Monday, April 26, 2021

WandaVision 1x05 Review: “On A Very Special Episode...” (New Dynamics) [Guest Poster: Hannah E.]

“On A Very Special Episode...”
Original Airdate: February 5, 2021

Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy try to break inside the Hex, Wanda tries to keep her show to script, and Vision realizes something isn’t right in Westview

Spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision!

“On A Very Special Episode...” is the first episode that has to simultaneously manage the Hex and SWORD plotlines — the first three focusing solely on the Hex and the fourth solely on the outside — and the show does a strong job of balancing both throughout. 

The episode picks up with Monica, who gives the audience our first window into what it’s like to be a character in Westview — immensely painful. Wanda is managing to keep so many personalities suppressed because they feel her grief; Monica describes it as a “hopeless feeling” keeping her down. As she narrates, we see flashes of her mother, Maria Rambeau, who she’s currently grieving. But mixed in with the scenes from Monica’s life is one from Wanda’s — a frame of her crying we won’t contextualize until episode 8, which is a particularly good bit of foreshadowing for how Wanda created the Hex. Monica feels Wanda’s grief because that’s literally what created Westview. The town and Wanda’s grief are inextricably linked and as long as one exists, so will the other. 

While Tyler Hayward appeared in the last episode, this week functions as his proper introduction to the narrative. This is the first we see of him since the reveal that Wanda is in control of the Hex, and it’s clear he does not share the same sympathy for her that Monica does. Where she sees Wanda as a person, Hayward sees her as a problem. And his solution happens to be violence.

Hayward and Monica’s two different approaches are never clearer than when SWORD sends a drone inside the Hex. Monica cleverly deduces that tech from the 1980s won’t be rewritten by Wanda and sends it in planning to negotiate. Instead, Hayward arms it with a missile and orders to shoot on sight. Not only does this show the difference between how Monica and Hayward view Wanda, but it shows how differently they view the citizens of Westview. Monica wants to talk with Wanda because that’s the safest way to diffuse the situation, but Hayward just wants to end it as soon as possible, collateral damage or no (presumably many people would die when the missile went off). 

Hayward’s main objective for the last five years was to resurrect Vision as a sentient weapon to have at his disposal, but he had two problems: The first is that he could never get the corpse to turn back online. The second is, as Jimmy lets us know, resurrecting Vision is a violation of the Sokovia Accords. In creating Westview, Wanda accidentally solved both of these problems for him. She made a brand new, fully functional Vision, and given Hayward a patsy. He covered up all of his wrongdoing by telling everyone that she stole Vision’s corpse, and her actions inside the Hex give him legal justification to kill her... thereby getting rid of the one person who could expose his lies. 

So much of WandaVision is a meta-analysis of TV itself, exploring common tropes and toying around with them. In pretty much every show that features an outside government agency, there’s a Tyler Hayward character whose only role in the narrative is to be aggressive for no other reason to foil the protagonist. The audience is primed to think Hayward is simply fulfilling that narrative role, and so we believe the story he tells about Wanda stealing Vision’s body. The problem the show runs into later is that the writing of Hayward’s character gets progressively worse, so they fail to properly follow up the groundwork they laid in this episode. Closely re-watching, his actions make perfect sense; but for a first-time viewer, the main takeaway you get from his scenes in this episode is that he’s a jerk. And since his scripting is shoddy in later episodes, the show never gives you a reason to go back and recontextualize his actions. Judging by the fan responses I’ve seen, no one seems to have understood Hayward’s plan, and that’s in part the show’s fault for not writing his character well enough later on. 

Besides Hayward, this episode also introduces us to the team dynamic of Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy, and it is absolutely lovely. All three actors are delightful and have such easy chemistry with each other which goes a long way in establishing their dynamic in a very short amount of time. One of WandaVision’s biggest problems as a series is that it had too much story to tell in too little time, which is why all of the storylines outside of the Hex feel rushed in the back-half of the season. It really helps the economy of storytelling that Jimmy, Monica, and Darcy feel like their own little team of mini-Avengers after only two scenes together. 

Their repartee also functions as a natural way to fit a lot of exposition into a short amount of time. The trio discovers that not only is Wanda running simulations in Westview, she’s also re-writing reality — what she changes inside Westview will stay changed even as it leaves the boundary. Wanda also has the ability to create life — Tommy and Billy, as well as Vision, are in fact real people. That’s why they’re immune to Wanda’s magic and have free will, unlike everyone else in the town. The show really goes out of its way to make this point clear, setting the stakes for their inevitable fates in the series finale. Darcy also officially dubs the Westview Anomaly “the Hex” because of its hexagonal shape, which is a fun Easter egg for viewers who have read the comics. In them, Wanda’s main powerset is firing Hex bolts which alter the probability of events. 

The most important bit of exposition we learn though is that Monica’s labs are coming back highly unusual, setting up her getting her powers in a couple episodes. In comic book terminology, someone who gets their powers by altered DNA as an adult would be a “mutate,” as opposed to mutants who are born that way, but the show never explicitly makes that connection so I’m not sure if the MCU plans on incorporating Monica into any future Mutant storylines. 

While the scenes outside of the Hex are good, the real strength of the episode lies in the Vision and Wanda plotlines. The format is based around the Very Special Episode that rose to prominence throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They were designed to be special episodes of normal TV shows that dealt with heavy or controversial topical issues, making a very clear moral point for viewers at home. (Family Ties, the sitcom this episode of WandaVision is based on, has a particularly famous Very Special Episode because it featured a pre-famous Tom Hanks as the Keaton’s uncle with a drinking problem.)  

WandaVision takes the format and applies it to topical issues in Wanda’s life: grief and denial. The twins keep magically aging themselves up when things get tough, like when their parents are fighting or when they’re too young to keep Sparky, the dog they found. It’s not hard to see the connection here between Wanda and her boys; like them, she uses her powers to hide or avoid her problems, putting up the border of Westview to pretend like outside world, and all the trauma she associates with it, isn’t real. 

While Wanda can’t face her own problems, she’s able to talk the boys through theirs. Having the show take the time to pause and give Wanda moments to really be a mom is crucial for making the emotional beats of the show land. Within the span of six episodes, the twins go from being born to dying; with pacing that quick, it would’ve been easy for the show to move too fast and make Wanda’s (and Vision’s) connection to the kids feel hollow and unearned. But episodes like this one do such a good job of making the Maximoff’s feel like a real family. We see Wanda taking an active role in the boys’ lives — watching them show off Sparky’s tricks and trying to support them through his death — and we also see how much Billy and Tommy care about their parents. Wanda’s family are the only people in Westview who aren’t under Wanda’s control, which means Billy and Tommy can see through her sitcom machinations, noticing Wanda changed the day from Saturday to Monday. That tips them off that Wanda and Vision are fighting, and we’re treated to a great scene between them and Wanda as she explains what family means. This scene worked really well in its own right, but takes on even more meaning in light of the parallel drawn to it when the kids disappear in the finale — Wanda drops the line family is forever, which will pay off in the most emotional way possible in the finale. 

The contrast of Wanda’s ability to deal with her kids’ emotions while being completely unable to deal with her own is driven home by the scene when she leaves the Hex. After Hayward tries to kill her with a missile, Wanda is done playing house; she comes out of the Hex to confront Hayward dressed in her fighting uniform and speaks with her Sokovian accent again. The writers’ room called this Wanda’s “Hex Flex” and they do a great job of showing off just how powerful she can be. There’s a tremendous amount of implied power in Wanda running the Hex, but this scene does a great job of laying out just how overpowered she’s become. With the flick of a wrist, she can mind control more than a dozen men, leaving Hayward completely helpless.

This episode shows Wanda’s shift from anger to bargaining, and no scene does it better than this one. When she first exits the Hex, she’s understandably angry; everything about her radiates power as she stands in front of armed soldiers and doesn’t blink. Like Monica says, Hayward may have the guns but Wanda has all the control. Except that’s not quite true; the more the scene progresses, the more it’s clear that Wanda’s actually a cornered wild animal. The one thing she wants in life is Vision and her kids, and she’s perilously close to losing them. She threatens Hayward, saying she won’t bother him if he doesn’t bother her, but it’s less of a serious threat and more of an attempt at bargaining; we’ve already seen that Wanda won’t actually resort to violence – she intentionally kept Monica safe as she kicked her out and lets Hayward’s men go. So at this point SWORD is a ticking time bomb, and there’s nothing Wanda can do to stop it from going off. She just wants more time with her family before it does. 

Following along on the outskirts of Wanda and the twins’ storyline is Agnes, always making her presence known. In every scene she’s in, she ever so subtly pokes and prods, trying to break through Wanda’s denial and find out who she really is. First, she breaks character in front of Vision, trying to get him to do the dirty work of calling Wanda out. When that doesn’t work, she goes for something more drastic and kills Sparky. In that scene, Agatha finds out from the twins that Wanda is capable of bringing things back from the dead. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but it perfectly sets up the episode’s end reveal. As a side note, Sparky must have belonged to a Westview resident before he was roped into Wanda’s sitcom; probably a particularly rough day for that resident to wake up from Wanda’s mind control only to find out their dog was murdered by an evil witch. 

On the other side of town, Vision has been sent to work by Wanda as a “distraction.” Unfortunately for Wanda, SWORD has figured out a way to send messages into the Hex using 1980s tech. SWORD’s message leads Vision to unearth his coworker Norm’s suppressed personality, and it isn’t pretty. Norm is in pain, physically and mentally as he suffers under Wanda’s grief. Vision’s ability to unearth personalities is based in a plot point from the comic book run House of M, one of the main influences on WandaVision. In that comic, the Westview equivalent didn’t stop at one town but instead covered the entire world; in creating it, Wanda’s subconscious also created a little girl whose super power was unearthing personalities. In House of M the girl functions as a stand-in for Wanda’s conscious, who knows what she’s doing is wrong and built in a self-destruct. I really like the thematic implications of adapting that role for Vision; while not literally a manifestation of Wanda’s conscious, the fact that Vision has free will is a testament to Wanda’s good character. In creating him, she could’ve made a machine that only existed to be her husband; instead, she made the real Vision, complete with the ability to disagree with her. 

Vision’s discovery puts him on a collision course with Wanda. As soon as the two get home, he confronts her in one of the best scenes in the entire show. Everything about their confrontation is just so well written. Wanda trying to roll the credits functions not only as her trying to pre-maturely end a fight she knows she can’t win, but also as a reminder to the audience that WandaVision — not the show we’re watching, but the in-universe TV show run by Wanda — isn’t that kind of show. Her episode has to end for something bad to happen. 

Seeing Wanda and Vision fight was always going to pack an emotional punch since the show has done such a good job investing the audience in their love story, but the added layer of Wanda realizing her world is falling apart makes it hit that much harder. The whole reason she created Westview was to have more time with Vision, and now it’s the thing pulling them apart; she sends him away earlier in the episode to keep him from catching on to the show, and tries to run away from him before he can start their fight. And there’s nothing she can do to fix it; if she comes clean and admits what’s going on in Westview — which she herself still doesn’t fully understand — she knows Vision will do the noble thing and sacrifice himself, just like he did in Avengers: Infinity War

Then we get the realization that Vision isn’t just angry, he’s scared. Not only is he realizing the town he lives in is a lie, he’s realizing he doesn’t remember his life before Westview. Even when Vision had all of his memories in prior films, he struggled with knowing who he was. His body is synthetic and his brain is a mix of all the people who created him — Tony, Ultron, Bruce Banner — and some spark of life that made him his own. Just like Wanda, who struggles with her powers, he’s never been able to fully understand what makes him what he is. For him to not even have his memories to help him make sense of his existence is terrifying. 

As soon as Wanda realizes he’s scared, she reaches out to comfort him — and that’s the real strength of this scene. Even as the two scream at each other, it’s clear how strong their love is. At its heart, WandaVision is a love story, and the writers really understand that. Seeing Vision scared is enough to make Wanda break down crying as she struggles to comprehend what she’s done. She knows on some level that she controls Westview and that Vision can’t exist outside its walls, but she still doesn’t understand the level of control she has over everything that happens. The final emotional blow of the episode comes when there’s a knock at the door; Wanda swears she didn’t do it but Vision doesn’t believe her. In that moment Wanda knows her happy family is gone, no matter how hard she fights not to let go.

Just as Wanda loses the trust of one man in her life, she opens the door to another. But it’s not the brother she knew all her life. The man at her door may be Quicksilver, but he’s not from this universe. 

Odds and Ends:

  • This week in commercials, we get an advertisement for Lagos brand paper towels — for “when you make a mess you didn’t mean to.” This is of course a reference to the events of Civil War, when Wanda accidentally leveled a few stories of a building in Lagos while on an Avengers mission, kicking off the events that lead to Captain America and Iron Man’s feud. The commercial line “Husbands can use it too, you know!” is a nod to Vision accidentally hitting Roadie in the same film, nearly paralyzing him. 
  • This is hands down my favorite opening theme. Family Ties was one of my favorite shows growing up (I named my dog after Mallory Keaton) and seeing WandaVision recreate the family portrait was a treat. 
  • Jimmy states that Wanda was born in 1989, which makes her the same age as Elizabeth Olsen, but is definitely incongruous with what we previously knew of Wanda’s age. There’s multiple references in Age of Ultron and Civil War to her being a teenager, so she should be in her early 20’s in this show instead of early 30’s. It seems like Wanda is going to be a staple of the MCU going forward, though, so it makes sense to retcon her age to better fit the actor. 
  • Throughout the episode Hayward only ever refers to Vision as “The Vision.” It’s a subtle way of conveying to the audience that he doesn’t see Vision as a person, but as an object to be controlled.
  • It’s a moment too small to catch the first time, but on re-watch Hayward and Wanda share a glance during her display outside the Hex. In that moment it’s clear Hayward knows he really screwed up when he used Vision’s corpse as bait to provoke Wanda into starting the Hex.
  • Hayward’s “No alias?” question in regard to Wanda is a very on the nose way of informing the audience that the name Scarlet Witch has never been uttered in the MCU. 
  • Darcy, Jimmy, and Monica all describe the Avengers’ battle with Thanos as if they had tickets to Avengers: Endgame. I very much love the idea that someone somewhere was livestreaming that battle.


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