WandaVision All Along (One Thing I Love About WandaVision Episode 7)

WandaVision proves that if you’re good enough at what you do, you become spoiler-proof

In this post, I’m making the argument that WandaVision is so brilliantly made that it’s made itself spoiler proof, but it’s a working theory, and I don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Please don’t read it unless you’ve seen WandaVision Episode 7, “Breaking the Fourth Wall.”

Choosing the One Thing I Love about the latest episode of WandaVision was easy, because it’s the bit I’ve watched about 10 times by now: the final “reveal.” Somehow it works in all the same ways that the usual intrigue-driven Mystery Story does… but is also not much of a surprise at all. What was revealed wasn’t as important as how it was revealed, and what it means for the series and the rest of the MCU.

My initial reaction was to think, “Of course, we already knew that.” But I quickly realized that I only knew because I’ve been watching all the “easter eggs” and “things you missed” videos after each episode. If I hadn’t, my reaction would’ve been “Who? Should I recognize that name?”

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Friday Afternoon’s All Right for Synthesizers

This week’s obsession is electronic music

This week I’ve been a little pre-occupied thinking about the Teenage Engineering OP-1. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: for the past five or six years, I’ve been a little pre-occupied thinking about the OP-1.

It’s something I’ve talked myself out of, dozens if not hundreds of times. But I keep being drawn to it, even as someone who’s by no means imaginable a musician, much less a professional one. The problem is that no rational counter-argument has worked for me because the draw is largely irrational: from the industrial design, to the UI, to the sounds coming out of it, to the advertising, it feels like an object made completely to inspire fun and creativity.

Previously, the argument that I always used to talk myself out of it — apart from the eye-wateringly, guilt-inducingly high price — is that I can just use GarageBand on my iPhone or iPad and immediately get better results, since I understand much better how the tools work. That’s still undeniably true, but it also misses the point. It’s not just that a well-designed device with tactile buttons and knobs and cows and gorillas on the display is more fun to use. The whole process of not knowing exactly what you want and how to get it immediately is the whole point of exploring and experimenting.

(To a point. Over the years, I’ve gotten several of the Pocket Operators. They’re super fun and appealing at first, but I’ve quickly gotten frustrated with them and tossed them into a bucket to sit while their batteries corrode).

Anyway, here’s some interesting stuff I’ve see this week!

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Daniel Olsén via Simogo

This week it’s two tunes from video games!

First up is this lovely version of Clair de lune from the soundtrack to Sayonara Wild Hearts. It’s the music for the first level of that video game, and I think it’s beautifully performed and brilliantly used as the magical introduction to the game, even though I am just terrible at it.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is one of those games that I can appreciate intellectually even though it brings me little joy. It’s not fun to me because it’s not really my type of game, and it just makes me feel clumsy and old. Also the music is unabashedly synth pop, and so it isn’t really for me, apart from “Clair de lune” which I like in just about any form. (Except, surprisingly, Debussy’s own performance of it).

I bought the game anyway because Simogo are outstanding developers, and they’ve got eternal goodwill from me for making Device 6, which remains one of the best games I’ve ever played on any platform. The game is relentlessly clever and darkly funny throughout, but if I’m honest they had me from the opening theme, which was also composed and performed by Daniel Olsén.

I feel like video game music is too often dismissed as being just a pastiche or an imitation of styles, but I think some of the best video game music — outside of a Mario game — is more like a distillation of a style down to its essence, so it can be re-applied to a new piece of art. This somehow immediately evokes the themes of The Prisoner and The Avengers to me, even though it sounds nothing like either of them, and it’s distinctively modern. Like every other aspect of Device 6‘s aesthetic, it’s perfect.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Jon Batiste

Jon Batiste’s new dance-filled video is a lot of fun… I think?

Jon Batiste seems to be in the middle of a promotional blitz lately; I’m assuming it’s because of his work on Pixar’s Soul? Part of that is the video for “I Need You,” which is a lot of fun.

I mean… I think it is? There’s something about it that makes me think it’s as authentic as one of the old Gap commercials. Which, to be clear, I loved at the time, but then felt bad about it afterwards. As if I’d let my guard down and let myself be charmed by something completely insincere.

I suspect the reason I haven’t heard of Batiste before is because I don’t watch the Stephen Colbert show, for similar reasons. It seems to come from the same place as a lot of the stuff I want to like — D&D, Lord of the Rings, David Byrne, unconventional music-video presentations — but somehow makes them feel completely inauthentic. It’s this weird dissonance; I don’t doubt that Colbert was genuinely into D&D, or that Batiste genuinely loves jazz. But when I see one doing a play-through, or the other doing a dance video, it comes across as forced sincerity.

I’m a lot less conflicted about the video for “Don’t Stop” from 2018. It’s just a pared-down song and a similarly sparse dance performance on a New York rooftop, and it feels a lot more genuine was a result.

She’s Not the Final Boss Now (One Thing I Like About WandaVision)

Episode 6 shows that WandaVision succeeds where other Intrigue TV hasn’t: because it’s about more than just its central mystery

MOVIE CRITICS AND FANS, 2020: The Marvel So-Called “Cinematic” Universe is just a bunch of the same shallow thing over and over again, just punches and CGI.

MARVEL STUDIOS, SOMETIME IN 2019 PROBABLY: Thank you for coming to this meeting. What we need is an early 2000s-style claymation commercial for yogurt with an Extreme Shark and a little boy starving to death, to represent the main character’s survivor’s guilt.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t immediately love episode 6 of WandaVision (“All New Halloween Spooktacular!” if you’re scoring at home), because its format is imitating my least favorite era of sitcoms. All the self-awareness and deconstructionism of the late 80s and early 90s could’ve turned into something interesting, but instead it just turned really shallow, loud, cynical, and soulless all through the late 90s and early 2000s.

Still, I continue to be impressed with how much this series is in tune with the audience. (Or at least this guy in the audience, but I know I’m not the only one). This episode somehow feels like even more of a recalibration/exposition episode than episode 4, which is the one that explicitly went back and set up the situation that led to the series so far.

And that’s not really a gripe; having an episode like this is essential for the pacing. The audience already understands the gimmick for the series, so less time can be spent recreating the sitcom format — screen-time, although most certainly not in terms of production time! — except when the format is in service of setting up the story. It also lines up with the in-story idea that fewer and fewer people are all-in on this altered reality as the season goes on: the leads are less wary of showing off their powers, and we have a better idea that not everyone on screen is caught in the spell.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the episode in which the characters are in self-referential costumes, and showing more awareness that they’re all playing roles in a fantasy, is the one paying homage to TV shows that broke the fourth wall. Now I’m wondering if episode 4 wasn’t actually a break in the format. It might’ve been their homage to 1980s television, since it was structured so much like an episode of The X-Files.

Because I’ve felt so in sync with this show, it means that episodes like this are mostly filled with confirmations instead of revelations. Yes, obviously that’s a bad guy. Sure, the people outside of Wanda’s sphere of influence and attention exist in a perpetual, miserable, stasis. Right, Monica Rambeau is probably going to be a super-hero, and good, so are the kids. And as everybody suspected, it’s looking more likely that some soon-to-be-revealed villain at least initiated the whole thing, if they aren’t still actively manipulating Wanda.

It’s a nice change from the usual in Intrigue TV, where you can almost feel the show creators lurking in the background and giggling, “Oh have we got such a delicious secret for you all!

And there were a few genuinely surprising moments, too. First was the commercial I already mentioned, and it was fantastic because it kept up the real genuine gimmick of the series: telling a dark idea using something that’s completely tonally inappropriate and creepy.

Second was that fantastic ending, which raised the stakes in a way I didn’t see coming. I think turning the SWORD agents into clowns and their camp into a circus was a great acknowledgement that they were never going to be the real source of conflict in this series, because the series’s conflict is character driven.

But the one thing I love about WandaVision that I want to call out is that even as it gets closer to revealing more about its central mystery, it’s showing that its central mystery is kind of irrelevant. Maybe I’m just tired of watching so many “102 Easter Eggs You Missed In WandaVision!!!!” videos repeating the same tenuous stabs at sketchy interpretation, but I’m increasingly feeling like the references and Easter eggs simply don’t matter as much as I’d originally thought.

They can be fun, if you’re into that kind of thing — I especially like the observation from the computer displays that SWORD’s project to inhibit or suppress Vision was called Operation Cataract — but the series isn’t actually some puzzle box or ARG that will reward the first person to figure it out. It’s not a show for “nerds.” I have to keep reminding myself that the MCU is gigantic now, and comic books and sci-fi aren’t niche audiences anymore.

It feels increasingly like that idea is implicit in WandaVision: it’s a mash-up of pop culture and “genre fiction” without any apparent interest in putting a value judgment on any of it. Instead, it just treats everything as a shared cultural reference that’s fair game for storytelling. I’ve got to break myself of these outdated ideas of “target audiences” and “nerd television” and such, since they’re ideas used to sell art, not to make or understand it. They’re about excluding people or limiting possibilities, instead of expanding them.

I’m reminded of all the times I’ve seen audiences or executives see something imaginative and react with “Oh, this is so weird! Were the people who made this high? Are audiences going to get it?” This series reacts like Nick Fury to Peter Parker: “Bitch, please. You’ve been to space.”

Friday’s All Right for Birthdays

My first weekly round-up happens to be a birthday celebration

I haven’t been consistently keeping up with the Tuesday Two-Fer and Semi-New Sunday posts, but I’ve been feeling bad about it, which is at least something. I think I do better with scheduled posts. So I’m going to borrow an idea from writer Jim C Hines and devote Fridays to a link round-up, including anything interesting I’ve found over the previous week.

(For the record, I tried typing “Friday’s Alright” to get it a little closer to the song, but it almost physically pains me to type “alright”).

Today’s is a special entry because it’s Jason’s birthday, and he’s the best. Join me in wishing him a great day!

Semi-New Song Sunday: Foster the People

Re-discovering Foster the People with a recent EP I like almost as much as their first album

Foster the People isn’t “new to me” music — although I did only get into Torches after it seemed like everyone else in the world had gotten tired of it — but I kind of lost interest for a while. I’d been pretty eagerly waiting for their second album, but it didn’t do much for me. And I was so uninterested in their third album that until just now, I didn’t even realize it existed.

But last year they released a new EP, In The Darkest of Nights, Let the Birds Sing, and it somehow re-captures the stuff I liked about Torches. Specifically: that album was so all over the place that I’d been hearing the most well-known tracks for at least a year before I realized that they were all by the same artist. But at the same time, there’s a consistent sound that ties the whole thing together.

My favorite track on the new EP is the first, “Walk With a Big Stick,” because it sounds like it was designed to be my favorite: it’s like they took an alternate take of “Pumped Up Kicks” from Torches and duct-taped The Beach Boys on top of it. And it works brilliantly. I’ll always associate this band with Los Angeles, because Torches came on while I was driving alone through the city on a road trip to Disneyland, and it felt at that moment like it was the official soundtrack to early-21st-century LA. Adding a surf guitar chorus just amps that up even more. Maybe it’s a gimmick, but I don’t really care.

Also feeling like an odd mash-up of styles is “Under the Moon.” It has a mid-80s sound I can’t quite place — Echo & the Bunnymen? Psychedelic Furs? — but is tied to the rest of the EP by Ben Foster’s unique voice.

From what little I know about the band, I get the impression that the first album was so heavily influenced by having a “viral hit” and licensing deals for games and TV commercials, that it has an inescapable connotation of being a purely commercial record. Which is unfair, since it’s a really good album overall. Something about this EP feels like they’re going back to embracing the hooks and the gimmickry, and I think it’s much better for it!

Sit, Uatu, Sit (One Thing I Love About WandaVision Episode 5)

Even as it divides its time with the “real world,” WandaVision keeps making good use of its meta text

As expected, the more time WandaVision spends outside of its alternate-reality bubble, and gets back to advancing the ongoing storyline of the MCU, the less it feels like something completely new and unexpected.

To be clear: it’s still an outstanding show. Its shifts between realities, characters, and modes of storytelling are all excellently paced and executed. Even as it gets closer to providing more of the action-movie moments that MCU fans expect from a tentpole, big-budget TV series, those moments are tense and memorable.

Except those moments work like the rest of the MCU does, while the series up until now has felt like something different. In particular, they left me with the feeling that I was perfectly in sync with what was happening on screen, without having to suspend my disbelief about anything. That sounds odd, considering it’s a show about alternate reality bubbles and super heroes and synthezoids with powers gifted to them via the infinity stones, but I’m talking about suspending my disbelief in the show itself, not its content.

For instance: now, I’m back to second-guessing not just the motives of certain characters, but second-guessing whether I’m supposed to be second-guessing them. I mean, everybody could tell SWORD director guy was suspicious, and they even have our most sympathetic characters call it out. But now I can’t tell if the show itself was trying to hide it. It seems like a missed opportunity for a little bit more depth in a series that’s otherwise been able to give sitcom-style conflicts an underlying tension and dread unlike anything we’ve seen before. There was potential to set up a more interesting relationship between the director and Our Heroes, but instead they just seem to be repeating story beats from Captain America: Civil War.

But there were two moments in this episode that worked brilliantly, a reminder that this series is doing more to push the limits of conventional storytelling not just past what we’ve seen in the rest of the MCU, but in television as a whole. Neither of them are the “big spoiler moments” of the episode — or the amazing pictures of Vision over the opening credits — but they are spoiler-adjacent, so I’d recommend not reading on until you’ve seen all five episodes.

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Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Two tangentially-related tunes every Tuesday!

I had a hard time coming up with a theme for today’s tune two-fer: what do you say about a totally uneventful Tuesday in February, in the midst of a year of shelter-in-place orders, where every day feels like the same? Even YouTube seems to be in a bit of malaise: I went on this morning looking for something interesting to watch, and I could only see an old action movie from the 1990s starting Alec Baldwin. It’s going to be a long winter!

Instead of anything appropriate, I’ll just pick a familiar classic: this old song performed on Top of the Pops in 1965. I think I was just the right age so that I didn’t know Sonny & Cher as singers, but as guests on The New Scooby-Doo Movies. So they’re always up there in the pantheon along with Jerry Reed, Sandy Duncan, Cass Elliot, and of course, Batman & Robin. Looking back at that video now, I have to say that people were right: Sonny’s hair was too long.

But for a change of pace, here’s this performance from Late Night With David Letterman. What’s remarkable watching it now isn’t so much how much changed between 1965 and this video in 1987, but how much has changed between this video and now. Sonny Bono’s passing, the mentions of Chaz Bono with his name at the time, and I’d forgotten about Cher’s feud with Letterman. I was actually surprised when I realized that 22 years had passed between the first two, but it’s been 33 years since the second! Somehow, I always think of Letterman clips as being contemporary, and probably will forever, since that was part of my cultural “anchor.” I guess it’s a reminder of how time keeps moving on, and you can’t just keep reliving the past.

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.

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