What do you call a fourth wall that’s entirely inside the production, or, Let’s talk about WandaVision
The new series from Marvel, WandaVision dropped on Disney+ a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking of doing an episode-by-episode set of reviews, as I’d previously done for Star Trek: Picard, but I didn’t get the first one done within a week. Anyway, we’ve now had three episodes (“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”, “Don’t Touch That Dial”, and “Now in Color”) which gets us far enough along that I feel I can comment on what I suspected the main themes of the show will be as well as just talk about how those episodes work.
First I wanna make a few unspoilery comments: this show is not a typical superhero adventure. It has a lot more in common with Twins Peaks than shows such as Arrow or Daredevil. You also don’t have to have watched any of the Marvel movies to understand what’s going on. Within the opening minutes the show tells you most of what you need to know to understand the framing mechanism: she has some sort of magickal powers, he’s not human, they are in love and they are trying to fit into a stereotypical suburban family neighborhood without any of the neighbors realizing who or what they are.
To me, it also became clear very early on that this show is more likely a horror-type mystery than a thrilling adventure/action story. A number of other reviewers I’ve read didn’t pick up the horror-vibe until episode three, so your mileage my vary.
I don’t think I can say anything more without spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now.
Seriously, spoilers ahead!
Okay, you’re on your own now!
There is a Content Warning to be addressed going in. I knew, as soon as I saw the first trailer for the series months before it was released, that this show as going to center around the magical pregnancy trope1, which is triggering for a number of people. I am not one of the folks triggered by it, but it has squicked me out most of the times I’ve encountered it. I remember back in my teen years when I was reading a sci fi story (or maybe it was a comic book) that used the trope finding it very creepy, but was not able to explain why it bothered me so to a friend. I was in my 20s watching (with friends) Star Trek: the Next Generation when they had a magical pregnancy episode, when I expressed my dislike of where the plot was going during a commercial break. One of the women in the friend group that got together each Saturday back in the day to watch the new episode agreed, and then was able to explain to another friend who didn’t get it how this tied into non-consent, rape, misogynist violation of body autonomy—in other words, the way the society treats women as property or objects rather than people with free will.
Which helped me understand then that it wasn’t merely the pregnancy on its own that creeped me out with this trope, but rather how the narrative usually treated said pregnancy and how it happened as a minor thing that just happened to the woman, rather than recognizing that it would be traumatic to be the person experiencing it, and that the character(s) within the story who were doing it to the woman were acting in an extremely immoral way.
I couldn’t tell from the tailer (even though I had a guess as to which stories from the comics they were probably drawing on) how the writers were going to treat the pregnancy, so I wasn’t sure if I’d wind up enjoying that aspect of the show or not. It is still a little soon to tell, but given that the show seems to be leaning into the horror aspects, I suspect that this isn’t going to bother me that way.
So, Disney+ dropped the first two episodes on the same day. I suspect that part of the reason they did that (besides the fact that the early episodes are only about a half hour long) is because these episodes are the episodes that are in black an white, which might have lessened their appeal to many audience members. The first episode opens with what could easily be the opening of a fifties or sixties sitcom complete with a song whose lyrics explain the premise of the two of them being newlyweds who are trying to pass for mundanes in a “typical” American suburb. The set manages to pay homage to at least three classic American sitcoms of the era: I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched.
The first episode’s (“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”) plot is very I Love Lucy– and Bewitched-like at the same time2. Their calendar has the day marked as a special event, but neither of them can remember what it is. Which is particularly worrisome since Vision, as an android, should have perfect memory (something they comment on). This is an early hint that both things are not as they seem, and also that neither Wanda nor Vision are aware that things aren’t as they seem.
There are some fun bits that harken to the aforementioned sitcoms. The new neighbor who sweeps in, immediately bonds with Wanda, has questions which Wanda has difficulty answering (further exposing that fact that something weird is happening), but also immediately helps her plan out the special dinner. Which the neighbor, Agnes3, assumed must be an anniversary. Vision, meanwhile, is doing vaguely mathematical work at his office, where they have some jokes built around the fact that in many of the sitcoms particularly of the 50s, exactly what the husband did for a living was often never specified4. But it is at the office that Vision learns that his boss and the boss’s wife are coming over for dinner that evening—and Vision and Wanda better be excellent hosts or Vision will have negative consequences at the job.
This sets up a plot of misunderstandings and comedic attempts to prevent the visitors from finding out about the misunderstanding in addition to the fact the Wanda and Vision aren’t ordinary people. After some comedic hijinks they sit down to dinner. This immediately leads to questions about how they met, how long they’ve been married, and why don’t they have children immediately come up. And while at first they are played for laughs, it is also clear that the questions have a deeper meaning. There’s a bit of desperation from the boss and his wife about these questions hinting at the horror vibe mentioned earlier5. The boss starts to choke to death, and neither Wanda nor Vision seem to know how to react, while the wife laughs and keeps saying (ever more desperately) “Stop it!” until Wanda tells Vision to help his boss6.
Immediately after being saved, the boss acts as if nothing happened at all, says that they had an excellent time but they must be going, and Vision will have no problem getting his promotion.
The episode is wrapping up in a “whew, isn’t it funny how we survived that” way (complete with Wanda creating matching wedding rings for them both with a wave of her hand as they cuddle on the couch), and then it closes to an ending credits that is a nice riff on the ending of I Love Lucy, except that instead of the credits being enclosed in a heart, they are enclosed in a hexagon.
And then the camera seems to zoom out, the aspect ratio of the show going from an old-style TV show (4:3) to a modern wide screen, and we can see that the black and white credits (and presumably the entire episode) are being watched on a screen by someone in a colorized world. Modern computer screens showing various readouts and some kind of sword-based logo are on either side of the the screen that is showing the black and white world. We see the hand of whoever is watching touch some controls. And then we go to the actual WandaVision credits rendered in a way the mixes several styles of computer graphics.
The ending was not the first bit of color we saw. In the middle of the episode there was a fake commercial for a retro-future Stark toaster7, and the toaster had a red glowing light in the middle, the only touch of color in the commercial.
The second episode (“Don’t Touch That Dial”) begins with a completely different opening title sequence, this time an animated sequence that is a parody of the opening of the 60s sitcom, Bewitched. Also, while the costumes, hairstyles, and some of the decor in the home of episode one were definitely late 50s/possibly early 60s, the costumes, hairstyle, and furnishings all seem more late 60s. The second episode also leans into the Bewitched vibe, with Vision and Wanda preparing to perform at the community talent show/fundraiser, and doing so in a way that will not rely upon their super powers. The two then each go off to separate tasks: Vision drops in a neighborhood watch committee meeting because he’s concerned about mysterious thuds and booms that they kept hearing in the night in episode one, while Wanda goes to the charity organizing meeting with Agnes.
At the neighborhood watch meeting Vision meets several male neighbors, and there is some fish-out-of-water comedic lines. They also fit in a masturbation joke that totally goes over Vision’s head. Vision winds up accepting some chewing gum from one of the men, which causes problems when he accidentally swallows it and it someone messes up his mechanical innards.
Wanda goes outside intending to meet Agnes to attend the meeting, but she finds a bright red toy helicopter in one of her rose bushes. Like the red light on the toaster in episode one, it is the only thing in color in the scene. It has a sword-based logo that looks an awful lot like the one seen in the observation scene at the end of episode one8. When Agnes appears and starts talking to Wanda, the helicopter mysteriously vanishes.
At the committee meeting Wanda meets various women from the neighborhood, including Queen Bee Dottie9. She also meets Geraldine, the only black woman on the committee (there is also one black man at Vision’s neighborhood watch meeting). Geraldine and Wanda have a slightly longer conversation which drops more hints that things aren’t as they seem—including Geraldine not knowing why she is there and for a moment not knowing who she is until she suddenly seems to remember what her name is. This makes sense because the actress who is playing Geraldine was listed as playing Monica Rambeau (the little girl from the Captain Marvel movie who, in the comic books, grows up to become the second Captain Marvel).
During cleanup after the meeting, Wanda and Dottie have an awkward conversation, in which Dottie (not unlike Mrs Hart in episode one) seems to imply that Wanda has something to do with the sinister whatever-it-is that is happening to the suburb of Westview. Dottie breaks a glass, cutting her hand, which becomes covered with very red blood (the second appearance of color in this episode). Meanwhile, a nearby radio which had been playing music suddenly has some very loud static, and then a male voice calls to Wanda, asking her if she can hear him and who is “doing this” to her. The radio abruptly bursts forth with smoke and goes silent.
At the talent show, Vision arrives acting as if he is extremely drunk because of the gum. The magic act goes awry in various ways because Vision forgets his lines, accidentally flies, and picks up a standing grand piano with one hand. Wanda has to quickly cover with her powers, making each accidental revelation of Vision’s powers appear to be a cheap magical trick10. The messed-up magic act is hilarous, and thus despite things not going as planned, Wanda and Vision win a trophy for the best comedy act.
During both the magic show and the committee meeting, there were points where Dottie mentioned that the charity event was “for the children” and then everyone else repeats that phrase in a rather mechanical way. Which is another of those hints that things aren’t as they seem and something sinister is happening. This is underscored by the fact that there is not a single child in sight in any scene of either of the first two episodes, as if no children actually exist in the town of Westview, at all11.
I should mention the fake commercial in the middle of the episode before I get to the ending. This time it is for a brand of luxury watches called “Strűker” and the watch has a tiny Hydra logo on the face. Baron Strűker appears in a couple of the Avengers movies and in the Agents of Shield television series as a scientist working for the criminal organization, Hydra, who is responsible for giving Wanda and her brother, Pietro, their super powers.
The episode ends with Wanda and Vision having a discussion of how everything worked out, when they are interrupted by a suspicious thud outside, prompting Vision to rush out to see what it is. A manhole cover in the cul de sac in front of their house is lifted up and a person in what appears at first to be a hazmat suit climbs out. The sword logo is on the back of the suit. As he turns to face Wanda and Vision (who are standing in their front yard by this point), the hazmat suit morphs into a bee-keepers suit, complete with some bees floating around outside the suit12. We get just a glimpse of the man’s face before Wanda says, rather emphatically, “No” and reality rewinds like an old VHS tape.
The action pics up back inside the house before the thud happens, and now we can see that Wanda seems to have a baby bump. She asks Vision if this is real, he says that it is, and both they and the set transform from black and white to color. As we move into the end credits, once again the aspect ratio of the show switches from old-style TV to modern wide screen.
The third episode (“Now in Color”) begins with yet another new opening sequence, all in color, with the clothing, hairstyles, and such all very 70s. It includes both glimpses of the happy couple shopping for a crib as well as Vision trying to assemble a swing set in the back yard.
The set of their house has changed in more than just the decor, and now manages to look like a cross between the home of the Brady Bunch and of Bewitched. Wanda’s hairstyle and costume would have fit right in any of the post season-two Brady Bunch episodes without a single change.
We begin with a doctor examining Wanda in their living room, commenting that it seems to be an ordinary pregnancy for someone four months along. By Vision and Wanda’s reactions, it is clear that despite the environment of the show having jumped about 10 years in fashion, this is the morning after the night where they first noticed the baby bump at the end of the last episode. As the doctor leaves, he and Vision had a conversation outside in which the doctor says he and his wife are about to leave town on a vacation. Vision asks the doctor to keep the pregnancy a secret for now. Then vision notes that their neighbor, Herb, seems to be cutting through the cinderblock wall with his hedge trimmer. When Vision points out that he seems to have last control of the trimmer, Herb agrees that it seems so, and keeps doing what he’s doing13.
The next scene sees Wanda and Vision assembling a nursery (Wanda doing most of the work with her powers while Vision reads interesting tidbits from a book about babies and the birthing process). They have a cute argument about whether to name the baby Billy or Tommy. And all seems to be going well, other than every time Vision looks away and then back Wanda’s baby bump appears noticeably larger.
The fake commercial this time around was for a bath product called Hydra Soak, and while the commercial evoked a lot of Calgon soap commercials from the 60s and 70s, there is prominent mention about how the product will help you create your own reality. Implying that the criminal organization Hydra might have something to do with Wanda and Vision’s situation?
Then Wanda experiences a couple of false labor contractions, causing various electrical appliances to fritz out, and finally knocking out power for the whole neighborhood. Then he water breaks, which causes what appears to be a rainstorm inside the house. She is definitely going into labor.
Vision zooms off to get the doctor, while with each contraction more strange things happen in the physical world. The doorbell rings, and it is Geraldine (dressed in a fabulous outfit that made me immediately think of a couple of late 70s TV shows with black female leads), and we have a series of hilarious attempts by Wanda to try to hide her condition (since again, just yesterday when she and Geraldine first met she wasn’t pregnant at all). Each of her attempts is a callback to the ways the TV producers have always tried to hide the baby bumps of actresses in various TV shows over the years.
Eventually Wanda can’t hide it any more, and after only one startled, “You’re pregnant!” Geraldine immediately starts helping, managing to deliver the baby before Vision and the doctor get back.
Vision barely has time to be disappointed that he missed the birth of his son before more contractions happen, and it turns out Wanda is having twins. No one comments on the fact that since the doctor had been able to hear the baby’s heartbeat in the earlier scene, he should have also been able to hear that there were two fetal hearts, but we’ll just attribute that to the whole things-aren’t-as-they-seem and something-sinister-is-happening and move on. Having twin boys means that they can use both names, and isn’t that convenient?
While Vision escorts the doctor out, Geraldine helps Wanda put the babies in the crib, and Wanda recollects that she was a twin, and that she once had a brother named Pietro. While she sings a Sokovian lullaby, Geraldine gets a confused look on her face, and then says “Peitro… he was killed by Ultron, wasn’t he?” Which is a reference to the Avengers movie in which Wanda and Pietro joined the Avengers and then Pietro died heroically. Wanda is not pleased that Geraldine knows this, and as she questions an increasingly scared and confused Geraldine, notices that the pendant Geraldine is wearing around her neck is the same Sword logo that she has seen on both the helicoptor and the bee-keeker.
The action cuts back to Vision saying good-bye to the doctor14, then observing that Agnes and Herb are standing at the wall we’d seen earlier having a hushed conversation. I also have closed-captioning turned on, which revealed that they seemed to be discussing both Geraldine’s arrival and the fact the Wanda seems to very suddenly have become pregnant. When Vision greets them, Agnes asks some odd questions and reveals that Geraldine isn’t actually from Westview. Herb tries to say something else, but seems to have trouble making his mouth complete the sentence. Meanwhile Agnes is trying to shush him, before both say they have other things to do, and Herb heads into his home while Agnes hops on her bicycle.
When Vision comes inside, confused, he asks where Geraldine is, and Wanda says she had to rush home. Exactly how she did that without Vision noticing someone coming out of the door he was standing in front of is glossed over. They begin to have a conversation about what an odd day it was, which leads Vision to start listing all of the ways that their lives and the events of the last couple of days make no sense, which causes Wanda to get a panicked look on her face. Then there is a glitch, and we seem to have jumped back in time a minute, and instead of expressing concern that reality doesn’t seem real, Vision quotes Shakespeare about how the world is a stage, and then expresses his belief that they and their family are going to be just fine.
As the camera pans back and out of the house, the aspect ration of the image slowly widens to wide screen, and it becomes night and we seem to be outside of Westview. There is a ripple in the air, and Geraldine flies out of the ripple as if she had been hurled from the town. We get a glimpse of the “Welcome to Westview” sign seen in the opening of episode one, but instead of the cute suburb that had been visible behind it, we see what appears to be some sort of forcefield15 and a lot of poles with perhaps flood lights aimed at the field.
As Geraldine lands on a grassy field, a dozen or so military SUVs and the like are seen rushing toward the field.
So by the end of episode three it seems clear that people inside Westview are somehow being controlled by some outside force, that there are forces outside Westview trying to reach Wanda and figure out what is happening, and that Wanda may be less in control of what is happening inside whatever the bubble is than seemed to be implied in the first two episodes.
Things I really like about the show: Paul Bettany has great comedic timing, while Elizabeth Olsen is able to show a wide range of emotion while mostly playing the role of straightman to Bettany’s comedic bits. There is definitely something sinister going on. The writers and showrunners have put a lot of effort and thought into the multiple layers of unreality they’re putting into the mystery. They’re also doing a really great job at capturing the feel of various classic sitcoms—and managing to make a few pointed comments about the unrealistic nature of such shows.
I’m hooked. And even though I have several theories about what is really going on, they have sown enough doubt that I won’t be upset if none of my theories turn out to be correct.
One last thing: I should mention, since this show is playing on Disney+, that the Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.
There are some other excellent reviews of the episodes thus far out there that might give you more insight that I’ve managed:
1. TV Tropes’ article on supernatural pregnancies describe it well enough, though they really gloss over the problematic nature. For that, this blog post is more helpful: Supernatural miracle pregnancies and the hatred of pregnant women.
2. Part of how they achieve the feel is that apparently they used the same kinds of cameras, lenses, and as best they could, film stock that was used back in the day to film the episode. Also, for the various special effects, it’s all practical effects and camera tricks exactly as was done on shows such as Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Munsters.
3. From various metaclues just about every reviewer has inferred that Agnes is probably the Marvel comic book character, Agathe Harkness, who is a real witch originally introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four as a babysitter for Reed & Sue’s kid, and only later revealed to be a centuries-old powerful witch who would go on to become Wanda’s mentor.
4. This part was extra funny for me, because the three shows which episodes one and two are riffing on, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Bewitched didn’t have this issue at all. Desi Arnez’ character in I Love Lucy was a musician and band leader whose band had a permanent gig at a local nightclub; Van Dyke’s character on his namesake show was the head screenwriter for a fiction comedy/variety TV show; while Dick York/Dick Sargent’s character on Bewitched was an Account Executive at an advertising agency.
5. The questions appear to be sort of typical annoying busy body inquiries: how did you meet, where are you from, how long have you been married, and why don’t you have children? And while that last one goes beyond annoying, it’s the tone of voice that is used on the questions, and how they are repeated, that gives that hint that it isn’t just idle chit-chat, but rather something the boss and wife are asking because they are also trying to figure out what is really going on.
6. I think actress Debra Jo Rupp, who plays the boss’s wife, really sold this part. It begins with her seeming to be embarassed that her husband is choking, and the “stop it” is almost playful, but as it becomes clear that he’s actually dying, you can tell that she wants to leap out of her chair and help, and she wants to say something else, and that she doesn’t want to be laughing, but somehow is constrained to only those two words and the ever more creepy laughter. In just those few moments she really makes you believe that she is not in control of her own body. And over the course of the repetitions the “stop it” goes from being directed at her husband and to Wanda, who eventually tells Vision to help him. Signaling that, at least as far as the boss’s wife knows, Wanda has all the power here, but also that Vision doesn’t seem to have any initiative to intervene until told to by Wanda, either.
7. The toaster is designed so that it looks almost like a face, and there are some lines of dialog about that imply robotics.
8. The toy seemed out of place for the period, so much so that I almost expected to see tiny people inside it moving and/or calling for help, as if it was a helicopter that had tried to survey the suburb and had been transformed, like the beekeeper, when it invaded the mini-reality.
9. Played with icy precision by Emma Caulfield, one of my faves!
10. A completely unconcealed rope and pulley system allows Vision to fly, the piano is that a flat cardboard mockup, and so on.
11. That, plus how emphatically Mrs Hart asked about children in episode one presumably refer to the same part of the mystery.
12. There is so much speculation about what/who the beekeeper is online. My first thought when I saw it was to assume that it was some sort of hazmat suit that the guy was wearing, but a hazmat suit doesn’t fit into the 1950s black and white sitcom world, so it morphed into a beekeeper’s suit because that is something one might see in a period television show. Then I remembered the recurring Marvel comics villain, Swarm, who has more than a slight connection to Baron Strűcker and thus to the comic book version of Wanda, so… maybe?
13. To me, this was another hint that the inhabitants of Westview are not in control of their own actions and have reached a kind of “what can I do?” attitude about it. The cutting through the wall could also be a metaphor for the other inhabitants of Westview trying to find a way to escape this reality.
14. Who makes a comment about how difficult it is to escape a small town; possibly another allusion to the fact that everyone is trapped here.
15. The fourth wall of the sitcom reality Wanda, Vision, and their neighbors appear to be trapped inside.