SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers for the first five episodes of “WandaVision.”
If “WandaVision” had dropped its entire season all at once instead of teasing its mystery out over weeks of storytelling, what would we make of it?
I asked myself this question a lot while watching the first three episodes I initially had to review, and then even more once the fourth episode (“We Interrupt This Program”) dropped. After three episodes of sitcom parodies laced with creeping unease, “We Interrupt This Program” left behind Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) in order to connect the series back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe from whence it came. Friendly neighbor “Geraldine” was revealed to be Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a S.W.O.R.D. agent who disappeared five years ago after Thanos snapped away half the universe in “The Avengers” movies. What’s more, Monica and Dr. Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings of “Thor”) realized in the fifth episode (“On a Very Special Episode…”), the sitcom world the show first introduced is some kind of metaphysical projection rooted in Wanda’s powerful grief.
In other words: it took not just a few episodes, but a few weeks for “WandaVision” to reveal the basic reality in which it takes place.
The fifth episode (“On a Very Special Episode…”), which dropped February 5, confirms Darcy and Monica’s suspicions — and then some. As even Vision finally figures out, the force behind their uncanny suburban world is a furiously grieving Wanda, unable and unwilling to let go of a domestic fantasy in which she, Vision, and their twin boys are together and safe, forever and for always. The scene in which Vision confronts Wanda, only for her to try rolling the credits so they can move on to another picture perfect day, is sad and genuinely startling. Not even Wanda’s earlier standoff with dozens of heavily armed S.W.O.R.D. agents can compare to the emotional gut-punch of Wanda’s desperation in this moment — or, indeed, the one awaiting Wanda just outside her front door.
The latter reveal is already tearing through the internet as fans try to figure out what it means, which is by design. Not only does “WandaVision” inspire recaps, but it encourages meticulous searching through its sets, costumes and dialogue for Easter eggs that might unlock dormant Marvel mysteries. It invites its audience to comb through its every word and do double-takes at potential connections to broader stories. If Marvel and Disney Plus had decided to debut the entire season at once, there’s no way “WandaVision” could sustain that kind of interest for very long. This kind of rollout isn’t just tactical for the show’s storytelling, but a crucial way for it to establish an ongoing presence in a pop culture landscape with an increasingly short attention span.
It hasn’t even been a decade since Netflix debuted its first original series, but the way television airs has since been completely upended. The “binge-watching” model, at first so strange and overwhelming, has become such a go-to that the pacing of many streaming shows has adjusted to match. (Too many times, I’ve watched an entire first season only to get to the end and realize I’ve basically just watched a stretched-out pilot episode.) Streaming networks weren’t just trying to outdo traditional television; they changed the way television unfolds, and subsequently, the expectations of their audiences, now primed to devote hours at a time to marathons. When something like “Stranger Things” drops, any viewer who doesn’t want to run the risk of spoilers has to watch it basically immediately. And when a show manages to cut through the noise of everything else on television, it inspires an immediate crush of obsession before fading into the background so the next big thing can take its place.
But more recently, after years of launching entire seasons on a single day and daring viewers to keep up, streaming seems to be taking a step back towards the broadcast television model it once rejected. Hulu has favored a mix-and-match approach, releasing entire seasons of shows with audiences that might be more inclined to marathon (see: “Pen15”) while meting out others that are likelier to grab more eyes as they go (see: “The Great”). Amazon does weekly airings for shows like “The Boys,” which now has its own devoted fandom. Relative newcomers Apple Plus and HBO Max have indicated they’re not tied to the binge-model, with Apple shifting something like “Dickinson” to weekly airings in its second season, while HBO Max’s addictive thriller “The Flight Attendant” benefitted from a unique strategy of releasing a couple episodes per week until the finale. Even Netflix has experimented with staggered releases, most notably with competition reality shows like “Great British Baking Show” and “Rhythm + Flow” that thrive off more sustained cliffhangers.
It’s been interesting, and more than a little amusing, to watch streaming networks play around with their release strategies to the point that they’re looking an awful lot like the basic television models they once bragged about subverting. It’s also undeniably effective when their shows feature especially ambitious or otherwise noteworthy moments that might not otherwise get as much attention when released as part of a package deal. Before “WandaVision,” for instance, Disney Plus learned the value of a weekly show with “The Mandalorian.” It’s very easy to imagine a world in which the whole first season of the engaging, dusty space western had dropped on its premiere day and prompted a brief Baby Yoda frenzy before the next weekend, when some other show would inevitably steal the limelight. Instead, “The Adventures of Space Dad and Baby Yoda” re-energized its audience every week as the impossibly cute puppet did new and impossibly cuter things. By the time people were over him using the Force to knock out an alien rhino, he came back the next week to drink soup — a moment that might have gotten swallowed up in everything else if the show had been released all at once. “The Mandalorian” became a phenomenon not just because it was a “Star Wars” show, but because it was a show that demanded attention week in and week out.
“WandaVision” is doing much the same thing for the Marvel side of Disney’s ongoing strategy to take over every medium available to it. The show’s first three episodes are compelling for both diehard Marvel fans with an idea of where it might be going, and for total newcomers intrigued by the basic concept of superheroes playing sitcom stars. As the show’s mythology continues to unfold and expand upon the already tangled, sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’ll be fascinating — not to mention very telling — to see if the more casual audience will stick with it. But in stretching the series out beyond a single week, giving viewers a chance to breathe and speculate between episodes, “WandaVision” is at least ensuring that it won’t disappear from view so easily.