Thursday, April 1, 2021

WandaVision 1x01 and 1x02 Review: “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience” & “Don’t Touch That Dial” (Welcome to Westview) [Guest Poster: Hannah E.]

“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience” & “Don’t Touch That Dial”
Original Airdate: January 15, 2021

Released as a double feature on Disney+, the first two episodes of WandaVision mark a brilliant introduction to the sitcom life of Wanda and Vision, two head-over-heels in love Avengers moving out to the suburbs for a taste of normal married life. But Dick Van Dyke is quickly replaced by Twilight Zone as we realize all is not exactly how it seems.

Spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision below!

For the first Marvel TV show to launch on Disney+, WandaVision starts about as far from the MCU as you can possibly get — 1950s sitcom suburbia. The first episode is a complete recreation of The Dick Van Dyke Show, down to every detail; it airs in black and white and was even filmed in front of a real live studio audience. 

Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are doing their best Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore impression as the episode starts, and the plot follows along with their act as we watch a perfect sitcom narrative unfold: there’s a mysterious heart over that day on the calendar, but for the life of them neither Wanda nor Vision — who isn’t even capable of forgetting! — can remember why it’s there. Hilarity ensues as Wanda decides it’s their anniversary and plans accordingly, but Vision realizes it’s actually supposed to be dinner with his boss, Mr. Hart. 

This episode was always destined to be one of my favorites because The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the very few shows I was allowed to watch growing up; I’ve seen every episode at least a handful of times and probably many, many more. Watching WandaVision send it up so well gives me the feeling comic book nerds get when the show sneaks in a reference to a classic comic book run. And the show really does a tremendous job capturing the magic that was Dick Van Dyke; the humor, the look, the feel, understanding that the heart of the show was the Petrie’s marriage — they nail every single detail. 

This episode also masterfully walks the tightrope of incorporating the inherent meta quality of the show into the plot. Vision’s job doing computational forms is a winking joke at sitcom dads having vague jobs, but also serves a purpose within the show itself as Vision’s first clue that something is not all right in Westview. Similarly, Wanda’s comment about Vision’s “indestructible head” is meant for an audience that saw Thanos crumple Vision’s head as he ripped out the mind stone, but also adds layers of characterization to Wanda; she’s created this reality around her to set right everything that went wrong in the real world, so of course this version of Vision really would have an indestructible head, that way Wanda can bury the trauma of watching him die. 

The whole episode is delightful to watch in light of seeing the entire season play out, as every line gains one, two, or even three new layers of meaning. Perhaps the best example of that is the introduction of Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), Wanda’s next door (and nosy) neighbor. The first thing we learn about her is that she wasn’t in town when Wanda arrived — a clue that she’s not actually a resident of Westview. She immediately badgers Wanda with question after question, inserting herself into Wanda’s life and marriage. On first watch it seems like the typical writing of a sitcom neighbor, but on re-watch the whole scene feels almost sinister. 

The only time this episode drops the sitcom veneer is the dinner scene with Mr. and Mrs. Hart (played by That 70’s Show’s Debra Jo Rupp). When Mr. Hart starts to press Wanda and Vision on the events that led them to Westview, which neither can answer, he suddenly starts to choke. Vision sits helplessly while Mrs. Hart begs for Wanda to stop, until Wanda gives him permission to help Mr. Hart. I love this scene so much because while it drops the sitcom style, it does not break into actual reality, instead switching to the Twilight Zone. Showrunner Jac Schaeffer has said she plotted the show along the five stages of grief, the first being denial. At this point in the story even when the false reality around Wanda starts to crack, it’s not enough to fully pull her back into the real world. TV is Wanda’s comfort blanket, and she chose sitcoms because they have the happiest endings; but even an episode of the Twilight Zone, with all its scary twists and turns, has been kinder to her than whatever’s happening in the real world.

One last thing I want to say about the first episode before moving on to the second is the threading of Wanda’s magic and understanding. It seems that the discourse around the show has been almost entirely consumed by the question of whether or not Wanda deserves to be punished more for her crimes in Westview, taking a town hostage. A lot of people feel like the finale let her off too easy, but I strongly disagree with that sentiment. With the scene of Wanda trying and failing miserably to use her powers to cook the Harts dinner, the show establishes that she doesn’t have control over her magic and it only gets worse the more emotions she feels. Later episodes will spell this out even more, but from this episode alone it’s clear Wanda does not understand what she’s done in creating the Hex. Like Vision, she has no idea where the heart on the calendar came from and had no idea the Harts were coming to dinner. Reality naturally bends to her wishes, but she has no idea it’s happening. 

The second episode, “Don’t Touch That Dial,” fast-forwards from the 1950s to the 1960s as the show moves to Bewitched. While the episode has a very fun sitcom plot of Wanda and Vision trying to perform a magic act at the town talent show, it also has a lot more scenes that break through the sitcom format. 

The show gets its first pop of color in the form of a toy helicopter Wanda finds in the bushes, visibly red compared to everything else’s black and white. Before Wanda can think too much on what it means, though, Agnes shows up and the two head to neighborhood queen bee Dottie’s house for a committee meeting. It’s impressive how quickly this episode expands the WandaVision universe; at the committee meeting we’re introduced to Geraldine, a newcomer who takes an immediate liking to Wanda. We also get our second Twilight Zone-style scene when a voice breaks through the radio and the camera switches to a Dutch angle on Wanda, which feels so creepily out of place in the best way. 

The real show-stopping scene of the episode comes at the end, when we see Wanda rewind reality for the first time. When a beekeeper crawls out of a storm drain, all she has to do is say “No,” and we watch as the moment’s undone, the show going back to her and Vision happy when Wanda suddenly realized she is four months pregnant. 

Particularly when re-watching, this episode does a very good job teasing out exactly how much Wanda knows and what she has control over in Westview. At the start of the episode, she’s worried that the neighbors think of her and Vision as outsiders, which strongly suggest she’s not aware that she controls the way they feel. Then after the incident with the radio and Dottie, she tries to tell Vision but is interrupted by the magic show; she had no idea what was happening and her first instinct was to tell Vision. 

At this point in the stages of grief, Wanda’s so deep in denial she doesn’t even know what she’s doing. It’s a particularly nice touch that Dottie’s blood shows up in color when she cuts her hand on the glass; throughout the episode, it’s the things that don’t belong that appear in color — like the toy helicopter that’s really a SWORD drone — so it only make sense that blood does not belong in Wanda’s Westview. No one here is ever supposed to get hurt. 

With the ever-increasing rate of intrusions into her fantasy, it only makes sense that the episode ends with Wanda switching her world into technicolor. If she can’t stop the outside world from getting in, she can at least try and make it blend in a little better.

Odds and Ends:

  • I know some people had complaints when these episodes first released that the pacing was too slow, but I couldn’t disagree more. I absolutely adore these first two episodes and think it’s exactly how the show needed to start. Wanda and Vision are the two most under-served characters in the MCU; their entire combined screen time in the movies is something like 12 minutes. This show had a lot of heavy lifting to do if viewers were going to be deeply invested in a love story that occurred nearly entirely off screen (while Vision and Wanda shared brief moments in Age of Ultron and Civil War, they became a couple in the time between those films and Infinity War) and giving us a full two episodes that lets them just be a happy married couple was a great way to do that. 
  • Matt Shakman, who directed all nine episodes, will probably be recognizable to most people as the director behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Game of Thrones, but he also directed the 100th episode of Psych which was based on the movie Clue.  
  • Vision blowing a kiss and Wanda catching it out of the air is so adorable, and very Dick Van Dyke. 
  • Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are fantastic throughout, but something about the way Olsen delivers the line, “Well if you don’t know then I’m not going to tell you!” is such a spot-on impersonation of Mary Tyler Moore. 
  • Agnes and Ralph’s “anniversary” is June 2nd, the same day the Salem Witch trials began.
  • Bookmark both the traditional Sokovian greeting and the heart on the calendar, because both will come back around in a later episode.
  • “Were either of you aware that married men are killing single men at an alarming rate?”
  • “My mother-in-law was in town, so I wasn’t!” Kathryn Hahn is such a delight as Agnes in these episodes. 
  • Both episodes have the townspeople participate in some Cold War-era anticommunism, which is a great way of setting the time period but also gives us some insight into Wanda’s psyche. It’s not just her superpowers that make her an outsider; the fact that she comes from the Communist Bloc of Europe defined her childhood, and in Civil War Tony Stark used it against her, implying she didn’t deserve the rights afforded to US citizens. It makes complete sense that her subconscious is afraid to be found out as a foreigner, which is why she disguises the accent.
  • “There’s all this chaos going on in your household” Mr. Hart says in reference to Wanda’s magic, which in hindsight is a great setup for the reveal in episode 8.
  • I love the addition of the in-universe commercials so much — each one plays on a part of Wanda’s past and subconscious. The first, for the ToastMate 2000 by Stark Industries, is a reference to the bomb that killed her parents. The second, for a Strucker timepiece, references the Hydra scientist who did experiments on her with the mind stone. The first commercial ends with the line, “Forget your past, this is your future,” showing that the part of Wanda’s subconscious writing these commercials is fighting against the rest of her subconscious trying to suppress the memories. 
  • Vision accidentally swallowing gum and acting drunk because of it is a wonderful way to reference the old TV code, which made it impossible to show a character getting drunk. Instead, writers would have to think of a million other ways someone could become impaired.
  • Speaking of Vision’s plotline in the second episode, Paul Bettany is an absolute delight in every single scene. Someone needs to write a sitcom just for him to star in. 
  • “For the children!” becomes the town slogan during “Don’t Touch That Dial,” highlighting how everything in Westview feeds off of Wanda’s subconscious. She’s created the false reality around her so she can have a family with Vision, so the whole town quite literally exists for Wanda’s children. 

Note: Because the MCU did not own the rights to Fox’s X-Men series when Wanda debuted in 2015’s Age of Ultron, Marvel tasked Joss Whedon to create an entirely new origin story for the character. At the time, Marvel wasn’t even legally allowed to use the word “mutant” in their films, which was a huge obstacle considering the Scarlet Witch is introduced in the comics as a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Since the character had to legally be a separate entity from the one found in the comics, Whedon felt comfortable taking liberties with the backstory he created. Unfortunately, this meant white-washing the character. The Wanda Maximoff of the comics is both Jewish and Romani, of which Elizabeth Olsen and the MCU’s Wanda are neither. That’s the original sin the MCU character is built upon, which creates a lot of problematic elements going forward. MCU Wanda is consistently seen wearing crosses, implying she’s Christian; I think the main reason the MCU does this is to really make it clear to fans that this version of the character is not Magneto’s daughter. But considering the white-washing it just comes across as a slap in the face to her Jewish roots. Similarly, neither the cast or crew have taken the character’s Romani heritage seriously, using it more as an aesthetic costume guide than an actual culture that should be respected. I think it’s possible to engage with a show in spite of its problematic elements, which is why I really do enjoy WandaVision, but this is definitely something to keep in mind while viewing.


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