[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for WandaVision, including the season finale.]
Is Wanda Maximoff a villain?
The Disney Plus series WandaVision ends without really answering that question, even though it does so much work in its final episode, cheekily named “The Series Finale.” There’s the physical and philosophical battle between Wanda’s simulacrum of Vision and the reprogrammed Vision inhabiting his now-white reconstituted body. The episode shows Wanda Maximoff assuming her comic-book identity, and it introduces her to a previously unknown world of magic. It hints at her as a harbinger of doom, and shows off the potential of Monica Rambeau’s strange new powers. All of these are neat ideas, which will doubtless be elaborated on in future Marvel Cinematic Universe projects — at the expense of the show that introduced them, and at the expense of any clarity about how her big plot arc actually wraps up.
This devotion to anticipation culture is the devil’s bargain driving the MCU: Sure, the thing happening right now is cool, but just wait until the next thing comes along! Perhaps this is why the one thing WandaVision doesn’t really do is decide who Wanda is now. Yes, it’s likely that one of the big threads drawing fans to her next appearance — currently planned for 2022’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — will be the question of whose side she’s on, if any. But it’s a strange choice for the only character who gets a complete, meaningful arc in this series. “The Series Finale” closes with a cathartic vision of a woman choosing not to let her grief and the fears of others shape who she is. But because the story wraps with no clear information about how it’s affected her, it’s a troublingly incomplete view of what that grief cost everyone around her.
In some ways, this dynamic works: Grief is messy and not easy to clearly resolve, and trauma compounds and spirals outward. Grieving leaves people emotionally compromised, and blind to how their actions might seem to other people — whether that means spurning a loved one who’s only trying to help, or magically coercing an entire New Jersey township into acting in your sitcom fantasy. And maybe WandaVision’s cryptic ending can also be justified by the story: We don’t get to find out who Wanda is because she doesn’t either. She’s retreated from the world to find out.
There’s a wrinkle in this reading of the series as Wanda’s emotional journey, though, and her name is Monica Rambeau. WandaVision doesn’t work nearly as well if we think too much about Monica. She’s another character dealing with trauma and loss, burdened by grief of her own. To a certain extent, Monica deals with her mother’s death and her own Blip-related displacement by throwing herself into work: She’s the brave explorer taking us into Wanda’s TV hex because it’s easier than sorting out her life in a newly messy world. But Monica isn’t really given much interiority, and whatever was meant to come across about her own grief journey ultimately looks shallow. Her pain needs to be put on hold because it isn’t her turn. It’s Wanda’s — this is her show, both in the fiction and in her magical meta-fiction, and on her show, only one person can speak at a time.
Now that WandaVision is over, I think about Monica Rambeau most. Approach WandaVision from a slightly different angle, and Monica is its hero: a determined scientist and government agent diligently working to free a small town from the grip of a supernatural event. If Wanda is, at first glance, a villain, then Monica is the hero who’s here not to fight her, but to understand her.
Monica’s backstory, revealed in episode 4, “We Interrupt This Program,” is nightmarish. Abruptly magicked back to life thanks to the events of Avengers: Endgame, she misses five years of life on Earth, her mother’s death, and a period of uneasy transition for SWORD, the organization Monica and her mother devoted their lives to.
Monica is grieving — that’s why she’s able to understand Wanda, to give her space to process her own loss. But Wanda’s space leaves none for Monica, who doesn’t go through a parallel process. In her efforts to bring the Westview Hex to a peaceful end, she’s transformed, but there is very little investment in her transformation, what’s happened to her, or what it means to her. That’s all been left for Monica’s next MCU appearance. Monica has to do all the work of controlling herself and processing things in a healthy way, while dealing with the fallout of Wanda, who is lashing out.
WandaVision doesn’t necessarily absolve Wanda for her actions — she’s shown leaving Westview in shame, unable to look at the people she hexed. But it does demonstrably let her off the hook. Monica Rambeau and what’s left of SWORD stand aside as she leaves, as does Agent Jimmy Woo’s backup FBI team. The duality of Wanda’s final scene — cozy cottagecore on her mountain stoop, witchy goings-on in her cabin bedroom — suggests that the jury is still out on Wanda’s nature and recovery, because it’s supposed to be. Wanda is just as unfinished as she was at the start of the show. The inconclusiveness of this ending makes the story formless; its characters go on a journey, but they don’t arrive anywhere. Yes, Wanda is now The Scarlet Witch, but what does that mean to her? And what does that mean to Monica, who is now just as formless in the absence of a clear perspective on her opposite?
WandaVision’s biggest success is in the way it makes the question of whether Wanda is a villain feel moot. Yes, she did horrible things across the series’ nine episodes, things that can’t be neatly explained away just by saying some other witch was the real big-bad all along. But the series isn’t really interested in heroism or the lack thereof, which is why its final fight-fest feels at cross purposes with what made the show compelling: its slowly unspooled mystery, presented via the fun of sitcom homage.
Marvel Studios’ first TV show started out like something different and cool, investing viewers in underserved characters by putting them in a strange-yet-familiar context. Then it devolved into the familiar rhythms of a Marvel Studios movie, resolving more with a tease for a future story than a resolution of this one. WandaVision was most rewarding for its interest in the disparate broken pieces that, when assembled, we call a person. It’s just a shame that the MCU only really has room for one of those at a time.