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'WandaVision' season review: Marvel makes TV magic

'WandaVision' reveals itself as an exploration of grief, taking Wanda, played by an exceptional Elizabeth Olsen, unflinchingly through the five stages

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in 'WandaVision'
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in 'WandaVision'

It is comforting to know superheroes watch TV. Wanda Maximoff, one of the world’s most powerful telepaths, watches shows late at night in the Avengers compound. In the Marvel series WandaVision (Disney+), we see her in bed with the near-omnipotent android, Vision, watching Malcolm In The Middle. In the episode they’re watching, a roof caves in on the show’s father figure, Hal, an eternally overwrought Bryan Cranston. Vision, who consumes all information in earnest, is surprised. “Is it funny because of the grievous injury the man just suffered?”

“No, he’s not really injured,” Wanda explains. “Ahh,” says Vision, not quite understanding, and still rather concerned, “How can you be certain?” Wanda’s reply is that of a seasoned viewer, one who understands the boundaries each show sets itself, one who knows what a show is really about: “It’s not that kind of a show.”

Wanda was reared on reruns, growing up in eastern Europe on the DVDs of American shows her father used to sell. She knows TV formats and traditions, and WandaVision is a projection of her coping after having lost her family, her twin brother and — in the Avengers movies — having been forced to kill Vision herself, then watch him get killed again. In her head, she brings Vision back to a TV-perfect suburban life, with laughs, neighbours, and picket-fences in place. What could be safer than a sitcom?

The episodes evoke different eras — perhaps so Wanda can spend several television lifetimes with Vision — from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Brady Bunch to Modern Family, matching their comedic beats and visual language. To this end, Wanda has enslaved a town and cast its people to do her bidding like unwilling actors, unable to live their own unscripted lives. Much as Wanda would like a comedy where everyone’s happy, this simply is not that kind of show.

(I had previously reviewed the first three WandaVision episodes. The series review you are reading now contains spoilers.)

Created by Jac Schaeffer, WandaVision is an exploration of grief, taking Wanda unflinchingly through the five stages — denial (in episode 1 she picks out an anniversary with a dead man and conjures up wedding rings), anger (in episode 3 she ejects an outsider who questions her illusion), bargaining (in episode 5 she argues about control of her TV ‘reality’), depression (in episode 7 she stays in sweatpants and, for the most part, gives up on the world she made) and, finally, acceptance in episode 9, where she faces the truth and realises why she must let go.

Elizabeth Olsen is exceptional as Wanda, full of wonderment as she plays along with convenient TV tropes, but brimming with a deep, underlying sadness. She may be an enthusiastic magician’s apprentice or a housewife who wants to rest her eyes, but Olsen — while expertly channelling actresses and eras — possesses real emotional heft. Her eyes are anxious, restless even when underlined by that charming TV smile. Here is a heroine underwhelmed by her own script.

Paul Bettany plays Vision with lovely uncertainty, asking questions of co-workers like an actor in search of character detail, seeking off-screen truths to better commit to the role. As with Malcolm In The Middle, he questions the rules. In one unforgettable moment, the superhero sits pensively cross-legged in a folding chair, explaining his predicament to the camera mid-episode, very Modern Family. As he becomes aware of the absurdity, he stumbles out of the tiny chair, pulling off a lapel mic and almost bumping into a boom mic.

Advertisements are laden with metaphors and clues. The first is on a calendar on Wanda’s kitchen: In a black and white episode, we are told all a “little girl needs is a colour television.” The details are delicious, like FBI agent Jimmy Woo, played by Randall Park, who, back in the Ant-Man film, wanted to learn a card trick. By episode 1, he knows how it's done. When he escapes handcuffs in episode 9, he says “Flourish!,” just like Vision does after each trick in episode 2. Like us, he’s watching WandaVision closely.

As with many a sitcom, the nosy neighbour steals the show. The great Kathryn Hahn plays this kooky character with flair, but there is clearly more to this mailman-ogling lady than meets the eye. She finally emerges as Agatha Harkness, a witch upto her own hijinks, expressed via her own terrific theme song. “I don’t bite,” she laughs while offering to babysit Wanda’s kids, but then deadpans to the camera: “I actually did bite a kid once.” Perfect.

Agatha wants to steal Wanda’s powers and put them to better use. “You’re supposed to be a myth, capable of spontaneous creation, and here you are, using it to make breakfast for dinner.” She dubs Wanda the Scarlet Witch, and points out the horror of her actions, telling her “heroes don’t torture people.”

Here the series stumbles. What Wanda has done — even accidentally — is monstrous. She’s been told she’s done well to ensure “families and couples stay together, most personalities aren’t far from what’s underneath, people got better jobs, better haircuts for sure.” But when townsfolk finally speak, they sob about their children, and speak of suffering Wanda’s nightmares when they sleep. WandaVision offers her absolution. Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the show’s most valiant character, a woman who charges head-on through magic fields, calls Wanda’s eventual freeing of the town a “sacrifice.” This valourisation is disappointing. Also disappointing are too many things going boom in the climactic episode — par for the Marvel course, but too loud for this thoughtful series.

It is left to Vision to provide the quiet. The finale pits two Visions against each other, and they whizz through the air discussing identity and metaphysics, using the Ship of Theseus paradox to consider which is the authentic Vision: the one with the original parts, or the one with the memories. That an action stand-off should end with a thought experiment is stunningly true to that contemplative character, and Bettany’s silken voice carries the day.

In the first episode, Vision declares himself “incapable of exaggeration,” and by the last one, he actively tells a lie. At one point, weighing Wanda’s traumatic history, he questions the nature of sadness. “It can’t all be sorrow, can it?” he wonders, before delivering the show’s most devastating line: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”

What a thought.

“A family is forever,” Wanda tells her own, moments before they vanish. Families, in a way, are also ships of Theseus, their members and memories renewed and replaced, changing shape but clinging on to identity. Those we have lost continue to play their parts inside our heads. Where everybody knows their name.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen


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