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The penultimate episode of WandaVision – episode 1.08 “Previously On” serves as an exercise in Wanda’s fragile psychology while also exhibiting a magnificent balance of exposition, plot, and character.
We’ve finally been made privy to the entire story leading up to the creation of Wanda’s sitcom life. In this exposition heavy episode, we have been shown new information, examined previously known facts, and even re-contextualized information we thought was based in a solid footing.
In what is a choice only an extremely talented writing staff would dare take on, Jac Schaeffer and crew chose to look back for the penultimate episode, as opposed to the more conventional choice of building momentum toward what will surely be an epic finale between Wanda, Agatha, White Vision (we’ll go over that in a a little bit) Tyler Hayward, Fietro (we’ll discuss that too) and Monica.
Of course, setting focus on what brought us to this moment is not an unprecedented choice in television. Damon Lindelof pulled the same maneuver (to widespread acclaim) with the penultimate episode for season 1 of The Leftovers — which, oddly enough, is show also based on the effect of grief. Heck, it’s not even unprecedented within WandaVision’s own run as we had a similar style episode in 1.04 “We Interrupt This Program” when we took a little detour to explore what happened outside Wanda’s cosmic bubble in the greater MCU world.
While the exploration of Monica’s circumstances in 1.04 was a success in it’s own right, this extensive journey through Wanda’s past feels very different. Like Lindelof’s trip down memory lane in 1.09 of The Leftovers, “The Garvey’s At Their Best“, WandaVision’s “Previously On” feels purposeful and extremely specific in its intent.
Yes, we witness how Wanda lived through the famed story of waiting for a Stark bomb to explode in her living room as a child (as originally told by Pietro in Avengers: Age Of Ultron).
We also see how she apparently survived experimentation by HYRDA, how Vision helped ease her grief after Pietro’s death, and ultimately how Hayward lied about about Wanda seizing Vision’s Vibranium corpse upon defeating Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. The plot of it all, though, while important, is not as pivotal as what we learn about Wanda’s character via the Agatha induced trek through Wanda’s complex past – the creation of the defense mechanism she has utilized to shield herself from her reality.
The key to the complexity of this episode is rooted in marrying the plot — such as what happened before WandaVision (the show within our show) became a reality — to telling those events in a compelling manner, and ultimately rooting the whole affair in what matters most to the story: how it affects Wanda and the defense mechanism she has created as a result of the plot.
Concordantly, “Previously On” is an exploration in Wanda’s strengths and weaknesses as it relates to her psychology and how those are reflected through the events we witnessed.
If you watched WandaVision with a discerning eye, especially those first three episodes, you knew what we were watching was an examination of grief and trauma and this episode very much follows suit.
The difference between our experiences from the previous episode, and this episode, is that our plot mechanics and exposition dumps are relegated to the real world. In other words, what we watched is truly more exemplary of Wanda’s actual reality and how it affects her surrounding world. This choice is in stark contrast to the fictionalized version of WandaVision Wanda uses to heal the wounds from her past trauma. Ultimately, Wanda’s real world informs her fictionalized world, and as a result, the fictionalized world is a commentary on her trauma from the real world.
As is it relates to this story of grief and trauma – I will reference John Yorke’s Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story.
Our story matches psychological theory: characters are taken on a journey to acknowledge and assimilate the traumas in their past. By confronting and coming to terms with the cause of their traumas they can finally move on.
Agatha forces Wanda to confront her trauma. It may not be for the altruistic reason of trying to heal the wounds Wanda suffers from but there is a reckoning nonetheless. Despite the fact Agatha is only poking and prodding to discover Wanda’s secret of controlling the town (“magic on auto-pilot” as Agatha describes it), Agatha unknowingly unearths Wanda’s very specific defense mechanism from trauma – that being the creation of a fictionalized Westview.
In discovering that defense mechanism though, Agatha also cuts to the very core of what it means to exist as Wanda – pain, suffering, and loss. Sure, it comes by way of exposition and is dependent on the plot you may or may not know from previous films, but what underscores the plot is the very real characterization that is the consequence of this plot.
Deep wounds are formed from Wanda’s life events like losing her parents, losing her country, being tricked by Ultron, Pietro’s death, and ultimately, Vision’s death.
In response to her extraordinarily cavernous wounds, Wanda’s response is to cover up her weakness with a façade of actions that protect the wound. First it was her love of television sitcoms (as defined by The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewtiched, The Brady Bunch and Malcolm In The Middle), then it was taking action in volunteering at HYDRA, and then it was joining the Avengers. These are all acts to push away and cover her deep core of pain.
What also lies beneath the surface of the heavy plot is Wanda’s desire to be needed, feel the lost love of her family, and operate as a part of a larger purpose. These efforts, culminating in the creation of WandaVision at Westview, protects her from the “endless nothingness” she describes upon leaving Vision at S.W.O.R.D. and seeing her unbuilt home.
Journeying through Wanda’s psyche, however, is not localized to the events of her past. We see her responses to Agatha as natural extensions of her defense mechanisms which were established in the “flashbacks”.
Wanda defies Agatha at every turn – at one point even trying to lash out with her with her powers. Agatha, however, neutralizes any chance Wanda has by voiding any magic in her super creepy witch lair with enchantments and ancient runes. As plotty as this may all sound, the larger effect is still valid – Agatha is in a position of real power and has no problem flexing her very advanced magic muscles to get what she wants (which builds on and validates on the episode opening in seventeenth century Salem, MA). Wanda cannot use her defense mechanisms, and she is forced to actually confront her truth once Agatha threatens Wanda’s children.
Despite Agatha’s affirmation of her power, and Wanda’s willingness to cooperate once she is forcibly coerced, the answers so desperately sought after by Agatha are not going to come easy. Like most people who suffer from immense trauma though, Wanda erected walls around her wounds but still truly does not know how, or why, she created those walls.
One minute Wanda was grieving and the next she was in WandaVision. We as viewers see this cognitive dissonance and it’s frustrating because we see it all, and Wanda refuses to acknowledge the truth even as she bares witness to it with Agatha. Frustrated as we may be though, this defiance is another subtle part of Wanda’s defense mechanism to protect her wounds.
When Wanda does not acknowledge her reality of loss and suffering by refusing to partake in the mental exercise, this is the same response she chooses when she willingly accepts life in WandaVision. Subject to insignificant stakes, Wanda does not have to move forward or grow in her sitcom world. Most importantly, she does not have to face her grief because she can live with a Vision she created from the ferocity of her magic, and the supernatural source of the Mindstone. Wanda’s natural reaction is shun everyone who doesn’t conform, or wants to challenge her truth like Monica, or, in this case, Agatha.
The growth we experience via Agatha’s emotional investigation is that Wanda is forced to see her wounds through this defense mechanism to understand her reality.
The bomb didn’t go off, not because she was lucky – but because of a latent power of which she was unaware. She didn’t survive the Mindstone because of her will and hatred as she once believed, but because she tapped into her strength. Vision’s loss is certainly one of tragedy and sadness, but, “what is grief, if not love persevering?” Finally, how was Westview created? Wanda’s strength and inner power became her defense mechanism, which, over time evolved into her weakness.
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Part of the growth and transition for Wanda is that she only continues to move through Agatha’s charade because she’s consistently reminded of the danger facing her children. That is, until she is pushed to witness the beginnings of her relationship with Vision at Avengers headquarters between the events of Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War.
Paramount to her growth, and our experience within the growth – both we and Wanda learn that it is Vision who ties in Wanda’s love of television, acceptance, and catharsis. In what is by far the most effective sequence of the episode, Wanda reliving her memory of watching Malcom In The Middle is what gives her the power to move forward – just as it did in reality after Pietro died. As a quick aside, THIS scene could exist as the sole justification for the entire WandaVision series.
As we have discussed, Wanda’s characterization has really suffered in the MCU. “Previously On” reminds us that Wanda is a real person who is simultaneously mending and avoiding her wounds by utilizing her greatest strength – which also happens to be her greatest weakness at this point. The vulnerability exhibited by Wanda and Vision in front of the TV speaks to the uniting power of television, but also the shared genuine affection between the two. As such, we viewers can latch onto an authentic feeling that drives our compassion the way it does for Wanda.
Wanda searches for purpose after her bothers death, while Vision searches for meaning after his abrupt creation and the answer to both questions sit before them. The odd part is that Wanda does not see this, necessarily, without the trip down memory lane forced upon her by Agatha.
Agatha is a curious case because she is clearly an antagonist for Wanda. Taking a step back to analyze the situation from a higher perch, we see someone in Agatha who is very much the same as Wanda — powerful, determined, and filled with trauma over a loved one’s death. During her journey, however, Agatha has made choices in her life that make her the opposite of Wanda in every way – Agatha seeks knowledge for the sake of gaining more power, whereas Wanda uses her power for the sake of her defense mechanisms. In the end, the are competing for the same thing – power to protect themselves from their deep rooted wounds. In discovering how Wanda does her magic, though, Agatha uncovers what Wanda really is – a conjurer of Chaos magic. The Scarlet Witch.
The Scarlet Witch revelation reveals Wanda’s true nature and it obviously terrifies Agatha. Is it by design that the Scarlet Witch wears the same headdress as Agatha’s mother? Is it by design that Agatha wants to kill Wanda, who is unable to give her the knowledge she so desires, much in the same way Agatha wanted to kill her mother — who couldn’t give Agatha acceptance? Revealing Wanda’s true nature is what sets up our conflict, but also what marks Agatha and Wanda as the respective antagonist/protagonist of this story.
To that end, it is only through Agatha that Wanda recognizes that the only person who is keeping her back is not Vision, Pietro, or even Agatha for that matter. It’s Wanda.
But what is going to happen from here? Wanda may have confronted all that makes her defense mechanism a reality. But, there still has yet to be an actual process of change. That’s where next episode, and her battle with White Vision comes in.
People will probably chat about how this episode was just a recap of previous events we already know about. While they aren’t wrong, they aren’t seeing the point of what showrunner Jac Schaeffer is trying to accomplish. The events of the plot lead us, and most importantly, Wanda, on a journey to confront her grief, but also find the strength to move past that grief. In looking at Wanda’s defense mechanism, we recognize Wanda’s reactions to Agatha as her reactions to the major events of her life – whether it was denial, anger, or violent aggression.
APROPOS OF NOTHING FOR WANDAVISION EPISODE 1.08 “PREVIOUSLY ON”
- Agatha’s quest for power and knowledge has defined her life. She may not have betrayed her coven in the quest for dark magic — because it bent to her power — but that desire is what kills her mother. Perhaps Agatha’s defense mechanism to this trauma is the true knowledge to all encompassing magic — what she believes Wanda has.
- We see where the brooch Agatha has been wearing this entire time comes from. Again, notice that Agatha’s mother’s powers form a similar headdress to what the “Scarlet Witch” wears in Wanda’s mind’s eye.
- Agatha seems to sense Wanda’s magic and apparently comes to town right after the creation of the cosmic bubble with the intent to discover the catalyst to the magic. “Who are you? All those costumes and hairstyles? I was so patient, waiting for you to reveal your true self. I got so close with Fake Pietro — Fietro, if you will — but no dice.” Fietro is the greatest name ever created in MCU canon.
- Agatha was not Fietro. Serving as her eyes and ears, he was “a crystalline possession” because Pietro’s actual body across the world – making necromancy impossible. But Wanda was so crippled by self-doubt that succumbed to the illusion.
- Agatha posits the Mindstone did not give Wanda her powers. Instead it “amplified what would have died on the vine.” This is an excellent psuedo retcon, or reimagining of Wanda’s established mythology in the MCU.
- GASP! Tyler Hayward really is a dink. He lied and fabricated tape to make Wanda look like she stole Vision’s body. Perhaps this is why he sent Monica all along? Perhaps this is why he was able to set up a headquarters so quickly – because he knew he needed Wanda’s power to jump start Vision?
- White Vision – oh boy. Seeing White Vision here is Not Great, Bob. White Vision is indeed the actual Vision that has been put back together by S.W.O.R.D. But, the problem is White Vision is nothing more than a weapon now – his memory (at least in the comic version) has been wiped and even the parts of JARVIS and Ultron that comprised him are now gone. His love of Wanda, his attachment to the human race, and his genuinely affectionate demeanor are gone. He is, for the lack of a better term, a soul-less hunk of metal now who’s only purpose is to kill. In the comics, this is the precursor to Wanda losing her children, and given the precarious spot her kids are in now – you can only imagine where the finale is heading.
- Speaking of how Wanda has been taken through a bullet-point version of her grief and now recognizes the answer to that grief, you can also imagine she is not going to be too happy when she is confronted by the ACTUAL Vision who doesn’t recognize her. Wanna talk about trauma? Whooo boy. Once again – not great, Bob!
- Speaking of that, Elizabeth Olsen is gold in every scene of this episode. Whether she remains an Avenger, or briefly turns into a villain because of these shenanigans remains to be seen. But, she is a powerhouse and you can see why this story has been developed as a flagship TV series. She sells every tear, every wince, and every single ounce of anger and I am honored to watch it.
- Wanda has the deed to a property she apparently purchased with Vision in Westview. On the deed is a note that says “To Grow Old In, V” OMG TEARS. When she sees the unbuilt home, and all the side characters we have come to know so far, Wanda’s Chaos Magic takes effect and she builds a brand new town. She also manifests a new vision straight out of her magical ability. This is why he doesn’t remember anything prior to Westview, and also why he cannot leave boundaries of Wanda’s cosmic bubble.
- Yes, this episode is very exposition heavy. Exposition can suck. But it can also be very beneficial, as long as it’s executed in the right manner. Think the “Dino DNA” sequence in Jurassic Park – that is perfect exposition. In this case, we get a similar effect – but with Agatha changing bugs to birds and using a visually dynamic examples to best explain what the hell happened in Westview.
- The toaster commercial from the first episode is re-contextualized as a reference to the Stark Industries bomb that started Wanda down this path. That commercial also had the blinking red light despite the commercial being shot in a native black and white. Because of this episode, we now recognize the bomb itself had the same blinking red light and sound. Great stuff.
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