Thursday, May 6, 2021

WandaVision 1x06 Review: “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!” (Ghosts) [Guest Poster: Hannah E.]

“All-New Halloween Spooktacular!”
Original Airdate: February 12, 2021

Pietro returns from the dead, Wanda sees a ghost, and Vision talks to a witch, all as Halloween comes to Westview.

Spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision!

Starting the episode before last, WandaVision strung together three weeks of absolutely incredible television culminating in “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!”A lot of people consider this the show’s best episode and while I don’t have it quite that high, I really love this episode. Not only is it extremely well-written, it’s just fun to watch. I’ve seen it five or six times and it holds up on every watch.

Starting with the weakest point of the episode, I do think everything to do with SWORD begins to have diminishing returns at this point in the season. As I’ll get into later, it’s normally a strength of the show that almost everything, plot and theme, is tied to Wanda. Westview is literally a physical manifestation of Wanda’s psyche, and through that the show has a great avenue to dive deep into her arc and the themes that accompany it. Vision is a natural extension of her, and his plotline dovetails nicely with hers while sharing the same climax and themes.

Then there’s SWORD. Apart from existing within the same TV show, it has very little connective tissue to Wanda. Where everything inside the Hex thrives on its strong themes and characterization, SWORD exists solely as a plot device. The typical role of an antagonist in a story is to provide conflict and push the main character forward, but both of those roles are already filled in better ways by other characters in the narrative — Wanda’s grief functions as the main antagonist, and Agatha serves to externalize Wanda’s inner conflict. That means SWORD’s, and more specifically Hayward’s, role in the narrative is already redundant twice over. Everything that happens in this storyline starts to feel expendable because it is. 

So why did WandaVision include it at all? I think the answer lies in the broader cinematic universe WandaVision takes place in. Marvel had two main motivations for adding this plotline: The first is that they were taking a pretty big risk in anchoring a show around two minor characters from the movies and filming it as if it were a series of period accurate sitcoms. Most of the episodes in this show mark the biggest tonal and visual departure the MCU has ever had. By including SWORD, Marvel was able to give fans something that felt safe and textbook MCU. That’s why they filled the supporting cast out with familiar faces like Darcy and Jimmy. The second reason Marvel had for including SWORD is that they wanted to re-introduce the “real” Vision to the MCU and needed a way to resurrect him. It’s crucial to Wanda’s character arc that her Vision die at the end, which means they needed some outside force to make a second one. 

For those reasons, the SWORD plotline never really feels like it belongs in the show. Hayward is by far the least compelling character of the entire show. The writers attempt to give him a few motivations for acting the way he does, but there’s never enough time or interest devoted to him to make it land at all. Thankfully the writers seemed to recognize this and minimize him as much as possible for the rest of the season.

The best part of the SWORD storyline is Monica, and that’s because she’s the most closely tied to Wanda. Her grief for her mother plus the time she spent inside the Hex gives her a tangible connection to the best part of the show. There’s a particular line in this episode that really stands out to me every time I watch it; when Darcy tells Monica that her lab results show her cells changing at a molecular level because of her many times entering and exiting the Hex, Monica replies with: “I’ve seen enough bloodwork to last a lifetime. Cells metastasizing, cells in remission. I know what Wanda’s feeling and I won’t stop until I help her.”

One theme the show consistently returns to is reliving trauma. Wanda’s biggest moment in the MCU prior to this was when she had to kill Vision at the end of Infinity War, only for Thanos to rewind time and kill him again. And the nightmares we see Wanda have are literally reliving her past traumas, seeing Vision’s corpse in episode four and then seeing her brother’s corpse in this episode. The above quote from Monica shows that she too has had to relive trauma, going through the endless cycles of her mother’s cancer. One moment it seems like the cancer is in remission and her mother will live, the next she’s dying again. That line is the only time in the SWORD story where it feels thematically connected to everything happening in Westview.

That leads me to the Hex side of the episode. Like I said earlier, the strength of this show is how tightly rooted it is in Wanda, and this episode explores her character so well. Especially the way it ties Westview into her arc; the town is created by her and adapts itself around her desires, which is why this episode takes place in the theme of a 2000’s sitcom. Prior decades of the genre placed heavy emphasis on how perfect the married couple was, but the 2000’s opened the door to dysfunctional marriages. In an episode of Dick van Dyke, Wanda and Vision’s tension would feel out of place; but in Malcolm in the Middle, it feels at home. By advancing her show forward a couple decades, Wanda is able to tell herself her marriage will be happy by the time the credits roll.

It’s also no coincidence that it’s Halloween, or as Billy tells us a holiday all about the “thrill of getting to be someone else for a day”. Everyone on Halloween dresses up and pretends to be someone else. Of course, Wanda has been pretending for her entire time in Westview, but she was so deep in denial she didn’t even know it. This is the first episode where she has a full understanding of the role she plays controlling the events of Westview, which is why the town now consciously acknowledges everybody is pretending to be someone they’re not. Wanda can’t emotionally handle her own life and finds her only solace in pretending, so she dives even deeper into her only coping mechanism by making it Halloween. 

The episode’s best moments are between Wanda and Pietro. It’s a real shame that all the attention paid to his character became about the question, “Is he or is he not the Quicksilver from the X-Men universe?” because the writers did some really tremendous character work in his scenes that seems to go unnoticed. Wanda is thoroughly unconvinced he’s really her brother until he says the one thing he remembers is the feeling that she needed him. Elizabeth Olsen plays the scene so beautifully subtle; in that moment you see Wanda so desperately wants to believe her dead loved ones are out there somewhere, in some way feeling her love for them, that she’s willing to believe this imposter is her brother. Grief is the villain of this series, and here it makes Wanda act against her own better judgement.

Pietro, who is really Agatha, knows exactly how to exploit Wanda’s sadness. As soon as he appeals to her grief, she’s willing to open up to him. It really highlights how profoundly lonely Wanda is that she’s so quick to open up to a man with a stranger’s face, and makes it all the more insidious that Agatha is using her dead brother to manipulate her. This scene is one I go back to time and time again when people complain that Wanda didn’t get enough “comeuppance” for her actions in Westview. What Wanda does to the people of Westview, controlling their actions and emotions to serve her own purposes, is exactly what Agatha is doing to her through Pietro. Wanda never would have opened up if not for believing she was talking to her brother, so Agatha parades the memory of him around like a carrot on a stick. And once Pietro earns Wanda’s trust, Agatha uses him to push Wanda into keeping the Hex running. The more Wanda understands of what she’s doing in Westview, the more she has doubts; Agatha, through Pietro, invokes the memory of Wanda’s dead parents to convince her that what she’s doing is okay. Agatha can’t mind control like Wanda, so she finds other ways to push Wanda into giving her what she wants.

Besides functioning as some karmic emotional punishment, this scene also serves to show how powerless Wanda can be. In both the comics and the MCU, she’s almost ridiculously overpowered — she’s basically a god amongst men. Since there’s no real weakness to exploit to defeat her powers, writers have to come up with some other way to make her story interesting. In WandaVision, it’s the grief she’s suffering. Agatha’s been trying for weeks to break through to Wanda with no success, but as soon as she plays on Wanda’s feelings of loss she finally starts to get somewhere. Even though Wanda is a significantly stronger witch than Agatha, she’s helpless against this kind of offense. 

The other way Agatha manages to emotionally weaken Wanda is by separating her from Vision. Agatha pretends to be a normal townsperson caught at the border of town, tricking Vision into thinking he’s unearthed her suppressed personality. In a genuinely haunting moment, she tells him he’s dead. That’s the push Vision needs to finally go to the border of town and try to break through. 

The scene of him slowly being ripped apart as he leaves Westview is visually stunning and also a really strong bit of character writing. At this point, Vision doesn’t really have anything; he knows he loves Wanda and his kids, but he doesn’t even know who they are outside of Westview, which he knows is a fake town populated by people in pain. This is a Vision stripped of everything except his most core values. And in this moment we see that helping people is the most important thing to him. As he’s dying, he calls out not for someone to help him, but for someone to help the people of Westview. 

Wanda’s reaction to Vision’s near-death is another scene that perfectly illustrates the two sides of her. In one sense, this end scene is terrifying in how powerful it makes Wanda. We watch characters we’re rooting for, like Monica and Jimmy, barely escape the all-consuming borders of the Hex as another character we’re rooting for, Darcy, is re-written. But this scene also shows how painfully human Wanda is. Even though she has control over Westview, the whole thing rests on a house of cards. Her family could disappear in an instant and she knows it. Wanda may have powers that make her a god, but she only has human capacity to process the world around her. She’s a reactionary character — everything she does is in response to something, not of her own agency. The thing she reacts to most is grief. Everything she does is designed around denying that her grief exists — she creates Westview in response to seeing Vision’s corpse, changes decades when the outside world breaks in, and expands the borders when she’s confronted with the possibility of losing Vision again. She doesn’t do it to hurt anyone. When Billy tells her that Vision is in trouble, she reacts with sheer panic and does the only thing she knows will save him: She freezes time, expands the Hex, and consumes SWORD into her false world. 

Odds and Ends:

  • Agnes’ Halloween costume is, of course, a witch.
  • Billy and Tommy get their powers this episode. In the comics they go by Wiccan and Speed and are part of the Young Avengers, which it seems like Marvel is building up to in the near future.
  • The theatre marque is advertising two movies: The Incredibles, obviously a nod to the Maximoff’s becoming a superhero family, and Parent Trap, about someone pretending to be someone they’re not, a nod to Pietro being an imposter.
  • Vision and Wanda’s Halloween costumes are recreations of their original comic book outfits.
  • There’s a quick shot of SWORD agents carting the missile Wanda threw out of the Hex back to base. That’s going to come back in a big way a couple episode down the line.
  • This week in commercials is a claymation-style ad of a boy turning to bones as he struggles to open a container of Yo-Magic. The concept of magic bleeding someone dry is very relevant to Agatha which is to literally bleed other witches of their power and steal it as her own.
  • Hayward’s secret file is called “Cataract” because something is wrong with The Vision. For that pun alone he deserves to be the villain.
  • Darcy’s about to say the f-word until the Hex catches her and changes it to “fudge.” Glad to see Wanda’s keeping her show safe for Disney’s younger audiences.
  • I would consider this the first episode in which Wanda is actually aware of her actions — unlike prior episodes, she understands she can shift narratives and control plotlines. But even if you’re being ungenerous, the earliest you could say Wanda is aware that she controls Westview is last week’s episode. That means Wanda only spends two days, three at most, knowingly controlling the citizens of Westview. Not to downplay her actions, but that’s really not a lot of time when the lives of her husband and children were dependent on her maintaining Westview — especially because she didn’t know the citizens were in pain. I’ll definitely have more to say on this when I get to the finale, but it just feels like there’s a very gendered way in which certain segments of the audience are fixated on wanting Wanda to be punished more. In comparison to the catastrophic death counts the actions of characters like Thor, Tony, and Hulk have caused, Wanda’s actions in Westview are relatively tame. 


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