2.5 Children and a White Picket Fence
Contains major spoilers for WandaVision and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It seems like a paradox that the future of Marvel’s on-screen universe is so thoroughly entrenched in TV’s past. WandaVision pays homage to the history of family sitcoms as it goes through decades of shows mimicking the “normal” American family life as a contemporary audience would have seen it. The show is full of clichéd dialogue and flips between being frustratingly opaque and needlessly expository. So, why does it work?
Well, first and foremost, it’s not a sitcom. Rather, it’s a collection of homages that charts the sitcom’s history. As an homage, the entire crew of WandaVision, from the creators to the designers to the actors, does an incredible job mimicking the nuances of sitcoms through each decade. If this was the only thing WandaVision did, it would be an impressive replica of any iteration of the family sitcom you’ve ever seen. But it goes deeper. At its core, WandaVision is an intensely eerie show that explores the outsider’s view of the American Dream and the difference between image and reality.
The premise of WandaVision is that Wanda and Vision are stuck in a world that turns their life into a sitcom. The first episode starts slow, focusing entirely on Wanda and Vision moving into their 1950s suburban neighborhood in the town of Westview. For the most part, it’s a typical 50s sitcom; shot in black and white and starring Wanda and Vision as the archetypal housewife and working husband as they try to fit into their new neighborhood. The show is filled with cheesy jokes surrounding a humorous miscommunication about dinner plans and attempts to hide their powers from their neighbors and colleagues. Aside from the powers, it’s almost a textbook episode of a 50s sitcom. Wanda is expected to make dinner for Vision’s boss and his wife, the Harts, with Vision’s job on the line. The conflict comes when Wanda and Vision have a miscommunication, and she has no food or time to prepare any for the Harts. She needs to scramble to make a home cooked meal while Vision distracts their guests. In addition, there’s mention of Wanda’s Sokovian heritage, which reinforces the expectation of the “correct” American practices which Wanda, an immigrant, tries to fulfill. This expectation is represented by the fact that Wanda not only has no time, but also no idea how to cook; she’s implicitly expected to make the meal anyways. In fact, the entire episode hinges on the very 1950s idea that there is a “right” way to be an American. No one questions their roles but just accepts them, even when they’re clearly not suited for the character.
However, there are hints throughout the episode that things are not as they seem. A neighbor notes that Wanda and Vision don’t have wedding rings. No one can tell Vision what the company he works for actually does. The real kicker comes when what is supposed to be a lovely dinner between Wanda, Vision, and the Harts turns more and more tense as Wanda and Vision can’t answer a simple question about their relationship. “Why did you come here? Damn it! Why?!” Mr. Hart starts yelling. It becomes clear that he’s no longer asking about their relationship. He’s “out of character,” trying to figure out something he’s not supposed to even question. Suddenly, he chokes. Vision has to use his powers to save Mr. Hart while Mrs. Hart is stuck repeating her actions, gently admonishing Mr. Hart for giving the third degree to the lovely young couple that just moved here, over and over and over again. Vision saves Mr. Hart, and suddenly everything’s okay again. Vision gets a promotion and Wanda even makes them a pair of wedding rings by the end of the episode while they sit back and start watching TV. Then, in a stunning move of visual storytelling, the boxy ratio the screen has been in during the entire show slowly shifts to widescreen as the camera pulls out. Finally the audience can see what it really is: a show on an old TV.
It is revealed later that Wanda is in control of this whole setup. Experiencing extreme grief from having lost everything by the end of Avengers: Endgame, Wanda resurrects Vision and forcibly enlists an entire town in creating her perfect family life. It becomes clear throughout the show that, while Wanda is nominally in control, she starts slipping. Things keep happening that aren’t supposed to and don’t fit in the American dream she’s trying to create, but it becomes clear that the American dream is more complicated than she thinks.
Elizabeth Olsen does a fantastic job portraying Wanda Maximoff in this TV show. As the progenitor of this world, Wanda always plays her role, even when everything around her falls apart. Her Sokovian accent is gone, replaced with an American one. She’s the housewife in every decade, and her personality and lifestyle changes to match the time period’s vision of what that means. She’s moved into a house with a white picket fence, has two children, and raises them according to the standards set by whatever decade her sitcom life is currently in. Later on in the show, she even has meltdowns in character. This Sokovian-born woman who has never had a happy family life has completely assimilated into suburbia and the traditional American family. Too bad the other characters aren’t playing along.
Suddenly, in episode four, it isn’t about Wanda at all. Instead, the audience gets caught up with the mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) at breakneck speed. We learn about everything that we missed by solely following Wanda and Vision. It’s somewhat jarring how much is revealed so early on. Looking back, however, the episode was perfectly placed, as the next decade the audience sees in the show is the 80s — the decade when it really became mainstream in sitcoms to address real issues facing family life. Dogs start dying. Families face poverty. Racial inequality is finally addressed, albeit in superficial ways. In an effort to deal with rising divorce rates, many single-parent families became the sitcom norm, usually by way of the dead mom trope. There were a lot more “very special episodes” that dealt with drugs, alcohol, and bullying. That’s not to say that there weren’t any shows that tackled these issues beforehand, but those types of episodes were fewer and farther between. In the same way that sitcoms in the 1950s acted as a way to “teach” the American family, sitcoms of the 80s and 90s depicted modern families dealing with modern issues. The difference is that in response to rising tensions with the Soviet Union, sitcoms of the 50s and 60s chose to ignore reality, escaping into the quintessentially capitalist, happy nuclear family. By the 80s, however, sitcoms incorporated society’s anxieties into their own worlds, teaching children and families how to address and deal with them. It’s fitting then, that Wanda’s journey into the 80s coincides with stronger reminders of the outside world and her highly controlled American-dream aesthetic being threatened. Because she is unwilling to address the universe outside the Hex — the psychic barrier she erects around the town of Westview, opting to rely on 80s tropes instead — her reality slowly becomes more deconstructed in the next several episodes (and decades): Vision gains more autonomy, the twins become free thinking adolescents, and S.W.O.R.D. (WandaVision’s analog to S.H.I.E.L.D.) is finding new ways to infiltrate the Hex. By the 2010s, around the same time the Avengers were created in the MCU, Vision regains his identity; Monica Rambeau (a S.W.O.R.D. operative and Captain Marvel’s best friend’s daughter) gets her own superhero origin story; Wanda is reminded of the outside world; and the Big Bad is revealed.
Ultimately, this show is Wanda’s vision. Despite everything else going on in the show, it’s primarily about Wanda trying to build a perfect life based on her outsider’s view of what TV has told us it should look like. She’s trying to find a home in staged, utopic scenes, away from the reality that hurt her. She’s desperate to control something that’s previously been completely out of her control, but in the process she takes other people’s lives and robs them of their reality. In doing so, she sidelines all of these people in favor of being the creator, director, and star of the show, but real people don’t like being sidelined, and reality can only be kept away for so long.
There are still two more episodes of WandaVision yet to air as of publishing. Aside from delving into what the ideal American family means, the show has more practical purposes in the MCU: it sets up at least one superhero origin story, adds more comic book storylines to the MCU, and even introduces the audience to the multiverse. (Properly this time. I’m looking at you, Far From Home.)
Honestly, there’s so much going on that I have no idea of how it’s going to end. Not even a guess. What we do know is that Wanda is a victim of this universe, too. Despite nominally being the one in control, she is never portrayed as malicious. Moreover, she’s not just a victim of her own fractured psyche, but also a victim at the hands of someone else. It is revealed in episode seven that someone else was also pulling strings behind the curtain, and even though this is Wanda’s world, it is unclear how much of the suffering the townspeople experience is because of her, if any. Wanda is an immigrant, desperately trying to find that dream of stability and family she was promised, and falling short every time. She doesn’t want to hurt people. She just wants a place she can belong.