WandaVision in the Meta-text of Madness

Episode 4 of WandaVision somehow managed to top what’s already been an astoundingly well-crafted series

As much as I’ve been loving WandaVision, there’s been a creeping sense of dread — in addition to the overt one that’s baked into the premise — that eventually this fun, bizarre experiment is going to have to be unrolled, scaled back, and placed into the more mundane “real world” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which at this point has spaceships, time travel, multiple alien species, magic, multiple heroes who can casually fly, and a society still dealing with the fact that half of the living people in the universe were blinked out of existence for five years. But still.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried, because episode 4, “We Interrupt This Program,” was great. It didn’t feel like a reduction, but a recalibration, a re-contextualization of what we’ve seen so far, and a suggestion of how the already-huge MCU might expand in the next “phase.”

Last weekend, I made a belabored argument that the MCU had managed to create something that wasn’t “cinema,” wasn’t really like episodic TV, and wasn’t really like comic books, but combined the aspects of each most suited to a 21st century audience. At the time, I felt like I might’ve been laying it on a little thick. But this episode feels like the MCU responding with, “Uh, yeah, no shit, dude. Where’ve you been?”

I’ve got three favorite moments in this episode, but talking about them is spoiler heavy so please don’t read the rest until you’ve seen the first four episodes of WandaVision.

First is this scene, where we see Agent Woo’s whiteboard, showing that the FBI and SWORD are asking the same questions as the rest of us in the audience. It’s not just a throwaway gag, or a nod to the obsessive fans, but direct engagement with the audience. We see you. Not in an accusatory, or even just self-aware way, because that necessarily creates a distance between the filmmakers and the audience. This pulls the audience into the show and the experience it’s building.

It works like my favorite moments in murder mystery novels, when the author or a character draws attention to the fact that you’ve just discovered an important clue. If you were following along closely, then it’s a reward: good for you, for noticing it. If you weren’t, it’s a recalibration: here’s where you should be paying attention, as we continue on.

Really, this episode doesn’t introduce much brand-new information (at least, apart from Monica Rambeau’s story), but it does confirm some of the speculation, reduces the “possibility space” of all the things that might be going on, and suggests the things we should be focusing on.

But I love that it does this in a way that feels participatory. I’m a total sucker for Intrigue TV, and I was so impressed with “Lost” that I just took for granted that it was the model for how to do it: set up a bunch of mysteries in the beginning, and then gradually dole out answers to some while raising new ones. The obvious problem with that is that it doesn’t hold up indefinitely, especially with a series kept running long past its end-by date. The other problem is that it’s driven by manipulation instead of participation: the filmmakers have all the answers, and they’ve got to stay at least a few steps ahead of the audience at each step, giving out just enough to keep from spoiling the surprise.

In WandaVision, I don’t get the sense that I’m being manipulated. It feels more like the people creating this series genuinely love the kinds of comics that inspired it, and they’re well aware that their audience has been steeped in this kind of storytelling for decades.

Not just the 10+ years of the MCU, but decades before it. It says a lot that the audience surrogates introduced in this episode are all experts in the movie-world versions of their fields, who are all used to super-heroes, spaceships, aliens, and the possibilities of alternate realities. They’re true audience surrogates, in that they know exactly as much as we do: they don’t know what’s going on, but they’re asking the right questions.

That’s one of my biggest pet peeves with “super-hero stories” as a sub-genre: the “wonder deficit” between the story and the audience. Even the most artistic origin story, or “would you believe it?! He’s actually flying!” moment, is going to have a disconnect because the audience is at least a few steps ahead of anyone on screen. The MCU caught onto this a while ago, and stopped acting like they’re making movies and TV for audiences who’d never seen a super-hero before. Even when they do a reboot (like with Spider-Man), they understand that they’re not starting from scratch, and the “wonder” of the story is going to come not from re-telling the audience a story they already know, but from all the unexpected ways they can change it up and fit it into the new continuity.

My other two favorite moments I’m going to group together as one, because I like them for the same reason. The first is when Kat Dennings’s character has just delivered a bit of crucial exposition to the team, confirming that the first three episodes have been somehow broadcast as part of the cosmic background radiation. (As Agent Woo describes it, in a perfect line of dialogue, “So the universe created a sitcom starring two Avengers?”) Once left alone, she turns back to the screen, and when she sees Wanda and Vision kiss at the end of episode one, she gives a genuine “Awwww.”

Second is this, near the end of the episode, after Wanda has been pulled partly out of her pocket reality:

It’s such a shocking and creepy moment, even though it’s really just confirming an unsettling possibility that’s been lurking underneath all the episodes so far. For my part, I was just sad that the optimistic theory I’d been holding onto — that Wanda had somehow found a way to genuinely resurrect and restore Vision — was probably wrong. Then there are all the unsettling and eerie questions and images that spin out of this reveal: do the people in town see him as a walking corpse, or do they always see what’s in the broadcast? And, obviously, did she have sex with a corpse? Or is it all the TV-version, where you just go under the covers and then get pregnant?

The reason I group them together is because there’s a great idea implicit in both moments: this is all more than just some meta-textual stunt; these stories and these types of stories just work. Even when you’re detached from them, picking them apart like a puzzle box or a mystery to be solved, there’s real emotion in there. It’s made explicit with the character of Darcy, who’s literally removed form the story and watching it as something to be figured out, but is still invested.

For the first three episodes, I considered the premise of the show to be little more than a stylistic gimmick, and I was still all over it. It’s unusual to go all-in on commitment the idea to this degree, but the idea itself is nothing new. There have been plenty of series that have had their special “black and white episode,” or their homage to movie musicals, or the inevitable “Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” homage around the holidays. But even when they’re given an in-world justification (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer did), it still feels like something that’s just done for style. And even when the entire series never breaks character — like both seasons of Look Around You — I’ve only ever seen it done as a part of the overall gag.

Structuring WandaVision so that the sitcom is “diegetic” — rarely breaking out of the sitcom universe, but still advancing the story within the format — is inherently a commitment to the format. It acknowledges that we know that these shows are unrealistic, we can see all off their gimmicks and shortcomings and unnaturally broad performances, but they still work. The shows that inspired these episodes weren’t beloved just because there was nothing better on at the time, but that for everything unnatural about them, there were moments of genuine humanity and audience connection.

(And even if they were mostly insincere schmaltz that never aspired to be actually genuine, like The Brady Bunch, the authenticity comes from so many of us having it as a shared point of reference. The show itself wasn’t real, but our nostalgia for it is).

Baked into that is the suggestion that it applies not just to sitcoms, but genres casually dismissed as “super-hero movies” or “franchise pictures.” It’s essentially a celebration of the potential of pop culture storytelling. “Meta-text” for so much of the 90s and early 2000s has meant just pointing at something we all recognize, and saying “Hey, look at that! That was weird, huh?” Meta-text in WandaVision means acknowledging that there’s potential for storytelling in these different formats that goes beyond just parody or stylistic remixing.

For instance: the scene during the dinner party of episode 1, which was already plenty creepy, has a “confirmed correct” reading now that makes the sinister feeling of it explicit. Wanda almost certainly did make the pushy boss start choking to death, and it was only when she had a moment of clarity that she realized she’d gone too far, and called on Vision to help him. And the entire time, his (probably) real-world wife was trapped halfway-conscious in this fantasy world, watching the person responsible for trapping her now slowly murdering her husband.

We still don’t have all the answers, obviously. “Agnes” was identified by photo but wasn’t given a real-world name, and “Dottie” didn’t show up at all. I still can’t quite tell if Monica Rambeau was still aware that she was on a mission in Westview, or if she’d been caught in the same selective amnesia/fantasy reality as everyone else. (Even going back and re-watching, I feel like all of her scenes could be read either way). We don’t know whether the commercials are fragments of Wanda’s memory, or if they’re a suggestion that Hydra is still somehow involved. And I still don’t know what happened to Agent Franklin after Wanda rewound time to keep him from coming out of the sewer.

And the series is only half over, and we haven’t even gotten to the stuff from the trailers that, as far as I can tell, is done in the style of Full House, Roseanne, and Modern Family. (Sometimes I do genuinely love the ridiculous extremes to which Disney takes its ABC “synergy”). I’m skeptical that the “It’s all Wanda” line at the end of this episode is entirely true, although I actually prefer the idea that she is the primary villain, and isn’t just being manipulated by somebody to be revealed later. Unlike Thanos1Why didn’t you just wish for twice as much food and housing instead of half as many people, you moron?, she’d be a genuinely sympathetic villain, because we’ve seen a hint of the complexity of what she’s going through, via three broadly-performed sitcom episodes complete with laugh tracks.