We’re gonna start granular and get… bigular.
* * *
So. The finale, as a finale, does the things that finales are supposed to do. We wrap up our general story, we send some bad people to their respective fates, and we send some good people on their respective ways, all with a series of lessons seemingly learned. Because of this, I imagine that there are many who are satisfied with the overall experience. Especially as it did not make any egregious surface-level errors that have often plagued other finales (especially those that tend to treat their audience with more hostility). But Wandavision aimed for safety and it delivered on the base promises of the narrative itself. It even delivered on some genuinely nice beats in the process. And so, all seems well.
My personal feelings are little bit different.
Because my experience with the finale was one where I felt like I was constantly rocked back and forth between the positive and negative aspects of certain choices. Because of this, I want to take a different approach and single out the things where I was like “oooh, neat!” along with all the things where I really got tripped up. Because when you really, really look at some of those moments, something more problematic emerges. So I am going to take a different tact and go through my notes chronologically as the episode went on, kind of like I do the “random thoughts” sections of previous entries. Then, I’ll save the big conversations for the end.
-Agatha: “I take power from the undeserving, kinda my thing.” Yes, Katherine Hahn can sure sell a line and yes, this was some desperately needed clarity. But what did I say last time about trying to explain things right in the moment of action as being the justification? It usually means this is information that should have been made more clear earlier.
-Technical note: early on in that fight w/ Agatha there was also some real eye line mismatching.
-Hahahahah the boots under the car, okay I’ll take that one.
-“This is our home!” / “then let's fight for it!” OKAY - when you take this statement right in the moment that it comes? This was completely fucking unearned. To be honest, I was absolutely ripshit with the choice. Because you literally just had Vision on his way back to confront Wanda about her torturing people (something endlessly delayed anyway) and then we’re meant to forget about all that and just suddenly be rooting for this home scenario because it’s time for them to do fighty fights??? And I have to say. THIS IS THE MARVEL BULLSHIT I HATE MOST. It’s come up so many damn times in these movies. It’s always, “lets abandon literally all the character dynamics and conflict we were pursuing in order to punch who are WORSE than us! For, like, reasons! And once we do, everything we were concerned about will just kinda float away without out us directly addressing conflict between us!” And the fact that their sudden chutzpah about this being their home is quickly abandoned to actually deal with those issues (just indirectly) absolutely shows the problem of the line in the first place. Furthermore, the fact that they put the line in there and then immediately walk it back only shows how the writers are just waffling back and forth and don’t know how to execute on the important things here (wouldn’t the tension be more compounding if they were actually addressing the problem throughout?). And, like so so so much of this episode, the line basically becomes moot a few minutes later. This is genuinely my least favorite thing that the MCU does. And it happens way, way more than it should.
-All that being said, Wanda fighting the giant end battle in her depression sweatpants is some serious 2021 energy and I am here for it.
-It’s NEGA VISION.
-“I’m not a witch.” Okay. So. Here’s the thing about allllll this. As far as what we know about what Wanda “is” there is some vague lip service to her creation in a movie that came out nearly 6 years ago that I frankly don’t remember all that well. But since all this big “scarlet witch” identity shit is supposed to be a big deal in this ending, it would have, you know, been really, really neat if there was virtually ANY kind of set-up for this in the first 6 episodes (other than a costume choice). No, you don’t have to regurgitate past information. As a writer, your job is to find an elegant, dramatic way to plant all this in a way that really makes these things work. But because there’s no set-up? It relies on the same tired tactic of trying to shout new relevant information at us on the fly in the middle of conflict and we’re supposed to adapt to and go “Oh, I guess this matters.” This is not the way to do this.
-For example, “It’s your destiny to destroy the world!” This should have a lot more impact, but instead of having any kind of real meaning to the story of this season, it just get dropped like some vague teaser for the future seasons of this show.
-“She’s your meat puppet, I just cut her strings.” God Katherine Hahn is good.
-The scene where all the townspeople surround Wanda is such a perfect example of the show not knowing what they’ve already set up / what they really want out of a conflict. Because I literally wrote the note: “wait, are we supposed to think Wanda *didn’t* understand what she is doing to these people?” It’s so incredibly dumbfounding. We’ve established that she *knows* they’re not fine… we’ve fucking been over this. And to have her walk genuinely try to walk it back and honestly play like she was unaware of how bad it was for them??? This choice is completely insane to me. And this is a really big deal because the show is outright lying to you about what you’ve seen and pretending something hasn’t been addressed when it has. It really is the kind of thing that makes me want to run out onto the streets and be like “does anyone else care about this!?!?!?” But the truth is that I know that people generally are just eager to get past these kinds of things because they’re inconvenient. But they matter. They really, really matter.
-Also, notice the way Dottie was set-up in the first few episodes as being a crux and then literally nothing happened? It wasn’t even a proper misdirect. I mean, imagine her and Agnes / Agatha thinking she’s the culprit and going after her? Isn’t that the obvious move? Instead, it was just aimless movement one way then not.
-“You’re Ralph Boehner'' Wait, in the end, Quicksilver amounted to a dong joke? And they used a double fake out to eventually get us there? Like… what was the game plan here, y’all? A few episodes ago I was writing about how much I liked that it gave Wanda someone to talk to and how there was this great thing about family and the interplay of grief. But the second he got “agatha all alonged,” with a motive that is TOTALLY not clear on any level by the way, Quicksilver just got futzed around in the aftermath and there was absolutely no further point to any of it? And honestly? I think it says a lot that they failed to capture what made his character enjoyable in the Fox movies. Oof.
-Also, logic nitpick, didn’t we see Agatha literally conjure him? Or is that just more muddiness?
-Agatha: “Heroes don’t torture people” Correct! And you better believe we’re going to come back to this one later…
-“Save Westview or save your family!” Ah yes, the threat that villains make which always leads to a little bit of “eh, we’re going to split the differnce for a bit.”
-I look at that image of Vision with Wanda reuniting / hugging with their two kids as if trying to keep safe before danger strikes and… the weight of “the unreality” of this family unit sticks out for me. Please understand that it’s not the fact that we know the kids' inventions. Really, the purposeful tragedy of this entire conceit is we KNOW we’re going to lose them. The key is to maximize how heartbreaking it is when it happens - and to skip ahead now, I do like the goodbye scene when it actually happens - but I trust them to get the texture of that moment right. For me, it’s in this moment that you realize the familiar problem with Wandavision, which is the lack of set-up and making me really, really care about the relationships between the four of them. The kids were often pastiche props for sitcom tropes, often with assumed empathy instead of fully fostering relationships with arcs and conflict. Instead, they didn’t do that set-up to really make the relationships stick. The fact that they’re inventions needs to be HEARTBREAKING (but I don’t think the MCU is ever really comfortable breaking your heart?).
-“Boys, we never really prepared you for this.” / “but you were born for it.” Oh no! More casual gross eugenics showing up in superhero shit! Oh no!
-“Boys, handle the military” I admit that line is funny tho.
-So in the end, Photon shows up as bullets go through her and fall out or whatever. Fuck it, let’s talk about her entire arc (or lack thereof). Because in the end, she was rendered absolutely meaningless and pretty much didn’t factor into ANYTHING with the finale… what a waste. It makes me think so much about how good her set-up was in episode 4 with the loss of her mom, the frustration with her station, and the lingering anger. But in the end? There are so many black writers, fans, and critics noting how Monica got relegated to a complete lack relegated to meaningless best friend protector lacking in their own self agency and story except for making a shoehorned comparison of grief. Meanwhile, I noticed a lot of white twitter writing things like she “risked her life to save Billy and Tommy, I love her so much.” And well… I’ll just leave that difference there.
-BTW bad SWORD dude just straight up shooting at kids is pretty wild. Wouldn’t been nice if there was virtually anything going on with his character???? Like a motive and personal understanding??? But nope! He existed mostly to add change at will and throw up whatever conflict the story deemed necessary.
-Darcy: “Have fun in prison!” Two things. 1. Like, logically, it’s way too early for that line in the episode. He’s, like, literally still sitting in that car presumably with guns. It’s just such a weird moment. And 2. I kept waiting for whatever else came with Darcy in that ending episode and NOPE. Another waste of both Kat Dennings and the character arcs for three people (her, Randall Park and Teyonah Parris). But it’s not just a loss of the actors’ potential, it’s that the narrative actually seemed to be setting up these characters as ones that would figure in a lot more into the critical events (and I don’t mean this in the fan theory sense, I mean this like they actually established important things with them and then just underplayed them or completely dropped them).
Now, onto the final conflicts…
-Vision Vs. Vision - Okay, for my money, the “Ship of Theseus” stand-off is outright fucking fantastic. It’s not just that it’s an unexpectedly cerebral showdown between the two Visions, it’s that it's a ripe metaphor that actually tracks with the character dynamics and lands the larger thematic point with aplomb. It honestly might be my favorite scene in the entire show. I loved it and I think it completely gets at what makes the character so interesting. FIVE STARS. GOOD CONVERSATION.
-Agatha Vs. Wanda - Okay I kept asking myself questions when they fought like, “wait did Agatha not SUCK her power out before???” There were so many confusing magic exchanges and stuff with their hands and getting skeletal where I didn’t know what I should be taking away. What I was really asking here was: “What are the rules?” But since they mystery boxed almost everything about magic in this show, I never felt like I knew. Particularly with so much of the witchy back and forths…
But! Right as I was thinking to myself “damn, there are barely any interesting fun beats and reversals here,” they get to the rune moment on the big red walls and I was like “Ohhhhhhh snap that was really well done!” And it was a real saving throw, because that kind of clarity, call-back, and reversal was sorely needed elsewhere.
-Technical things: there were some super weird lens choices in the Wanda fight, too.
-Wanda’s line: “I don’t need you to tell me who I am!” This is totally one of those lines that sounds nice, but… does it mean anything?????? Because, like, even in narrative Wanda doesn’t know shit about how she is or what this power is or what’s going on. She basically cops to this a few scenes later when she says she’s going to figure it out. I get the important part of that sentence is the YOU part, I really do. It’s just that her declaration of triumph is still part of something that’s half in the mystery box. And so it muddies the intention and power of what could be so much more. Going with that…
-Agatha’s line: “You don’t know what you’ve done!” Right. Wanda doesn’t. And we don’t either. And you’re not really saying either, just cryptically alluding to the fact it will be BAD and SERIOUS. Which is just more teasing / texture of conflict than actual conflict and y’all I’m going to be blunt and say this is the point in the episode where I got absolutely sick of the habit. But it didn’t make me as frustrated as the following did…
-Agatha’s punishment: OKAY. You’re telling me… after all that lip-service about the torture and how heroes don’t do that… Agatha’s punishment… is Wanda is going to continue doing the torture thing when she just learned how destructive it really is? I can imagine the counterargument of “Oh but, see Agatha’s the bad guy so it’s okay! It’s not an innocent townsperson this time!” And I’m like 1. Fuck off, the point is that it is never okay. And 2. There’s no denying the way it absolutely fucking muddies the point of the plot-line. Which honestly reflects how muddy the “you’re torturing them!” plot-line has been from the beginning. It’s like they wanted the dire scenes of people yelling in pain, but I can’t believe how much handwaving also went along with it. And 3. I’d be less suspect of how much this plays into the MCU thing where no one ever REALLY learns the lessons beyond lip service. Again and again and again, the hidden subtext of all these MCU superheroes is you don’t REALLY have to change! You were right to do what you did! (And Photon’s ending support of her choice just doubles down on it, but we’ll get to that). I really couldn’t believe the choice.
-Wanda: “Thanks for choosing me to be your mom”… Uh… am I missing something with that particular verbiage of choosing?
-And then finally, we get to the Wanda and Vision goodbye…
It’s important to nail the things that really matter. This is the scene that matters. This is the scene that is the entire point of the season. It’s with two characters, finally releasing what they have to release. Luckily, it starts with great lines like “I just wanted to see you clearly… and there you are.” Yes, I wish there were so many aspects of their story that were hashed out in route to getting here. But the scene is tender, heartfelt, and has two actors doing incredible work. The other thing that sticks out to me is the realization that as much as this is our resolution of the story, it’s also the first truly “real” scene in the show between them as they were from the MCU era. In one way, it makes me realize how little story has actually been served between them. But in another way, I know it’s not just texture and goodbye. Unlike the kids’ relationship, this is a real thing. The first in the sense where there’s any kind of true vulnerability and we really do feel it. And in true MCU fashion, it does not linger on the feelings of the past (even when maybe it should), but instead gives preparation for where it will go. Vision’s “who knows what I might be next?” is a really, really, good line that delivers on the promise of everything about him.
As a scene in it of itself? They nailed the execution.
But I can’t tell you how much the scene after wasn’t there.
Or at least I wish the conversation with Photon wasn’t there. Not just because her character and this relationship had become so abandoned. But because of the button that supposedly ties it all together, “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them.” No matter how insidious grief can be (and it truly is), I can’t help but utter a huge, “Nope. Fuck off. Seriously.” at the exact verbiage, specifically calling her actions sacrifice. They rightfully made the point of the torture thing. And in the end, these people were never even necessary for the doll house world of her construction. There are so many other ways this could have been tackled, but fuck off with that particular line. I Hate it. For a million reasons.
-And so Wanda leaves with the “I don’t understand this power, but I will” and I just think to myself: “comics!”
-As the credits played, the finale left a lot of feelings when it what was and wasn’t done and we get the mid credits sequence and you suddenly realize how much Photon’s establishment was just about “putting her in place” so she could show up in Secret War / Captain Marvel 2 / Whatever thing they’re planning - and, like, go. The MCU keeps doing this and it’s one of those things where I both get it and also can’t help but feel like this cynical place holder move that makes me go: hey, where’s the *actual* contained storytelling? Really? Where is it?
-Also where did pale vision go? WHO KNOWS.
-As has been a growing issue, the Fan Theory Industrial Complex was out in full force on twitter tonight, where 1/3 of the fans were like NO DR. STRANGE CAMEO. NO FAN 4. NO MEPHISTO. WTF. And literally seeing tweets like “they did us dirty.” And you know it’s especially bad when you’re seeing “Luke Skywalker” trending because they utterly misunderstood an old interview with an actor that was actually a reference to Quicksilver’s appearance like 5 episodes ago and not the finale. Meanwhile, it seems like another 1/3 of the fans who weren’t angry but still took it as license to start speculating wildly about “Multiverse of Madness'' to the point that it and other upcoming MCU properties were trending. Honestly, the whole thing makes me want to pull a Yoda and bonk the proverbial Luke’s of twitter on the head and say: “All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was... what he was doing.” … Sigh, maybe it’s part of the problem of Marvel so good at making you think something is going to be important, then slinking away from it, and you don’t care because your brain’s already moving forward?
I don’t know. Most people are happy, more or less, and I have no urge to take that away. And the truth is that when I look at this finale and all the people who are most upset, very little of it has to do with the texture or execution of the episode itself. It’s about the grander scheme of the season and the various failures of interconnectedness. Not in terms of fan speculation, but on a story level. It’s about the inability to set-up the pay-offs or pay-off the set-ups. And when I think about a big holistic answer for “why” this has happened. To me, well…
The failure comes in the very inception of Wandavision’s core approach…
* * *
“I should have told you everything.”
At one point in the finale, Wanda confides this to Vision. And as I look over the 9 episode arcof the show, I feel like the series itself should took the same lesson. To explain why, I’m going to get bigular with it.
Because how does the fuck does one construct a season of television, anyway?
While I think most viewers have a decent instinctive for scenes of what’s working moment to moment (on their personal level at least), overall television structure is one of those things people tend to make a lot of assumptions about. I’ll see so many people say that a show needs more or fewer episodes and I’m often like, “that’s not actually the matter! What it needs is focus with the episodes it does have!” But it’s easy to just *say* that. Perhaps it’s best to just straight up walk you through the process by touching on the history.
Back in the day, a season of television meant you had to do 22 episodes. Yes, that is A LOT of work and by the very nature of that demand, you’re going to get some duds. But it also meant you could really expand out plot-lines, develop side characters, have entire episodes that were fun larks. If you knew how to balance between the stand-alone episodes within overall serialized storytelling? Man, it could be so much fun. Sadly it’s a dying art form because back in the late 90’s The Sopranos and HBO changed the game when 13 episode orders suddenly went in vogue. I mean, those shows had some of the best storytelling of all time, but the format was the thing that mostly copied and often in a way where people didn’t understand what was really necessary to making it work. I can’t tell you how many 13 episode shows I watched that just had characters sitting around / plot-blocking / wheel spinning before finally getting the dang point. It was always like 3 episodes of “story” stretched out to infinitum. The point is that each has different possibilities, but neither format is “better.” It’s just about how you use your time in order to create a successful feeling of drama, evolution, growth, and change.
Which is important because now “a season of tv” can be any length. You pitch a season with any you’d like in mind, but you negotiate those amounts with the distributor pretty quickly in the process (they all have different wants that are constantly changing). It’s your job to break down the arc in a way that really fits. If you’re smart, you know how to make satisfying little installments that help you tell the bigger story. You’ll know how to make an episode that feels worth something. Naturally, a lot of people came into the digital space and were like “we’re making an 8 hour movie!” And it had all that same wheel-spinning, stretching instincts that plague the 13 episode seasons just a few years prior. Again, it's the same question: how do you use your time? How much story do you have here? How do you quantify “story” in a meaningful way, anyhow? Most of all, how do you approach the material of your conceit? Because it’s that question that is at the heart of any season.
So! Here is the pure “what’s actually happening” conceit of Wandavision: Having just lost her partner in Vision, Wanda is a rightfully grieving mess. She arrives at the site of the house they were going to live in. Completely overwhelmed, the chaos magic inside her erupts and she suddenly gets to live the dream life of being a sitcom world (reminiscent of the ones she loved in her youth) where all these problems are far away. But she struggles to uphold the illusion of her new dream life, especially as a rival witch arrives to mettle in her affairs.
It’s a good conceit! One rife with so many opportunities to explore a whole host of ideas. Hell, you tell me that conceit and immediately my mind would be racing to figure out the sustaining plots, the mini-arcs, the tropes you could explore, and all the joys along the way… but here’s the problem… Instead of actually exploring that, literally every single thing about that conceit is mystery boxed.
Every. Single. Thing.
From moment one we shoved into the vague scenario with questions: Why are they trapped in a sitcom? What do they know? What do they not know? Who created this scenario? Why? And unlike things with a clear rooting interest, the only thing propelling us through the scenario is our curiosity and a baseline affinity we have for the existing characters. But even though the show is mystery boxing everything, they make an even more crucial mistake of not even treating it like a mystery. As I said so many times, telling a mystery is REALLY HARD. And to even do it properly, you need driving central questions. You need active investigation. You need clever misdirection that not only creates the feelings of twist and turns, but has their own thematic points to make, too. Instead? They settled for constant vaguery. In the end, there was no misdirection. They only teased out the clear answers we implicitly understood as being the only options from the beginning.
Seriously, let’s look at the season arc and the path they chose in revealing this conceit.
1 - Filmed Before A Live Studio Audience - It established a full on start-to-finish sitcom reality, provided no other direct context and simply ended at the idea that something is amiss with the control of this world. In terms of overall story development, this is honestly nothing. It is the teasing of a very scenario. That alone.
2 - Don’t Touch That Dial - More of the exact same, repeating the same idea something is amiss in this, but just doing so slightly better and with more interesting teases (like the beekeeper). But right when that figure shows up and we want to investigate, Wanda seemingly rewinds time, which full stop gives away the idea that Wanda is control of this world. It’s so clear that you have to almost think “is this misdirection?” Especially given that you’re now in the mystery box.
3 - Now In Color - Wanda has Babies and it further implies she is in control when it’s implied she’s tossed Monica out the sitcom world and we realize there is a giant bubble with an army outside the town. Is the giant bubble curiosity inducing? Yes. But again. It’s mostly pointing at Wanda.
4 - We Interrupt this Program - We establish the story behind Monica's real world character and establish what the sitcom world really “is” on a logical level. It then even reshows the scene with Wanda getting angry and thus revealing - “it’s all wanda.” The problem is that this is absolutely not a “reveal” because it’s been clearly indicated with no other misdirection. It utterly highlights the thin-ness of this four episode arc of getting to this point. But in the least, we seemingly know *everything* now, so the question is how they deal with it.
5 - On a Very Special Episode - We’re back to 80’s sitcom-ing, but FINALLY there is a baseline tension between Wanda and Vision because we know she is in control and Vision is starting to at least push against that in some small ways. It works better because we know everything. Or do we! Because even though we’ve seen her clear malice and*intentionality* of it all, it also waffles on some elements of what she doesn’t know, which makes us unsure. It then ends with a big reveal of her brother as Fox’s quicksilver showing up and we’re like WUT.
6 - All-New Halloween Spooktacular! - FWIW my favorite episode because it actually shows the characters start to deal with their situation. Vision goes off to do his own investigation. But more importantly, Wanda finally has someone to talk to, but also drops the nugget “I don’t know how all this got started,” which is a new development it seems??? Again, we’re both confused because this clashes with the intentionality of her previous actions, but it’s seeming to drop an important question to us… How did this all get started?
7 - Breaking The Fourth Wall - Wanda reaches the point of exhaustion with her charade, but most of the episode serves to get to the ending reveal that her neighbor Agnes (really Agatha) has been messing, complete with an “Agatha All Along” song, that seems to almost imply she has full control of what’s happening in this world? But not really? It’s one of those things that doesn’t quite feel like twist., just something that plops in and muddies. Speculation on the internet runs rampant.
8 - Previously On - Finally, the big “reveal” of all the conceit and mostly what already known. We finally establish Wanda’s love of sitcoms. We see the “why westview" in terms of the home lot that Vision bought. It’s all part of the mystery path of just “finally showing visually” what you’ve already implied fifty times. At the end of the episode, we’re suddenly told things like “chaos magic” and “scarlet witch!” and yet none of these things have really been planted in a meaningful way in previous episodes.
9 - The Series Finale -It’s everything I said in the section above. You finally put everything in direct conflict (kind of) and end those conflicts. It also simultaneously drop half the established threads. Yup, they hid story for 8 episodes and then once they "unmystery boxed" the core conceit of the show all had up their sleeve was a lot of, "well, time to punch now!” Before at least one really good and meaningful goodbye.
Smaller function arguments aside, this is the season of tv that was structured.
And there is an obvious problem when you look at the breakdown. Not just that it took them 9 episodes of teasing the conceit before finally turning into the drama of that conceit. It reveals a question: how much REAL story is even really here at all?
To wit, there’s a big trick you use in movies and TV where you break down how much story you have by using a simple tool: How many scenes of genuine conflict are there where the characters deal with the core issue at hand? If there aren’t enough scenes, then you are not engaging your core story enough (witness the vast amount of Hollywood films where nothing meaningful happens in Act 2). And if there are enough scenes? Then you have to look at the changes and arcs within them or else you risk repetition in repeating the same issue with that core conflict over and over again. You ask: does that issue’s objectives actually shift? Are there multiple changing goals? Ideally, you want this evolution to most of your damn show. If I had time, I’d happy to sit down with seasons of, say Breaking Bad, and show exactly how they do this and nestle goals within goals, all while evolving the overall conflict.
But for Wandavision? I’d have to really go with a fine tooth comb, but in the entire nine episodes, I can only spot just four scenes where Wanda and Vision actually talked about what they were *really* talking about??? And all the while, there is also only one issue (Wanda being in control) and one objective (get her to stop controlling and hurting people). And they don’t even solve anything through conflict between the two of them… Yeah, that's how much actual “story” there was in this nine episode television show. Which is precisely why they’re constantly hiding things at every step. I mean, Vision goes away for three whole episodes and… discovers what he’s already seen with people being mind-controlled? Then gets verbal confirmation of that same from Darcy? It’s hiding and repeating. Hiding and repeating. And by the time Vision finally goes back to Wanda, she has in part already settled it. What is the point of this avoidance approach? What is it really after?
When you look at that 9 episode break down, you realize the show thinks it can get away with so much avoidance for three reasons.
1) The belief that “the sitcom will sustain us.” Again, mileage may vary on this one. But I talked about how many were underwhelmed by the sitcom element. Mostly because, even though there seems to be a genuine affinity for them, there is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact that writing sitcoms is really, really, really, really hard. And more importantly, that it needs a baseline reality for you to really care about the relationships happening on screen. Which is why the lines of homage / send up / criticism of them always felt so mushy, too. It settles so much for pastiche: 50’s episode! It’s brady bunch style now! An 80’s one! Look at the hair! All over the critical function of those nestled stories. And I even feel like they COULDN’T truly dig in because the overall mystery box approach required them to hide necessary motivations of the sitcom itself.
2) Avoidance is part of the theme! It’s okay to have denial, avoidance, and deflection in the storytelling because this is a story *about* denial, avoidance, and deflection. But there is a mountain of difference between a show being about subject matter and the story actually doing the same negative effects of the subject matter. In reality, Wandavision is just as guilty of the same thing it’s criticizing.
And 3) We’re adequately sustaining your interest in the mystery and giving you important planted information along the way! To which, I have a question.
Did you really enjoy this mystery?
I mean, was it even really a mystery? Was it full of twists and turns and changes of scope that went beyond surface detail? As I detailed above, we understand so much so early and then the show just keeps kind of waffling as it shows the inciting events and more and more clear detail. There’s no actual shifts here. It just sometimes makes things “less clear.” And honestly, if you’re going to do a mystery with this format. You have to have them BOTH not know what’s going on and actively investigate in those first three episodes, because then you at least get some proper misdirection. And all as they try to keep up with the pressure of “fitting” in their sitcom world. And then more importantly, Wanda’s big realization would feel like a turn when she realizes it’s all coming from her (instead of the wishy washy path to discovery it takes now). That would at least have some functionality that puts you in the same shoes as your main character. But maybe more than anything, I can’t think of a meaningful reason TO do a mystery with this particular story???
Hell, I’ll go one further with it. Because I don’t think criticism is worth as much without looking at other solutions. So here’s my pointed, driving question: What happens if you take the events of episode 8 and put them at the beginning? Seriously.
To repeat the conceit of the show itself: “Having just lost her partner, Wanda is a rightfully grieving mess . She arrives at the site of the house they were going to live in. Completely overwhelmed The chaos magic inside her erupts and she gets to live the dream life of being a sitcom world (reminiscent of the ones she loved in her youth). But she struggles to uphold the illusion of her new dream, especially as a rival witch arrives to mettle in her affairs.”
What if instead of hiding this, you just come right out with it?
What if we’re seeing her choose this life and trying to keep up with it? What if we’re with her exact psyche from the very beginning and thus rooting for the sitcom life? What if she doesn’t realize her chaos powers are harming others and she thinks they’re happy? What if the main conflict we see her at first trying to prevent Vision from knowing, then see him realize and come on board too? What if they’re in it together What if ? What if after just a couple episodes we realize that Agatha is next door and she’s up to no good and we see what she’s actually doing? That way, we can actually play tension and dramatic irony every time she shows up? What if we hit that midpoint reveal where both Wanda and Vision realize what’s happening here in terms of the effect on the town and go through the five stages of grief over the choice? What if we actually engage all of that story as the outside world finally begins closing in? What then?
In other words, what if they tried to tell the conceit straight?
I realize it might be hard to imagine, given that it’s so antithetical to the show’s approach. And even harder given that many of us ultimately liked the show that was given. But ultimately, I really do think if this hypothetical is the best way to enjoy the core conceit of the story. Sure, You lose the “surprise” and “mystery,” but it was never really doing that in any functional way. And instead you gain such valuable dramatic tools like the clarity of baseline reality and clear rooting interests. In essence, you begin by truly rooting for her to live her dream sitcom life, yourself fully believing in it’s purity. You even believe the town is happier than their broken down life. To boot, I think every single one of those sitcom plots would have worked BETTER if you understood the goal of the characters (and again didn’t know she was torturing, which they telegraph WAY too early for this to ever be a rooting interest). Moreover, with all the mystery out of the way it would be so much easier to make pointed commentary. How did we deal with grief in the 50’s storytelling? How bout 80s? You could ACTUALLY turn into these themes instead of just coasting right by them. It would make it easier to tell mini arcs and keep up the goals. You’d also get actual turns in the story when other characters show up, along with the devastating realizations that people aren’t happy. You’d get to actively root against SWORD in a way that would have a devastating turn. As I type all this it just seems so evident to me and thus I have another question: what’s stopped this approach from ever happening?
Maybe the answer is fear.
That would be fear of telling a story in a straightforward manner, with confidence. I’ve been diplomatic here, but with enough time in this landscape you can see when creative writing is in control and when the writing is hiding. I even wrote about it in the first episode and from pace alone that, “they’re hiding the story.” And it’s not as I don’t have empathy for this process. We all do it all the damn time. It’s so easy to try and avoid conflict in a given scene because you need it to come out at point B later on. But that’s always telling you that you really need to bring it to the now. Weirdly, this delay tactic comes out most when I DM in DND sessions, where someone pulls a thread right at the truth and I have to scramble and be like, ”uhhhh don’t go behind door number two because…. Reasons?!?!?” You honestly can see this same instinct pop in TV episodes all the time. It’s so, so human. But it’s also always the sign you need to get on it.
And it comes with acknowledgement that you fall to the allure of the vague mystery box because you’re hiding. Because maybe you don’t really know how to come at the essential elements of your story. Or maybe simply because it’s so hard to do. Which is why you hold so many things directly in front of the viewer and then pull them away in a moment's notice. Because we convince ourselves we are “being the magician” and “doing the great reveal.” It’s how we try to calm the fear. But what writers really should have been afraid of was what they were ACTUALLY trying to do. Because what they’re *actually* attempted something that requires genius level sitcom writing and something that avoids all the disastrous pitfalls that come with mystery boxing. And thus engage something that undermines all the ways the show is indeed quite good.
And that’s the whole thing.
In Wandavision, I see a show so getting in the way of its own goodness. With these incredible actors and the space to let them do so, so much. And instead it hid so much of the baseline thrust it needed to breathe life into the drama. And I realize many of you might hear this criticism and go, “But I *was* rooting!” for them. But then I go “Totally! But a lot of us weren’t and I think it’s for the reasons I expressed here.” As I said it back in the first recap: “my job is to try and look at this kind of thing and assess why a lot of people might feel a lot of different ways.” But really, this goes beyond the push / pull of relativism. Because I know it’s so easy to just accept all the ways this show is totally adequate. I liked this show. So many of us like this show. But I’ve spent so much time writing about the MCU and my goal behind almost all that criticism is to get at a bigger idea. One which all comes down to the final question.
What do I actually want?
I want the braintrust of the MCU to realize that every single Marvel property could be as thematically rich and well-executed as Black Panther. To be clear, that there are important cultural aspects of this movie that completely transcend the media landscape and thus are absolutely incomparable. I assure you, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the approach of construction. Because in every frame of that movie, Black Panther sought to be a meaningful movie and did so with full semiotic understanding of how to achieve that. Every second laced with meaning and coherence, while being fully integrated into character arcs and nearly a dozen meaningful relationships. It doesn’t hide. It says exactly what it means at every moment. Which means it’s one of the most thematically dense 2 hours and 15 minutes I’ve seen in a blockbuster film. It managed to say incredibly complex things about racism, colonialism, divisions within the black experience. Even it’s flaws are interesting in the way that provide a framework for cultural conversations that I’m *still* learning from. I can’t tell you how many amazing things I read or saw that were created out of that movie. And it all started with commitment from Coogler and support from the studio behind it. It went so far beyond lip service. It took it’s subject so seriously and really went for it. And in the process it showed us what the MCU could be in the very grandest of “Best Picture” sensibilities. It showed that these stories could not just be enjoyable, but truly important.
To that charge, I believe there’s a version of this season of Wandavision that doesn’t hide from the earnestness of its conceit. That takes the subject of grief and tackles it straight on instead of with a constant tease or value allusion. That really, truly explores the different manners of dealing with grief and injects them straight up into singular stories, while being outright critical of the modes of sitcom media throughout history and how they’ve failed the exploration of that subject. Instead, I feel the show settles for merely touching on these ideas and bringing them up as vague questions, while mostly avoiding everything that’s hard about the process. And the thing that haunts me about this choice is how much it taps into the underlying current problem of the MCU, with it’s lip service for certain lessons while dramatically stating “you don’t really have to change, not really.” But while I fear that may be the case, I also know it’s not the truth. Because what the incredible success of Black Panther also proved is how ready people would be for the thematically rich work when it happens… So what do I want?
In simplest terms, I would like it to happen more.
If only because it honors the incredible work the actors and artists do in the process, and it starts with honoring the core conceit.