WandaVision Episode 8: “Previously On”
Director: Matt Shakman
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Julian Hillard, Jett Klyne, Josh Stamberg, Debra Jo Rupp, Emma Caulfield Ford, Jolene Purdy, David Payton, David Lengel, Amos Glick, Selena Anduze, Kate Forbes, Ilana Kohanchi, Daniyar, Michaela Russel, Gabriel Gurevich
Runtime: 47 minutes
So WandaVision, and this episode, in particular, have to be the saddest things in the MCU, right? Yes, there are parts in the movies, like Iron Man and the Black Widow’s deaths, Cap letting Bucky nearly beat him to death to free him, and Thor’s talk with Rocket about his violent family history, that reach similarly devastating emotional heights, but they all contribute to eventual triumphs. It’s not that I necessarily think WandaVision is going to end in complete tragedy, in fact, I think it would probably be a big mistake if it did, but the show is exploring emotional wounds that aren’t going to heal quickly (or at least shouldn’t), even if Wanda ultimately gets a win next week. “Previously On” is the episode we’ve all been waiting for, as it answers a lot of questions about how the Westview situation came to be and adds interesting new elements to Marvel mythology but it does so through an intimate exploration of Wanda’s past that leads to some of the franchise’s most heartbreaking material, and some of Elizabeth Olsen’s most powerful work yet.
The episode opens with a flashback to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1693, where Agatha is being tried. But rather than being tried for being a witch, she’s being tried by other witches, including her mother (Kate Forbes), for using dark magic. The coven starts blasting her with energy beams but Agatha is seemingly able to absorb their power into herself, causing the other witches to wither and die. Her mother is the last one left and Agatha pleads with her to let her go, claiming that she couldn’t control herself and that she can be good, but her mother blasts her anyway and Agatha eventually kills her as well.
In the present, Agatha has Wanda in her basement. Wanda attempts to fight her off with her powers but Agatha has runes set up that prevent any witches other than herself from using their magic. She mocks Wanda for her lack of formal witch training and magical knowledge but is also determined to find out how Wanda carried out such a massive mystical undertaking in her redesign of Westview. After Agatha makes Wanda listen to the twins screaming for help somewhere close by, she agrees to journey through projections of her memories so Agatha can trace the history of her power.
They first return to Sokovia when Wanda was a young girl, played by Michaela Russell. Her family is having a TV night, watching some of the DVDs of American sitcoms that Wanda’s father tries to sell on the street. Wanda selects a famous episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show and the camera lingers on her smiling face after it starts. Just as she is becoming invested in the show an explosion rocks the house, with the screen burning to white. Wanda and Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) come to in the wreckage when a Stark Industries missile lands a few feet away from them. Wanda tells Pietro not to move but subtly begins reaching toward it, leading Agatha to ponder if she cast a probability spell to keep the missile from going off.
Next, we see a young adult Wanda going through Hydra’s experimentation with Loki’s scepter (which unbeknownst to them contains the Mind Stone). The Hydra observers expect Wanda to die like all the other subjects who have come into contact with the scepter but instead she sees a vision of the Stone breaking out of its blue shell and bathing her in a brilliant yellow light, through which she can see what appears to be a future version of herself in a less ridiculous, more regal version of her comic book costume, although the figure is somewhat obscured by the light. The Hydra cameras cut out during this so the scientists only see a jump cut after which Wanda is lying on the floor. Surprised she’s alive, they send her to isolation. Agnes notes how Wanda how getting close to an Infinity Stone “amplified what otherwise would have died on the vine,” and says she has a theory, again suggesting that she believes that Wanda had some amount of her powers BEFORE coming into contact with the stone, which is a major change to what we’ve been told in the MCU so far.
The next memory is from the time between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, during which Wanda lived at the Avengers Compound, which she describes as the first home she shared with Vision. She is watching Malcolm in the Middle in her room when Vision joins her. He struggles to understand sitcom humor, asking if an awning falling on Bryan Cranston’s character “is funny because of the grievous injury the man just suffered?” (which is one of Bettany’s most perfect deliveries ever) but Wanda explains that he’s not really hurt. When Vision asks how she can be sure she says “It’s not that kind of show.” Vision offers to talk with Wanda about Pietro’s death if she feels it would help but she snaps that it wouldn’t, that the only thing that could make her feel better would be seeing him again. She quickly apologizes, stating that she’s just tired, and explains how grief continues to hit her in waves every time she thinks she is ready to stand up again and that she’s afraid it’s going to drown her. Vision says it won’t and when she asks how he knows he says “Because it can’t all be sorrow, can it?” He explains how he’s never experienced loss because he’s never loved anyone and asks “What is grief, if not love persevering?” It’s a beautiful line in an overall beautiful scene, one of the best in the entire MCU. Vision is always at his most interesting when his unique perspective is emphasized, which was previously done best in his Age of Ultron introduction. He’s not less than human as so many robot characters are portrayed throughout media but he does see things in a different way than we do and highlighting that as a reason Wanda falls in love with him (as she clearly is by the end of the scene) is a very smart move on the writers’ part. It’s also maybe Olsen and Bettany’s best scene together, which is saying something considering how good they always are. She, as always captures the weight of everything Wanda is feeling excellently but they both also bring a note of cautious optimism to the end of the scene in which the characters truly begin to enjoy the show together and the moment when they first smile and laugh together is magical (and not in the witchy way).
In a devastating transition, we move from this lovely scene to one of Wanda going to Sword to collect Vision’s body after Avengers: Endgame. Hayward invites her in to talk but says she can’t take the body and then shows her the team of technicians he has tearing it apart to analyze it, as he hopes to reactivate Vision as one of his “sentient weapons”, although Sword has been unable to do so in the five years since Avengers: Infinity War. Wanda breaks through the window and floats down into the lab to stop them and Hayward allows her to do so, hoping that her Mind Stone powers might be the key to bringing Vision back online. Wanda tries to read Vision’s mind but is unsuccessful, telling him, “I can’t feel you,” in a heartbreaking callback to his first Infinity War death, when he told her, “You could never hurt me. I just feel you.”
After leaving Sword, Wanda drives to Westview, eventually arriving at the location of her house in the sitcom world. Only in the real world, it’s an abandoned lot, where it seems a building was recently demolished. Wanda opens a note from Vision with the location marked on a map, with a message calling it “A place to grow old in.” After this latest blow, all the tragedy she’s experienced finally becomes too much and she breaks down crying before an immense burst of her red energy explodes from her body, turning the town into its first black-and-white-sitcom-form and constructing her house. The energy continues to release with a stream of it changing to the yellow color of the Mind Stone, creating the Vision who’s been in the show so far. After this black-and-white-Vision comes to life he welcomes Wanda home and she steps into frame as her black-and-white-1950s-self.
With the torturous walk down memory lane done, present-day Wanda runs outside to find Agatha, floating in her own witch regalia, holding Billy and Tommy by the throats with ropes made of her mystical energy. She says that in order to do what she has Wanda must be drawing on chaos magic, which makes her the Scarlet Witch, a dangerous figure prophesized in witch lore. The use of Wanda’s comic book alter ego, which has never been mentioned before in the MCU, is pretty exciting, though I couldn’t help but think that all Agatha’s points about Wanda having always had her powers were going to lead to her calling her a mutant. I think that’s still possible, as the comics have often used Wanda’s mutant heritage to bring up a similar point, that she’s gotten access to immense mystical power without training, which makes her dangerous. But regardless, with her children’s lives literally hanging by threads and the full scope of Wanda’s powers about to be revealed, the stakes couldn’t be higher going into the finale, especially with what the mid-credits scene adds on. Back at Sword’s new base camp, Hayward and some of his cronies are able to bring Project Cataract, Vision’s real body, now colored all in white, online thanks to the residual energy on the drone Wanda wrecked. White Vision is featured in the comics, where he possesses Vision’s memories but not his capacity for human emotion, but given Hayward’s hubristic quest to create sentient weapons the ultimate irony (and the biggest challenge for Wanda and Vision) would be if this was actually a revived Ultron.
But as exciting and well done as the mythology and superhero plots are, what’s really going to be memorable about WandaVision and this episode, in particular, is their tender handling of themes related to grief and trauma. An unflinching depiction of the aftermath of constant tragedy, “Previously On” on its own is more than enough to refute elitist ideas about the superhero genre not being capable of creating moving drama.
- Agatha refers to Pietro as “Fietro” short for “Fake Pietro”, which is just perfect. She explains that she’s bewitched him to act as her eyes and ears but the dialogue conspicuously doesn’t actually make it clear who or what he actually is.
- Everyone’s expecting Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange himself to turn up in the finale to tie the show to his upcoming sequel but I’m starting to wonder if his former friend Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is also confirmed to appeal in the sequel, might do so instead. The last we saw Mordo he was hunting down other magic users as he believed they should no longer be permitted to violate the natural order of the world so he’d definitely take issue with what Wanda has been up to.
- The finale has a lot to tie up. Hopefully it’s long enough to handle everything gracefully.
WandaVision Episode 8
Another great WandaVision gives the heartbreaking backstory of Wanda's Westview life, making it one of Marvel's most moving productions, with an especially stunning performance from Elizabeth Olsen.