When the two first episodes of Marvel TV’s new WandaVision dropped six weeks ago, I blogged about my reaction to something that was at tonal right angles to everything else I’d seen from the MCU. I just finished watching the penultimate episode and now I think that the show is actually not even in the same ballpark as anything else produced by Kevin Feige.
It feels like the MCU and Vertigo Comics snuck off to have a weird love child. This series owes a lot more thematically and tonally to Tom King’s 12-issue Vision series (my blog thoughts here) than any of the regular Avengers comics. I’m going to go into why I would put this show in the same category as Westworld, but I might have to spoil one or two things. If that’s within your spoil tolerance, come onboard. If not, don’t hit the read more yet. I’ll wait.
The reason I compared WandaVision to Westworld (which I blogged about here) is that like the HBO premium series, is that (1) there’s a central mystery about the nature of the situation itself, (2) there are multiple narrative layers woven together, (3) uncertainties about time, and (4) uncertain reliability about what the characters say and even see.
The creators of WandaVision are deliberately engaging with the audience in a different way. We’re given less information. We’re handed a mystery. And we’re required to interpret what’s going on in ways that few shows require us to do. It’s wonderful when a show does this and has these layers of symbolic, metaphorical and psychological clues.
The reason these layers are there is because this is a story about a woman in grief, a woman who has lost everyone she loved in her life, and the way she copes with it. There is denial. There is depression. There is anger. There is fear.
And all of that emotion is woven into the narrative of Wanda and Vision living in a sitcom. We don’t know for most of the series who put her there, or if she put herself there. We don’t know who is in control, because sometimes the interior narrative bends to her will, and sometimes things escape her control. Does that mean an outside force is acting on her or that she’s not strong enough or stable enough to hold together this emotional nest, or does it mean that we can’t trust what she sees?
These two layers interact with each other in fascinating ways. Take for example the laugh track. The laugh track is a tried and true signal to the audience of the intended tone and even pacing and timing of a show. And yet when it overlays something the audience knows (from previous movies or just stellar acting) is actually very painful or a call for help, there’s a weird awkwardness that we ourselves begin to feel. Without the laugh track, the full darkness of the dialogue and its emotional context would be unsettling. But we experience this directly when the laugh track is turned off.
The other reason I think comparing it to Westworld is a useful thing is that both shows have repetitive, Groundhog Day-like structures. In Westworld the abused robots awoke every day, memories and torments wiped clean, but something was simmering and changing beneath the surface of many of them nonetheless. In Wandavision, each episode opens in a new decade of sitcoms. Episodes 1 and 2 were modelled off of sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s. Episode 3 is a Brady Bunch-esque feel and Episode 4 in like Family Ties and so on.
The reboots don’t happen in isolation. As sitcoms became more sophisticated and able to deal with more serious themes, so too do these episodes lose their innocence, while beneath the surface (a third narrative layer), we can see characters changing.
I don’t want to make anyone think that it’s all just sitcoms, by the way. The invasion of the toy helicopter in episode 2 was just the beginning. The intrusion in episode 3 is more disturbing and collides the narrative layers, setting up our first view of the outside world in episode 4. And episode 4 is an important, because for the first time, we’re seeing the world through the eyes of more reliable narrators, watch them set the stakes, even if they don’t understand the mystery either.
I can’t say enough good things about this show. I did read some criticisms online about people finding the first two episodes too slow. I found them just right, but your mileage may vary. The creators were setting the necessary stage, introducing us to the strange rules of the world Wanda and Vision inhabit. The pace from episode 3 accelerates a lot. I will note that a couple of weeks ago, a group that determines popularity from things like streaming subscriptions, social media posts, and pirating site activity found that WandaVision was the most popular TV show in the world.
Definitely check out WandaVision.
Derek Künsken writes science fiction in Gatineau, Québec. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, a space opera heist, was a finalist for the Locus, Aurora and Chinese Nebula awards. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden was an Aurora finalist as well. His third novel, The House of Styx, got a starred review in Publishers’ Weekly and the Library Journal and is out in audio and ebook (order link); and the hardcover will release in April, 2021.