The WandaVision Cul-De-Sac




Why does Wanda make a sitcom?

The answer is too easy: denial. Wanda is in denial, and so, the “sitcom” episodes of WandaVision track her progression through Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief. You know the stages, because everyone knows the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In WandaVision, it’s mostly denial: she might blast her pseudo-brother when he brings up Vision’s death, broker deals with Hayward and Agatha, and spend the penultimate episode in sweats and a funk, but denial is what makes her a showrunner, and it’s what makes the American family sitcom a natural vehicle. And why not? Normal people go through the stages of grief internally, so why might not a super-powered individual project their pain and yearning outward, altering reality by creating a bubble in which she can script, cast, direct, and star in a show of her own choosing? Might not the structure of that person’s denial look something like a 1960s sitcom, in which the ideal nuclear family is beset by problems so banal they only reconfirm the perfection of the setting?

Sure! Why not? If you can accept the reality of carbon-and-vibranium synthezoids and a nexus being whose powers were activated by an infinity stone — not to mention shape-changing Skrulls and centuries-old witches and all the rest — then why not have Wanda make a sitcom. That she would create a self-contained world based on an idealized American suburbia, which in some sense actually broadcasts out for the authorities to monitor, cannot be the most implausible part of what is already an essentially, inescapably implausible premise. And this is the cheat code for almost everything in the Marvel Character Universe: if you ask serious questions about superheroes, the basic, inescapable un-seriousness of the premise makes the answers come a little too easily.

The more interesting question, then, is not why Wanda made a sitcom, but why Wanda made a sitcom. Why was this the particular form her fantasy took? After all, the sitcom might not be quite extinct, but it’s an exhausted genre, at the nadir of its cultural prominence. Even if, like American empire, it takes a long time to fall apart, the “death of the sitcom” has been a cliché for a couple decades. So why did MCU impresario, “self-professed sitcom nerd” Kevin Feige, decide to build the MCU’s new show out of an extended tribute to Nick at Nite?

To ask that question is to answer it. If WandaVision is a show about grief — and about pretending things were otherwise — the lost love object is not Wanda’s family but the sitcom itself, the site of American imperial consensus, and the fantasy of its perpetuity. Which is to say something almost too obvious to be worth saying: Wanda’s show-within-a-show allows Wanda to get back what she’s lost — using the sitcom as substitute for lost husband, family, and domestic bliss — but for Disney, the MCU, and their loyal viewers, it’s exactly the reverse. Wanda and Vision are a ruse to get back “the sitcom” itself.

Kevin Feige has said that what he wanted from WandaVision was the kind of resolution not readily or easily provided by contemporary serial television, the constant and reliable cultural reset of an episodic show which always reverted back to the norm:

I would get ready for the day and watch some old sitcom because I couldn’t take the news anymore . . . I kept thinking of how influential these programs were on our society and on myself, and how certainly I was using it as an escape from reality where things could be tied up in a nice bow in 30 minutes.

In this formulation, “the news” is the reality we all want to escape from, less a specific show than the daily form by which our broad cultural panic gets mediated and transmitted. No specific details are necessary. When someone gestures towards [all of this], you can just nod your head, and fill in the gaps: “he must mean Trump,” I say to myself, “or the pandemic.” But Feige could just as easily be describing whatever hellish reality people see on FoxNews, or QAnon, those alternate realities in which every day is defined by new liberal violations of the American sacred. My Republican cousins hate “the news,” too, and like me, they read it assiduously, every day. There is, in this sense, an unspoken and unspeakable consensus, the only reality in which most Democrats and Republicans can comfortably co-exist: “Isn’t this awful? God, I hate politics,” we could say, and everyone could agree. Sitcoms from a half-century ago are one of the few shows we could all watch.

In times of “polarization,” in other words, the sitcom might provide a welcome refuge. It’s why Gary Ross’s 1998 Pleasantville — an obvious reference point for WandaVision — has a pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire escape from the litany of horrors that define his 1990s: AIDS, famines, crime, global warming, his divorced parents. He is ushered by Don Knotts to the idyllic midcentury MAGA-town of his televisual fantasy: a utopian suburbia where everyone is white, chaste, and republican, where “it never rains, the highs and lows rest at 72 degrees, the fire department exists only to rescue treed cats, and the basketball team never misses the hoop.”

But the strange thing about the story that Pleasantville tells about “the sitcom,” is that long before I, Tobey Maguire, or Kevin Feige was born, the sitcom changed. Far from being antipolitical refuges from the new, sitcoms have been obsessed with and defined by the conflicts, anxieties, and social changes of their eras, everything from big picture concerns like feminism, civil rights, and the blended family to the specific content of every “very special episode” about pills or pregnancy or divorce. If Don Knotts was the door to Pleasantville, the Andy Griffith show was haunted by Opie’s dead mother and southern sheriffs who sicced dogs on civil rights protesters. I Love Lucy makes no sense if you don’t think about women in the workplace (which is how the Dick Van Dyke show became Mary Tyler Moore) and the premise of Family Ties is “Reaganism.” Not to mention that the “racial sitcom” is basically a sub-genre all its own. If you expect sitcoms to be devoid of news and politics — to be protected habitat for family-values Americans — you will be surprised when you arrive in today’s Pleasantvilles: all they talk about is news and politics.

For Pleasantville — and for Feige — “the sitcom” is more like a code word for the 1950s, a gesture towards that mythical time when there were values, consensus, and stability in America, before “color” invaded America’s black-and-white stability and prompted the forces of repression to become repressive. These are all euphemisms because we’re speaking in the metaphorical language of reaction: before “the sixties” happened — with color TV indexing civil rights, feminism, anti-imperialism, and youth protest — the “news” was not yet polarized and father still knew best. The old verities still applied and were respected. On network TV, America was still everything that a Trumpist means when they use the word “great.”

The MCU has retconned an explanation for why Wanda would want this white vision of domestic utopia, making her the same kind of sitcom nostalgist as Tobey Maguire’s character in Pleasantville. The old story of the Stark missile that killed her parents now contains the Dick Van Dyke Show playing in the background, and its parables of American postwar opulence, consensus, and stability have been made to directly speak to her Sokovian background. Of course, that background — once a story of Romani twins orphaned by the Holocaust — has been re-rendered in typically pejorative “Third World” caricatures, allowing our Eastern European protagonist to long for the freedom of the free world in more safely clichéd cold war terms (even before Tony Stark drops a missile on her house). Whatever Magneto’s daughter Wanda once wanted, in the comics, her desire and her meaning has been flattened into a cold war vision of iron curtain longing: the America of blue jeans and pop culture, as seen on TV.

Of course, as with everything in the MCU, “Wanda dreams of sitcoms” is only the cover story for the dream the MCU is dreaming about itself. In the early Iron Man movies, or in corners of the Captain America trilogy, there was some attempt to make the MCU a commentary on the Bush wars and American empire. Remember the hot minute when Iron Man was trying to make clean renewable energy so as to make “war for oil” unnecessary? But it’s been a long time since the MCU was about anything but its travails of imperial growth. As each new movie is fitted into a hectically-maintained continuity (such that WandaVision takes place three weeks after the snap, but Spider-Man: Far from Home took place several months after the snap, and we all need to think hard about what that portends), knowledgeable viewers must always know the real story, the corporate IP drama roiling under the surface. We must know, for example, that Infinity War metabolized the problem that there were getting to be too many characters — and that Feige’s refusal to kill his darlings was becoming a bit glaring — and we have, of course, followed the trials and tribulations of the Spider-Man IP with bated breath. What happens to any one MCU character is never just their story; it’s also the story of what will happen next in the MCU, and maybe mostly that.

For this reason, we always knew that WandaVision was never going to be more than a bridge between whichever phase we were at before and whichever one we’re on now. It couldn’t just be a story about Wanda and Vision; it was both a sequel to the Infinity Saga and a prequel to the next Dr. Strange and Spider-Man. In other words, the one thing we always knew that Wanda and Vision were never going to be allowed to do was stay in WandaVision. And so the real question of the show — endlessly teased by the filmmakers and fed by a thousand online rumor sites, speculation youtubers, and analysis TikTokers — was what WandaVision was going to create in the MCU universe: the X-Men? The Fantastic Four? Photon? Would Dr. Strange show up? Would the Big Bad of Phase Four be revealed? What did it tell us about our real site of interest, whatever comes next?

In that context, the idea of a sitcom provides both a particular kind of relief, and one we know better than to believe in. The MCU is moving from intermittent films to the 24/7 buffet that is Disney+, a world where there will always be new MCU content, regularly, endlessly, overwhelmingly. Did you enjoy WandaVision? Stay tuned for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. 2020 was a blip, but the amount of content that’s coming our way is staggering: so many storylines, so many characters, so much plot to organize and make sense of. When Agatha praises Wanda for the world she’s created in Westview — “all those costumes and hairstyles! I couldn’t make heads or tails of it . . . thousands of people under your thumb, all interacting with each other according to complex storylines . . . well, that’s something special, baby!” — this is Kevin Feige talking about Kevin Feige.

It’s also exhausting to contemplate. And, in such a context, wouldn’t a show that always reverts back to the norm be a welcome relief? When every movie is an Event that Changes Everything, wouldn’t it be nice to have a show that never changes?

Now, WandaVision wasn’t that. It’s a serialized movie that moves remorselessly forward; in fact, the plot moves forward as Wanda’s fantasy of a weekly recursion to the norm breaks down, as her 1950s sitcom evolves into era-defining show after era-defining show on the conveyer belt of history. And just as Westview can’t endure — and WandaVision must end, as it has — something crucial is lost as it moves forward, as it progressively gets closer to its final destination. As Rob Rousseau observed, a show that was initially interesting because it wasn’t just CGI actors flying around shooting different colored energy blasts at each other slowly but surely became a show about CGI actors flying around shooting different colored energy blasts at each other. WandaVision was good while it was on, while it hadn’t yet reached its climax and conclusion, because there was still time, one hoped, for it all to fit together, for all the pieces and clues and breadcrumbs to add up. As long as the ending was withheld, it could still be everything the fans wanted it to be; all the questions raised in the early episodes, we could assure ourselves, would all make sense in retrospect. And you don’t know how they’re going to use this show to introduce the Fantastic Four, or the X-Men — or whatever! — but you can tell yourself, right until they do, that it’s going to be great.

Sadly, no. If you re-watch WandaVision from the beginning, knowing the ending, you’ll find that most of everything you saw was misdirection, red herrings, and easter eggs. And, to be blunt, it doesn’t really make sense: the revelation of the ending is that Wanda created this place, and uses her power to maintain it, and so all of the early episode shenanigans, where she’s confused and frantic and struggling to understand what is happening, simply doesn’t fit in. For the show to be a mystery-box our protagonist was struggling to awake from and escape, she can’t really have been the person who made the mystery-box, can she?

The show was in denial, in other words. And for fans who grew up with the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, WandaVision is particularly haunted by the spectral presence of these characters that the MCU’s growth has now made impossible. How can the X-Men be introduced in WandaVision, when Magneto is Wanda’s father? How can the Fantastic Four — Marvel’s “first family” — be introduced in Phase Four? However they do it, it will not be the way it’s supposed to be. But as long as the show hadn’t yet ended, we didn’t have to accept this reality. You could even say that there’s a kind of grieving happening, for the Magneto and Charles Xavier that Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are now simply too old to play, or for whatever else the fans have dreamed up to desire. The mind grieves when it doesn’t understand why it can’t have what it wants, and what it wants is early-2000s Wolverine fighting alongside comic book Rex Reed and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man; instead of watching what is, on screen, such a mind is torn by everything that should be and but can’t be, from Mephisto to Monica’s aerospace engineer to the possibility that Wanda will create the X mutation (“No! More Mutants!” perhaps?). As this drama of denial plays out on reddit forums, podcasts, and social media, as fans collectively imagine the show that it should be, and, week by week, ponder the mysteries of the MCU’s speculative multiverse, it all holds together, kind of, precariously, until the final episode drops and none of it comes true.

¤

If you’ve read this far, I doubt I’ve told you anything you didn’t already know. There are no naïve viewers of WandaVision. Indeed, one of the strangest things about this show is how successfully it has not only appealed to casual fans, but ushered them into the cult. The MCU is good at what it does.

But I want to push a little harder on the two obvious, easy answers for what WandaVision is about — the sitcom and grief — and ask why “denial” is so central to the stories we tell about loss and imperial decline. And while we’re at it, why do “the fifties” loom so large in our cultural memory that they grab a big chunk of the 1960s? Finally, why do fantasies like Pleasantville remember the repression of that era as a lack of imagination and an inability to comprehend, instead of a fully knowledgeable desire to eradicate? Why are the witch-hunting patriarchs of Pleasantville — like White Vision himself — the kind of villain you can reason out of being a villain?

It is, in other words, quite strange that we would look back to the shell-shocked 1950s — after decades of increasingly pitched battles over the New Deal, women’s rights, and racial violence  — and name it, from the safety of the 21st century, a more “innocent” time. It really, really wasn’t. Their “news” was the upcoming nuclear war, the revelations of Auschwitz, and the politics of Massive Resistance to racial integration. Women in the workplace were being violently stuffed back in the home, and the society-wide oppression of queer people was the kind of secret known to everyone. If you think “inner city violence” was a terror of the 90s, which decade do you think pioneered “white flight”?

This might be why “the fifties” needed sitcoms: knowing all that they knew about the war that America was, and had been, how else could its innocence be maintained? If my president had killed a quarter million people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — creating a world where that could plausibly happen to my family next — then it makes sense that fantasies about the nuclear family might be extremely comforting. And this might also be why we’d prefer to imagine that the 1950s really were Pleasantville: instead of villains, they were just heroes who still had more to learn.

My point is that the desire in WandaVision is not for “the innocence of the time,” but a desire to pretend that that time was innocent. And so, it’s not Wanda’s denial we want. It’s ours, and there’s absolutely nothing innocent about it. If “the fifties” made America the hero, the center of the universe, incapable of being anything but good, it’s in large part because America was the villain.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. WandaVision is a show about a villain — a super-powered slave master who tortures thousands of people to preserve a way of life she’s never had, but which the universe nevertheless owes her — that can’t stop insisting that she is really the hero, that she doesn’t really understand what she’s done. Her innocence — meaning both her lack of guilt and her lack of knowledge of the crime — is so deeply buried in the premise that no matter how implausible it obviously is, we can’t quite root it out. She is, and must be, a heroine. She is good. She is an Avenger.

As Abigail Nussbaum observes, this is offensive nonsense: “Wanda’s innocence is white innocence, the innocence of a woman who is hurt, horribly hurt, when people point out to her that she’s been hurting them.” It’s anything but a coincidence that the show’s only Black character is so thoroughly tasked with the job of defending Wanda’s motives from any who might impugn her that she never really has any development of her own. “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them,” Monica says, the way an American soldier might lament the ingratitude of the citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam. After all, Monica understands, as someone who has also experienced loss, that if you’ve experienced loss, anything you do after that is fine. I mean, it’s not like Wanda did this on purpose. Doing evil things on purpose is what villains do, villains like Agatha. Heroes do evil things without realizing it. That’s why they’re innocent! And Wanda is innocent, because she didn’t do it on purpose, didn’t realize, doesn’t understand, and we know her intentions were good, because she’s a hero.

This cul-de-sac of the mind is why the last episode of the show is so unsatisfying. We’ve been told that it was Agatha all along, but as you sit in the aftermath of this experience and try to figure out what exactly Agatha did — show up, ask questions, make Wanda go to therapy — you’ll realize that she didn’t really do much of anything except run out of patience with Wanda. And who can blame her! After seven episodes of sitcom nonsense, Agatha voices the audience’s own frustrations when she demands to know just what the hell this has all been about. Agatha observes, rightly, that Wanda is in control and Wanda has made choices: what, she asks, are you trying to accomplish here? But her reward for forcing the plot to finally resolve itself, for explaining everything to Wanda, and for insisting that Wanda had agency is that she is left powerless, chained, and violated (until Wanda decides she needs her again).

This is not to say that Agatha was “right,” of course; she is only “right” the way Killmonger was right. Killmonger was a villain because he took his pain and his loss and made innocents suffer, and what little we’re given to know about Agatha is that this is who she is as well. But we see her lassoing Wanda’s children for the same reason that Killmonger is made to constantly attack women in Black Panther: to remind you who the “bad guy” is, in case you’re tempted into wrongthink. The MCU is scripting this show, so it tells the kinds of stories the MCU enjoys. But like Killmonger, Agatha is sort of the evil version of the good guy, a villain very intentionally placed where the real good guy might otherwise accidentally be. And just as Killmonger’s critiques of Wakanda are accurate and unanswerable — and for his disloyalty, he needs to be villainized, punished, and silenced — Agatha’s true crime is pointing out, correctly, that Wanda has no business with all that power. In both cases, the official “good guy” is monstrous in ways we’ve all agreed not to talk about, which is why we need a villainous villain (flourish) to distract the eye. And so Wanda casts herself and Vision in the role of assimilating aliens so that we don’t think too hard about how she’s torturing thousands to make herself feel good, how she’s built a wall around her family to preserve her way of life from anyone who might dare to tell her she’s wrong

Of course the problem with creating a pocket universe in which you can game every conflict, cast every character, and script every plotline, is that everything becomes arbitrary. Things are how they are because you made them that way, and so, if you ask why Wanda made a sitcom — why Kevin Feige made Wanda make a sitcom — the answer is just, “well, that’s what she did.” But it drains everything of meaning to have that much power, because there is no longer a “reality” to accept. Imagine thinking death was real in the MCU! That’s as silly as Wanda grieving the death of a husband who there is now two of, or grieving the deaths of children that her grief made her create. You can’t be in “denial” of a reality that you have the power to literally change. So the ending of the show is littered with questions that can’t be answered. Why can’t she just make her bubble universe the size of a house? Why can’t she make a portable reality-maintainer for Vision? Where did White Vision go, and why wasn’t it “to Wanda”? Were the children ever real? If everything happens because Wanda says so — or because Kevin Feige says so — then we are left, like the citizens of Westview, waiting to be told what the next plotline is going to be, abjectly making suggestions and then showering the creators with praise for whatever it is they did.

(I used to try to resist the MCU, but now I don’t even remember why.)

Without reality, there is no fantasy; without death, there is no grief. And so, to assert that Wanda is living in fantasy because she’s in denial of grief — in a pocket universe where death isn’t real and everything is a fantasy — is just a way of pretending that this show is about something other than itself, of making it something other than the narcissism of pain. Understandable, perhaps, even forgivable. But this is no basis for heroism, and it’s incompatible with a worldview and an ethos where villains are people who respond wrongly to pain, and heroes are people who respond rightly.

This brings us to the final contradiction of this show, an overdetermined failing that, in retrospect, I’m not sure how it could have resolved, but which the colored-lightning and flying battles of the finale serve to obscure. What was best about the show was that it wanted to take grief and pain seriously. And anyone who has ever lost someone at the center of their world will recognize the truth in this conversation, the flashback scene to Wanda and Vision talking over her loss of her brother:

Wanda: What makes you think that talking about it would bring me comfort?
Vision: Oh, see, I read that the–
Wanda: The only thing that would bring me comfort is seeing him again. Sorry. I’m so tired. It’s . . . It’s just like this wave washing over me, again and again. It knocks me down, and when I try to stand up, it just comes for me again. And I . . . It’s just gonna drown me.
Vision: No. No, it won’t.
Wanda: How do you know?
Vision: Well, because it can’t all be sorrow, can it? I’ve always been alone, so I don’t feel the lack. It’s all I’ve ever known, I’ve never experienced loss because I have never had a loved one to lose. But what is grief, if not love persevering?

But that last part, the part that became a meme, that’s not the true part. It’s accurate, a great impression of the well-meaning bullshit that people tell you, when they want you to stop grieving, when your pain is making everyone uncomfortable, when you need to hurry up and get over it and get back to work. And it’s correct that Vision would be the person who says it. As he observes in Age of Ultron, Vision has an excellent excuse for his naivete: he was literally born yesterday. He’s such a good boy, who always wants to help. So, to help Wanda grieve, he would of course have read about grief, and learned about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. He would want to help her through talk therapy, help her work her way out of denial and depression into acceptance so she could go back to work, get out of her sweats, back to being an Avenger. A lot of infuriatingly well-meaning people express their love in exactly this way, and like Wanda, the grieving so often find themselves gently allowing them to think they are helping. Those conversations end, as this one did, not with meaningful words and learning, but with silence.

However, if Vision actually read Kübler-Ross’s 1969 bestseller, On Death and Dying, he would discover a strange thing, as I recently did, which is that Kübler-Ross’s great intervention was not to establish a sequence of stages by which grieving people work their way to wellness (and she would explicitly regret that this was so many people’s takeaway). Her 1969 book says a lot of things — to a (sitcom) culture in deep denial about the reality of death — but the basic insight is simple and remains crucial: because the dying are still people, we need to treat them with respect. And because we are afraid of them, and what they represent — because we, the living, are in denial about death — we need to learn how to listen to them, and how to learn from them. The people deepest in denial, in her book, are not the dying, but their doctors; in anecdote after anecdote, she gently explains that a hospital filled with denial is the reason why patients choose not to talk about what they, more than anyone, already know.

I don’t understand how Kübler-Ross became synonymous with the kind of five step program you need to break your addiction to grief; I don’t understand how a book about the anticipation of death produced a model that would be applied to people trying to live in its wake. End of life care is not the same thing as grief, and even if you can sort of understand why a culture in denial of death would turn the one into the other, the sheer perversity of that move still staggers me. Kübler-Ross wrote a book about how we need to stop tucking the dying away, putting them out of sight because we don’t want to see what they represent. How that became a blunt instrument that even well-meaning people use to push grief out of sight, to browbeat the grieving into hiding the pain we don’t want to look at, well, I am at a loss for words.

But it’s this exact same mistake, this same elision, that leads WandaVision to confuse two horrifically different things: grieving a dead husband and helping your children die. And for everything that’s good about this show — a show as strange and ambitious as it was, quietly, humane and comic — this is something I find myself furious about. How could Wanda and Vision leave their children alone to die? Everything in the show to that point leads us to expect that what will happen to them — as the hex collapses and her power to make them exist is removed — is that they will, as Vision did, be torn atom from atom in an agonizing, terrifying explosion. We even see it start to happen to them, earlier in the episode, when Wanda briefly opens the hex; we see them screaming and crying in agony, as one naturally would, and calling out for their parents.

I guess it’s not surprising that Disney chose not to show us that scene. We see Vision wink out of existence, downstairs, and perhaps because he knows that he never really existed in the first place, he dies with grace; a thing is not beautiful because it lasts, as he has elsewhere observed. But it’s impossible to imagine the version of that scene, upstairs, where the children are gruesomely experiencing the same disintegration, and so, too, obviously, Disney does not imagine it. And for a show so interested in denial and in pain, and in the domestic structures we build to paper over the destructive consequences of the lives we lead, this is an unforgivable decision: to put a house in the way so we don’t have to see unpleasant, unsettling death. But then again, who can forgive God for killing children? A ratings-minded deity — like Disney — knows better than to put such a thing on the air.

 

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