A review of this week’s WandaVision, “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” coming up just as soon as I show you this mole on my back…
Every Marvel project arrives shrouded in some degree of mystery, and that shroud was particularly foggy when it came to WandaVision. We didn’t even know until last month that the show would be airing nine episodes, since much of the early reporting suggested a season with only six. Perhaps that speculation was wrong (in a 2019 red carpet interview, Elizabeth Olsen suggested the show would be “six hours,” which may have been misconstrued), or maybe Marvel took advantage of all the extra time in quarantine to re-edit and expand the series. But it’s not hard to imagine a more compressed version of this season, featuring multiple sitcom eras per episode at first, before giving way to later installments that are half-sitcom, half-MCU adventure.
It’s a tough balance of elements this show is going for, and the production only sometimes pulls it off like a good circus acrobat should. (More on the circus in a moment.) Early installments dwelled too much on sitcom pastiche that wasn’t always funny enough to sustain a half-hour. And these last couple of episodes offer only the slightest hints of how well Team WandaVision can mimic more contemporary comedies, before tossing the parody aside in favor of moving the story along. Had the Brady Bunch or Bewitched segments been as brief as last week’s Malcolm in the Middle homage, it might be less noticeable. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that WandaVision is usually spending the wrong amount of time on any one concept, sitcom or MCU.
With “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” we arrive in the mid- to late-2000s. This was the comedy era inspired by both Malcolm (single-camera, no laugh track, characters addressing the audience directly) and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original UK version of The Office (mockumentary style). Specifically, we’re in Modern Family mode, with Elizabeth Olsen doing a pitch-perfect Julie Bowen impression. We see Wanda becoming exasperated by the loss of control over her own fantasy world, while the twins begin to grow worried about their frazzled mom. But other than a moment when Wanda is startled to hear the voice of her off-screen interviewer(*), the episode largely loses interest in the gimmick after the opening scenes.
(*) The various mockumentary sitcoms that were in vogue at that time took different approaches to mockumentary itself. Both versions of The Office acknowledged that the characters were being filmed by a documentary crew, and the film became a significant plot point at the end of the American show. The Modern Family creators originally had the idea that their show was a doc being made by a former Dutch foreign-exchange student who had lived with the Pritchetts as a teen, but they abandoned it in development and just treated the talking heads as a stylistic quirk. And Parks and Rec never bothered with any explanation for why characters frequently spoke to the camera.
The latest theme song sounds a lot like the one from the American Office, and between Vision’s workplace with Norm and the Hex’s absorption of Darcy and a lot of S.W.O.R.D. agents, the moment seems ripe for a double homage, with Wanda as Claire Dunphy and Vision as Jim Halpert. But other than one spectacular, John Krasinski-style take to the camera by Paul Bettany (when Vision spots the utility truck blocking their path back to town), an Office spoof fails to materialize. The S.W.O.R.D. agents all get transformed into circus performers (and not even Circus of Crime performers, which would at least be a nice Easter egg to the more Marvel Comics-obsessed viewers), and the episode utterly wastes the idea of sitcom vet Kat Dennings being trapped in a sitcom world. As Darcy puts it bluntly after Vision frees her mind, “You know, part of me secretly wanted a guest spot on the show. But seriously, that sucked.”
There’s a moment early on where the show practically seems to be trolling the viewers who are growing impatient for answers(*). The boys are worried about their father, about what “Uncle Pietro” said about Vision being murdered before, and about the way that their surroundings keep blinking back to earlier sitcom eras. Wanda acknowledges that they expect answers from their mom, but confesses that she has none to give: “I’m starting to believe that everything is meaningless. You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions, of course, but that’s just where I’m at.” But “Breaking the Fourth Wall” turns out to be very interested in providing answers — a big one in particular regarding Agnes actually being the witch Agatha Harkness.
(*) Also trolling: For weeks, people have been complaining about the length of the closing credits. (It’s more noticeable than it would be if this were a binge-release show; Netflix’s credits are typically just as long, and also have to list separate credits for lots of international territories, but few people ever watch them to the end because auto-play quickly jumps you to the next available episode.) So we finally get our first MCU-style mid-credits surprise, with Monica startled by the arrival of Pietro as she’s preparing to sneak into Agnes’ basement via the cellar door. It’s not even that thrilling or shocking a scene, relative to most of the ones in the MCU films, but it at least primes viewers to be ready for more in the last two episodes.
This was a popular fan theory. Kathryn Hahn is too big a talent to be wasted as the wacky sitcom neighbor, even if she’s been great at it. Agatha and Wanda have a long history together in the comics — and a much friendlier one than what’s suggested in this episode’s concluding moments. And, of course, “Agnes” is a neat shorthand version of “Agatha” and “Harkness.” But if my fellow nerds weren’t surprised by this revelation, the payoff was nonetheless worth it: a bonus theme-song parody for a show titled Agatha All Along, where we see glimpses of Agatha influencing events in past episodes, like asking Wanda the question that so troubled her earlier in the episode, or sending Pietro from the X-Men to visit Wanda, rather than the brother she knew. In each transition, Hahn mugs for the camera like her life depends on it, concluding with an evil laugh when she confesses that she killed Sparky the dog. If some of the show’s other sitcom riffs have suffered from the Goldilocks problem of being too long or too short, this one was just hilariously right.
The Agatha All Along fake credits amusingly don’t explain everything, though. It’s unclear, for instance, if she is actually controlling the Hex, or just taking advantage of its existence and manipulating the emotionally fragile Wanda. Nor do we know what her endgame is, including what she did with Wanda’s magically-created children. But she makes a more compelling wildcard antagonist than Tyler Hayward, who is revealed here to be most interested in reviving Vision to use as an unstoppable weapon.
And while Vision is getting reminded of his convoluted history from Darcy, Monica finds her way back into the Hex with some help from sympathetic friends at S.W.O.R.D. Their space rover can’t penetrate the barrier, but whatever Monica has become can. The show is already treating Monica as a superhero. When she emerges inside Westview, her eyes are briefly an unsettling shade of blue, and she can glimpse energy patterns around her. When Wanda floats her in mid-air and tries to send her crashing into the ground, Monica instead lands in the iconic fist-down pose that Iron Man and several other MCU characters use. And in talking about her own trauma, Monica is able to get through to Wanda in a way no one else has so far — at least, until she’s interrupted by Agnes/Agatha.
With Agatha showing her true face, it’s not hard to look at the All About Agatha credits as WandaVision saying a grand farewell to its sitcom leanings. Modern Family doesn’t bring us quite into the TV-comedy present, but it’s close. And it’s also hard to imagine the series successfully incorporating something even more contemporary like Fleabag or Atlanta, since those shows are most superficially notable for how different they are from one episode to the next (which is already how WandaVision operates). If we’re in pure story mode for the season’s final two weeks, I’ll miss how enthusiastically Olsen, Bettany, Hahn, and others threw themselves into the style of all these older shows. But it may be for the best that the series only has to focus on its larger plot the rest of the way, rather than trying to juggle so many ideas at once. There may be a circus inside Westview, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one.