For a show that gradually sets itself apart from the cookie-cutter nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, WandaVision’s initial episodes rely on a heaping dose of nostalgia from another typically formulaic genre — the sitcom.
When it begins, the Avengers Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her husband Vision (Paul Bettany) are living the white-picket-fenced suburban American dream. Inside their monochromatic world, modelled on classic American sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy, everything is safe and comfortable. In a nice change of pace, threats of global annihilation are replaced by the more routine worries of how to impress one’s boss, what to serve for dinner and how to fit in with the neighbourhood cliques. Wanda and Vision’s romance, one of the most underdeveloped tracks in a franchise juggling dozens of storylines, finally gets a chance to shine. They’re blissfully in love and, without world-ending stakes hanging over their heads, have all the time in the world to bask in it.
It’s a wholesome, rose-tinted premise and buying into it means ignoring everything that has preceded it. Because if there’s one thing viewers know, it’s that Vision’s dead. Or at least he’s supposed to be. In Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Wanda destroys the mind stone that gives him power so that Thanos can’t get his hands on it, only for Thanos to rewind time and seize the stone himself, killing Vision once again. That the audience chooses to suspend disbelief so that they can enjoy the show mirrors the way Wanda suppresses her traumatic past in favour of the more wish-fulfilling present. If she, like us, acknowledges Vision’s death, the facade crumbles. It’s the first glimpse at how the show blurs the lines between the real and the reel.
Unsurprisingly, isn’t long before the cracks begin to show. Signs of trouble appear via the in-show commercials that play in the middle of the first few episodes. In the first, a 1950s husband-wife duo cheerily demonstrate the marvels of the Toastmate 2000. As the camera zooms in, a light on the toaster begins blinking red — the first and only spot of colour in the episode — and the device emits a high-pitched beeping. The advertisement identifies the toaster as a Stark Industries’ product, which is where anyone connecting the dots should have a sinking feeling — the company also manufactured the missile that killed Wanda’s parents. The commercial ends with the tagline: Forget the past, this is your future, a definitive nod towards Wanda’s plan of action.
The commercials in the next two episodes advertise a Swiss-made Strücker watch and the luxury bath powder Hydra soak, both much more on-the-nose references to the Nazi organisation that conducted experiments on Wanda and her brother. These ominous details are able to slip past the otherwise family-friendly programming, reflective of Wanda’s trauma gradually seeping into the fabric of her picture-perfect world.
The advertisements get darker and more pointed as the show goes on, dredging up Wanda’s guilt at accidentally causing the deaths of Lagos residents in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and even the deep-seated depression she’s been trying to tamp down unsuccessfully. A year ago, if someone told you that an antidepressants commercial would play in the middle of a major Marvel production, and a character would then take those pills, it wouldn’t have sounded believable in the least. But that’s exactly what happens in episode 7.
The full extent of Wanda’s traumatic past, and the reasons for her subsequent methods of coping, are finally revealed when the witch Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) forces her to relive the worst moments of her life as a twisted series of reruns. First, flashbacks show the young Wanda and her family at home, gathered around the television for their weekly ritual of watching American sitcoms on DVD. Tuning into the reel world to escape the real one is a technique Wanda subconsciously imbibes from her parents, who cue up a familiar laugh track inside to drown out the noise of rioting and gunfire in the streets of Sokovia outside. Well-versed in sitcom tropes even then, Wanda knows that these shows thrive on shenanigans, “more silly than scary” and no situation is so serious that it can’t be resolved.
This stays with her, and becomes a coping mechanism. After she loses her parents and is experimented on by Hydra, Wanda finds solace in The Brady Bunch playing on a television in her cell. Years later, she reflexively turns to Malcolm In The Middle to numb the pain of her brother’s death. When the house Hal (Bryan Cranston) is ineptly building in the sitcom collapses on him, Vision, who can’t yet grasp the intricacies of physical comedy, wonders if he’s hurt. “It’s not that kind of show,” Wanda reassures him, her faith in the eternal optimism of sitcoms now unshakeable.
Since Wanda’s fondness for sitcoms is intertwined with her happiest childhood memories, it makes sense that her means of coping with Vision’s death would be to escape into the only stable family dynamic she’s ever known, even if it’s fictional. Her command over fixed sitcom rules, acquired over years of obsessive watching, helps her control and calibrate life inside her bubble. Every time the stability of her illusion is threatened, she employs the visual language of sitcoms to make things right. When Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) accidentally brings up her brother’s death, she hurls her through the barriers of her made-up world, literally breaking the fourth wall to do so. When Vision confronts her over just how real their shared universe is, she chooses to roll the credits on him mid-conversation, rather than risk an argument. It’s a terrifying illustration of how far she’ll go to stay in control.
At the same time, she broadcasts their lives on television in the form of neatly edited sitcom episodes that gradually begin to feel like subconscious cries for help. Wanda’s grip on her new reality is tenuous at best and the longer she seeks refuge inside its superfluous comforts, the more her tragic past sneaks up on her. In two of the show’s most terrifying scenes, she glimpses her husband and brother as they are — ashen and dead — and not as she wishes them to be. The show’s sitcom style, which ran the risk of feeling gimmicky during the initial few low-stakes episodes, begins to serve a much deeper message — life inside a comedy might feel like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, but deny yourself any healthier alternatives and you’ll end up feeling sick.
As WandaVision progresses, it can be read two ways. The show does champion entertainment as a safe and welcoming space for those looking for an escape, but it also acts as a cautionary tale for those who employ it as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Sure, the movies will help you take your mind off your problems for a while, but they won’t fix them permanently, it underlines time and time again. The show’s release during a global pandemic, a time when people are turning to entertainment as a means of coping more than ever, drives home the point. As the audience looks to escape their reality by tuning into television shows, Wanda rewrites the fabric of her reality by living in one. It’s a nice bit of symmetry that couldn’t have been predicted. But that just makes it all the more significant.