Are you a good witch or a bad witch? Welcome to Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a scheme that turns moral ambiguity into franchised profit: bad characters turn good, good characters turn mischievous, and everybody gets a spin-off. In Disney+’s WandaVision, both good witches and bad wield power, and hurt the defenseless. So, what is the difference? The funny answer is that good witches apologize profusely for their power. The earnest answer is that good witches seek to help, while bad witches aim to do harm. And the Twitter answer, so it seems, is that impact trumps intent, so anyone with an opinion and a social media account can sit in judgment of Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch.
WandaVision follows Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), a refugee and second-tier Avenger, hiding out from her own loss and grief in Westview, a magical sitcom town she has inadvertently invoked through sorcery. The show premiered in January 2021, in the midst of a devastating post-holiday surge in COVID deaths in America. Its portrayal of one woman’s attempt to cope with grief through bingeing classic American television felt shockingly timely, in a moment when many had reason to cling both to our streaming services and to a line like, “What is grief if not love persevering?”
Wanda’s escape into this fictional refuge of marital bliss with Vision (Paul Bettany) and well-timed studio laughter, however, comes at a grave cost to the people around her. Some even beg her for death, rather than continue to play extras and bit parts in this network sitcom.
The question of whether WandaVision takes that cost seriously occupied much of its final reception. Again, in a year of colossal harms done or enabled by those with power, the question of accountability for Wanda—who is traumatized, but also traumatizing—felt at times like a frustrated surrogate for all the justice that remains unavailable in the real world.
In Wanda’s alternative world of alternative facts, her happiness and the well-being of those around her constitute a Dark Knight-style zero-sum game—unless the situation is a lot more nuanced than that? Wanda is not the villain in her own story, or, at least, she can’t be when it turns out her wacky neighbor, Agatha (Kathryn Hahn), is the Baddest Bitch-Witch in Westview All Along, having manipulated Wanda at every turn in an attempt to steal all the magic for herself.
Those familiar with the superhero mythology may have seen this reveal coming, but anyone who has been called a bitch-witch might have predicted the show’s other big twist: that there is absolutely no right way to wield your power.
The show seems aware of this, and this insight didn’t come from the comics; on the page, Wanda doesn’t wield her power so much as she becomes a hysterical victim of her own uncontrollable rage. On the MCU show, by contrast, Wanda’s power is a gendered one, not of hysteria, but of homemaking. Agatha will have none of this post-feminist nonsense. “You have no idea how dangerous you are,” she gripes. “You’re supposed to be a myth. A being capable of spontaneous creation. And here you are, using it to make breakfast for dinner.” It sounds inspiring until you remember that Agatha’s power play amounts to shriveling Wanda to a gray and desiccated husk. In any case, Wanda’s happy homemaking masks a sleight of hand at the heart of the show’s questions about power and accountability, because what is homemaking, if not world-building?
Wanda casts herself as a woman, doing women’s work, in a women’s genre, with the power of the Ur-Woman herself. The battle for Wanda’s soul, when she is forced to look at the torment she’s inflicted on the people of Westview, takes place in front of a gigantic billboard advertisement for Squeaky Shine cleaner, an “All Natural Formula Using the Power of Mother Earth.” Squeaky Shine isn’t just the power to be a good housewife, it’s also the power to be the teller of stories, the maker and destroyer of worlds: in other words, the ultimate #girlboss. And in the power to cast herself in a vehicle—a new setting, a new show—that reunites her with her favorite costar and lost love, Vision, she is not just a witch but a television showrunner, too.
After all, isn’t that the power that Agatha and Wanda—“bad” witch and “good”—are vying for: self-determination, creative autonomy, the freedom to tell whatever story they want without network interference? The inherent dilemma of the woman showrunner, as Sarah Banet-Weiser has written, is that she must be both of the system and separate from the system, or, as Claire Perkins and Michele Schreiber put it, “at once visible and resistant.” She needs to be useful to an industry that wants to showcase its own inclusivity and prize “outsider” takes without ever letting an outsider like her enact structural change. In other words, the woman showrunner is not just faced with the female conundrum of “having it all” but needs to live as a kind of institutional paradox, which, as Agatha demonstrates, requires careful action and sometimes flat-out deceit.
WandaVision runs a compassionate set of protocols on its glitchy heroines, even as the show’s relationship to the pop-culture complex is ambivalent, even guilt ridden. This MCU one-off seems to center on a cheerful (white) Agatha “leaning in” and a haunted (also white) Wanda vowing at the show’s end to “do the work.” But, beneath the show’s surface, roils a cauldron of trauma absorbed and trauma inflicted, a heady brew calling for personal and institutional accountability, two ingredients that are almost indistinguishable.
When systems and institutions come up for audit (whether they be Hollywood, Hydra, or the Avengers), what happens to those women who are both contingent and complicit? Just as we see with Wanda’s fate at the end of the series, compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive.
This is why our ancestors split the difference and told us, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch”—any witch—“to live.”
Agatha is no shrinking violet, but she plays one on TV. Her most chilling deployment of mock vulnerability comes in the third episode, when, upon flubbing a line, she turns to Wanda and asks, “Do you want me to take it again?” This precise puncturing of the diegesis sends shockwaves through the scene. Vision’s suspicions of Westview—and Wanda’s control over it—are confirmed, while Wanda is left feeling both culpable and confused. Wanda, as she will be throughout the series, is framed as simultaneous victim and perpetrator of violence, working to cover up a scheme she herself does not understand. Agatha knows this, and this is her goal—to run the show while someone else takes the heat.
Agatha has always lurked just out of sight, off-camera, manipulating the action. But it’s not Agatha the Witch seated in the directorial chair, gesturing to the crew to keep filming, putting her finger to her lips to indicate quiet on the set (Fig 2). It’s a well-dressed professional lady, competent to the core, running the show.
All this is revealed in an “ear worm” of a song, a bouncy montage that replays the series and some of its biggest surprises. Cosigned by Taylor Swift (Fig 3) and Cruella DeVil 2.0, in the key of The Munsters theme song, episode 7’s “Agatha All Along” is not just a master-text for understanding the WandaVision twist, though, of course, it is that.
In addition, this musical number offers a campy corrective to dominant television histories, which have cast women as the puppets of network television, men their masters. This has never been the case, even from television’s very beginnings: behind every goofy housefrau and people-pleasing white-collar worker is a high-rolling woman star, producer, or showrunner versed in the art of hiding out and playing dumb. But you can use the same modes to make trouble as you can to get out of it. It is not Agatha’s magic that makes her so dangerous—Wanda is far more powerful—but her deployment of these familiar feminine tropes that gives her the upper hand for so much of the series. A harmless, if wacky, neighbor, a kooky housewife hard up for some good loving, a grown-up Kimmy Gibler—what’s there to fear?
But Agatha is no ally. She does not care about the Avengers or, for that matter, what a mortal man like Marvel’s Kevin Feige has in mind for the franchise’s “masterplan.” Agatha is not a team player.
Madeleine Albright, Katie Couric, and/or the aforementioned Swift all taught us that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. What better evidence of Agatha’s demonic nature than her inability to play nicely with the other witches in her coven?
Agatha’s origin story holds prime real estate in WandaVision at the opening of the series finale. She has transgressed against her coven by striving for power that is greater than she is allowed. Agatha, encircled and tied up, insists, “I did not break your rules. They simply bend to my power.” At the start of the line, she is meek and tender, but then she tilts her head, slightly, averting her gaze as a subtle smirk grows across her face. The expression reads, “I won’t swear to it,” but, then again, she has sworn just moments earlier. “I can be good,” Agatha insists. “No, you can’t,” the head witch (who happens to be her mother) replies tearfully. And proving her mother correct, Agatha proceeds to slaughter the entire coven. Until this moment, it has been tempting to root for her, but, by her own account, she’s been Agatha all along.
There is absolutely no right way to wield your power.
Although Marvel loves recouping a bad guy, Agatha, at least for now, is a pretty lost cause. Wanda, however, is the site of something much more equivocal, where the utter entanglement of personal and institutional accountability becomes not only clear but tragic.
“Heroes don’t hurt people, Wanda,” Agatha taunts her, but of course they do. Wanda did a bad thing, and the Internet quite rightly is not eager to let her off the hook for it.
But it’s worth noting that Wanda’s entire existence is testament to the fact that heroes do hurt people. Did we not just hear from her origin story that she spent three days staring at Tony Stark’s name on the side of a missile next to the corpses of her parents?
Wanda’s trauma is deeply personal and individual—the loss of parents, a brother, a love—but they are so personal, partly, because they mean nothing to the larger systems Wanda serves. When we first meet her in the MCU, she and her brother are fighting for the bad guys, furious at what Tony Stark and the American war machine have done to their home; when they realize just how bad those bad guys really are, they sacrifice their rage and their grief to something larger, and ally themselves with the Avengers. As soon as the choice is made, her brother dies in battle, and Wanda is left with another loss to process. Always on the outside of the Avengers, an object of suspicion and fear, she continues to try to do the right thing, even as her relationship with Vision is her one tenuous connection to a living future.
And when Vision is gone, not a single Avenger goes with her to pick up his body. No one is standing beside her when a S.W.O.R.D agent/bureaucratic villain informs her, “That’s just it, Wanda. He isn’t yours.” This is WandaVision’s wry, raw joke on the eternal question that hovers over the MCU films: why didn’t the Avengers assemble for this one?
None of her griefs read as cataclysms to anyone but her. If real heroes don’t hurt people, then the non-American and non-human lives Wanda grieves don’t count. They must be sacrificed, each and every one, at the altar of the greater good, tragic backstory and nothing more. Wanda becomes a bad witch when she can’t hold her trauma inside anymore: it gets out, it’s powerful—it’s inflicting trauma of its own. Sorrow, loss, trauma, and grief—the power of creation in WandaVision—come screaming out of the center of her, and, if Squeaky Shine’s ad copy is to be believed, the power of loss is also the power of Mother Earth.
The contention is that women’s pain, in particular, creates, and not just through the old image of childbirth—though WandaVision does give us that along the way. There’s also quite a bit of pop culture, lately, reflecting on this creative power of gendered pain. Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad (2018), for one, chronicles the political power of women’s anger in American history. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW, 2015–2019) anticipated WandaVision in diagnosing how women’s anger and pain, lacking an outlet, can be channeled into cultural scripts for both good and ill, the latter most recently comic-dramatized in Kevin Can F*** Himself (AMC, 2021–).
Wanda appears to recognize the limitations of these scripts by the show’s end. She takes her pain off elsewhere, promising to learn to control it. These final scenes see her “sorry for the pain I caused,” and, then, literally, divided in two during the post-credits stinger, now both a hygge tea-drinking Wanda and a furiously reading Scarlet Witch. Can she learn to understand her power, and avoid destroying the world? Perhaps, if only because in the end, superhero stories, like sitcoms, run on shenanigans. As Wanda explains to Vision, when he worries about the roof falling on the sitcom dad, “He’s not really injured … It’s not that kind of story.”
What makes WandaVision such a compelling show—and likely a nervier one than the most recent female-centered Marvel properties and those coming down the pipeline (Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk)—is that it reveals how “stories save the world” is a script, too. Because it’s a script with some truth, we need the showrunner to be the all-time best witch you can imagine. But no single witch, not even a very good one, can cast the spells to heal what all the witches broke.
Which brings us to Captain Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and the lack of emotional real estate WandaVision gives her. At the beginning of the series, it seems as though the orphaned Monica will be central to the plot, bonding with Wanda over a shared experience of grief and evaluating the situation with an empathy sorely lacking from the institutional S.W.O.R.D. response. Yet, the show constantly relegates Monica to its B-plot margins; the more we get of her backstory, paradoxically, the flatter she becomes. Like Westview, the character of Monica occupies a middle space between “what is” and “what might be,” stranded somewhere between individual missed opportunity and institutional failure. Witches tend to come in threes, after all, and Monica might have been a third, utterly disruptive term in the toxic binary of Agatha and Wanda.
Monica’s sidelining is tied up with the show’s conspicuous unwillingness to confront the racial implications of the cultural scripts on the table. The scripts for Black women like Monica are repeatedly passed over, in terms of historical realities (the centrality of race in the historical Salem witch trials, histories of red-lining and white flight in the suburban settings Wanda idealizes) and representations (the rich tradition of Black sitcoms and characters that never enters into the majority-white sitcom aesthetic of Westview). By the show’s end, the superpowered Monica is recruited into a space force, presumably setting her up for a future property that will hopefully give Teyonah Parris more to do. This move relegates Monica, definitively, to the “outer limits” of WandaVision’s psychodrama, making the story more of a second-wave, white-feminist fable than it needs to be and neglecting the complexity of different womens’ lives.
As WandaVision shows so expertly in the cases of Wanda and Agatha, there’s no abstaining from cultural scripts. You either live by deconstructing them, or you die by reifying them; Wanda belongs in the former camp, while Agatha is sentenced to the latter in the series finale. Even Randall Park and Kat Dennings get to riff on their own sitcom roots (in character, of course), as two agents kibitzing, watching the drama unfold on a small screen.
Serious, earnest Monica is never in on the joke. As written, Monica’s grief at the loss of her mother is reduced to a qualification that allows her to support Wanda emotionally and offer her absolution that both know is not earned. Charles Pulliam and others have pointed out that Marvel’s signature light touch is wildly inadequate to the visual of Monica, a Black woman, jumping in front of two white children—who, as far as we know, at this point, “aren’t even real” argue that Marvel has no space for the third rail of a serious examination of American racism. With its charming heroes and uncontroversial politics, the MCU thrives as the artistic equivalent of “breakfast for dinner,” Agatha’s culinary pet peeve. And even if WandaVision gets farther than most MCU properties in slipping the leash of Marvel’s celebration of the status quo, it still has to get the kids to the dinner table. Jamelle Bouie has said of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it’s a “Marvel thing” to “[provide] a spot-on critique of the whole premise of a character and then [ask] you to forget about it.”
If we agree that WandaVision wastes all that Monica could be, how do we assign responsibility for a narrative or representational failure so deep-rooted in the culture?
The story is not always as simple as the fairy-tale downfall of big bad Joss Whedon: one of the architects of the MCU, the director of the original Avengers film, and an auteur who cultivated a brand of ostensibly feminist fantasy science fiction. Whedon came under fire for bullying actress Gal Gadot on the set of the latest Justice League film, allegedly demanding that she “shut up and say the lines,” or that he would “make her look incredibly stupid in this movie.” Gadot’s public reply was only, “I had my issues with [Whedon], and Warner Bros. handled it in a timely manner.” While this could only have been a headache for Warner Bros.’ legal team, what’s left is a good versus evil storyline that much of Hollywood can get behind, one in which the suits turn out to be the Good Witches. Had Warner Bros. sided with Whedon, the HR nightmare could have gone differently—could have and, often, does.
In what world, other than maybe Themyscira, would anyone but the actress herself be held responsible for a lousy performance in a popcorn flick? The entanglement of the personal, the institutional, and the ephemeral creative makes the question of accountability nearly impossible to answer. We heave a sigh of relief when someone cartoonishly confesses to their villainous misdeeds. But, usually, there is no Agatha (or Whedon) to pin this on, just a society steeped in the same grim inequities.
WandaVision struggles with the issue of holding institutions accountable for their misdeeds, particularly, because, even though people create and run these institutions, their workings regularly evade individuals’ grasp. In part, WandaVision is busy forging new inroads in the traumatized superhero genre, but, also, it is Hydra—ahem, Hollywood—telling the story.
In the show’s desperate attempts to hold these opposing ideas together, something urgent and beautiful reveals itself, exemplified by Wanda’s fractured duality in the show’s final moments. Just as an all-powerful Wanda grapples with how to use her magic responsibly, WandaVision wrestles with its own complicity in the cultural machinery. And Wanda’s doubleness is a logical, if painful, response to the impossible questions she is hard-pressed to answer: “With all of your losses and all of your grief, Wanda, how did you allow this to happen on your watch?” “Are you a part of the system or apart from the system?” “Who is running the show if not you?”
The final notes of WandaVision, then, are ones of irresolution, sorrow, and hope. Wanda at least knows that, if any stories can save us, they won’t be the ones about Good Witches and Bad Apples. Now, we wait to see if Marvel gets the memo.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.