With just one episode left to go, the latest WandaVision finally fills in the part of the story we’ve been missing — the beginning. “Previously On” tells not just the story of how Wanda Maximoff came to reprogram a New Jersey suburb on a molecular level, but her entire origin story through her own eyes. It’s a packed episode that delivers revelations just at the right time, but also character beats that are long overdue.
Harkness on the Edge of Town
This episode is called “Previously On,” and off the bat this means very previously, way back to Salem, Massachusetts in the year 1693. If you are among those watching this show without having any comics foresight and haven’t read any “Who is Agatha Harkness” articles over the past week, I imagine this opening was probably pretty disorienting. To you, I say — welcome to Comics.
Here, young witch Agatha Harkness (a digitally de-aged Kathryn Hahn) stands accused of betraying the coven led by her mother (Kate Forbes) and practicing dark magic “above [her] age and station.” The coven seems to attempt to execute her, but Agatha reverses their magic and drains the life from each of them, including her mother. In their final exchange, Agatha pleads with her mother — “Please, I can be good!” Her mother responds, “No, you cannot,” and Agatha seems to take those last words to heart, expressing no obvious remorse for the lives she’s taken. Did she mean for this to happen, or did the dark magic take hold and protect her at the expense of her coven? Either way, there’s no turning back now.
The rest of the episode isn’t directly about Agatha, and this teaser is mostly just a cute exercise in getting to know her after her reveal at the end of “Breaking the Fourth Wall.” We meet her in the aftermath of a secret power grab. When she’s caught, her first move is to lie. When that fails, she kills those in her way. We get provenance of her age and an illustration of her power, which makes her an authority on magic. The audience may not be able to trust her, but we can trust that she’s dangerous and that she knows what she’s talking about, so as she attempts to redefine the nature of the show’s lead character, we believe her.
This flashback, and the episode that follows, treats magic a bit differently than the rest of the core MCU to date. In the Thor films, magic is framed as a product of Clarke’s third law, simply technology beyond our understanding. Doctor Strange couches its magic in terminology that’s more comfortable for its protagonist, a man of science, but also for an audience that’s used to Marvel movies favoring the trappings of science fiction over fantasy. There, magic is the product of interdimensional energies, and spells are “programs” that rewrite the code of our reality. WandaVision will have none of that. Magic is magic, complete with Latin incantations and runes of protection. It’s totally compatible with what’s come before, but unembarrassed of what it is. Hence, we’re now allowed to call Wanda “Scarlet Witch.”
It’s Either Risk Setting Off This Bomb or Let This DVD Menu Repeat for Another Full Day
After that peek at Agatha’s past, the bulk of the episode is spent exploring Wanda’s, with Agatha acting as a guide trying to solve the mystery of her power. Agatha has been studying magic for centuries and can’t approach the level of power over mind and matter that Wanda seems to exercise without even thinking about it. Agatha is not, as it turns out, at all responsible for reprogramming Westview, NJ to be a sitcom-inspired paradise for Wanda’s benefit — Agatha has been throwing wrenches in the mix, like creating the fake Pietro, but that the rest really is all Wanda. We’re not explicitly told, but unless Wanda just happened to move in next door to a 300-year-old witch, Agatha probably magicked herself into town as soon as she became aware of the Hex in order to try and understand how and why it came to be, presumably with the goal of possessing or controlling that magic herself. Now, using Wanda’s twins as leverage, Agatha forces Wanda to confront her past in search of the secret of her unprecedented magical power.
The first stop in their investigation/therapy session is Sokovia, where ten-year-old Wanda (Michaela Russell, Amazing Stories) and the Maximoff family sit down for their tradition of watching American TV shows on DVD to practice their English and to distract themselves from the war being fought outside their window. It’s Wanda’s turn to pick what they watch from their crate of boxed sets. Will it be Bewitched? Who’s the Boss? Malcolm in the Middle? No, Wanda’s favorite is The Dick Van Dyke Show, for which she is chapter and verse. Wanda is admiring Mary Tyler Moore when the war comes crashing into their building in the form of two mortar shells. The first shell collapses the apartment and buries their parents. The second fails to explode, but leaves Wanda and her twin brother Pietro trapped under their sofa, afraid that any movement might set off the explosive. Wanda distracts herself from her terror by watching Dick Van Dyke flicker on their half-wrecked television, hoping that, like her favorite episode, this will all turn out to be a bad dream.
Agatha explains to Wanda that it’s no coincidence that the second shell turned out to be a dud — young Wanda subconsciously performed a “probability hex” that increased the likelihood of its failure, saving her and her brother’s lives. Wanda’s entire path in life is set in motion by the magic that is within her since long before she ever touches the Mind Stone. For both Wanda and the audience, this journey through memory is about recontextualizing her backstory to incorporate magic, and also to make her a more active agent in her own story retroactively. Helping to sell this is child actor Michaela Russell, who we essentially get to see turn into the cold, haunted Wanda we meet in Age of Ultron before our eyes, but who first gives us a glimpse at the happier, more innocent kid within who is responsible for the Westview anomaly. The one who loves sitcom “shenanigans — mischief that always becomes fine.”
After this, the story jumps ahead to the time period between the first two Avengers films and another piece of Wanda’s backstory that we’ve only ever been told about but never seen. Wanda is a volunteer test subject for Hydra, who exposes her to a weird stone glowing on an alien staff. Hydra knows (and she may, as well) that this is the staff Loki wielded during the Battle of New York in The Avengers, possessing the ability to alter minds and blow stuff up. Unbeknownst to any of them, the staff is powered by the Mind Stone, an immensely powerful cosmic artifact old as the universe itself. This same stone later lives on Vision’s forehead and houses his consciousness. (In the present day, the real one no longer exists.)
In Age of Ultron, it’s theorized that the reason why only Wanda and Pietro survive Hydra’s experiment is their will, their thirst for revenge against the man who manufactured the weapons that destroyed their lives. “Previously On” shows us what really happened — the Mind Stone, recognizing Wanda’s magical potential, unlocks and amplifies her powers. Wanda is shown a vision, a silhouette familiar to comics fans as Wanda’s Scarlet Witch outfit but known to viewers of the show as her “Sokovian fortune teller” costume from the Halloween episode. In a way that she could not possibly have understood at the time, the Mind Stone is showing Wanda her potential, her future, and offering her a way to seize it. This is an example of a scene that we are much better off getting now that we know Wanda rather than, say, as a post-credits tease in advance of Age of Ultron. Getting it now, out of sequence, it means something more profound to the character and also to the audience, particularly an audience member that doesn’t know the comics lore, which screen adaptations should never assume they do.
The next flashback, on the other hand, is the kind of scene we could have used years ago. Set shortly after Age of Ultron, Wanda and Vision have moved into the Avengers compound, which present-day Wanda lends importance by calling it the first home they ever shared. (Up until now, there has never been a reason to care about this place.) We see them spend some time together there in Captain America: Civil War, in a charming scene that provides just enough justification for us to find them in love two years later in Avengers: Infinity War. This segment, even more than the other two, attempts to correct an issue with Wanda’s arc throughout the movies and with character development in the MCU in general — a lot of the character growth happens between movies, particularly when it comes to secondary recurring characters. As Polygon’s Joshua Rivera pointed out in his recent criticism of WandaVision, we never actually got Wanda and Vision’s love story, only the tragic ending, which makes it harder to care about. This scene in “Previously On,” in which Vision attempts to console Wanda as she grieves for her brother, is a foundational moment for a relationship that we never see, and as fun as WandaVision has been, there would have been more value in watching Wanda attempt to rebuild a fantasy of her romance with Vision if we’d gotten to experience the real thing for more than a fleeting moment.
I Honestly Can’t Think of a Joke Name Better than “Project Cataract”
Next, Agatha leads Wanda into her repressed memories of the events that led directly into WandaVision. Having very recently been returned to life by the Blip only to find that Vision is still dead, Wanda traces Vision’s body to S.W.O.R.D. headquarters, seeking closure. What she finds is that Acting Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg) has torn her man apart in an effort to reactivate what he sees as a valuable “sentient weapon.” We were introduced to the concept of Hayward’s Project Cataract last episode, but this is the first time we’re seeing it, and we see it through Wanda’s eyes. The image of Vision, his limbs and head split apart from his body with eerie silicon sinews strung between them is revolting, visceral. And while we’re surely intended to find this imagery upsetting, it seems clear that this was also Hayward’s intent in letting Wanda see it. Hayward’s team has spent five years unsuccessfully trying to bring Vision back online, and perhaps he thinks that he can introduce a new variable by provoking an outraged response from Wanda.
Wanda does lash out and break into the Cataract lab, as seen in Hayward’s security footage back in “We Interrupt This Program,” but Hayward’s allegation that Wanda stole Vision’s body turns out to be an outright lie. Wanda approaches Vision’s body, lays a hand on his head, and determines that he is truly dead. There’s nothing left of him in there. So, instead, she sulks away, driving to Westview, NJ, where Vision has apparently bought a vacant lot for their eventual quiet suburban home. This future now dead, Wanda erupts with grief and magically builds her dream house around herself, but this alone can’t comfort her and the Hex is born moments later. The Vision that joins her in her idyllic 1950s home is revealed to be a complete fabrication. Vision’s real body, as we learn in a mid-credits sequence, is still with Hayward, whose team has harvested some of Wanda’s magic from an artifact retrieved from the Hex and reanimated his soulless body.
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Basically the Same Guy, but with a Separate Wiki Page
The revelation that the Vision we’ve been following for the entire series is a wholesale creation of Wanda’s doesn’t really change much in hindsight for the audience, apart from explaining why he can’t leave the Hex and why he doesn’t remember his past — he has no past. The personality that has emerged since broke away from the guise of a bumbling sitcom dad is very similar to the Vision seen in the films, but we also know this Vision a lot better and I doubt anyone watching feels shocked or betrayed that the synthezoid we’ve been following for the past eight episodes is not the same being that emerged from the cocoon in Age of Ultron. As for his nature, he was an artificial lifeform before, and now he is again, by one more degree.
Who this might and probably should change things for is Wanda, who after regaining her memories now knows that her husband actually isn’t the man she fell in love with, he is merely her recreation of him, albeit a very accurate and autonomous one. Like her children, Vision is real, at least within the boundary of the Hex. But creating your children is pretty customary — creating your spouse is weird and creepy. How will this realization change the way Wanda sees Vision? How will it change how Vision feels about Wanda? Will we find out before Vision probably dies again?
We’re coming up on the series finale of WandaVision (Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige says there are no plans for a Season 2, but never say never), and while there appears to be a Big Action Climax in the works, there’s a lot left to do than just play out the final battle. Yes, Wanda needs to free her kids from Agatha’s clutches, but does she have the power to bring them with her once she lets the Hex walls fall? Will she have to lose them as well as Vision in order to give the people of Westview their home and their lives back? What consequences will she face for having enslaved an entire town for weeks? Do we get to keep Fake Pietro?
But beyond this — “Previously On” is a cool half-hour of superhero TV, and like “We Interrupt This Program,” it’s a breath after a string of episodes that make use of WandaVision’s distinctive show-within-a-show framing device. It’s not at all unwelcome, in fact we’re close enough to the goal line now that I don’t mind getting straight answers, but last time we stepped away from the sitcom gimmick, we got to go back. The team behind WandaVision has revved the series up from a live-to-tape black and white sitcom to a show where a big action figure smash-up won’t seem totally out of place, and a typical Marvel finale would be cool, sure, but is that what all we’ll be getting? WandaVision began as an oddity, unique in the Marvel Studios oeuvre — have they saved any of that chaos magic for the finale?