When The Mandalorian debuted its second season, I praised the show for how easy it was to get invested in its weekly adventures, guest star cameos, and obsession with the tiny green puppet without being steeped in Star Wars lore. Week after week, I fielded excited theories and references from friends and acquaintances who were Star Wars faithful while responding, “but did you see how cute Baby Yoda was eating his little bowl of soup?”
The genius of The Mandalorian is that it’s a show that can be enjoyed by fans who catch all of the references to the larger Star Wars universe as well as those just watching for the puppet, or who have a cursory knowledge of the films. But with the advent of WandaVision, that successful narrative layering appears to be less of a one-off and more of a formula—in the best of ways—for Disney+’s major franchise series.
In the latest WandaVision episode, there is a major reveal that doesn’t just have implications for the show, but ties together disparate movie franchises, decades of comicbook crossover, and no small amount of corporate flex. But even if you have no context for why it’s wild that this actor playing this character appeared, or are unfamiliar with the licensing deals that separated Marvel properties into Sony and Disney, the line about “she recast Pietro?” still works. And for many viewers who aren’t deeply invested in the extended Marvel universe, the more memorable moment from that episode was when Wanda rolled the credits on her husband mid-argument—which was, admittedly, a boss-level move.
In my review of the first three episodes of WandaVision, I gave a recap of sorts of the important moments from the Marvel movies that tied in with the show. Wanda shows up in various Avengers movies, whereas Vision has an even longer road as the manifestation of the AI robot system JARVIS. That, of course, doesn’t even begin to touch on either character’s history in the comics themselves, or hint at where the show might be taking all of this (especially with that latest big reveal). You can watch WandaVision without any of that context, including any Marvel movies, although the experience is undeniably richer with it. But the same argument could be made about The Mandalorian. Yes I got the Luke Skywalker reference, but even if I didn’t know who he was, the result of Grogu being taken away from his hot space dad was the real emotional crux of that moment anyway.
Some of that important emotional baseline is initially lost in WandaVision without knowing the history of these characters, especially regarding Avengers: Infinity War, and yet the show eventually brings in two characters from elsewhere in the MCU to give that context to viewers. Whether or not you recognize those characters is another layer; you can simple enjoy their banter, or you can get dorkily excited that Jimmy Woo finally perfected that card trick he learned from Ant-Man. If you already knew Vision’s fate in Infinity War, you’ve been feeling the simmering dread of this series from the start. If you didn’t, once you see Wanda stealing his body parts from a S.W.O.R.D. lab to resurrect him, it clears a lot of things up (and gives you a reason to go back and watch those first episodes again).
Whether this is just a particular gift that Jon Favreau and Jac Schaeffer have with storytelling, or whether this is something Disney+ explicitly expects from these tie-in series, the results are fantastic. Like the four-quadrant movies they’re based on, these shows—while appearing like niche offshoots—are still made to have a broad appeal. You could choose to see something cynical and corporate-dystopian about that, and I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. But as someone who misses being able to talk about TV shows with people at a time when we watch things at such different times, I have to give Disney credit for not only reestablishing weekly appointment television, but creating television that can be both enjoyed and dissected with a depth set by the viewer. (Which is why, as I have said many times with The Mandalorian, you aren’t “less” of a fan for not getting the references. It’s a show simply made to be enjoyed; so is WandaVision).
Disney has an aggressive slate of Star Wars series and Marvel series coming up in 2021 and beyond, and it will be interesting to see if this layered viewing experience continues throughout. WandaVision was a much harder sell than The Mandalorian was, even without the advent of Baby Yoda, and not just because it focuses on minor characters from the movies. WandaVision was made to be weird, and yet, it’s been popular. There is an admirable level of accessibility to it that illustrates how these movie franchises can push the boundaries of creativity and character study on television without losing its core audience. As hardcore fans calculate references and make predictions, and casual viewers enjoy the ride, we all unite under one maxim(off): Tune in next week? You bet.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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