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'WandaVision' Wraps A Season That Was Never What It Seemed

Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in <em>WandaVision</em>.
Marvel Studios
Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in WandaVision.

This piece about the WandaVision finale contains many, many spoilers about the WandaVision finale.

The first three episodes of WandaVision-- three out of nine — were, in a way, just showing off. Made in the styles of '50s, '60s and '70s TV, they showed us Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her husband Vision (Paul Bettany) in a series of homey suburban stories about bosses coming over for dinner, nosy neighbors, and suddenly going into labor. The third episode began to hint at the wider story that would come to dominate the series by the end: Wanda is, after all, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She is Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch.

The finale had a lot of basic business to do. It brought us Wanda's acceptance (embrace?) of her identity as the Scarlet Witch. It continued to set up the future of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who is presumably ready for action now that her eyes are glowing and everything. It did away with Wanda's fantasy Vision after a fairly rote battle between him and the stark white Vision who had been reconstructed from Vision's physical body (but it suggested he might be back), ending in a sort of college-professor Socratic-method-based detente. It allowed Wanda to defeat Agatha "All Along" Harkness, a/k/a Agnes, in an epic battle of witch-slaps that left Agatha trapped in Westview. Oh — and it did, fortunately, free the town full of people Wanda had imprisoned and tortured for however long she's been living with Vision.

Like so many other shows and films, WandaVisionwas most effective when it was the most personal. You didn't really have to follow the ins and outs of White Vision and know the long story of Agatha Harkness — or even understand the red and purple magic and whatnot — to get the emotional gist. Wanda, tormented by grief at the death of her husband, created a fantasy in which they had a happy life together and raised children in the kind of place she dreamed of living as a child. But like most lies, it was destined to fall apart, because it was fiction and her her grief was real. So this finale was most effective when that was the focus: her farewells to the fantasy children, her farewell to the fantasy Vision, her acceptance of her responsibility for the damage she'd done and her resignation to the reality of her loss.

Well ... sort of. The framing of the final conversation between Wanda and Monica was odd, to say the least. After Wanda finally released the people of Westview from the spell that had allowed her to control their minds and bodies — which release also required her to give up her magic family — she walked through town and found that the people there were, you know, angry. And Monica said, "They'll never know what you sacrificed for them." And Wanda said, "It wouldn't change how they see me."

And I must say: No, it probably wouldn't. If there's a hole in the emotional honesty of the finale, it's that by arranging this scene in this way, it reframes Wanda as a person whose self-sacrifice will go unrecognized, rather than as a person who committed grave violations of the bodies and minds of lot of people for her own purposes. The people of Westview didn't see her as a monster because they weren't fully informed; they saw her as a monster because she traumatized them, and it's not clear that she would have ever stopped traumatizing them, except that other forces intervened. There have been Marvel movies in the past that have reckoned with the damage done by heroes (Wanda included); this moment, while the stunned residents of Westview were still standing in the street trying to figure out what happened, seemed a little bit soon for a conversation that suggested Wanda looked bad because they didn't know the truth. Wanda's problem, after all, is not that her sacrifice wouldn't change how she's seen, but that it wouldn't change what she did.

There were pieces of this puzzle that wound up being shortchanged, but then, the puzzle is so huge when it comes to the MCU that it can be hard to get your arms around who fits in where. I would have preferred a little more Jimmy (Randall Park) and Darcy (Kat Dennings), but who knows what they're being set up for?

It's unlikely that this show, with this focus, could ever have been successful without Elizabeth Olsen's indelible central performance. Asked to be a sitcom wife, a sitcom mom, a superhero, a witch, a legend, and a woman whose grief was so overwhelming that she broke the whole world, she never wavered. That's what allows her to carry off those cute, quotable Marvel lines without tearing the audience completely away from the story. (Lines like "Boys, handle the military. Mommy will be right back.")

The very last scene in the finale illustrated what the show wrestled with for nine episodes: that there are two Wandas. There is the mythical, legendary, super-real Witchy Wanda, floating and glowing. There is also the deeply human, traumatized, lonely Sweatpants Wanda, drinking tea and trying to figure out what happens next now that she's alone again. Even if you don't much care about the former, Olsen's work kept the latter visible and unforgettable throughout.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.