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[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “WandaVision” Episode 7, “Breaking the Fourth Wall.”]
Shortly before the opening credits blend “The Office” muzak with a “Modern Family” title card, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) makes a promise. While not explicit, her words are the kind of implied assurance familiar to TV fans everywhere. It’s the start of the episode, things are a bit awry, and our lead character sits down to tell us what’s going to happen this week. Technically, it’s a promise to herself, but the late-2000s twist to Episode 7’s sitcom homage sees Wanda speaking directly to the camera for the first time (a la Jim Halpert or, her more direct reference, Claire Dunphy).
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“I plan on taking a quarantine-style staycation,” Wanda says, after getting a bit frazzled from expanding the Hex and seeing random objects in her house shifting through time. “A whole day. Just myself. That’ll show me.”
Now, from the audience’s perspective, there are two ways to take this promise: One would be that Wanda is going to get to the bottom of her odd behavior, and “Breaking the Fourth Wall” technically, mostly, delivers on that commitment. But the other way to read it, and the one more in line with what “WandaVision” is actually about, is that Wanda is going to deal with her grief, face her truth, and make a decision about how to move forward. Episode 7 does not pay off on this long-awaited, absolutely vital bit of character development, and instead shifts focus to two other characters with new or newly revealed identities.
The first read on Wanda’s promise is one typical to Marvel, or really, mystery box stories. Focus must be paid to solving the puzzle, whether that’s putting the MCU pieces in place or simply figuring out how to defeat the big bad. Everything else can wait. But the second read is what’s typically prioritized in TV, a character-centric medium that puts an emphasis on the relationships between the people onscreen and the people sitting at home. (Great mystery box shows, like “Lost,” do both of these things very well.)
That relationship reached a new level of intimacy in the late 2000s, when the mockumentary format sparked by “Arrested Development” (and many, many movies) hit the mainstream with “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Modern Family.” The characters you love would not only share clever and intimate banter with each other, they would speak directly to you, the viewer. You and Jim shared a secret bond, forged by every gleeful or harried glance at the camera. Closed-off characters like Ron Swanson imparted their life philosophy and moving moments of vulnerability with you and only you. Many of these direct-to-camera musings set up even more intimate moments of observation, as the closeness formed in direct conversation paired beautifully with fly-on-the-wall shots where those same characters’ lives change forever.
But in “WandaVision,” breaking the fourth wall is just a signal that Wanda’s show is broken, not Wanda. Again and again, we watch Wanda watch her household items inexplicably shift eras. Again and again, she sits down to tell the viewer that she doesn’t know what’s going on. Before the “Nexus” commercial break (a clue tied to “Thor: The Dark World,” apparently), the unseen person manning the camera asks her, “Do you think this is maybe what you deserve?” to which Wanda responds, taken aback, “What? You’re… not supposed to talk.” Later, Vision (Paul Bettany, who gives a great Jim Halpert glance of his own) notes how ridiculous it is that he’s sitting for an interview while the town is in trouble, ripping off his microphone and storming off.
Episode 7 treats its format like an inconvenience when it could’ve been the show’s greatest opportunity. Wanda, isolated in her own home, forced to confront her thoughts, with only a camera to talk to — with only you and me to talk to — could have finally faced her painful past. (She even shut down the “broadcast,” as noted by SWORD’s Tyler Hayward, played by Josh Stamberg.) Everyone else is talking about how hard things have been on her, whether it’s Darcy (Kat Dennings) recapping “Infinity War” for Vision or Monica (Teyonah Parris) risking her life to save Wanda because she knows how much the superhero is suffering.
And Monica is suffering, too. “I can’t control the pain anymore, and I don’t think I want to,” she says, after busting through the Hex wall and confronting Wanda. “Because it’s my truth.”
We know Wanda’s truth. We saw what happened in “Age of Ultron,” “Infinity War,” “Endgame,” and all her other supporting MCU appearances. But now, in her starring role, she needs to address it herself. She’s spent seven episodes hiding, and in the seventh, she was given a set-up where she had nowhere to hide and a format where she could spill her guts in private. Instead, she still hasn’t acknowledged her trauma, and it might be too late to do so in a deep, meaningful way. There are only two episodes left, and now Wanda is in the clutches of a flesh-and-blood enemy. Episode 7 did deliver one of the show’s much-anticipated reveals — that Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) was a secret villain — and it also confirmed that Monica Rambeau would become Spectrum, a superhero whose powers stem from crossing through the Hex. But now time must be given for Wanda to save herself, defeat Agatha “Agnes” Harkness, save the town, and usher in whatever’s next in MCU Phase Four.
How much time is there for grieving? How much time is there for honoring that grief? How much time is there for Wanda? One day didn’t seem like too big of an ask. She needs that staycation, and so do we. TV is a medium based in trust, and while we can definitely trust “WandaVision” to explain the central mystery, it’s getting harder to believe it will honor Wanda the way she deserves.
“WandaVision” releases new episodes Fridays on Disney+. There are two episodes left in the limited series.
You didn’t think I could wrap this review without talking about Kathryn Hahn’s big moment did you? Of course not! Yes, it was anti-climactic given how long we’ve suspected her secret identity, and yes, that closing song could’ve used a little more pop. But Hahn is finally going to get the spotlight she deserves, and her far-too-few little moments leading up to this “big” one have still been outstanding. Just look at her funniest line in Episode 7: After spicing up the crazy clichéd set-up, “Don’t worry, I don’t bite,” Hahn delivers the kicker straight-to-camera: “I actually did bite a kid once.” The energy and intention she brings to that predictable bit of dialogue (and objectively bad comedy) speaks to her continued elevation of the part overall. Hahn isn’t just mugging or over-acting or playing into expected sitcom acting styles; she’s infusing personality into those moments and owning them. She’s in complete control over Agnes, now Agatha, so here’s hoping the final two episodes give her better material to chew on.
Notice how the handheld zooms that opened the episode (a staple of these mockumentary series) slowly faded out of the episode? Sure, they highlighted the milk carton before it changed during the opening third, and there was a bit more of it when Agnes sat down with the twins halfway through, but there’s virtually none of it for Vision, which makes it all the more jarring when he’s suddenly doing a sit-down interview.
That being said, did you catch the mid-credits sequence? Monica goes snooping in Agnes’ basement and gets busted by Pietro (Evan Peters), which is rather mundane as far as MCU credits scenes go, but it also may point to a formal transition. This is the first episode to employ the Marvel movie staple, and now that the sitcom homages have reached the late-2000s, what’s left to parody? “Girls”- and “Atlanta”-style dramedies? That could provide another way in to wrestling with Wanda’s grief, but we could also simply see “WandaVision” embrace the classic MCU look moving forward.
Agnes killed Sparky! Is Señor Scratchy safe?! How many animals are going to die?! Even I can’t handle that much grief.
This author is embarrassed to note I did not immediately identify the “Happy Endings” homage in this week’s title sequence. Know that I feel no less shame than Dave, after he aired his “Steak Me Home Tonight” commercial without mentioning the name of his new business or its product.
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