Tuesday, May 18, 2021

WandaVision 1x07 Review: “Breaking the Fourth Wall” (Agatha All Along) [Guest Poster: Hannah E.]

“Breaking the Fourth Wall”
Original Airdate: February 19, 2021

Wanda has a breakdown, Monica gets her powers, and the villain is finally revealed

Spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision!

“Breaking the Fourth Wall” seems to be the consensus least favorite among viewers, and I have to agree. It’s still a very solid episode but a lot of the show’s seams are clear in the plotting. 

This episode is the first time it became clear that the show had too much on its plate, especially when it comes to Monica Rambeau. The writers already had so much juggling to do with Wanda, Vision, the Hex, Agatha, and SWORD’s plotlines, and the last thing it needed was to introduce a new superhero into the MCU. The problem with Monica getting her powers in this show is that a plotline like this normally has the space of a whole movie to breathe, but WandaVision only had about 10 minutes to spare for Monica. The writers’ room did a really good job breaking the story of Monica, but there was never enough time to actually get all of it onto the page. I really like this quote from Teyonah Parris explaining the character motivation behind Monica’s breaking-through-the-Hex scene:

"That was Monica's actual physical moment to grieve and to just scream and let it out, whereas before she's been trying to get through it by helping Wanda, by throwing herself into work. But in this one moment here, she got to really sit in her grief and move through it physically. We saw the physical manifestation of Monica moving through her grief."

Conceptually, the idea that Monica is too overwhelmed to tackle her own grief and that’s why she latches on to Wanda — to process her grief vicariously — is really great. But if you haven’t read that Teyonah Parris interview, would you be able to understand that by what’s on the page? Not really. 

The more I think on how Monica was used, the more I’ve come to the conclusion she really deserved her own Disney+ series. I don’t think the writers of WandaVision meant to sideline her, but she was always meant to be a supporting role to the two leads of Wanda and Vision, and that was never going to do her justice. Trying to introduce and power up a new character while also dedicating most of the screen time to the actual leads of the series was an impossible task. Head writer Jac Schaeffer recently said in an interview that Monica was originally going to go through therapy across the show, paralleling her and Wanda’s journey through the five stages of grief, but they had to cut the story for time. I would have loved to see that play out and think it would’ve done wonders to really flesh out the connection Monica feels with Wanda.

Unfortunately, Monica ends up falling into a long line of Black characters in the MCU who are brought on to play sidekick to the main superhero — Rhodey, Sam Wilson, and even Monica’s mom Maria Rambeau. 

That being said, the actual visuals of Monica getting her super powers as she enters the Hex again are incredible. Especially compared to the superhero shows on The CW, WandaVision just looks like money. Not since Game of Thrones has a show had effects to this level of quality. 

I also like the confrontation Monica has with Wanda. In previous episodes the show focused on how much sympathy Monica had for Wanda because of their shared grief, but this one gives a much-needed shift and lets Monica be pissed at Wanda. Even if Wanda didn’t fully understand her actions or know that she was causing Monica pain, she still dressed her up in 60s and 70s garb and made her perform like a puppet on strings. Monica has every right to be mad, and letting her yell at Wanda makes the relationship feel more believable and less like Monica exists solely to prop up and defend Wanda. 

Besides Monica’s story, the other problem with this episode is SWORD and Tyler Hayward. Like I’ve already mentioned in previous reviews, the show feels very disinterested in everything to do with him. Whereas all the other plotlines are really creative and out-of-the-box for Marvel, the SWORD stuff is aggressively formulaic. The scenes we spend with Hayward this week feel obligatory — “he has a plan and it’s launching today!” The one thing I like about the way he’s used is that it’s sparing — obviously the ideal case scenario is a great villain with proper build up, but if you’re forgoing those things the next best thing you can do is give him as little screen time as possible. The show knows Hayward is a plot device and graciously doesn’t make us spend any more time with him than we absolutely have to.

Vision and Darcy’s plotline this episode suffers from one of the same problems SWORD’s does, feeling like the scenes are only there because they have to be. Wanda, Agatha, and Monica’s scenes are only made possible because Vision is gone, which means he can’t be with the main cast in this episode. But he also can’t be doing anything with SWORD, because he’d die if he left the Hex. That means that his story is basically stuck in neutral for an episode. We need scenes checking in with him after his near-death last week, but his story can’t progress forward because the other main characters aren’t ready to enter Act 3 yet. What sets his scenes apart from Hayward, though, is that both him and Darcy are great characters who I love watching on my screen. Especially because Kat Dennings feels so at home in the mockumentary style. Between her talking heads and Vision’s Jim Halpert-esque looks to camera, I’m entertained even though nothing of substance is happening. 

There is one Vision scene that actually feels integral, and it’s his last. Ever since he discovered Westview isn’t real, he’s been suffering from a crisis of personhood, and finding out from Agatha last episode that he’s dead in the real world certainly didn’t help. Hearing from Darcy all the trauma he and Wanda endured before Westview helps to clarify one thing for him: the love he has with Wanda is real. He still doesn’t know what he is, but he does know that he’s Wanda’s husband and has to be there for her, which is why he’s able to break through the sitcom format and fly home. 

The strongest part of this episode by far is Wanda’s descent from bargaining into depression. It was a really smart choice on the writers to have her lowest episode also line up with the mockumentary sitcom parody, because mockumentaries famously make it really easy to up the jokes-per-minute ratio; while Wanda’s plotline could feel oppressively dark, the episode’s format makes it easy to pull the show back from the brink with a well-timed talking head. Her saying she’s given up all hope and no longer finds meaning in the universe is followed by a pun about her kids inheriting Vision’s “tough” Vibranium skin. The show dips in and out of two different tones — Wanda’s breakdown and sitcom humor — just as Westview wavers between worlds as Wanda loses control.

This episode does such a good job subtly exploring all the facets of Wanda’s grief. The talking head where she says, “I don’t understand what’s happening. Why it’s... why it’s all falling apart and why I can’t fix it” says so much with so few words. The one constant in Wanda’s life has been a lack of agency — her parents died, she was forced to live in an orphanage, then sacrificed her freedom to HYDRA, then was forced to kill Vision to save half the universe (which ended up being in vain). All of those were things that happened to her, not things she chose for herself. Not only is Wanda attached to Westview because her husband and children depend on it, but because it offers her the one thing she’s never had in her life: control. 

We also get to see where Wanda has drawn the line morally for herself in Westview. She has the chance to hurt or kill Monica and threatens to do so, but Monica calls her on the bluff and Wanda backs down. Throughout the show Wanda’s been trying her best to minimize the collateral damage — purposefully making sure Monica wasn’t hurt as she was launched out of the Hex, releasing Hayward’s soldiers when she could have easily killed them and solved a lot of her problems, and again sparing fake Pietro’s life at the end of last episode. The only reason she keeps the Hex up is because she doesn’t think anyone is really getting hurt. 

I think the show made in error in letting the audience know all the way back in the fifth episode that the citizens of Westview are in agonizing pain, and then waiting four more weeks before we find out Wanda doesn’t know that. They do a good job laying hints that Wanda wouldn’t be intentionally hurting these people, but you have to pay attention to pick up on them. They gave the audience too many weeks to sit on the fact that Wanda was hurting people before revealing that Wanda didn’t know she was. Especially because the time that’s passing in the show is so much shorter than the real-life time for viewers — three days in-universe versus four weeks in real time. 

Leading with the knowledge that the Westview residents were in pain also shut down any potential moral debate on how bad Wanda’s actions really are. Obviously, taking away people’s free will is wrong. But consider for a second if Wanda had been right in thinking the residents felt happy and at peace. She created a virtual Utopia — she improved the quality of everyone’s houses and jobs, eliminated homelessness, poverty, and crime, kept couples and families together, and gave people their real personalities. That doesn’t actually sound like too terrible a trade-off, considering Wanda didn’t mean or know she’d done it until her husband and children’s lives depended on it. There’s even precedent for Wanda to believe what she’s doing wouldn’t hurt people — in Age of Ultron she saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives by mind-controlling citizens of Sokovia to evacuate before the fighting started. She knew she was capable of using her power without pain bouncing back on the people she controlled, and she knew she had used it to help in the past. 

Having the audience know first thing that the people of Westview were in pain stops them from contemplating the above moral quandaries. Of course Wanda’s actions are bad because people are in pain. It’s much harder to empathize with her when we know this. People have accused the show of following Wanda’s perspective too closely — at the expense of the Westview residents — but ironically the reason they feel that way is because the show gave us the residents’ perspective before we got Wanda’s. 

On the topic of Wanda’s sins, she gets some karmic punishment this episode. She’s spiraling out and instead of doing anything to help, Agatha intentionally makes the situation worse by telling her she deserves all the pain and anguish she’s feeling. Then Agatha separates Wanda from her kids, knowing that will make her feel even worse. Finally, she interrupts Wanda and Monica’s exchange right before Monica can get through to Wanda and explain what’s really going on outside the Hex. Agatha’s whole plan relies on Wanda eventually breaking down and revealing the truth behind her magic, and all of that would fall apart if Wanda simply took down the Hex. Agatha has to keep pushing at Wanda, stepping in every time she considers letting go of Westview. Of course, Wanda is ultimately the one responsible for her own actions in a way that the Westview residents couldn’t be, but the way Agatha consistently manipulated her emotions without Wanda knowing isn’t entirely removed from the kind of mind control Wanda is capable of. 

Agatha’s machinations brings me to the last plotline of the episode, which is the reveal that Agnes is really Agatha Harkness. Judging by what I’ve seen of the audience reception, mileage seems to vary on how much you think this “twist” worked (twist in quotations because the show wasn’t exactly holding its cards close to the vest). Agatha got plenty of time to shine in the role of Agnes, but her sitcom persona has little to do with her actual character as a villainous witch, so it does come off feeling as if the actual villainy of her character goes underexplored. This is just my speculation, but reading between the lines of some cast interviews it seems to me that showrunner Jac Schaeffer did not want Agatha to be written as a villain — wanting her to be more like her comic book counterpart, a morally grey mentor figure — but head of Marvel Kevin Feige wanted to stay true to the MCU format of heroes and villains. One thing that Jac Schaeffer has confirmed is that she didn’t like the idea of two women fighting, considering the long history of the trope, and actively wrote Agatha with that in mind. The show attempted to walk a very fine line in making Agatha a villain while also trying to keep her relationship with Wanda not entirely antagonistic and sometimes they didn’t quite pull it off.

Personally, I don’t really mind that. Marvel has an infamously tough time writing villains; every once in a while they strike gold with a Loki or Killmonger, but they’re largely bland and boring and take up way too much screen time. I like that WandaVision took the Thor: Ragnarok route of hiring a really fantastic actress and just letting them have fun with it. Kathryn Hahn is absolutely electric in the role, especially in this episode, and that’s all I really need. The hero’s story is more interesting and I like that Wanda gets to keep most of the focus. 

And while I do think the show didn’t quite pull off what they wanted to with Agatha, I think they did much better than most people give them credit for. A huge problem I have with the discourse around this show is that people complain about it doing too much explaining to the audience — characters like Darcy have a lot of lines that exist solely to handhold the audience — which is a criticism I don’t entirely disagree with. But then at the same time they miss about 50% of what the show is doing. They complain when the writers hold their hand, but don’t pick up on subtext if the writers don’t. This episode provides a really great example of that.

In the brief time we spend with Hayward, we learn that Wanda has discontinued her broadcast — WandaVision is no longer airing as an in-universe television show. Then we get a scene where Wanda asks Tommy and Billy if they know where Vision is, implying she doesn’t. Both of those pieces of information contradict what the audience believes to be true: that Westview is currently being run like a 2010’s sitcom because Wanda is broadcasting it that way, and that Vision is stuck at a traffic light because Wanda doesn’t want him to come home. Combine that knowledge with what we learn in the "Agatha All Along" montage — that Agatha is the producer asking questions in the talking heads, and that she’s been working behind the scenes to mess things up the whole time — and it becomes clear that Agatha is the mastermind of this episode. She’s the one stopping Vision from getting home, running the theme, and controlling the cuts. 

I’ve seen some people confused on why Agatha is the “villain” because they don’t think she did anything wrong, but that’s just ignoring what’s on the page because the writers didn’t put it in bold font and underline it. She has no qualms with taking over Westview’s residents to serve her own purposes, put Ralph Bohner in harms way by turning him into Pietro, and on many occasions intervenes to prevent Wanda from bringing down the Hex. Agatha exists in largely the same space Loki does; they’re not evil for the sake of enacting some evil plan, they’re just self-interested to the point of not caring about anyone or anything around them. Agatha wants Wanda’s power and if helping the residents of Westview helps her do that, she’ll help them; but if hurting Westview’s residents helps her, she’ll do that, too. 

In the same vein, I’ve seen people complain that "Agatha All Along" was misleading, since Agatha wasn’t actually running anything. But the brilliance of "Agatha All Along" is that it’s diegetic — the song exists in universe as a creation of Agatha’s. Of course she’s going to overstate her role in things. Much of WandaVision is a meta-analysis of television itself — sitcom and story tropes, audience expectation, and perspective. The show is called WandaVision because it is quite literally a TV show from Wanda’s perspective. 

"Agatha All Along" rips us away from the story we’ve been getting to give use the show from Agatha’s perspective — in her mind, she’s the protagonist of this story, and frames it to us that way. Even though the interruptions she’s been causing aren’t the biggest plot points of WandaVision, they are the biggest plot points of Agatha’s story, so that’s how she explains it to the audience. I think that’s a tremendously clever idea. 

Odds and Ends:

  • This week in commercials is a big one. On the surface it’s an ad for an antidepressant called “Nexus.” Comic book readers will know that it basically confirms a bit of lore from the comics — that Wanda is a Nexus being. Nexus beings are constants throughout the multiverse, meaning no matter which version of earth you’re on, there will always be a Wanda Maximoff and she will always be the Scarlet Witch. They function like tentpoles for reality, keeping their universes from crumbling. That’s one of the many explanations Marvel comics have thrown out for why Wanda is so overwhelmingly powerful. Considering her next MCU appearance is slated to be a film named after the multiverse, I can’t imagine this won’t be relevant.
  • The local radio station for Westview is W.N.D.A
  • On Wanda’s milk gallon, there’s a huge poster for missing kids. I’m sure that won’t become relevant in a couple of episodes.
  • One small thing I like about this show is that the characters are never written as dumb. Even when it’s not a focal part of the narrative, the writers make sure to think through the actions of side characters. Since Hayward now knows Wanda could expand the borders at any moment, he makes camp eight miles away.
  • All of the actors are great in this episode, but Kathryn Hahn and Elizabeth Olsen especially are just amazing. Olsen’s Julie Bowen impression (Claire from Modern Family) is spot on, and Hahn has never been better as Agnes. I’m starting a petition demanding Marvel make a prequel just to show us how Agatha once bit a kid.
  • Darcy once again takes up the role as audience stand in, telling Vision that she’s been watching WandaVision and knows the love he shares with Wanda is the real deal. 
  • “And I killed Sparky too!” If you haven’t already, give yourself a treat and watch the Avengers Assembled documentary for WandaVision. There’s about five more seconds of Agatha hysterically laughing at the end of "Agatha All Along." 
  • This is the first episode to follow the time honored MCU tradition of post-credit scenes. Monica investigates and finds Agatha’s witchy basement, only to be intercepted by fake Pietro. 
  • This is the last opening theme of WandaVision so now is a good time for me to gush over how good all of them were. Not only are they fun and catchy songs (I may or may not listen to the episode 5 theme quite a bit...), they also help to tell the story of Wanda’s unravelling. The first two themes, when Wanda is completely unaware of the Hex, are just like real sitcom openings. Then in episode three, as more of the outside world breaks into Westview, the opening theme has lyrics like: Some sudden surprises/come in all shapes and sizes/but it’s rainbows and sun/it’s you and it’s me, as Wanda’s subconscious works to fit the intrusions into her show’s narrative. The theme from episode 5, once Wanda is consciously aware of the Hex, is titled “Making It Up As We Go Along,” a nod to Wanda still not fully understanding what’s going on but choosing to just go with it anyway. It has lyrics like: Through the highs and the lows/we’ll be right, we’ll be wrong and we’re makin' it up/'cause we got love, again reinforcing that the Hex stays up because of her love for Vision. The next one is aptly titled “Let’s Keep It Going” as Wanda struggles with whether or not to keep the Hex up, and cleverly sings: Don’t try to fight the chaos/Don’t question what you’ve done, which is a nice nod to the fact that Wanda’s false world is run by Chaos magic. Finally, this week’s theme is purely instrumental; as Wanda moves into the depression stage of grief and gives up, the theme presents her with no comment. 


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