hazard that is Opposite of Cool assumes you’ve seen up through the ninth episode, i.e., finished the series.

Let’s be honest here:  super-hero movies and television shows are not exactly renowned for their unexpected developments.  I mean, sure, there are all those post-credit scenes littering the ends of Marvel movies — Holy shit, he was trying to call Captain Marvel! — but even those are routine; a surprise party thrown in the same place at the same time for the same people every year.  You see enough of it, it stops being a surprise, right?

Indeed, in almost all cases, super-hero movies are a cinematic trip to McDonald’s:  instantly gratifying and predictable as a sunrise, which is part of the appeal.[1]Also like McDonald’s, there’s a real risk of indigestion, and the looming threat of scurvy-induced dementia over time if you don’t include some real food in your diet.  I’m not the first to make the connection.  When it was pointed out that the trailer for Cast Away (2000) gave away the ending, director Robert Zemeckis said:

“We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie.  It’s just one of those things.  To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don’t.  What I relate it to is McDonald’s.  The reason McDonald’s is a tremendous success is that you don’t have any surprises.  You know exactly what it is going to taste like.  Everybody knows the menu.”[2]The quote was easy enough to find, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out when Zemeckis said it and who he said it to.

Everybody knows the menu.

Which isn’t to say that this final episode of WandaVision is entirely devoid of genuine surprise or depth, only that it comes aggressively packaged in smoke and mirrors, served up as part of a 20-piece red herring combo meal.

Our episode resumes right where the last one left off, Wanda and Agatha Harkness preparing for a magical duel on the mean streets of Westview.  It turns out, gentle reader, that I was wrong, and Agatha Harkness really is the villain of the piece.  Maybe.  Agatha says her plan is to absorb Wanda’s powers for her own nefarious purposes, in much the same way we saw her absorb those shockingly ineffective death rays back in Salem.  What Agatha’s nefarious purposes are or might look like, I couldn’t say, and I’m not entirely 100% convinced that they’re really all that nefarious, but…well, we’ll get to that.

In the meantime, Wanda adapts quickly, and telekinetically uses her scarlet Buick to smash Agatha out of the air and into a house.  Wanda’s looking for proof of death — there’s an amusing Wizard of Oz bit with Agatha’s boots (but no Agatha) beneath the car — when the creepy white Vision shows up.  Wanda at first mistakes him for her Vision, until he tries to kill her.  She’s saved by the sudden appearance of the ‘real’ Vision.  A fight ensues between the two synthezoids while Wanda trails Agatha to the center of town.

Meanwhile, we see Monica being held captive by ‘Fietro’ in his self-described man-cave.  She discovers that he’s actually Ralph Bohner, a red herring citizen that’s been ensorcelled by Agatha instead of Wanda.  Monica uses her new-found powers to detect the energy coming off Ralph’s necklace, freeing him from Agatha’s control and escaping to join the fray in the town center.

As for Jimmy Woo, he’s been hand-cuffed and detained by agents of S.W.O.R.D.  Jimmy talks some shit to a smug Director Hayward while managing to steal a mobile phone right in front of two guards who must’ve been specifically chosen for their ineptitude.  Once he’s alone, he uses his ‘magic’ skills — remember those? — to escape his handcuffs and call the FBI.

Back in Westview, Agatha tells Wanda that there’s an entire chapter devoted to her in the Darkhold:  “The Scarlet Witch is not born, she is forged.  She has no coven, no need for incantation.  Your power exceeds that of the Sorcerer Supreme.  It’s your destiny to destroy the world.”

“I’m not what you say I am,” says Wanda, though maybe she is what Agatha says she is.

“Oh, really?”  Agatha begins freeing townspeople from Wanda’s mind control.  They’re understandably frightened, angry, and freaked out.  They feel Wanda’s pain, experience her nightmares:  “Your grief is poisoning us.”

A guilty Wanda determines to let the townspeople go, opening a gap in the wall surrounding Westview to let them out…and which serves to let Hayward’s S.W.OR.D. forces in.  The opening also threatens to disincorporate the Vision and the twins, Tommy and Billy, all of whom have arrived on the scene.

Wanda tells her sons to handle Hayward’s military forces while she takes to the skies for her final confrontation with Agatha, and the two Visions get busy destroying the local library.  After the boys remove the weapons from the military, Hayward tries to shoot them with a pistol, but is thwarted by Monica who puts herself between Hayward and his targets.  Her new powers render most of the bullets harmless, and Billy stops the lone stray.

Hayward hops in a military vehicle, looking like he intends to run some people over — though why he thinks that would work when a clip full of bullets at close range didn’t, I couldn’t say; I guess that’s why he’s in charge of a shady federal organization and I’m not — but before he can do whatever he’s planning, Darcy rams his vehicle with the Funnel of Love truck she took from the circus in episode 7.  “Have fun in prison!” she says to Hayward.

The Visions stop destroying the library long enough to talk philosophy, [3]The Ship of the Theseus is a real thing. and Wanda’s Vision uploads his memory and experiences into the white Vision, who goes from merely creepy to uncanny valley creepy as a result.  “I am Vision,” says the white Vision…and then flies dramatically off through the skylight, not to be seen or mentioned again in this series.

Wanda afflicts Agatha with an illusion of the sort not seen since Wanda toyed with Tony Stark’s mind in Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  She casts Agatha back to Salem and her witch’s trial in 1693, but Agatha turns the tables, her long-dead coven rising up as zombies to accuse Wanda of being the Scarlet Witch.  “You can’t win, Wanda,” Agatha tells her.  “Power isn’t your problem.  It’s knowledge.  Give me your power and I will correct the flaws in your original spell.  And you and your family and the people of Westview can all live together in peace.”

Wanda rejects this offer, and the fight resumes back in the real world, Wanda throwing bolts of magical energy at Agatha, many of which miss, flattening against the hexagonal boundaries of Westview, turning the sky an angry, thunderous red.  Agatha seems to absorb Wanda’s power, along with the youth and vitality from Wanda’s body.  Wanda floats helpless in the sky, aged and shriveled.

“About our deal,” Agatha says, gloating, “once cast, a spell can never be changed.  This world you made will always be broken….just like you.”  And with that, Agatha moves to deliver the fatal finishing touch…

…and nothing happens.

Wanda reveals that her earlier ‘misses’ weren’t actually misses at all, but were protective spells applied to the magical boundaries of Westview.  “Runes,” says Agatha, as the illusion of Wanda’s defeat dissipates.

Wanda repeats Agatha’s words back to her:  “In a given space, only the witch who cast them can use her magic.  Thanks for the lesson.  But I don’t need you to tell me who I am.”  And with that, she absorbs Agatha’s power, taking on the garb and aspects of the Scarlet Witch, the figure Wanda saw in the Mind Stone.

“Oh, God.  You don’t know what you’ve done,” says Agnes, now powerless.  Wanda returns them both to the town square.  “So what now?  Lock me up somewhere?”

“No.  Not somewhere,” says the Scarlet Witch.  “Here.”

“Here?”

“Mm-hmm.  I’ll give you the role you chose.  The nosy neighbor.”

“No.  Please.”

“I’m sorry,” says Wanda, looking anything but.

“No, you’re not.  You’re cruel.” (Catch Elizabeth Olsen’s wicked half-smirk when Agatha says this.  She is cruel.)  “Wait..you have…you have no idea what you’ve unleashed.  You’re gonna need me.”

“If I do, I know where to find you,” says Wanda, looking for all the world like a cat playing with a particularly amusing mouse.  Her touch turns Agatha the witch into Agnes the nosy neighbor.

“Hiya, hon!” says Agnes, through a brittle smile of what might be despair.  “Say, that’s some kind of get-up you’re wearing!  Did I leave the oven on or is that just you, hot stuff?”

“You live here now.  No one will ever bother you.”

“Okie dokie, artechokie!”

Wanda smiles, pleased with her handiwork.  “I’ll be seeing you, Agnes.”

Finished with Agnes, Wanda rejoins her husband and her sons.  The Vision surveys the damage around them.  “So it appears that our dream home has been reduced to a fixer-upper.  I know you’ll set everything right.  Just not for us.”

“No.  Not for us,” she says sadly.

The family walks home as darkness falls, and the boundaries of Wanda’s zone begin to shrink, things turning back to normal as the effect passes by.  Wanda and the Vision tuck their children into their beds one last time, telling them how proud they are of them both.  “A family is forever,” Wanda tells them.  “We could never truly leave each other, even if we tried.  You know that, right?”  They bid the boys good night (and good-bye) as the shrinking boundary approaches.

“Wanda,” the Vision says, “I know we can’t stay like this, but before I go, I feel I must know:  what am I?”

“You, Vision, are the piece of the Mind Stone that lives in me.  You are a body of wires and blood and bone that I created.  You are my sadness and my hope.  But mostly, you’re my love.”

“I have been a voice with no body.  A body, but not human.  A memory made real.  Who knows what I might be next?  We have said good-bye before, so it stands to reason…”

“…we’ll say hello again,” finishes Wanda.

The shrinking edge of the boundary hits, unmaking the Vision, unmaking the house Wanda had created, unmaking her children, and she’s alone again, standing in the late afternoon sunlight and never-were ruins of her Westview home.  She walks back through the center of town, the townspeople frightened and wary of her, to say good-bye to Monica.

“They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them,” says Monica.

“It wouldn’t change how they see me,” says Wanda.  “And you…you don’t hate me?”

“Given the chance and given your power,” Monica admits “I’d bring my mom back.  I know I would.”

Wanda and Monica bid each other farewell, and Wanda flies off out of Westview into an uncertain future.

____

We’re going to reserve an over-arching subject or two for a WandaVision post-mortem — where we’ll talk CGI puppet fights as well as the traditional tried and true formula of MCU projects, and how WandaVision does and doesn’t diverge from it  — but we can still get after the specifics of this episode.

  • Agatha Harkness remains something of an enigma.  In episode 8, she often sounded more like a tough-love therapist than a villain, and even here, what she might really be after is kind of murky.  Does Agatha want to take Wanda’s power to work her own depredations with it?  Or is taking the power from Wanda the end goal in and of itself?  If it’s the latter, it’s worth questioning whether Agatha is a villain at all.  I mean, so far as we know, there’s not a chapter in the Darkhold devoted to Agatha; nor is Agatha the one mind-controlling entire towns and using reality-warping powers with little or no regard for the consequences.

  • That said, if derailing Wanda’s potential for destruction was Agatha’s aim, then this all went about as badly as it could’ve possibly gone, particularly in light of that Darkhold post-credits scene.
  • The scary white Vision is a lot closer to his comic book counterpart than the ‘normal’ Vision is.  In the Vision’s early appearances, people comment frequently on how frightening, how cold and inhuman, he is.
  • It’s weird, all these people laboring under the delusion that Tyler Hayward is going to prison, when in fact he’s more likely to get a raise and a promotion.  While Hayward’s most definitely a world-class gaping asshole, I’m mystified as to what Jimmy, Monica, and Darcy think he’s done that’s actively illegal.  Hayward leads a federal organization that specializes in ‘sentient weapons,’ i.e., super-powered people.  The situation in Westview, where a very powerful, unstable person is using her powers to keep an entire town of thousands hostage, most definitely falls within that purview.  I think most of us, given what Hayward knows or thinks he knows, would on the face of it judge his decision to exercise lethal force as a reasonable response to Wanda’s aggression.  If Wanda’s causing the problem, it stands to reason that taking out Wanda will fix the problem.  We can perhaps argue about method, but the initial motive seems clear enough.
  • More, Hayward’s perfectly within his rights to dismiss Jimmy, Monica, and Darcy from the operation.  Monica’s a subordinate.  Jimmy’s affiliated with another agency that has little or no connection to anything going on here.  Darcy’s a civilian who’s not affiliated with any agency at all.  And when Hayward does attempt to dismiss them, their response includes assault, trespassing, computer crime, and, in Darcy’s case, attempted murder by way of a Funnel of Love truck.  Good luck explaining to the court why you felt sabotage and violence were appropriate ways to express your disagreement with a federal operation attempting to negotiate a super-powered hostage situation.  If anyone’s going to prison, it’s Jimmy, Monica, and Darcy.
  • Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, Hayward managed to get a non-functioning sentient weapon functioning again.  Never mind prison; they’re giving this motherfucker a medal.
  • After being told in episode 2 that Dottie ‘is the key to everything in this town,’ this episode is the only other time we ever hear her speak, outside of her asking her husband if an outfit made her look fat back in episode 3.
  • Holy shit…it is the Darkhold!
  • Is it just me, or did anyone else associate these two images with one another?  The second, of course, is from The Incredibles (2004, d. Brad Bird), about another family of super-powered individuals.

  • “I do not have one single ounce of original material.”  That solves that mystery, I guess.  Wanda recreated the Vision from scratch.  That means, I think, that the white Vision is the original Vision’s body.
  • I want to point out (again) how good Elizabeth Olsen and Kathryn Hahn are here.  Their concluding scene together in the town square, look at how they each portray Wanda / the Scarlet Witch and Agatha / Agnes as two distinct, separate characters.  Their posture, their voices, the expressions on their faces…it’s really impressive.
  • “You live here now.  No one will ever bother you.”  Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!  Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”  Then the Lord said to him, “Not so!  Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”  And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.  Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. – Genesis 4:13 -16, NSRV.
  • You can see Oz the Great and Powerful (2013, d. Sam Raimi) on the marquee of the Coronet Theater behind Wanda as she walks away from Agnes.  In that movie, Mila Kunis played Theodora, the Good Witch of the North who is corrupted into the Wicked Witch of the West.  Gaze upon Ms. Kunis below and draw your own conclusions, gentle reader.
Mila Kunis as Theodora, the Good Witch of the North, in Oz the Great and Powerful (2013).
  • The achingly sad good-bye between Wanda and the Vision marks the second time in two episodes that this series has squeezed an emotional tear or two from your humble correspondent.  Good stuff.
  • Nice closing as well between Wanda and Monica, two planets orbiting one another in mutual grief.  It’s far and away the best writing given to Monica in this series:  “Given the chance, given your power…I’d bring my mom back.  I know I would.”

Post-credits scene one involves Monica meeting with a policewoman who turns out to be a skrull!  “He’d like to meet with you,” the skrull tells Monica.  I assume he refers to Talos, the skrull agent last seen in Captain Marvel (2019).

Post-credits scene two, we find Wanda Maximoff outside a remote cabin somewhere in the mountains (I like to think this cabin is sitting at the foot of Mt. Wundagore)…and inside, we see the Scarlet Witch levitating, taking in the contents of the Darkhold.

Oh, boy.  That ain’t good.

Next time around, some final thoughts on WandaVision.

References

References
1 Also like McDonald’s, there’s a real risk of indigestion, and the looming threat of scurvy-induced dementia over time if you don’t include some real food in your diet.
2 The quote was easy enough to find, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out when Zemeckis said it and who he said it to.
3 The Ship of the Theseus is a real thing.
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep. 8: Previously On

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  As always, there are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the eighth episode.

The eighth and penultimate episode of WandaVision serves as an origin story for the two witches of our tale, Agatha Harkness and Wanda Maximoff.  Once upon a time, back before the internet, origin stories were routine in super-hero comics.  It was felt that periodic reminders of who these characters were and where they’d come from were helpful to readers new and old.  The origin stories in this episode are presented as flashbacks — a nice blending of comic and TV tropes, one laid over the other — and each witch’s origin story, bound by magic and tragedy, serves as a contextual frame for the other.

Our story opens in Salem, Massachusetts, the Year of Our Lord 1693, with the young Agatha Harkness being condemned by her fellow witches for betraying her coven, and stealing knowledge ‘above her age and station.’  Not sure what that means, but it’s apparently pretty bad, as even Agatha’s mother stands among her accusers and would-be executioners.  Agatha professes her innocence — that things simply bent to her power, and she can’t control that — but Mom & Co. aren’t buying it.  They sentence Agatha to execution by magical death ray…but whatever that was supposed to do, Agatha’s power winds up overwhelming theirs, turning each member of the coven into a desiccated corpse.  (It were me, I like to think I would’ve advised someone in the coven to just bring a musket and shoot her.  Quicker, more humane, and with the added benefit of, you know…working.  Also, the musket method is less likely to leave everyone dead and looking like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Those death rays were shockingly inefficient….but I digress.)  Agatha takes the brooch from her mother’s body — you can see her wearing this brooch in several previous episodes — and flies off towards her destiny.

Magical death rays, ca. 1693. Should’ve brought a musket.

We resume in the present day where we left off last episode, with Wanda down in Agatha’s creepy-assed basement / chamber of horrors.  Neither Wanda’s telepathy nor her magic (assuming those are two separate things) work in this chamber, thanks to the runes of protection Agatha’s placed on each wall.  According to Agatha, only the magic of the witch that cast these runes will work in the protected area.  What’s puzzling to Agatha is that a witch of Wanda’s evident power — someone who could cast so many spells all at once that Agatha says she couldn’t make heads or tails of it — doesn’t seem to know something as fundamental as what the runes do or how they work.

In fact, Wanda doesn’t seem to know any of what Agatha would call the fundamentals, despite what Wanda has done and continues to do in Westview.  Agatha demonstrates mind control — ‘a classic,’ she says — on an insect, noting it’s but a quick incantation coupled with the insect’s feeble psyche, and ‘you’re good to go’…but Wanda has thousands of people under her thumb, all of them interacting with each other according to complex storylines.  How?

And transmutation?  Agatha changes the insect into a bird.  “Years of study to achieve even the smallest convincing illusion; but Westview through your lens, Wanda…every little detail in place, down to the crown molding.  You’re even running illusions miles away at the edge of town.  Magic on auto-pilot.”  Again…how?  It’s like someone doing four complex neurosurgeries at once, by instinct, without ever learning the first thing about the frontal lobe or the cerebellum or even how to apply a band-aid.  It ought to be impossible.  “Hey, Wanda.  I need you to tell me how you did this.”

When Wanda tells Agatha she didn’t do anything, Agatha tells her, “I tried to be gentle, to nudge you awake from this ridiculous fantasy, but you would rather fall apart than face your truth.”  Agatha determines to take Wanda on a tour of her past.  She conjures a door, plucks a hair from Wanda’s head with which to cast a spell — “I think it’s time to look at some real re-runs.” — and the two step through the door to Wanda’s childhood home in Sokovia.

“Love the Cold War aesthetic,” says Agatha.  While the apartment that Oleg and Irina Maximoff shared with their two children could hardly be called opulent, the family appeared happy enough, if Wanda’s memory is a reliable indicator.  Like Rose’s recollections in Titanic (1997), there’s some reason to believe that what we’re seeing here is less objective testimony and more composite mythology, given a nostalgic luster by time and longing.  (At one point, Irina looks out a window upon what looks like an active firefight on the street, which doesn’t quite jibe with the family’s behavior inside, settling down for what looks like a very normal and comfortable TV night.)

Oleg sells black market DVD’s of American sitcoms, which his daughter Wanda loves.  Oleg’s open case of contraband contains most of the shows that Wanda has used (will use?) as templates for Westview — “Always sitcom, sitcom, sitcom!” her brother complains — but Wanda’s favorite is The Dick Van Dyke Show.[1]The episode the family watches isn’t S2 E21, but S2 E20, ‘It May Look Like a Walnut‘ from Feb 6 1963.  Rob and Laura have the most fun shenanigans, according to Irina.  Wanda defines shenanigan for Pietro as a type of problem that’s more silly than scary.  Like mischief, says Irina.  Silly mischief that always becomes fine, says Oleg.  They’re the last words her parents say in Wanda’s memory.

A bomb destroys the family’s apartment, killing Oleg and Irina instantly.  Wanda and Pietro, miraculously still alive, take shelter beneath a bed.  Another bomb drops — Stark Industries clearly stenciled on it — but fails to go off, its blinking red light and the sound it makes evocative of the Stark Toastmate 2000 from way back in episode 1.

Wanda is pulled from the memory by Agatha, who suggests that Wanda stopped the second bomb from detonating with a probability hex.  That’s both how Wanda describes her powers in the comics, and how her powers actually work — she changes the probability of events happening or not happening — though it’s ascribed to magic here, and  to her mutant powers in the comics.  Wanda suggests the bomb was just defective.  Agatha points out that Wanda and her brother survived two days unscathed, safe as kittens, in an active war zone, feet away from a heavy-duty piece of unexploded ordinance designed by a guy whose ordinance isn’t known for failure.

“What I see here,” says Agatha, “is a baby witch, obsessed with sitcoms, and years of therapy ahead of her.  Doesn’t explain your recent hijinks.  Where’d you get the big guns, Wanda?”

Agatha conjures another door, this one steel and vault-like, with a Hydra symbol on it.

“I don’t want to go back there,” says Wanda, fearful.

“I know you don’t.  But it’s good medicine, angel.  The only way forward is back.”

The door opens to a Hydra laboratory.  The memory in this flashback is Wanda’s initial contact with the Mind Stone, which at this time was still part of Loki’s scepter from Avengers (2012).  Wanda’s put in a room with the scepter, a pair of Hydra scientists observing from behind a partition.  One Hydra scientist seems to have some reservations about this plan, seeing as how literally no one they’ve exposed to this scepter has survived the process, but the scientist in charge suffers no such pangs of conscience.  He orders Wanda to touch the scepter.

Before Wanda can take more than a couple steps forward, however, the stone in the scepter detaches itself and floats to within arm’s reach of her.  She reaches out to it, and the blue stone shatters to reveal the warm amber of the Mind Stone, before that too shatters, becoming a sun-like radiance too bright for Wanda to gaze directly into, the force of it like standing in a high wind.  For a moment, Wanda sees a female figure with a distinctive silhouette approaching out of the blaze, before she collapses to the floor.

The mysterious silhouette from the Mind Stone.

All of this seemingly takes place in Wanda’s mind, as after she collapses we see the lab just how it was before, the scepter still intact, its stone still nestled in its setting.  The Hydra scientists discover Wanda is still alive, and place her under observation (where Wanda passes the time watching The Brady Bunch).

When the Hydra scientists attempt to review their film of Wanda’s collapse, there are several seconds of footage missing, prefiguring similar editing that will happen in the WandaVision broadcast from Westview.  From the Hydra scientists’ perspective, one moment Wanda has entered the room, standing upright and preparing to touch the stone; the next she’s collapsed to the floor, with no footage in between.  “It makes no sense,” one of them says.  “What happened in there?”

“So,” says Agatha, “little orphan Wanda got up close and personal with an Infinity Stone that amplified what otherwise would have died on the vine.  The broken pieces of you are adding up, buttercup.”

The next door opens to a room in the Avengers compound, a post Age of Ultron (2015) Wanda sitting on her bed, dazed by grief, half-heartedly watching Malcolm in the Middle.

“Pietro was dead,” Wanda explains to Agatha, “and I was in a new country.  I was all alone.”

The Vision enters the room to watch TV with Wanda, and he tries to comfort her, but she’s inconsolable over Pietro’s loss.  She likens her grief, in what’s a recurring theme in WandaVision, to a wave that threatens to drown her.  The Vision tells her that won’t happen.

“How do you know?” says Wanda.

“Well, because it can’t all be sorrow, can it?  I’ve always been alone, so I don’t feel the lack.  It’s all I’ve ever known.  I’ve never experienced loss because I’ve never had a loved one to lose.  But what is grief, if not love persevering?”

It’s a lovely line and a lovely moment — these two people sitting quietly, watching TV and enjoying each other’s company — and it’s wisely given room to breathe.

“So to recap,” says Agatha.  “Parents dead.  Brother dead.  Vision dead.  What happened when he wasn’t around to pull you back from the darkness, Wanda?”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“Come on, Wanda.  You’re on the precipice.  You are right there.  Tell me how you did it.  Vision was gone, but you wanted him back.”

“I wanted him back.  I wanted him back.”

Another door is conjured — a glass office door this time, which is a nice touch — to S.W.O.R.D. headquarters.  This flashback is to a few days past, when Wanda arrived to secure the Vision’s body for burial.  Curiously, this memory is nothing like the story Hayward concocted for the benefit of Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy, of Wanda forcing entry and stealing the Vision’s body.  According to Wanda’s memory, it didn’t happen like that.

“I know you have him,” Wanda tells the man at the desk.  “Please.  When I came back, he was gone.  His…body.  And I know he’s here.  He deserves a funeral, at least.  deserve it.”

She’s invited back behind the curtain by no less a luminary than Director Hayward himself.  Hayward shows Wanda a horrifying scene, the Vision’s body being disassembled in a room behind glass and below Hayward’s office, reduced to parts for study and repurposing.

“What is this?  Why are you showing me this?”

“Because you asked to see it,” says Hayward.

Hayward explains they’re dismantling the most sophisticated sentient weapon ever made, that doing so is S.W.O.R.D.’s legal and ethical obligation.

“I just want to bury him,” says Wanda.  “That’s all I want.”

“Are you sure?”

“Excuse me?”

“Not everyone has the kind of power that could bring their soulmate back online — forgive me — back to life.”

“No, I can’t do that,” Wanda says, uncertain, as though the idea that she could do that is just now dawning on her.  Oh, those tricky S.W.O.R.D. directors!  “That…that’s not why I’m here.  I just want to bury him.”

“Okay.  But I cannot allow you take three billion dollars’ worth of vibranium just to put it in the ground.  So, the best I can do is let you say goodbye to him here.”

“He’s all that I have,” she whispers.

“Well, that’s just it, Wanda.  He isn’t yours.”

It’s the wrong answer, or at least it’s not any answer she’s willing to accept.  Wanda shatters the display window with her powers and floats down to the Vision’s body.  Armed guards arrive, but Hayward orders them to stand down.  Wanda reaches out to touch the Vision, inert and empty, his face cold and lifeless.  “I can’t feel you,” Wanda says, tears streaming down her face.

“I can’t feel you.”

She leaves the S.W.O.R.D. base and drives to Westview, New Jersey, the same route Monica Rambeau will take a few days later.  She rolls slowly through the center of town, seeing places and faces for the first time that will become familiar to us.  She drives to a residential lot that’s been abandoned these past five years, nothing on it but the basic foundation for a house that was never built.  She opens a property deed given to her by the Vision before his death — a place to grow old in, he wrote — and this is it.

The moment when Wanda Maximoff, in her unbearable grief and sadness, simply decides, consciously or otherwise, to rewrite at least one small corner of reality into something she can live with.

Her power emanates out from her in a rush, changing the town and the land for miles around.  She builds the house on the empty lot, piece by piece…and then reconstructs the Vision, layer by layer, in what looks like a painful process, not unlike birth.  But when it’s done, there’s the Vision, recreated in black and white, in a smart tie and sweater combo.  We’ve come full circle to episode 1’s set and aesthetic.

“Wanda,” he says.  “Welcome home.  Shall we stay in tonight?”  Past-Wanda joins him in the black and white sitcom set, and the happy couple settle down next to each other on the couch, sharing a kiss….while present day-Wanda looks on, the emptiness of what she’s created dawning on her.

“Bravo,” says Agatha, sitting out where the studio audience would be and sardonically slow-clapping.  She teleports herself outside, where Wanda can hear her children calling her for help.  She runs out of the studio and into the street to find Agatha, levitating in full purple witch glory, painfully restraining both boys with energy leashes.

“I know what you are,” Agatha tells Wanda.  “You have no idea how dangerous you are.  You’re supposed to be a myth.  A being capable of spontaneous creation…and here you are, using it to make breakfast for dinner.  Your children, and Vision, and this whole little life you’ve made…this is chaos magic, Wanda.

“And that makes you the Scarlet Witch.”

Aaaaaaand….scene.

Holy shit!

____

The hand strikes…and gives a flower.  We got a lot of answers this episode, but I’m finding they were replaced by yet more questions.  Let’s get after it.

  • Love the Marvel Studios branding turning from red to Agatha’s purple at the top of the episode.
  • The Agatha Harkness of the comics is thousands, not hundreds, of years old.
  • “We’ve got work to do.”  I’m still not convinced Agatha Harkness is some sort of villain.  She strikes me as more of a tough-love therapist here:  part detective, trying to figure out who this young woman is and how it’s possible for her to be doing what she’s doing; and part lion-tamer, trying to keep the world’s biggest, most dangerous predatory cat from escaping the circus and doing more harm to itself and others.  These motives — training and constraining — would very much be in line with what the Agatha Harkness of the comics would do.  She’s the Obi Wan to Wanda’s Anakin, The Shining‘s Dick Hallorann to Wanda’s Danny Torrance.[2]“Naw, you got a flashlight, he the one with the searchlight.” — The Shining, pp. 481 And, as we see in this very episode, the Agatha Harkness of the MCU has some experience with the exercise of raw power that’s neither understood nor fully controlled.
  • If we assume that Agatha sensed Wanda’s sorcery from afar and came to investigate its cause and effects, it’s worth asking:  where’s Doctor Strange?  If Agatha Harkness can sense this sort of ‘disturbance in the force,’ surely this dimension’s Sorcerer Supreme can.  Doctor Strange lives in Manhattan, less than 160 miles away from the furthest point in New Jersey.  Doesn’t seem far enough away to mask a magical event of this scale from the likes of Doctor Strange, if indeed any distance would be sufficient to mask it from him.
  • Young Wanda and Pietro appear in their traditional super-hero colors.  Red for Wanda, blue and grey for Pietro.
  • Wanda looking back at her mother who gives her a kind of kiss was a sweet detail.
  • Does the Mind Stone in the Hydra lab reach out to Wanda of its own accord?  Or does Wanda reach out to it, bringing it to her?
  • The figure coming out of the blaze of the Mind Stone looks like it could be a silhouette of Wanda herself in the comics.  Could also be the Enchantress — she also wears a funky horned headdress deal — though that’d be coming out of left field by this point.
  • A close look at Agatha’s brooch shows what look to me like three figures beneath flowers or a cloud…?  Three is a number oft associated with witches (Macbeth, the Fates, etc.).
  • It’s odd to the hear the Vision talk about having always been alone, how it’s all he’s ever known, when he’s been in existence for maybe a week or so at this point.
  • I want to point out how good Elizabeth Olsen is in her scene talking to the fellow at the desk in S.W.O.R.D. HQ.  Twice, she has to stop and compose herself before she can continue speaking.  She’s good just in general in this series and in this episode.
  • Wanda’s the only source of bright, warm color in a S.W.O.R.D. base full to the brim with cold neutral blues, greys, and whites.
  • The actor who plays Director Tyler Hayward, Josh Stamberg, was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the son of a state department official and a former co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered.  I’ve never met a federal official, but Stamberg’s Tyler Hayward is absolutely what I imagine such an official would look and sound like.
  • Here’s where we speculate on what Tyler Hayward does or doesn’t know about Wanda Maximoff and her powers.  Presumably, as a government official in charge of the department most likely to spearhead American efforts into the super-hero arms race — what are super-heroes like the Avengers if not sentient weapons? —  Hayward would have easy access to pretty much everything ever written about Wanda and the other Avengers.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he knows things about what she can and can’t do that she herself doesn’t know.  I’m assuming that’s what happening here, with him practically daring Wanda to just up and take the Vision’s body.  Because otherwise, it’s a pretty big leap to go from a person moving objects with their mind to reanimating dead people.  Wanda seems genuinely surprised when Hayward suggests that she could use her powers to bring the Vision back to life.
  • It’s a bold game Hayward’s playing here, agitating an already agitated person who could pretty much end your life just by thinking about it.
  • The Vision was shown disassembled in a manner similar to this in West Coast Avengers #43, April 1989, by John Byrne.
  • If Elizabeth Olsen was good in the scene at the desk, she knocks it out of the park touching the Vision’s face and telling him, “I can’t feel you.”  This is far and away the most genuine and emotional thing I’ve seen in an MCU production.
  • Wanda’s car, a Buick, is scarlet — what else? — and is the only car of that color in the S.W.O.R.D. parking lot.
  •  This Scarlet Witch business, just hearing it out loud, well…it warms my atrophied geek heart.  I don’t care if it’s cheesy.  This is the Opposite of Cool blog, not the Too Cool to Care About Comic Book Movie Bullshit blog.

The post-credits scene this go-round has Hayward being told the team is ready to launch.  It’s unclear to me whether that means some sort of ground assault team, or whether it refers to the team and the operation going on within a nearby tent.

“We took this thing apart and put it back together a million times,” Hayward says to his staff in the tent.  “Tried every type of power supply under the sun, when all we needed was a little energy directly from the source.”  He gazes at the drone Wanda disabled back in episode 5, still coruscating with red energy.

Hayward gives his approval to go ahead with the operation.  A switch is thrown, and energy flows from the drone to animate what looks like a spooky-as-fuck, all-white version of the Vision.

Director Hayward’s Vision.

Well…!  Who saw that coming?!

Last observations:

  • Such a big deal was made about Dottie in episode 2, aaaaaaand…that was literally the last we ever heard about it.
  • We haven’t seen or heard anything about that book that may or may not be the Darkhold in Agatha’s basement either.  I get that it’s probably nothing important, but why make a point of showing it to us otherwise?  It’s not something just seen in the background either, but an object given its own specific shot.
  • Given what we know by the end of the post-credit scene in this episode, why would Hayward send Monica Rambeau to Westview?  Surely he could’ve sent Monica literally anywhere else, and sent someone much more loyal to his own cause to chaperone the drone Jimmy Woo requested.
  • Did Wanda recreate the Vision flying around in Westview from nothing?  Or did she use material from the Vision she’d just left at the S.W.OR.D. base in her Vision’s creation?  If it’s the former, then what was Hayward tracking in episode 6 and how was he tracking it?  If it’s the latter, then who’s this pale imposter in the post-credits scene?  I guess it’s possible that if S.W.O.R.D. had a working model of the Vision — and we know they did, for years — that they could conceivably reverse-engineer their own version.
  • Also, if the Westview Vision turns out to be a fictional creation of Wanda’s, what would that make Tommy and Billy?  There’s a parallel to this in the comics, and it involves Agatha Harkness, but I’ll wait until next episode to address it, after seeing how this shakes it.

And that’s that.  Next up is the final episode of the series!  Questions or comments?  Hit me up!

‘Til next time…!

References

References
1 The episode the family watches isn’t S2 E21, but S2 E20, ‘It May Look Like a Walnut‘ from Feb 6 1963.
2 “Naw, you got a flashlight, he the one with the searchlight.” — The Shining, pp. 481
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep.7: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the seventh episode.

One of the unexpected pleasures of WandaVision has been the sneaky good reproductions of the sitcoms it’s emulating.  Episode 6 stuck its Malcolm in the Middle landing perfectly:  the editing, the camera placement, even the music.  So perfectly, in fact, that I expected to see director Matt Shakman’s name listed somewhere in the Malcolm credits.  This episode, we’re treated to Modern Family (2009 – 2020), with its fourth wall-breaking confessions and quasi-documentary style, as well as a title sequence evoking The Office.[1]Three of the most successful sitcoms of this era, Modern Family, The Office (2005 – 2013), and Parks and Recreation (2009 – 2015), all employed the same quasi-documentary elements, with … Continue reading  Elizabeth Olsen absolutely kills it channelling Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) and her high anxiety bemusement at the beginning of this episode.  Sometimes it’s the little things.

It’s the morning following last episode’s Halloween night, Pietro missing, the Vision still lying on the outskirts of town.  For all the otherwise dream-like nature of reality within Wanda’s zone, it’s interesting to note that the passage of time more or less stays constant with that of the outside world.

“Look, we’ve all been there, right?” says Wanda in her Modern Family talking head confessional.  “Letting our fear and anger get the best of us, intentionally expanding the borders of the false reality we’ve created…”

Wanda’s undergoing something of an existential crisis.  “As punishment for my reckless evening, I plan on taking a quarantine-style staycation.  A whole day just to myself.  That’ll show me.”  Her powers are glitching uncontrollaby, changing the time periods of random objects.  (“Yeah, I’m not sure what that’s about,” says Wanda).  Billy complains that his head feels weird; things are, like, really noisy, and he doesn’t like it.

Eight miles outside Wanda’s expanded zone — “Lucky for us she pumped the brakes,” says Hayward’s chief officer — an undeterred Director Hayward prepares his forces for an assault.  Not sure how that’s supposed to work, given the effects on people and things entering Westview, but maybe he knows something we don’t.  We learn the sitcom broadcast that S.W.O.R.D. had been monitoring is now just dead air.  No signal.

Inside the zone, the Vision awakens near what was the S.W.O.R.D. response base and is now a circus.  It’s a fairly subtle effect, one I didn’t notice on first viewing, but note how the aspect ratio changes when the Vision wakes, going from 21:9 to 16:9.  These aspect ratios will remain consistent depending on whether we’re inside or outside Wanda’s reality.  21:9 for ‘real life’ outside the zone, 16:9 for Westview.  The Vision recognizes Darcy, cast as an escape artist wrapped in chains after being handcuffed to the truck at the end of last episode.

At Wanda’s house, the absence of their father and their uncle is concerning the twins.  They ask Wanda what Pietro said about re-killing the Vision.  “Don’t believe anything that man said,” Wanda tells them.  “He is not your uncle.”

“Who is he?”

Wanda admits to the boys that she doesn’t have the answers they’re looking for, and worse, she’s starting to believe that everything is meaningless.  “You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions, of course,” she adds unhelpfully.  Agnes arrives to salvage the situation.  “Hey boys…why don’t we give your mom some me time?”  The twins, worried about their mother, are reluctant to leave, but Wanda insists that they go with Agnes.

In the real world, Jimmy Woo and Monica Rambeau, on their way to meet Monica’s mysterious contact, discuss the files that Darcy sent to Jimmy last episode.  They’re R&D reports about something code-named Cataract.  They deduce, finally and at long last, that Hayward wasn’t trying to decommission the Vision; he was trying to bring him back online.  Better late than never, I guess.

Monica’s contact, Major Goodner, isn’t anyone that rings any bells with me.  Whoever she is, between her and Monica, she’s apparently got enough juice to commandeer a mobile team and what looks like a very large, very expensive-looking planetary rover.  Think of the vehicle Matt Damon was driving around in The Martian (2015), but two or three times as big.

At the circus / former S.W.O.R.D. base, the Vision frees Darcy Lewis from Wanda’s influence, and recalls her name being attached to episode 5’s email warnings concerning radiation at the edge of Westview.  The Vision has questions, Darcy says she has answers.  They steal a truck to drive back to Wanda and the Vision’s house.

A brief segment of Wanda’s powers going haywire follows, with a related confessional:  “I don’t understand what’s happening,” says Wanda.  “Why it’s….why it’s all falling apart and why I can’t fix it.”

The unseen interviewer, breaking his own fourth wall, asks, “Do you think maybe this is what you deserve?”

“What?” says Wanda, taken aback by the question, or possibly the interviewer’s transgression against the format.  “You’re not supposed to talk.”

Cut to this episode’s commercial, for a medication called Nexus:  “A unique anti-depressant that works to anchor you back to your reality.  Or the reality of your choice.  Side effects include:  feeling your feelings, confronting your truth, seizing your destiny, and possibly more depression.  You should not take Nexus unless your doctor has cleared you to move on with your life.  Nexus.  Because the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Or does it?”  We’ll have more to say about this Nexus business near the end of this post.

Over at Agnes’s house, Billy tells Agnes he likes it at her place.  “It’s quiet,” he says.  “You’re quiet, Agnes.  On the inside.”

“Do you think our mom is okay?” asks Tommy.  Agnes gives him one of those patented Kathryn Hahn looks of dismay, a look that says, Oh, fuck no, she isn’t.  Not even close.  She lies and tells Tommy he doesn’t have to worry about his mom.  “You try telling a ten-year old that his mother is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” Agnes tells us afterwards.

Meanwhile, Monica and her rogue team of S.W.O.R.D. agents attempt to insert a space-suited Monica and the rover into the Westview zone, but can’t breach its walls.  As Monica escapes the vehicle, the half of it that’s in contact with the zone is ‘rewritten’ (Jimmy’s word for it) as a common truck, and spit back out.  Undeterred, and over Jimmy’s objections, Monica forces herself into and through the zone…and comes out the other side with glowing blue eyes and a new way of looking at the world, able to discern energy patterns.

While Darcy and the Vision encounter multiple obstacles on their way towards Wanda — everything from red lights to sudden work crews and crossing schoolchildren — Darcy catches the Vision up on events he doesn’t remember from Avengers:  Infinity War (2018) and Avengers:  Endgame (2019)….including his own death.  Darcy says she had assumed Wanda simply flipped a switch in the Vision’s head and brought him back to life, but doesn’t understand why he can’t leave the Hex.  The Vision suspects Wanda is working to intentionally slow his progress, so he leaves Darcy in the truck and opts to fly home.

Monica arrives at Wanda’s house, telling her that Hayward is after the Vision and that an attack by him is imminent.  An argument ensues, Wanda accusing Monica of lying and being behind all that’s happened — the drone, the missile, Pietro — and it looks for a moment as if she’s on the verge of expelling Monica for a second time, or perhaps even killing her.  When she doesn’t, Monica tells Wanda that her reluctance to do violence is the difference between her and Hayward.  “Don’t let him make you the villain.”

“Maybe I already am,” says Wanda.

Agnes notices the conflict — it’s taking place in broad daylight, right out on the street in front of God and everyone — and intercedes, telling Monica that she’s overstayed her welcome.  “Run along, dear,” she says, and begins leading Wanda away toward her house.  “Don’t make me hurt you,” Wanda tells Monica as a parting warning.

Agnes is making Wanda a cup of tea when Wanda notes the silence and the absence of her sons.  “Where are the twins?” she asks.

“Oh, they’re probably just playing in the basement,” says Agnes.

Wanda heads down to the basement to search for them, and finds the basement is part of a strange cavern, tree roots lining the walls — a literal root cellar — leading to a spooky chamber with symbols placed over arches, and several very interesting items, including a book crawling with some unknown energy.  More on that in a minute.

“Wanda, Wanda,” says Agnes, who’s followed Wanda downstairs and who’s not really Agnes at all.  “You didn’t think you were the only magical girl in town, did you?  The name’s Agatha Harkness.  Lovely to finally meet you, dear.”  Her power — purple, where Wanda’s is red — activates, locking the doors in the basement chamber, and revealing Agatha’s nefarious behind-the-scenes activities in a Munsters-like title sequence for a sitcom within a sitcom, Agatha All Along:

Who’s been messing up everything?
It’s been Agatha all along!
Who’s been pulling every evil string?
It’s been Agatha all along!

She’s insidious
So perfidious
That you haven’t even noticed and the pity is
The pity is…

It’s too late to fix anything
Now that everything has gone wrong
Thanks to Agatha
Naughty Agatha
It’s been Agatha all along!

“And I killed Sparky too!”

But wait…there’s more!  The first post-credits scene in the series!  Monica goes to check around Agatha’s house.  She finds a basement bulkhead with some cellar doors and opens them, sees the roots and strange purple energy lining the walls….and then is surprised by the missing Pietro:   “Snoopers gonna snoop.”

____

That’s the rough; let’s get to the tumble.

  • Once again, Tommy and Billy are wearing colors roughly associated with their counterparts in the comics.
  • Agnes is associated with the color purple from start to finish in this episode.  It’s strictly a WandaVision thing; Agatha Harkness in the comics doesn’t wear a costume.  Near as I can tell, the color scheme exists here to link Agatha to, and distinguish her from, Wanda.  Similar effects, different methods and motives.

    Scarlet Witch #13, Feb 2017 – Agatha Harkness with her familiar, Ebony. Cover by David Aja.
  • It occurred to me that the ‘suspicious mole’ on Agnes’s back that she can’t see could be an oblique reference to the Witch’s Mark, a mark or brand made by the Devil on the skin of his initiates.  Seriously.  It’s an actual thing.[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witches%27_mark  Probably not an actual thing intended by the makers of this show, mind you, but still…an actual thing.
  • “I actually did bite a kid once.”  Gentle reader, Kathryn Hahn is a goddamn four-alarm fire.  She’s an example of what I think of as the Don Cheadle Rule:  not everything she’s in is good, necessarily,  but all of it is better for her being in it.
  • In the Marvel Universe of the comics, the term nexus — defined as ‘a connection or series of connections linking two or more things’ —  typically refers to the Nexus of Realities, the place where all possible realities are closest to each other.  Here on this planet, the Nexus of Realities is in the Florida Everglades, and its guardian is the swamp creature known as the Man-Thing.  The Nexus commercial may or may not be alluding to the Nexus of Realities, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of place, given the nature of what Wanda’s doing in Westview, as well as the possible presence of a Pietro from another reality, and whatever weird shit is going on in Agnes’s basement.  The Nexus was first established as such in Fear #13, Apr 1973, created by Steve Gerber.
  • “You should not take Nexus unless your doctor has cleared you to move on with your life.”  Hmm.  Strange.
  • I don’t think I’d have noticed it if not for the way this episode is modeled after Modern Family, but Kat Dennings’s Darcy Lewis and Ariel Winters’s Alex Dunphy have a lot in common, to the point where I think we probably could’ve straight-up imported Alex Dunphy for Darcy’s role in WandaVision, and almost nothing would have changed.  The two characters even look alike.  Intentional or no?  I couldn’t say, but it’s hard to believe after all the careful imitations we’ve seen that the showrunners wouldn’t be aware of this particular parallel.
  • Paul Bettany’s look to the camera when the traffic light maintenance crew blocks his and Darcy’s path is priceless.  Dude might have missed his calling for a career in sitcoms.

    Priceless. Paul Bettany as the Vision, breaking the fourth wall.
  • Monica’s S.W.O.R.D. outfit that she’s wearing under her space suit looks like a utilitarian version of her Spectrum costume in the comics.
  • What the hell is up with Dennis the mailman?!  He’s always around, and the show always makes a point of making sure we notice him.
  • I’m wondering if that book in Agatha’s basement isn’t the Darkhold, a tome written by a Lovecraftian elder god of darkness.  If so, that’s…that’s bad.  Very bad.  The Darkhold is about as evil as an object can be, and a person risks madness and damnation just being around it, never mind handling it or God forbid reading any of it.  Vampires in the Marvel Universe were created by the Darkhold.  So were werewolves.  The elder god who wrote the book was mystically confined to one location, Wundagore Mountain, in eastern Europe.  In the comics, Wanda and Pietro were born and spent their childhoods in the shadow of Wundagore.  Did proximity to the mountain cause their powers?  I’m not the first to speculate on the possibility, let’s say that.  The Darkhold was created by Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog; its first mention was Marvel Spotlight #3, May 1972.
  • “The name’s Agatha Harkness.  Lovely to finally meet you, dear.”  Your humble Opposite of Cool correspondent isn’t going to lie, gentle reader.  It’s nice to be right after all these episodes.
  • Spooky and mysterious as she may be, the Agatha Harkness of the comics isn’t a villain.  In many ways, Agatha occupies the point opposite Wanda on the magical spectrum:  constant, rational, and pragmatic, where Wanda is mutable, emotional, and chaotic.
  • I might like the Agatha All Along title sequence as much or more than I like anything in the entire MCU canon.  According to the Wiki entry for the song, it was written by the show’s composers, husband and wife team Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez — they wrote Frozen‘s ‘Let It Go’ and Coco‘s ‘Remember Me’ — and Kathryn Hahn sings on it!  Whatever else you can say about this series, no one’s going to accuse the producers of having skimped on the cost.

Next:  We’re on to the penultimate episode of WandaVision!

References

References
1 Three of the most successful sitcoms of this era, Modern Family, The Office (2005 – 2013), and Parks and Recreation (2009 – 2015), all employed the same quasi-documentary elements, with the main characters speaking directly to the audience / documentarian.
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witches%27_mark
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep.6: All-New Halloween Spooktacular!

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  As always, there are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the sixth episode.

Unless someone out in the world knows something I don’t, we appear to have skipped the 90’s altogether:  WandaVision‘s sitcom model in episode 6 is Malcolm in the Middle (2000 – 2006), notable for breaking the fourth wall — the eponymous Malcolm would speak to the audience directly — and for its general air of surreal oddity.  Matt Shakman captures Malcolm’s aesthetic so perfectly that I was a little surprised to find him not listed among the series’ directors.

The lyrics of the Malcolm-ish opening theme and title cards this week match the trajectory and function of specific characters in Wanda’s sitcom:

One, two
WandaVision!

Don’t try to fight the chaos
Don’t question what you’ve done  (Wanda)
That game can try to play us
Don’t let it stop the fun!

Some days it’s all confusion
Easy come and easy go
What if it’s all illusion?   (Vision)
Sit back, enjoy the show!

Let’s keep it going!
Let’s keep it going!
Through each distorted day!  (Agnes, Billy, and Thomas)
Let’s keep it going!
Let’s keep it going!
Though there may be no way of knowing
Who’s coming by to play 
(Pietro)

It’s Halloween in Westview.  Billy tells us directly that it’s “a magical holiday, that’s all about family, friends, and the thrill of getting to be someone else for the day,” which pretty much describes the theme and events we’ll see in this episode.  Tommy, the self-proclaimed cool twin, disagrees, saying it’s all about candy and scaring people (but mostly candy).

The boys’ uncle, Pietro, is still asleep on the couch at four in the afternoon (a worshipful Tommy says Pietro even snores cool).  The boys wake him up, and Pietro chases them around, causing a ruckus and mimicking a Psycho stabbing.

Wanda enters, descending the stairs in a classic Scarlet Witch costume.  Billy asks if she’s supposed to be Old Red Riding Hood; Wanda tells him she’s a Sokovian fortune teller, which Pietro derides as lame:  “Worse than the costumes mom made us the year we got typhus.”

A really funny flashback is inserted here, showing Wanda and Pietro as children back in dismal, war-torn Sokovia, trick or treating and getting a dead fish instead of candy.  The automatic gunfire in the background is a particularly nice touch.  “That’s not exactly how I remember it,” says Wanda.

“Mom’s been weird since Uncle Pietro got here,” Billy tells us in an aside.

The Vision enters in a version of his own classic costume.

“Never told me much about your brother,” the Vision says to Wanda, observing Pietro and the boys playing a video game.  “I had no idea he’d be so…”

He watches Pietro teach the boys to shotgun cans of soda.

“…great with kids,” the Vision finishes, giving a sardonic thumbs up.

“Yeah,” says Wanda.  “He’s just full of surprises.”

Wanda assumes that the Vision will be joining the family for the Halloween block party, but Vision tells her that he’s agreed to be part of the neighborhood watch instead.  “No!” says Wanda.  “That’s not what you’re supposed to — ”

“What?” says the Vision, interrupting.

“You didn’t tell me you had plans.”

“Well, I’m telling you now.”

“Mom and Dad have been…not fighting, but just, well…different,” Billy tells us (while Pietro gives him the side eye in the background).

It’s clearly not what Wanda had planned or expected, but Pietro offers to be the male family figure for the evening in the Vision’s stead, and she lets it go.

Back in the real world, at the S.W.O.R.D. response base outside Westview, the authorities are preparing to study the drone Wanda disabled last episode.  An argument ensues between Director Hayward — who’s now in full Chief Robinson from Die Hard (1988) mode — and Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy.  Monica argues, with some justification, that attempting to kill Wanda, needlessly antagonizing her in the process, is not a winning strategy.  Director Hayward has the dissenting trio removed, but Monica and Jimmy overpower the evicting guards on the outskirts of the base, and the team sneaks back in.

In Westview, overseeing Tommy and Billy’s trick or treating, Wanda asks Pietro questions about their shared past.

“You’re testing me,” says Pietro.

“No, I’m not.”

“Hey, it’s cool.  I know I look different…”

“Why do you look different?”

“You tell me.  I mean, if I found Shangri-La, I wouldn’t want to be reminded of the past either.”

Wanda learns from Herb, running the neighborhood watch, that the Vision is in fact not part of the operation.  We see instead that the Vision is investigating another dimmer, emptier part of Westview.  The further the Vision gets from Wanda’s center of town, the more repetitious and rote the activity of the townspeople gets.  One couple goes endlessly through the motions of decorating their yard, a woman reaching up to attach a ghost decoration to a clothesline, over and over.  A tear slips out of her eye and rolls down her face as the Vision watches her.

An animated commercial follows for Yo-Magic, “the snack for survivors!”  The kid on the deserted island given a cup of the snacks by an ominously helpful (?) surfing shark apparently isn’t one of those survivors, as he expires from accelerated starvation and exposure before he can get the cup open.

Back in Westview, Wanda remarks upon Pietro’s bad influence.  “I’m just trying to do my part, okay?” says Pietro.  “Come to town unexpectedly, create tension with the brother-in-law, stir up trouble with the rugrats, and ultimately give you grief.  I mean, that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“What happened to your accent?” says Wanda.

“What happened to yours?  Details are fuzzy, man.  I got shot like a chump in the street for no reason at all, and next thing I know, I heard you calling me.  I knew you needed me.”

Tommy and Billy interrupt, and it’s discovered that Tommy has speed powers like his uncle.  Wanda tells Tommy that if he’s going to break the sound barrier, he has to take his brother with him.  She warns the boys not to go past Ellis Avenue.

On the response base, Jimmy, Darcy, and Monica have found a conveniently empty room.  Darcy manages to hack into S.W.O.R.D.’s secure database in literally less time than it took me to write this sentence.  She discovers that Director Hayward has managed to find a way to look past Wanda’s barrier into the Westview zone, but didn’t share it with the response team.  He’s tracking the Vision by his vibranium signature.  Jimmy notes that the Westview citizens on the edge of town, in the Vision’s vicinity, are barely moving, and questions whether they’re even alive.

Joining the Vision, we see the residents on the outskirts aren’t barely moving; they’re not moving at all.  They’re not dead, but everyone is frozen, eerily stopped in the middle of their normal activity (or whatever’s normal for Halloween).

The Vision sheds his Halloween costume and flies up to a high vantage point.  He takes note of the boundaries of the town, and sees one car stopped at the intersection of Ellis Avenue and Rolling Hill Drive.  It’s Agnes’s car, and while she’s not quite frozen like the other residents, she’s not far from it.  She’s sluggish, entranced, and spacily claims she’s gotten lost on the way to the town square.  “In the town you grew up in?” says the Vision.

He reaches out and frees her from Wanda’s influence, as he did with Norm last episode.  “You…you’re one of the Avengers!  You’re Vision!” she says.  “Are you here to help us?”

“I am Vision.  I do want to help…but what’s an Avenger?”

“What?  Why don’t you know?  Am I dead?”

“No.  No.  Why would you think that?”

“Because you are.”

“Because I’m what?”

“Dead.”

The Vision tells Agnes that he intends to reach outside of Westview.  “How?” says Agnes.  “No one leaves.  Wanda won’t even let us think about it.  All is lost.”

Agnes grows increasingly hysterical, until the Vision is forced to re-impose Wanda’s control.  The Vision promises Agnes he’ll fix this.  “Okie-dokie, neighbor!” she says.  “Happy Halloweenie!”  She turns the car around and drives back up Rolling Hill Drive.  And with that, the Vision walks purposefully across Ellis Avenue towards the boundary of Wanda’s zone.

Back on the base, Monica notes that she’s meeting her mysterious aerospace engineer contact, who will provide her a safe way back into the Hex.  Darcy tells her that’s a bad idea.  According to S.W.OR.D.’s lab results, yet another Hayward secret that Darcy has uncovered, crossing Wanda’s boundary not once but twice has “rewritten the energy” in Monica’s blood cells on a molecular level.  Monica insists that she has some idea of what Wanda’s going through, and intends to help her regardless of the cost.  Jimmy and Monica leave to meet the contact, while Darcy opts to stay in hopes of learning more of what Hayward is hiding.  “There’s something big here.  Something that can help us.  I know it.”

In Westview’s town square, Pietro takes note of the children now running around…children that have been entirely absent during the course of this series (you’ll recall the Vision noted their lack to Wanda just last episode).  “Where were you hiding all these kids up ’til now?  I assume they were all just sleeping peacefully in their beds.  No need to traumatize beyond the occasional holiday episode cameo, right?  You were always the empathetic twin.  Hey, don’t get me wrong.  You handed the ethical considerations of this scenario as best you could.  Families and couples stay together, most personalities aren’t far from what’s underneath, people got better jobs, better haircuts for sure…”

“You don’t think it’s…wrong?”

“Are you kidding?  I’m impressed.  Seriously.  It’s a pretty big leap from giving people nightmares and shooting red wiggly-woos out your hands.  How’d you even do all this?”

Wanda seems uncertain, and confesses she doesn’t really know how she did all this.  All she remembers is feeling completely alone, empty, in an endless nothingness.  She turns her head to shed a tear, and when she looks back, sees Pietro dead, glassy-eyed and bullet-riddled.  She gasps and looks away; when she looks back, Pietro is normal again.

Darcy emails Jimmy Woo one of Director Hayward’s files, as Hayward and his team track the Vision’s progress to the barrier.  Hayward orders troops to the Vision’s exit point.

The Vision can’t entirely escape the field.  He forces himself a few steps beyond the boundary, but it seems to take everything he’s got to get even that far.  He falls to his knees, and his body begins to fragment and fracture, pieces of him flaking off and flying back into the field.  “Why aren’t you helping him?  He’s coming apart!” yells Darcy.  She’s detained by S.W.O.R.D. and handcuffed to a nearby SUV.

Billy senses the Vision’s peril, and runs to tell his mother.  Pietro callously tells her not to sweat it, it’s not like her dead husband can die twice, and she hex bolts him square in the chest, sending him flying.  “Billy.  I need you to focus.”

“I can’t tell,” the boys says.  “I see these soldiers…they think he’s dying.”

And that’s enough for the Scarlet Witch.

The entire town stops in its tracks, as she extends her power out in every direction, the boundaries of the zone expanding more swiftly than most of the S.W.O.R.D. response team — including Darcy, still chained to the truck — can escape it.  Jimmy and Monica notice the expanding effect from a distance, while Director Hayward, being one of the first to hop into a vehicle and flee, manages to narrowly stay ahead of it.

“Does anyone read me?” says Hayward into a radio.

No one answers.

Please stand by…

____

Odds and ends:

  • I’ve said all along that I felt there were other players at work here besides Wanda and S.W.O.R.D.  My guess is that ‘Pietro’ is an agent of one of these unseen players.  Note the breach alarm that went off at the S.W.O.R.D. base when Pietro was introduced at the end of episode 5.  I don’t think that alarm was for something coming out; I think that was for Pietro going in.
  • Along those lines, I still don’t think S.W.O.R.D. is here for Wanda; they’re here for the Vision.  So far as S.W.O.R.D. is concerned, Wanda is largely just the obstacle standing in the way of their retrieval of the Vision’s body.  I think they’d be perfectly happy to see her dead, but that’s a means to an end, and not their primary aim (if you’ll pardon the pun).
  • This episode’s Halloween theme and Westview’s community activities put me in mind of the annual Rutland, VT Halloween Parade.  The parade was developed in 1960 by local writer and comic book fan Tom Fagan, who passed away in 2008.  Both Fagan and Rutland have appeared in comics by Marvel and DC, though it’s been quite awhile since either last did so.  The first Marvel Rutland appearance was Avengers #83 (Dec 1970) by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer; the most recent was Generation X #22 (Dec 1996), by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo.
  • The Halloween costumes worn by Wanda, the Vision, Pietro, Billy, and Tommy in this episode are all cheesy versions of the classic costumes worn by these characters in the comics.  Wanda, the Vision, and Pietro’s first appearances have been covered in earlier Opposite of Cool posts.  Billy and Tommy’s first appearance as infants was in Vision and the Scarlet Witch #12 (Sep 1986), by Steve Englehart and Richard Howell.  As in WandaVision, the twins grow up to have powers similar to their mother and uncle.

    Young Avengers Presents #3, May 2008 – Wiccan (Billy Kaplan) and Speed (Tommy Shepherd).
  • Billy Kaplan in the comics is Wiccan; he first appeared in his super-hero incarnation in Young Avengers #1 (Apr 2005), created by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung.
  • Tommy Shepherd in the comics is Speed; he first appeared as a non-infant in Young Avengers #10 (Mar 2006), again by Heinberg and Cheung.
  • Director Hayward’s obvious antipathy towards ‘super-powered individuals’ mirrors that of a character from the comics, Henry Peter Gyrich.  Gyrich is a pedantic, paranoid asshole who’s often put in charge of government oversight of super-human operatives and organizations.  Gyrich’s first appearance was Avengers #165 (Nov 1977), created by Jim Shooter and John Byrne, and he’s been making life miserable for everyone ever since.
  • Not sure I agree with Monica’s logic that if Wanda is the problem, she has to be the solution, but there’s some wisdom to the idea that when dealing with an entity capable of warping reality at will, it might be wise to tread a little more carefully.  Echoes here again of the Red King in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), Hayward saying that if Wanda is taken out, this whole nightmare ends.  Monica disagrees, saying no one knows what will happen ‘in there or out here’ if Wanda dies.
  • “Unleash Hell, demon-spawn!”  Hmm.
  • Wanda is shown several times with the Coronet Theater in the background, emphasizing again the Red King aspect.  A coronet is a type of crown.
  • S.W.OR.D. really needs to beef up their cyber-security.
  • “Wait, why is Hayward tracking Vision?”  For the same reason he was ‘storing’ the Vision’s body before:  Hayward runs an outfit called Sentient Weapon Observation Response Division (I’m reasonably certain the Vision fits the bill as a sentient weapon).  Also, this tracks with Hayward’s likely profile as a straight-up AIM goon.  Hail Hydra.
  • The question Monica should be asking is, “How did Wanda know where to find the Vision’s body?
  • Monica’s empathy with Wanda’s grief marks her as a kind of thematic counterpart to Wanda:  a reflective, rational moon caught up in the inescapable gravity of Wanda’s sorrow.  In traditional astrology, the moon symbolizes dreams, emotion, and the unconscious, traits that are more readily attributed to Wanda, while the sun is associated with rationalism and masculine energy, which are more Monica’s traits.[1]This also ties in Monica’s powers in the comics, which are light- and energy-based.  Here, however, those attributes are reversed.  I’d be surprised indeed if the show’s creators intended any of what I’m talking about beyond simply linking Monica and Wanda in grief, but I think it’s an interesting aspect to consider whether they intended it or not.
  • Still no proof that Agnes the mysterious neighbor is Agatha Harkness.  Still no proof that she isn’t, of course…and she is dressed as a witch for Halloween…
  • Still unsure who Monica’s guy, the aerospace engineer, is.
  • The movie playing in the town is the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), d. George Romero.  Kind of heavy duty for a Halloween block party with a bunch of little kids running around…!
  • I’m unsure by the ending if Wanda’s boundary has continued to expand or has stopped.

The home stretch of the series beckons!  See you next episode!

References

References
1 This also ties in Monica’s powers in the comics, which are light- and energy-based.
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep. 5: On a Very Special Episode…

Note:  Welcome back, unwary traveler, to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVisionAs always, there are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fifth episode.

A whole lot going on in episode 5, the longest episode thus far at 42 minutes:  family ties, growing pains, leggings, mom jeans — oh, those mom jeans! — and a couple unforgettably vulgar displays of power.  Let’s get after it.

The cold open features Wanda and the Vision, now in a sanitized 80’s sitcom, trying to get their new twins, Tommy and Billy, to sleep.  Wanda suggests to the Vision that maybe they need some help with the boys, and right on cue, Agnes arrives, to audience applause and a tinkling theme.  In tried and true sitcom tradition, like every sitcom neighbor ever, she gives the doorbell a cursory ring and then just breezes on in, and it’s a good thing no one’s ever naked or chasing the dragon or otherwise doing something they might want to keep on the DL.

Anyway.

“I was just on my way to Jazzercise,” says Agnes — because were else would she have been going in the 80’s? — “when I heard your new little bundles of joy were on a sleep strike!”

Wanda Maximoff (Eilzabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany)

An awkward moment follows when the Vision nervously objects to Agnes handling the children, and an uncertain Agnes asks Wanda if she wants to take the scene again from the top.  Wanda convinces the Vision to let Agnes care for the boys, and shortly after that, we see the twins, in yet another nod to television tradition, age from infants to young children.

“Kids,” says Agnes.  “You can’t control them.  No matter how hard you try.”

An opening credits sequence follows, a weird (and clever and funny) blend of Family Ties (1982 – 1989) and Growing Pains (1985 – 1992) that perfectly captures the treacly 80’s in all that decade’s awful, performative emptiness.  You may as well know, gentle reader, that the 10 or 20 seconds of Family Ties and Growing Pains I watched on YouTube just now, researching this post, comprises the entirety of the time I’ve spent watching either of these shows in this lifetime, and it’s 10 or 20 seconds I’m never, ever going to get back.

Back in the real world, Monica Rambeau is undergoing some post-eviction questioning and testing.

“What’s the first thing you do remember?” says Tyler Hayward, S.W.O.R.D. director.

“Pain,” says Monica, “and then…Wanda’s voice in my head.”

“Did you try to resist?”

“There was this feeling keeping me down.  This hopeless feeling.  Like drowning.  It was grief.”

Monica reunites with Jimmy Woo, and meets Darcy Lewis for the first time.  A response team briefing follows, with a recap of Wanda’s MCU origins, noting her telekinetic and telepathic abilities after unspecified experimentation with the Mind Stone.

“Back up, Jimmy,” says Hayward.  “Does Maximoff have an alias?”

“No, sir.”

“No funny nickname?”

“Not a one.”

Nice.

Hayward is quick to label Wanda as the principal victimizer of Westview, and a terrorist, a term Monica rejects:  “I don’t believe she has a political agenda, or any inclination toward destruction.”  Monica also says she doesn’t believe Wanda’s actions are a premeditated act of aggression.

To counter that, Hayward shares video from nine days ago of Wanda simply marching into the top-secret S.W.O.R.D. location where the Vision’s body was being stored and stealing it.  According to Hayward, she then brought the Vision’s body to Westview and resurrected him.  How she might have done this without the Mind Stone, the item that previously animated the Vision, is a mystery to Jimmy and Darcy.

Back in the sitcom, Tommy and Billy have found a small terrier they want to adopt, and Wanda has found the ultimate mom jeans outfit.  As before, Agnes appears on cue, with the Vision noting she’s carrying “exactly the item we require,” a doghouse.  The boys first think to name the dog Sniffy, but after the dog nearly electrocutes himself by way of a wall socket, Agnes suggests Sparky.  Wanda makes it official, conjuring the dog a collar and name tag in an open display of her powers, much to the Vision’s dismay.

“Wanda…!  Agnes was right there!”

“Well, she didn’t notice.  She didn’t even notice when the boys went from babies to five-year olds!”

“That’s not what we agreed upon.  You made no effort to conceal your abilities.”

“Well, I’m tired of hiding, Vizh.  And maybe you don’t have to either.”

“Wanda, we are usually so much of the same mind, but right now…what aren’t you telling me?”

The boys interrupt, asking if they can keep the dog.  Their parents tell them they’re not old enough, and in response, the boys age themselves up yet again, this time to around ten years old.

Meanwhile, at the response base, Monica and Darcy are trying to find a way for Monica to safely re-inter the anomaly zone.  Jimmy speculates on the identity of Wanda’s twins.  Monica assures him that the twins are indeed Wanda’s; that things on the TV show may look fake, but everything in the zone is real.  Darcy says that if everything they’re seeing on the show is solid matter being manipulated by Wanda, that’d be an insane amount of power.  Jimmy notes it would be far in excess of anything Wanda has displayed in the past.

Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings)

The trio visits the lab on a hunch by Monica, and discover that Monica’s 70’s pant-suit from episode 3 is largely made of the S.W.O.R.D. uniform Monica was wearing when she went in the zone.  “It’s not an illusion,” says Monica.  “Wanda is rewriting reality.”  Your humble Opposite of Cool guide does not want to say he told you so, gentle reader, but, well…he told you so.

Monica considers the imaging drone that was changed to a toy helicopter.  Why change it?  Jimmy thinks production design.  Monica wonders what if something was sent into zone that was compatible with the sitcom’s era.  If you sent an 80’s item into an the 80’s sitcom currently broadcasting, would there be any need for Wanda’s powers to change it?

Back in the sitcom, the Vision has installed some office computers at work and hooked them up to the early internet.  The email the office gets is a top-secret S.W.O.R.D. communique regarding Darcy Lewis’s findings of radiation at the Westview perimeter.  The Vision’s colleague Norm asks what the Vision is going to write back.  “It’s a joke,” says Norm.  “Can’t you tell?  None of it is real.”

The Vision uses his powers to somehow reach into Norm’s head and free him from Wanda’s influence.  Norm — whose real name, you’ll recall, is Abilash — begs the Vision to make Wanda stop what she’s doing.  He grows increasingly loud and desperate, until the Vision is forced to reverse his liberating effect.

Back home, Wanda and the boys are playing with Sparky.  The boys have taught the dog to sit, speak, and spin on command, and want to show their father.  Wanda tells them he’s at work.

“But it’s Saturday,” says Billy.

“No, it’s not,” says Wanda.  “It’s Monday.”

“This morning was Saturday,” says Tommy.

“There was an emergency at the office and your father had to go in,” says Wanda.  “End of story.”  The boys are unconvinced by this explanation, and Wanda tells them their father just needed a distraction.

“From what?  From us?” say the boys.

“No!  No way!  No!  Sometimes your dad and I aren’t on the same page, but that’s just temporary.  Like the two of you, you might fight over toys, but he’s always going to be your brother, and he’s always going to be yours.  Because family is forever.”

“Do you have a brother, mom?”

Wanda, doubtful:  “I do.  He’s far away from here, and that makes me sad sometimes.”

Sparky jumps up and starts barking at a disturbance at the door.  “Something’s scaring him!” says Billy.  Wanda gets up to investigate, telling the boys to stay where they are (they don’t).  What the dog is reacting to is the 80’s-era drone S.W.O.R.D. has managed to insert into the zone.  The signal from the drone is weak, but is sending back live images.  Jimmy and Darcy note that Wanda doesn’t allow footage of the drone into the sitcom broadcast:  “Wanda decides what makes it on to her show and what doesn’t.”

Monica attempts to communicate with Wanda through the drone, but Wanda doesn’t respond, save for her eyes beginning to glow red (never a good sign).  Hayward tells a subordinate to take the shot.  Monica objects, saying the drone isn’t armed.  “Take the shot!” repeats Hayward.  The visual display from the drone cuts off…

…and the breach alarm starts ringing.

“What did you do?” says Monica.

Hayward, Monica, soldiers and vehicles all rush to the site of the breach…and stepping out of the field, in all her terrible glory, is Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, dragging the disabled drone behind her.  She walks right up to the cluster of armed soldiers and flings the drone at Hayward’s feet.  “Is this yours?”  She’s immediately lit up by dozens of points of laser light, rifles aimed at her.

“The missile was just a precaution,” says Hayward.  “You can hardly blame us, Wanda.”

“Oh, I think I can.  This will be your only warning.  Stay out of my home.  You don’t bother me, I won’t bother you.”

“I wish it could be that simple.  You’ve taken an entire town hostage.”

“Well, I’m not the one with the guns, Director.”

“But you are the one in control,” says Monica.

“You’re still here,” says Wanda, in a tone that suggests Monica should have elected to be otherwise.  She charges up her red energy, holding it.

“Wanda, I didn’t know the drones were armed.  But you know that, don’t you?  A town full of civilians, and you, a telepath, brought a S.W.O.R.D. agent into your home.  You trusted me to help deliver your babies.  On some level, Wanda, you know I am an ally.  I want to help you.”

“How?  What could you possibly have to offer me?”

“What do you want?”

“I have what I want.  And no one,” looking at Director Hayward, “will ever take it from me again.”

And with that, Wanda Maximoff releases the energy she was holding.  It spreads among the soldiers, affecting their minds, and all of them turn from aiming at Wanda to aiming at Director Hayward, who’s understandably more than a little alarmed at this turn of events.  Wanda doesn’t even look back to see the effect; she walks back the way she came into Westview, leaving shock and awe in her wake, Monica calling after her.

Another commercial follows, this time for Lagos brand paper towel.  Lagos, you may recall, was the site of an Avengers operation in Captain America:  Civil War (2016) that ended with Wanda diverting an explosion that wound up killing several Wakandan humanitarian workers, which in turn led to the Sokovian Accords, international regulations governing the operation of super-humans.

Back in the sitcom, Wanda and the boys discover Sparky has passed away after eating azalea leaves in Agnes’s yard.  The boys first think to age themselves up again in their grief, but Wanda tells them not to, to resist running from their feelings.  The boys urge their mother to bring the dog back from the dead (“You can do that?” says a stunned Agnes).  Wanda demurs.  There are rules in life.  “We can’t rush aging because it’s inconvenient.  And we can’t reverse death no matter how sad it makes us.  Some things are forever.”

Later that night, Wanda and the Vision argue bitterly about Wanda’s oversight of the town and its citizens, and perhaps over the Vision himself.

“You can’t control me the way you control them,” says the Vision.

“Can’t I?”

The credits for the sitcom begin to roll, but the Vision persists.  “What is outside of Westview?”

“You don’t want to know, I promise you.”

“You don’t get to make that choice for me, Wanda!”

“You’ve never talked to me like this before.”

“Before what?  Before what?  I can’t remember my life before Westview!  I don’t know who I am!  I’m scared!”

Wanda reminds him that the Vision is her husband, the father of Tommy and Billy.  Isn’t that enough?

The Vision asks why there aren’t any other children in Westview.  Wanda asks the Vision if he really believes she’s controlling everyone in Westview, walking their dogs, mowing their lawns, getting them to their dentist appointments on time.  “I don’t know how any of this started in the first place,” says Wanda.

The Vision tells her what she’s doing here is wrong…and then the doorbell rings.  “I didn’t do that,” says Wanda.

Wanda answers the door…

…the breach alarm sounds outside in the S.W.O.R.D. response base….

…and it’s Pietro, Wanda’s brother…but not the Pietro we saw killed in Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015).

“She recast Pietro?” asks an incredulous Darcy.

Aaaaaaaand…scene!

____

All synthezoid, all the time:

  • Agatha Agnes mentions being sprayed with lavender by her husband Ralph every night, which is supposed to have a calming effect, but that “there’s no taming this tiger!”  Later scenes with Agnes in the kitchen feature a small tiger figurine on the kitchen table.
  • I’m waiting to see where this show takes them before spilling the full details on their comic book counterparts, but I’ll say for now it’s not an accident that, starting with their five-year old versions, Billy is always the one in red, and Tommy the one in blue and green.
  • Interesting that Monica’s labs are blank.  I’m not sure what, if anything, that signifies.
  • Director Hayward says the Vision’s body was being stored at a top-secret S.W.O.R.D. facility, but to my eyes, it looked like the body wasn’t being ‘stored’ so much as it was being ‘actively studied and / or worked on.’
  • On a related note, S.W.O.R.D. certainly seems to have taken an AIM-ish turn in Monica’s five-year absence.  AIM, you’ll recall, is the techno-terrorist mad scientist wing of Hydra.  If it looks like AIM, acts like AIM, and smells like AIM…it’s probably AIM.  It’s not much of a stretch for me to imagine Director Hayward ‘Hail Hydra-ing’ his way across the dance floor at the MCU’s version of Mar-a-Lago, trying to convince the likes of Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy that science works and can totally be used for evil.
  • Vision #6, Jun 2016 – Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta

    Though very different in form, function, and origin from how he appears here, a version of Sparky the terrier first appeared in Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s Vision #6, Jun 2016.  No one asked, but King and Walta’s 12-issue series is hands-down one of the best things Marvel has published in the last decade.  Much to my sorrow, Mr. King has since gone on to write exclusively (and successfully!) for DC, taking home an Eisner Award — the comic book equivalent of an Oscar — for Best Writer in 2018.  Good stuff.

  • I feel like I should know the aerospace engineer Monica references, gentle reader, but I’d be lying if I claimed I knew who she was talking about.
  • Not sure either what Monica’s somewhat negative reaction to mention of Captain Marvel is all about.  It raises Jimmy and Darcy’s eyebrows, so I’m not the only one who noticed it.
  • Darcy calls the area effect Wanda controls ‘the Hex’; in the comics, that’s how Wanda refers to her own powers, as hex powers or hex effects.
  • I like how once Wanda’s not preoccupied by the twins, she can sense the presence of the S.W.O.R.D. drone in her space before she sees it.
  • Is Dennis the mailman the same fellow what’s running around in all these commercials?!
  • Pietro Maximoff in Avengers:  Age of Ultron was played by Aaron Johnson.  The Pietro Maximoff at the door at the end of this episode is played by Evan Peters, who also played the character in a trio of X-Men movies produced by Fox.  Same character, ostensibly different cinematic universes.  Very curious!

One last note here before we sign off.  One of my favorite moments in the entire MCU happens in Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (2014).  It’s a quiet bit of business, not an action scene at all.  Sam Wilson explains to Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff that the last of the EXO-7 Falcon suits he uses is located at Fort Meade, behind three guarded gates and a 12-inch steel wall.  Steve looks at Natasha, who just shrugs.  “It shouldn’t be a problem,” says Steve, and it’s not, because there’s nothing going on at Fort Meade that can, or was ever meant to, keep out two A-list super-heroes like Captain America and the Black Widow.  The film doesn’t even bother to show us the retrieval.  Next thing we know, Sam has the suit, and that’s that.

We’ve discussed in earlier posts the MCU’s general reluctance to embrace the mythological aspects of its characters and concepts.  With rare exceptions, the movies have proven much more comfortable with street-level elements that can be somewhat plausibly explained.  Judging by their treatment of Thor in particular, the magical and the mythical seem almost embarrassing to the MCU’s showrunners.  For once, that’s not the case here.  Wanda’s confrontation with Director Hayward and the forces of S.W.O.R.D. grants her the full, terrifying scope of her awesome powers.  Elizabeth Olsen is wonderful here, all anger and sadness, dominance and despair.  The show allows her to  put the super in super-hero, and the message couldn’t be more clear:

Don’t fuck with the Scarlet Witch.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, if you see anything I missed, go ahead and lay it on me!

See you next episode.

Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep.4: We Interrupt This Program

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  There are spoilers up ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fourth episode.  Also, if there are Marvel Cinematic Universe movies of recent vintage you haven’t seen — everything since 2018, say — you might want to check those out before continuing, as those will be pertinent to our discussion here.

Like lightning from a clear blue sky, in a plot twist I did not even sort of see coming, WandaVision ep.4 appears to offer up more answers than questions, and now I hardly know what to do with myself.  You do remember I said a certain scarlet associated person warps reality, yes?

Our story this week begins with Geraldine (Teyonah Parris) — who’s actually Monica Rambeau; you may remember her as Captain Marvel’s friend Maria’s daughter, Lieutenant Trouble, in Captain Marvel (2019) — coming back from the dead, along with everyone else who was a victim of Thanos’s extinction of half the life in the universe back in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).  If we’re gonna go full geek with it — and this blog is called the Opposite of Cool, so full geek it is — we’ll recall that all the victims of Thanos got brought back at great personal cost by the Infinity Gautlet-wearing Hulk in Avengers:  Endgame (2019).  This event is known as the Blip (as opposed to the original Thanos event, which is called the Snap), first noted in Spider-Man:  Far from Home (2019).

Monica has no sense or memory of either Snap or Blitz.  The last she remembers, she was in her mother’s hospital room following a successful surgery.  Monica learns she’s been presumed dead and gone these past five years.  Her mother died from cancer three years ago.

Monica returns to her job at S.W.O.R.D., or tries to; her card no longer works, and a former colleague, Tyler Hayward, has been installed as director of the organization while she’s been gone.  Monica is given what’s intended to be a softball assignment assisting the FBI on a missing persons case in Westview, New Jersey, overseeing the use of a high-tech S.W.O.R.D. imaging drone.

The FBI agent in charge of this operation is James ‘Jimmy’ Woo (Randall Park), who made his MCU debut in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018).  He needs the S.W.O.R.D. drone because not only has his contact in a witness protection program gone missing, none of the contact’s friends or associates have ever even heard of him.  More, the local cops Jimmy has enlisted claim point-blank, not ten feet from a Welcome to Westview sign, that the town of Westview doesn’t exist.[1]The police claim they’re from Eastview, and the stencilling on their car would appear to back that up.  As Monica sums it up, Jimmy can’t reach anyone inside the town, and everyone outside of it has selective amnesia.

“Why haven’t you gone inside to investigate?” asks Monica.

“Because it doesn’t want me to,” says Jimmy.  “You can feel it too, can’t you?”[2]This put me in mind of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), 12-year old Mark Petrie cutting Susan Norton’s adult rationalizations regarding a vampire king off at the heels:  … Continue reading

Monica’s S.W.OR.D. drone, S-57, disappears into the energy field surrounding the town, mystifying Monica and Jimmy; shortly after that, investigating the field up close, Monica disappears into it as well.

Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings)

24 hours later, a full federal response has been set up oustide Westview at a makeshift S.W.O.R.D Response Base.  Astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), from Thor (2011), is one of several experts brought in to help solve the Westview mystery (other fields include nuclear biology, artificial intelligence, and chemical engineering).  Darcy discovers a ‘colossal’ amount of CMBR, Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, connected to the energy field surrounding the town.  She also discovers another wavelength superimposed over the CMBR…and tunes in to the WandaVision sitcom we’ve all been watching.

“Is that…?” Jimmy asks.

“It looks like her,” says Darcy.  “Look, I know it’s been a crazy few years on this planet, but he’s dead, right?  Not blipped.  Dead.”

“Is this authentic?” Director Hayward asks.

“I’m not sure how to answer that,” says Darcy.  She admits she doesn’t know where the broadcast is coming from, if it’s happening in real time or pre-recorded.

“So you’re saying the universe created a sitcom starring two Avengers?” asks Jimmy.

Darcy tells him it’s a working theory.  She watches the end of WandaVision ep. 1, with its I Love Lucy style credits, and we see the notebook with the S.W.O.R.D. logo.  This happens almost exactly at the halfway point of the episode.

The response team begins identifying real-life townspeople who have been cast in the sitcom, including Monica, who’s been woven into the tapestry of the show.  Meanwhile, a S.W.O.R.D. agent in a hazmat suit had been sent through the sewers to try to make contact with Monica, and provide a first-hand account of what’s going on.  This agent in the hazmat suit turns out to be the beekeeper who popped up out of the sewers at the end of episode 2, prompting Wanda to impose her rewind.

Darcy comes up with an idea to match the broadcast frequency of the show, attempting to communicate with Wanda through one of the radios seen on the set.  We saw the results of that in episode 2 while Wanda was cleaning up with Dottie — it was Jimmy Woo’s voice saying, “Wanda?  Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?” — and Darcy notes a strange editing effect at work.  She never sees the broken glass and blood on Dottie’s palm, which has apparently been removed entirely from the broadcast.

Jimmy and Darcy are watching episode 3, ‘live’, following the birth of Wanda’s twins (“Twins!  What a twist,” says Darcy), when Geraldine / Monica mentions Ultron.  “Did she just say the name Ultron?” asks Jimmy.  “Has that happened before?  A reference to our reality?”

“No.  Never,” says Darcy.

Jimmy and Darcy see the beginning of Wanda and Monica’s episode 3 disagreement, and then…cut straight to closing Brady Bunch style credits, Wanda and the Vision sitting on the couch with their twins.  “What happened?  Where’d she go?” says Jimmy.

“God, not again,” says Darcy.  She rewinds the recording.  “There’s nothing here.  One second, Monica is standing right there, and the next, she isn’t.  Someone is censoring the broadcast.”

An alarm sounds, reporting a breach of the energy field.

Darcy and Jimmy don’t see it, but we do:  what really happened between Wanda and Monica at the end of episode 3:

“Who are you?” says Wanda.

“Wanda…I’m just your neighbor.”

“Then how did you know about Ultron?  You’re not my neighbor.  And you’re definitely not my friend.  You are a stranger and an outsider.  And right now, you are trespassing here.  And I want you to leave.”

Wanda violently expels Monica from Westview, blowing her through walls and fences (she fixes the property damage with a wave of her hands).  The Vision enters shortly after.  “Where is Geraldine?”

“Oh, she left, honey.  She had to rush home.”  She turns to the Vision, and for a moment sees him dead, pale and colorless, a ruined, violated space on his brow where the Mind Stone that animated him once sat.  She looks away and clears her head, and he’s back to normal (or what passes for normal in a reality-warping sitcom with a synthetic man who’s supposed to be dead).

“We don’t have to stay here,” the Vision tells her.  “We can go wherever we want.”

“No, we can’t,” Wanda tells him sadly.  “This is our home.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, don’t worry, darling.  I have everything under control.”

Outside Westview, dazed and hanging on to consciousness as we saw her at the end of episode 3, Monica makes a startling declaration as to the cause of the anomaly:  “It’s Wanda.  It’s all Wanda.”

Back in the WandaVision reality, Wanda and the Vision settle down on the couch for a bit of television.  Roll Brady Bunch style credits, to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return).’

____

High diving head-first into the shallow end:

  • Monica Rambeau is the super-hero known as Spectrum in the comics, created by Roger Stern and John Romita Jr.; her first appearance was Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, Aug 1982.
  • We have confirmation of S.W.O.R.D.’s involvement, though the acronym, and presumably the mission statement, has been changed somewhat.  In the comics, S.W.OR.D. stands for Sentient World Observation and Response Department; here in WandaVision, it stands for Sentient Weapon Observation Response Division.  Going by the name, I’d guess that the MCU’s S.W.OR.D. is an outfit dedicated to winning (or at least keeping pace in) the super-human arms race (though I’d caution that’s just speculation on my part).  S.W.O.R.D.’s first comics appearance was Astonishing X-Men #3, Sep 2004, and they were created by Joss Whedon[3]The same Joss Whedon that would go on to direct Avengers and Avengers:  Age of Ultron. and John Cassaday.
  • Yellow Claw #1, Oct 1956, by Al Feldstein and Joe Maneely – 1st pre-Marvel appearance of Jimmy Woo.

    Jimmy Woo is a character whose existence predates Marvel Comics altogether.  His first appearance was in Atlas Comics’ Yellow Claw #1, Oct 1956, created by Al Feldstein and Joe Maneely.  Jimmy Woo is notable for being the rare (if not only) Asian protagonist in the comics of this period.  His first official Marvel Comics appearance was Strange Tales #160, Sep 1967, story and art by Jim Steranko.  Where the Jimmy Woo of the MCU is kind of a comedic figure, the Jimmy Woo of the comics is exceedingly crafty and capable.  Lots of secrets, lots of plans.

  • No confirmation in this episode as to whether my Agnes as Agatha Harkness or Dottie as the Enchantress theories are true.  Then again, neither do we have confirmation that they’re not true.  According to the S.W.O.R.D. response team’s board, Agnes has a sheet but hasn’t been matched up to a driver’s license or ID yet; Dottie doesn’t have any sheet at all.  Same deal with AIM.  There’s nothing definitive that tells me AIM is involved with all this, but neither is there anything definitive to tell me they aren’t.  All those Hydra commercials and that beekeeper…it’d be quite the coincidence if all that added up to nothing, wouldn’t it?
  • Captain America (Chris Evans) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014).

    More AIM / Hydra:  is it just me, or does Director Hayward’s stroll with Monica through S.W.O.R.D.’s Mission Operations area, and his accompanying speech — “The world’s not the same as you left it.  Space is now full of unexpected threats.” — evocative of Nick Fury’s speech to Captain America regarding the threat-identifying (and -eliminating) helicarriers in Captain America:  Winter Soldier?  Hmm.

  • Yet more AIM / Hydra:  Might be something, might be nothing, but an associate of Opposite of Cool pointed out the number on the ‘Eastview’ police car is 1966.  The Scarlet Witch’s first appearance is 1964, the Vision’s 1968, Hydra’s 1965, Jimmy Woo’s 1967…but AIM?  You guessed it.  1966.  And lest we forget, AIM started as a Hydra division.
  • The number on Monica’s SUV is S-8512.  Again, might be nothing, but…Agatha Harkness makes an appearance in Vision and the Scarlet Witch #3, Dec 1985.  It’s also the issue where Wanda gets the idea to use magic to make herself pregnant.  Just sayin’.
  • The number on Monica’s imaging drone is S-57, which, as we’ve noted, alludes to the Vision’s first appearance in Avengers #57, Oct 1968.  This is the same drone re-imagined as a toy helicopter that Wanda picks up out of the bushes in WandaVision ep.2.
  • Kat Dennings’s character, Darcy Lewis, has no analog in the comics; she’s a character original to the MCU.  Metatextually, Darcy is herself something of a sitcom chacter, with her snappy joke-a-second dialogue and demeanor.  She wouldn’t be at all out of place on The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 2019), say.  Dennings is probably best known for her work on a sitcom, 2 Broke Girls (2011 – 2017).
  • It pleased me to see characters recognize Wanda and the Vision right off the bat.  While many super-heroes in the Marvel Universe have secret identities, many do not.  Avengers tend to be household names and are often famous on a global scale.  It totally tracks for me that people would immediately recognize a pair of Avengers, even in this unexpected context.
  • The shape of the energy field around Westview is hexagonal.  We’ve seen plenty of hexagonal imagery up to this point in WandaVision.  The I Love Lucy credits at the end of episode 1 feature a hexagon, as do the Bewitched credits at the end of episode 2.  The opening Brady Bunch-style credits of Episode 3 feature hexagons instead of squares.
  • The tether connecting the S.W.O.R.D. agent / beekeeper turns into a plastic jump rope when it crosses the boundary of the energy field.  I haven’t seen one of those in a long, long time.  Took me a moment to place it!
  • I don’t know for certain if this is what’s happening — I still suspect Hydra / AIM / Enchantress shenanigans — but it makes me a little weepy to think that Wanda Maximoff in her unbearable grief may have created her own controllable reality and pulled it in after her.
  • That said, it makes me happy to see, for once, an MCU character given the full mythic scope– maybe — of her abilities.  The Scarlet Witch of the comics has the power (and the personality) to do something like what we’re perhaps seeing the Wanda Maximoff of the MCU do here.  She’s a hero, yes, but one possessed of a terrible (and terrifying) power.

I hope you’ll let me know if you have any questions, or if you see something I missed (though mind the spoilers).  See you next week, when we’ll pass the halfway point of WandaVision!

References

References
1 The police claim they’re from Eastview, and the stencilling on their car would appear to back that up.
2 This put me in mind of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), 12-year old Mark Petrie cutting Susan Norton’s adult rationalizations regarding a vampire king off at the heels:  “Can’t you feel how bad he is?  Doesn’t that house make you afraid, just looking at it?”
3 The same Joss Whedon that would go on to direct Avengers and Avengers:  Age of Ultron.
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep.3: Now in Color

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  There are spoilers up ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the third episode.

Avengers (2012), d. Joss Whedon

When Avengers (2012) came out, I naturally got a whole mess of questions from people about who these characters were and what they were all about.  A few had some rough familiarity with the comics.  Most had none.  One friend, educated and insanely intelligent, knew of Thor not from the comics but from the actual Norse mythology he’d read.  “How is it,” this friend asked, “that these mortal heroes are the equal of Thor?”

My answer was simple.  “They aren’t.  None of them are the equal of Thor.  All of the other Avengers put together aren’t the equal of Thor.  They’re mortal people in costumes; Thor is the God of Thunder.”

Not a bad answer, given what I knew then, but time and experience have reavealed the flaw in it.  My 2012 answer assumed that the Thor of the comics and the Thor of the movies were roughly the same character, and they’re not.

At all.

The Thor of the comics is the the son of Odin the All-Father; a figure of unparalleled might, majesty, and grandeur.  The Thor of the movies is a genial, incredibly handsome doofus, more King of Queens than Prince of Asgard.  The MCU in general has a tendency to reduce and de-mythologize its subjects.

We’ll come back to this idea of demythologizing and comics vs. movies in a future post.  I’m bringing the subject up here because now is as good a time as any to admit that much of my convoluted prognosticating for where this series might be going is based on a lifetime spent marinating in a rich toxic stew of Marvel Comics geekhood (there’s a reason this blog is called the opposite of cool, after all).  It’s a perspective that informs and misleads, all at the same time.

The Dottie as Enchantress theory, for instance?  That’s based on the fear and trepidation with which Agnes regards Dottie (which itself depends on Agnes being who I think she is); the coven of witches always hovering around; the starkly feminine sway Dottie holds over the town; and the flurry of terms evoking dread and divinity that are associated with her.  That theory depends entirely upon my preconceptions concerning Asgardians, who may be gods in the comics, but are apparently just funky space people from the planet Studio 54 in the movies…which kind of blows the whole Dottie idea out of the water.

Like its predecssors, WandaVision ep.3 — now in color, and on a Brady Bunch set — offers more questions than answers.  The episode seems to take place with one foot in reality and one foot out of it.  Wanda and the Vision seem to be aware, for instance, that last week’s episode took place, for them, literally hours ago, but never remark on the fact that they’re now living in a completely different house in a different era.

The town doctor confirms Wanda’s pregnancy, which is accelerating rapidly.  The Vision calculates that they have three days’ time before Wanda is due, but this turns out to be in error.  When Wanda’s water breaks (signified by an indoor rain shower!), the Vision leaves to retrieve the doctor.  While he’s gone, Geraldine arrives, and after some stork-related hijinx, Wanda gives birth to Tommy, the first of two twins.  The Vision and the doctor arrive shortly after, as does Billy, the second of the twins.  The Vision sees the doctor out, and is given a cryptic warning about Geraldine by neighbors Agnes and Herb, while inside, Wanda and Geraldine have an increasingly tense and unpleasant conversation.  When the Vision gets back inside, Geraldine is gone; Wanda tells him she had to rush home.  The episode ends with a glimpse into ‘real life’:  a ‘Welcome to Westview’ sign at night, with Geraldine expelled from some sort of energy effect into a field near what looks like a cross between Area 51 and a temporary military base.  Helicopters and military vehicles arrive to retrieve the dazed Geraldine, still in her 70’s outfit.  The camera pulls back to show an energy zone bound by what look like stadium lights, presumably Westview.  Roll credits to the Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer.’

____

Let’s roll around in the muck, shall we?

  • Opening credits and set design suggest The Brady Bunch (1969 – 1974), with maybe a touch of The Patridge Family (1970 – 1974) thrown in for good measure.  TV history is not a strong point for me, I’m sorry to say, so if you, gentle reader, recognize other influences at work in this episode, I hope you’ll let me know.
  • We should take a moment to recognize the versatile camera work being done on this series.  British cinematographer Jess Hall, probably best known for Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), did all nine episodes of WandaVision.  A lot of what you see here, evoking the shows and techniques of different eras, with every episode so far completely different than the one before it and the one after it, can be attributed to Hall.  Pretty bad-assed.
  • Most of the episode, until the very end, is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which are the dimensions your television would’ve been in the early 1970’s.
  • In keeping with this episode’s general theme of breaching boundaries and keeping secrets, we see Wanda and the Vision’s neighbor Herb using his hedge trimmer to cut through the low yellow wall separating their respective properties.  When the Vision points out that Herb might have taken his hedge trimming a little too far, Herb allows that it’s true…and keeps right on cutting through the wall.
  • Similar to last week’s reality adjustment, there’s another curious rewind / edit effect that happens here.  Wanda tells the Vision that with all the close calls they’ve been having, it seems the people of Westview are always on the verge of discovering their secret.  “I know what you mean,” says the Vision.  “Mr. and Mrs. Hart, dinner.  Outside with Herb.  I think something’s wrong here, Wanda.”  And then we’re ‘edited’ back to the Vision saying, “I know what you mean.”  Reality gets rewound, rebooted, and the conversation from there switches tracks and goes in another direction entirely.
  • Another in-universe commercial, this one for Hydra Soak Luxury Bath Powder, and it might be the single most revealing thing in this episode.
  • Narrator:  “Do you need a break?”
    Woman:  “You read my mind!”
    Narrator:  “Escape to a world all your own, where your problems float away.  When you want to get away, but you don’t want to go anywhere.  Hydra Soak.  Find the goddess within!”Uh huh.
  • The Vision has super-speed powers, like the Flash (or Quicksilver!) in this episode, and I’ve no idea what that’s about.  The Vision has never, in any medium I’m aware of, been shown to possess super-speed powers.  I’m not sure if this is a way of showing the malleability of this pocket reality or dimension we’re in; whether it’s a nod to the eventual powers of one of these twins (trust me, it’s a whole thing); or whether the show-runners just don’t understand what the Vision does or how he works.  Weird.
  • Wanda Maximoff gave birth to twins Thomas and William in Vision and the Scarlet Witch #12, Sep 1986.

    Vision and the Scarlet Witch #12, Sep 1986, by Steve Englehart and Richard Howell
  • “I don’t think we’ll get away after all,” says Doctor Nielson ruefully.  “Small towns.  So hard to escape.”
  • Herb and Agnes tell the Vision that Geraldine is new in town.  “No family,” says Agnes.  “No husband.  No home.”  When the Vision asks for clarification, Agnes stops Herb from saying more.
  • Wanda mentions to Geraldine that she too was a twin.  She had a brother, Pietro.  Geraldine, as if just awakening or realizing something:  “He was killed by Ultron, wasn’t he?”[1]He was, back in Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015).  When Wanda presses her — “What did you say just now?” — Geraldine repeatedly attempts to gaslight her.
  • “Hey, I’ll take a shift rocking the babies.”
    “No, I think you should leave.”
    “Oh, Wanda, don’t be like that.”
  • Wanda notices Geraldine’s necklace with its sword symbol.  “What is that?”  Geraldine seems surprised and dismayed to see it hanging around her neck.  “Who are you?” says Wanda.  Geraldine stumbles over her answer, which one might well do when faced with a woman who could conceivably erase your entire existence at will.  Not just kill you, but make it so you never existed at all.  In that moment, Wanda has left the building, and Geraldine’s left dealing with the Scarlet Witch.  Not a good place to be.
  • Note the aspect ratio switch in the final scene from 4:3 to what looks to my untrained eye like 21:9.  It’s a nice touch, something that tells us we’re dealing with an entirely different reality or environment from the rest of the epsiode.
  • The Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer’ was released in 1968, and it’s a good thematic fit here.

____

So…to this point, I believe I’ve identified at least two, maybe four, major players here, not including Wanda and the Vision themselves:

  1. S.W.O.R.D.[2]Which stands, gentle reader, for Sentient World Observation and Response Department
  2. Agnes / Agatha Harkness
  3. A.I.M[3]That’s Advanced Idea Mechanics to us!
  4. Dottie /  The Enchantress

The thing that’s throwing me with these major players is that, in the comics at least, no one of them has any affiliation or alliance with any of the others.

S.W.O.R.D. deals with threats from outer space, aliens and the like.  I’m not seeing where or why they’d have any interest in Wanda or the Vision one way or the other.

Assuming Agnes is Agatha Harkness and she’s anything like she is in the comics, she’d be on Wanda’s side.  Mentor, friend, and protector.  She wouldn’t have anything to do with S.W.O.R.D. or A.I.M.; she might not have ever even heard of them.

A.I.M. is a group of mad scientist techno-terrorists; I can see them maybe having some interest in the Vision, but Wanda?

And the Enchantress, well…assuming there’s a connection there with Dottie, the Enchantress isn’t on anyone’s side but the Enchantress’s.  She doesn’t have friends.  She has pawns and minions and acquantainces of convenience, but friends?  Allies?  Not so much.

I’ve narrowed down my overall theories about what’s going on to two main variants:

A.  What we’re seeing is a pocket reality created by Wanda Maximoff, and someone, S.W.O.R.D. or A.I.M., is trying their level best to limit this pocket reality’s spread.  Arguments for this variant include the presence of the Vision, who, I’ll remind you, was stone cold dead the last time we saw him.

B.  What we’re seeing is a pocket reality created by someone else in which Wanda is trapped.  Possible reasons for this might be to manipulate Wanda’s powers for nefarious purposes, and / or to get their hands on any children or offspring she might produce (for the children!).  Arguments for this variant include the man’s voice from the radio:  “Wanda?  Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?”

In either variant, I don’t think things are going entirely to plan.  I imagine most of the townspeople might be S.W.O.R.D. agents, but Agnes?  Dottie?  What looks like an A.I.M. guy crawling up from the sewer?  Geraldine and what feels like her impromptu (and possibly unauthorized) insertion?  None of that looks planned to me.  Whoever’s running this Westview show — or trying to run it — is riding a tiger with no clear way to get off it.

You’ve almost certainly never heard of it, and I strongly doubt the showrunners have either, but in the 1980’s, Alan Moore[4]One of the giants of the comics world, Moore’s writing credits include Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen.  For my money, ‘The … Continue reading wrote a series called Miracle Man, published by Eclipse Comics, about a Captain Marvel-like hero:  normal guy speaks his magic word — Shazam! — and turns into a super version of himself.  In this story, a mad scientist fellow named Emil Gargunza has managed to reverse-engineer some alien body-swapping technology / wizardry, and apply it to some young men and boys (and a girl) that he’s kidnapped.  To keep them pliable, Gargunza hooks them up to a kind of alternate reality, what he calls a “somatic inducer,” and feeds them programmed stories.

Sound familiar?

And like what I think we’re seeing in WandaVision, it all goes swimmingly…

…until it doesn’t.

See you next week.

References

References
1 He was, back in Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015).
2 Which stands, gentle reader, for Sentient World Observation and Response Department
3 That’s Advanced Idea Mechanics to us!
4 One of the giants of the comics world, Moore’s writing credits include Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen.  For my money, ‘The Anatomy Lesson,’ Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, Feb 1984, written by Moore, with art by Steve Bissette (pencils), John Totleben (inks), and Tatjana Wood (colors) is the best single-issue comic book ever produced.
Categories
Television

WandaVision, Ep.2: Don’t Touch That Dial

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  There are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen the show up through the second episode.

It occurred to me more than once, watching this episode, that to this point WandaVision encourages a kind of active conspiracy theorizing.  You’re presented with events and information that not only don’t feel quite right; you question whether or not they’re tethered to objective reality at all.  What, if anything, here can be taken as ‘fact’?  So you begin this elaborate game of connecting the dots, searching for meaning and connotation where it’s possible none exist.  Mind you, like any committed conspiracy theorist, I think in this case meaning and connotation do exist…but can I prove it?  Gentle reader, I cannot.  Not at this juncture, at any rate.  This must be what those Q-Anon adherents feel like, minus the lunacy, sedition, and racism.

Still in classic sitcom black and white, WandaVision ep.2 begins with a cold open, Wanda and the Vision awakened in the middle of the night from their individual and ever-so-separate twin beds by a series of loud crashing sounds.  They eventually determine these sounds are being caused by tree branches blowing against the house in the wind.  But are they?

We’ll come back to this matter of crashing noises outside, but first, a note about these twin beds, which are first pushed together by Wanda and then magically combined altogether:  The Hays Code kept even married couples on television in separate beds until 1964, usually with a night-stand or something in between, so as not to foster any notions among impressionable viewers that the beds were being pushed together to create an indoor arena for that most questionable and damning of sports.  Curiously, Ozzie and Harriet had a double bed, but we never saw them sleep in it (and somehow that seems even more perverse and suggestive than if they had just slept in it).  The first couple to actually share a bed on American network television?  Darrin and Samantha Stephens of Bewitched (1964)…the very same show which, not incoincidentally, provides the inspiration / template for this episode’s animated opening credits.  And as we’ll see, it might be fitting in other ways, assuming my conspiracy theories are anywhere close to hitting the mark…but I digress.

Come post-credits daybreak, Wanda and the Vision prepare for their part in the local talent show, a benefit ‘for the children.’  They’re performing a magic act, Vision as magician and Wanda as assistant, with a ‘Cabinet of Mysteries’ that makes the person in the cabinet disappear.[1]I couldn’t help but think of Gob and his similar Aztec Tomb in Arrested Development, insisting to his brother that it’s an illusion; a trick, he says, is something a whore does for … Continue reading  Vision worries about the transparency of the disappearing act — it’s of course just a rotating panel in the box, nothing magical about it — but Wanda assures him that’s the whole point:  “In a real magic act, everything is fake.”  Indeed.

The Vision leaves for a gathering of the neighborhood watch at the library, while Wanda prepares to attend the seating committee for the talent show.  Before she has a chance to leave, she hears the crashing sound again.  She goes outside to search for the source of the sound, and finds a small toy helicopter in the bushes.  The helicopter is easy to make out, as it’s the only thing in this black and white environment that’s in color.  Red and gold.  Stark / Iron Man colors.  It’s also sporting a sword logo, like what we saw on the notebook from last week’s closing credits.

Before she has a chance to inspect it more fully, however, her friend and nosy neighbor Agnes arrives to drop off a pet rabbit for the magic act.  Wanda drops the helicopter back into the bushes, takes the rabbit inside, and then the two walk to the committee meeting.  The meeting is chaired by neighborhood mean girl, Dottie (Emma Caulfield Ford), who Agnes refers to as ‘Queen Cul-de-Sac.’  Agnes attempts to give Wanda a bit of friendly advice:  Dottie is the key to everything in this town, and that Wanda should be on her best behavior to ingratiate herself with Dottie.  “Or maybe I could just be myself, more or less,” suggests Wanda.  Agnes gives her a look that’s pure dismay; somewhere in  between Oh, honey…no and Are you fucking crazy?  The ensuing silence is just long and awkward enough to make an impact before Agnes breaks into nervous laughter.  It’s nice work by Kathryn Hahn and director Matt Shakman.

Wanda gets off on something of a wrong foot with Dottie at the seating committee, though to be fair, it’s probably hard not to get off on the wrong foot with Dottie.  Wanda claps at the wrong time, speaks at the wrong time, eats at the wrong time.  She does manage to strike up a friendly bit of conversation with a new acquaintance, Geraldine (Teyonah Parris), whose name is almost certainly not Geraldine.  We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Dottie, Queen of Cul-de-Sacs (Emma Caulfield Ford)

Meanwhile, the Vision attends the neighborhood watch gathering at the library.  Turns out the only neighborhood watching going on concerns gossiping, farting around, and eating danishes.  Someone gives the Vision a stick of gum, which he accidentally swallows, playing havoc with his internal parts.

Back at the seating committe, Wanda has been chosen by Dottie to stay behind after the meeting and help clean up (which means Wanda does all the work while Dottie supervises).  A strange conversation ensues:

“I’ve heard things about you,” says Dottie.  “You and your husband.”

“Well, I don’t know what you’ve been told,” says Wanda, “but I assure you I don’t mean anyone any harm.”

“I don’t believe you,” says Dottie.

And then the nearby clock radio, sitting on a lawn table, begins to screech with static and the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ — another heart reference:  Help me, Rhonda, yeah, get her out of my heart — before a man’s voice says, “Wanda.  Wanda, can you read me?  Wanda?”

Both women look at the radio, stunned.  “Who is that?” says Dottie, frightened.  “Who are you?”

“Wanda?” says the man’s voice on the radio.  “Wanda.  Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?”

The radio blows a fuse and the glass in Dottie’s hand shatters, cutting her palm and breaking the spell.  Wanda procures a towel for Dottie’s hand (her blood is in color), and as with the Lynchian choking scene in the last episode, just like that we’re back to ‘normal.'[2]David Lynch is the director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, and creator of the television show Twin Peaks.  Scratching the surface of the mundane to reveal the sinister strikes me … Continue reading

“Pop quiz, Wanda,” says Dottie.  “How does a housewife get a bloodstain out of white linen?  By doing it herself.”  It’s presented here as comedy, cued by the laugh track, though the line itself strikes me as deeply ominous.

Another of these in-universe commercial follows, this time for the Strucker brand wrist-watch, with the same actors as last week’s commercial for the Toastmate 2000.  Strucker, you’ll recall, is the Hydra goon who engineered Wanda and Pietro Maximoff’s powers back in Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  It’s the second episode in a row we have a commercial for an appliance or piece of machinery, which ends with a metronomic sound increasing in frequency and volume.

At the talent show, Wanda and her new friend Geraldine, acting as the stage manager, anxiously await the Vision’s arrival.  He shows up late and obviously impaired, the gum he swallowed back at the library still doing its number on him.  There’s no time to figure it out before the pair are whisked on-stage for their magic act.  Billed as Glamor and Illiusion, hijinx ensue from the Vision’s confusion:  he unwisely displays many of his various powers — flight, super-strength, intangibility — with Wanda covering for him, Bewitched style, with her magic.

The Cabinet of Mysteries

The Cabinet of Mysteries is the last of their magic tricks.  Vision shuts the door to the cabinet before Wanda can get in it, but thanks to Wanda’s magic, when the Vision opens the cabinet, it’s a somewhat puzzled Geraldine who steps out.

Backstage, Wanda figures out what’s affecting the Vision and removes the offending gum from his system with her powers.  The pair attempt to slink off back home, believing that Dottie and the committee will think they’ve ruined the show, but instead, they’re given an award for the ‘inaugural Comedy Performance of the Year’ and a standing ovation from the town.  “For the children!”

After arriving back home that night, Wanda and the Vision discover, with the strange logic of dreams — more David Lynch — that she’s several months pregnant.  “Vision…is this really happening?”  Their moment is interrupted by another loud crashing sound.  They go outside to investigate (the only people in the neighborhood to do so) and watch as a sinister figure in a beekeeper suit, bees buzzing around him, emerges from beneath a manhole cover.  He stands in the street, taking in his surroundings, before suddenly turning his gaze directly towards Wanda and the Vision.

“No,” says Wanda Maximoff, and we rewind, literally, back to, “Vision…is this really happening?”  This time, no crashing sound occurs, or perhaps is allowed to occur…and black and white gives way to technicolor with Wanda’s gaze, surprising her and the Vision both.  The couple kiss, with a Bewitched-style end credits overlay imposed, and then a repeat of the radio man’s voice:  “Wanda.  Who’s doing this to you, Wanda?  Wanda.”  Roll credits.

____

And here I was thinking, gentle reader, that this post would be shorter than the last one.  Wishful thinking.  Let’s tackle some of this in more depth, shall we?  You know you want to…

  • This episode takes a lot of its visual and thematic cues –including the animated opening credits and the sly nod to the double bed — from Bewitched, a series that ran from 1964 to 1972 about a suburban housewife, Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) who was a witch.  Indeed, she was from a whole family of people with witch powers, and like Wanda in this show, would use her magic powers to get in and get out of all kinds of trouble.  Wanda’s magic in this episode is often accompanied by a twinkling sound, similar to the sound that would sometimes accompany Samantha’s magic.
  • Wanda’s powers in this episode aren’t so much telekinetic or mind-affecting as we’ve seen in the past; here, they’re more straight-up magical.  Or reality-affecting.  Take your pick.
  • The toy helicopter with the Iron Man colors and the sword logo has a number 57 painted on it.  The Vision’s first comic appearance was Avengers #57, Oct 1968.
  • Fantastic Four # 94, Jan 1970 – First appearance of Agatha Harkness.

    I still think Agnes the nosy next-door neighbor might well be Agatha Harkness.  I’ve no proof of it, and it’d be a deep cut if so.  Of course, there’s no guarantee that even if she is Agatha Harkness, she’s anything like her comic book counterpart.  Agatha Harkness first appeared in Fantastic Four #94, Jan 1970, as a nanny / babysitter to yet another reality manipulator, young Franklin Richards.

  • No idea who or what Dennis the mailman / messenger might be.  My guess is it’ll be something we learn later.
  • Wanda is sporting a very Laura Petrie-ish fashion vibe with her sleek pant ensemble at the seating committee meeting.  Laura Petrie was Rob Petrie’s wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show, played by the iconic Mary Tyler Moore, and so far as I’m aware, she was the first woman to regularly wear pants on network television.[3]My TV expert / consultant tells me that Moore’s screentime in pants was carefully monitored by the network, with limits set on the time she could spend in them!
  • Time for some wildly unfounded conjecture concerning Dottie / Queen Cul-de-Sac and Her Merry Homemakers:
  • Dottie is normally a short form or nickname for Dorothy.  The most famous and obvious Dorothy, of course, is Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (1939), a movie with which this episode of WandaVision has some parallels:  camera work that goes from black and white to color, and an odd dreamscape with one foot in reality, featuring people from real life cast in the fantasy land.  That movie culminates with a seemingly god-like figure behind the scenes revealed to be, well…not all that.  No Marvel Universe character named Dorothy is springing to mind, but bear with me on this Dottie business.
  • Agnes tells Wanda that Dottie’s roses “bloom under penalty of death,” an odd phrase.  It comes right before Agnes’s friendly advice about Dottie being “the key to everything in this town.”  And the first thing Agnes says to Dottie is, “Your roses are divine.”  Hmm.  Later, Dottie tells one of the women at the seating committee that the Devil is in the details.  “That’s not the only place he is,” says Agnes to Wanda.  That’s a lot of talk in a very short span of time alluding to death, divinity, and the Devil.
    Journey into Mystery #103, April 1964 – First appearance of the Enchantress.

    So…no one named Dorothy I can think of, or Dottie, for that matter, but Dottie sounds like daughter to me, which made me think of Angela Odinsdotter,[4]Thor’s sister in the comics, created by Neil Gaiman which made me think of Asgardians and divinity.  And that in turn made me think that there’s at least one Asgardian in the Marvel Universe who would most definitely be inclined to get all up in the Scarlet Witch’s business.

    Amora, the Enchantress.

    Hey, I told you it was wildly unfounded conjecture.

  • The talent show is ostensibly a benefit for Westview Elementary School children…children that are never seen or otherwise referred to anywhere.  People in the town associated with the talent show have a disturbing habit of repeating For the children like a mantra or prayer whenever someone utters the phrase.
  • “All of this,” says Dottie, “is for the children.”
  • More Bewitched:  the seating committee suggests a witch’s coven to me.  Indeed, there are three women at the seating committee, sitting apart from everyone else, who never say anything — except maybe for the children  — and who follow Dottie around.  Three is a number traditionally associated with witches and figures of prophecy.  Think the Fates, the Norns, and Macbeth’s three witches.  Again, might just be conspiracy theorizing on my part, attempting to assign meaning where there is none.  Somtimes a cigar is just a cigar.  And sometimes it’s three witches watering the roots of the World Tree.
  • “I’m Wanda.”
    “I’m…uh…Geraldine.”
    Oooookay.
  • Contrary to what we see in this episode, it’s my understanding that the Vision’s body isn’t full of gears and the like.  He’s a synthetic person, not a robot; think artificial instead of mechanical.  It’s true he doesn’t eat food — he’s solar-powered — nor does he require sleep, but in most respects he’s physiologically more human than a terminator, say, or C3P0.
  • Vision and the Scarlet Witch #9, June 1986 – Glamor and Illusion on the Tarot cards, and…holy shit, is that the Enchantress?!

    Wanda and the Vision’s ‘Glamor and Illusion’ personas are taken from the comics, sort of, as is their attempt to live like normal-ish people in the suburbs (Leonia, New Jersey in the comics!).  The tale of their suburban lifestyle can be seen in Vision and the Scarlet Witch (1985) #1 – 12, by Steve Englehart[5]Englehart, who wrote Avengers from 1972 to 1976, was the writer who first put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together. and Richard Howell.  Glamor and Illusion were Glynis and Ilya Zarkov, neighbors of the Visions, and like Wanda and the Vision in this episode, they had a magic act augmented by super powers; they first appeared in Vision and the Scarlet Witch #4, Jan 1986.

  • Wanda and the Vision have a different front door than the one we saw in episode 1.  This episode’s front door is exactly like the Stephens’ front door from — you guessed it — Bewitched.  They also share a bedroom layout similar to the Stephens’ (note, if you’ve a mind to, the fireplace next to the bedroom window).
  • The fellow crawling from the manhole suggests one thing and one thing only:  Advanced Idea Mechanics, a.k.a. AIM, the mad scientist wing of Hydra, created by none other than former Nazi asshole Baron von Strucker.  They traditionally wear these bright yellow numbers that resemble beekeeper outfits.  And while most of what we’ve seen so far concerns Wanda Maximoff, it’d be the Vision that’d likely draw the interest of AIM.  AIM was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; their first appearance was Strange Tales #146, July 1966.

    AIM ‘beekeepers’; art by Jack Kirby.
  • Wanda’s reaction to the beekeeper — “No.” — followed by a literal rewind is what I’d expect from the Scarlet Witch.  You do remember I said her powers warp reality, yes?
  • Wanda and the Vision are more or less in their traditional colors during the episode’s last scene.  The Vision in green and gold, Wanda in scarlet (what else?).

That’s episode 2!  Thank you for being here, and for allowing me to do my level best to melt your mind and exhaust your patience.  If you know something about TV that I don’t — not just possible, but likely — please let me know, and if you think I might know something about Marvel Comics that you’d like to know, ask away.  See you next episode!

References

References
1 I couldn’t help but think of Gob and his similar Aztec Tomb in Arrested Development, insisting to his brother that it’s an illusion; a trick, he says, is something a whore does for money…”or candy!” he adds for the benefit of the small children crowding about the Tomb.  Weird fact:  the pilot episode of Arrested Development the Tomb appeared in was directed by Joe and Anthony Russo…the very same Russo Brothers who would go on to direct Captain America:  Winter Soldier, Captain America:  Civil War, Avengers:  Infinity War, and Avengers:  Endgame.
2 David Lynch is the director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, and creator of the television show Twin Peaks.  Scratching the surface of the mundane to reveal the sinister strikes me as characteristic of much of his work.
3 My TV expert / consultant tells me that Moore’s screentime in pants was carefully monitored by the network, with limits set on the time she could spend in them!
4 Thor’s sister in the comics, created by Neil Gaiman
5 Englehart, who wrote Avengers from 1972 to 1976, was the writer who first put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together.