“Wanda, you’re not at all worried that the audience might just see through this little charade?”
“Well, that’s the whole point. In a real magic act, everything is fake.”
The TV show WandaVision begins as Wanda Maximoff and her android-husband Vision move to the 50s-esque suburban New Jersey town, Westview. Audience members familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) may know Wanda as the Scarlet Witch, who grew up in Sokovia, obsessing over sitcoms on TV until her parents were killed and her brother went missing. Later, while working with the Avengers, Wanda and Vision met, got married, and eventually had twins.
During the second episode of WandaVision, the couple decides to perform a magic act in a town talent show, hoping that their actual superpowers will come off as “fake magic.” When the magic show begins, Vision starts to fly. Their audience is visibly unsettled, if not scared. Noticing this, Wanda makes a rope appear behind him — as if to prove that the stunt is grounded in a deceptive reality, rather than magic itself.
“Whoops, you weren’t supposed to see how we did that trick,” Wanda laughs to the audience. The fear disappears. They burst into applause.
This moment highlights the show’s broader theme of characters struggling to contain their amorphous experiences of the world within a hyper-normal realm. At the same time, my understanding of the show’s construction of time felt more magical than “real.” I watched each episode dress itself in a different decade: the first two are shot in black and white, paying tribute to I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and The Dick Van Dyke Show with their presentation of idealized domesticity, high-pitched gasps, laugh-tracked stumbles, and overly emphatic hand gestures. The credits, “live” studio audiences, and newly-introduced color schemes in episode three almost directly mimic those of The Brady Bunch, while costume design in episode five gestures to Full House.
The structure of the show seems to ask itself something similar to what Vision asks Wanda during their magic show: “You’re not at all worried that the audience might just see through this little charade?”
In a cognitive neuropsychology class last year, I read a 2014 study about patients with brain damage who neglect the left side of space. This visual neglect means that these patients fail to acknowledge or respond to stimuli (food, people, objects, etc.) in their left field of vision.
The research team wondered if patients’ inability to attend to the left side of space would translate to a temporal deficit. They argued that people tend to see time on a timeline, with the left side equating to the past, and the right side to the future. Thus, if spatial left-side neglect was also temporal, patients would neglect the left side of the timeline (the past). They seemed to hypothesize correctly, finding that subjects performed better when asked to recall information about a fictional character that occurred in the future (the right side of the timeline), relative to the past (the left side).
The visual neglect study’s interpretation of time as timeline also makes me think about an essay by Leslie Jamison called “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In it, Jamison writes about an ex-boyfriend who called her a “wound dweller.” The phrase implies that “saying” one’s pain, simply taking the time to feel and express it, is wrong — that there is such a thing as “too long,” or “too much.”
A year and a half ago, a professor had recommended I read the piece while I struggled to convey my experience having and recovering from an eating disorder. I’d emailed her asking how I could give myself space to write what I felt, without valorizing the pain that had led to those feelings.
“What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one?” Jamison asks in her essay. The piece gave me permission to be confused, to ask what the difference is between purposefully remaining in pain under the guise of growth, and practicing the vulnerability that an admission of pain allows. It seems to me, now, that a wound offers the promise of reflection, and that dwelling allows one to grow from that same line of thought. Not to purposefully inflict pain, or even to understand why it was there in the first place, but to do something with it while you heal.
Towards the end of my professor’s response to my question, she wrote, “we have a right to claim that part of our story.” I still don’t think I truly understand what she meant.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what Wanda might say about the study or the piece. I was in the middle of the show when I first read it and had slipped and cut my leg while shaving some time before that. I remember thinking about “wound dwellers” as I sat on my bathroom floor at home. I held my wet towel against the lines dribbling down my shin. I felt my blood drip into the lines between the white tiles, upset by its resistance to curdle as it hit the air, ashamed by the fact that I wasn’t sure whether it had been an accident at all.
I wondered how it was possible for me to feel so untethered from my own body. Sometimes wounds interrupt time in the same way that a rope interrupts a magic show, pulling me out of the moment and making time feel like rubber, impossible to move forward when the past starts tugging back. I wondered if it was better to pretend the ropes weren’t there, or acknowledge that they were. And if I did let them show, would that be dwelling, too?
I thought about how it felt to experience WandaVision’s expression of simultaneity: every episode is perfectly situated in its forward-motion between decades, but somehow seems to hold even more space for the decade before. Perhaps, like this, there are people without spatial neglect who still tend to ignore the right side of the metaphorical timeline — a distortion in which one ruminates on the past with no ability to conceptualize the future. Yet, like Wanda herself, the show doesn’t seem at all bothered about its positionality within time and space. Instead, it sits in its own version of the past, leaving me to wonder: what actually constitutes a deficit in being able to comprehend the present reality? Is nostalgia just another kind of wound in which to dwell?
Another symptom of visual neglect is “sticky fixation” — trouble disengaging one’s attention from, particularly, salient targets. I imagine it as a compulsion to see one’s own blood, the moment before your brain realizes that part of the body is bleeding, a constant sense that you are never quite going to feel grounded in your experience of the world.
Maybe it’s more like a mental manifestation of one of those inflatable Velcro sticky-walls that you are supposed to climb, even though the entire purpose is that you are also wearing a Velcro jumpsuit, and thus, can’t actually get anywhere beyond the place upon which your body has chosen to stick.
Or maybe my Cartesian separation of mind and body is a product of a distorted mental timeline or sticky Velcro wall. When the unknowns of the future become paralyzing, my body might feel like it’s falling, but the past has something tangible upon which my mind can stick. Maybe my propensity to dwell is the same reason why each of my impulses is always directed inwards and is never allowed to become anger or anything stronger than just that — dwelling. It is slow-burning shame, slightly raised and red and inflamed.
How long should something hurt until it is supposed to clot?
I’m not sure that WandaVision is really about nostalgia at all.
Or at least, not just about nostalgia. WandaVision quite literally seems to be written in the past tense, forcing me to reconsider my own positionality within time as each new episode begins. The crux of the series — and what makes it stand out from the rest of the superhero-franchise-world — lies within its insistence upon picking at scabs, within its insistence upon recognizing that the past is viscous and begs to be waded through slowly, even when it is painful.
This starts to become clear in episode four, which presents the first taste of the present day in the series. The episode begins when a new character wakes up in a hospital five years after disappearing from the MCU. More than “waking up,” she quite literally materializes, each particle of her body being pulled together onscreen, like a magnet stuck in cement. As she steps into the crowded hospital hallway, she is thrust forward in time — a sensation that gets heightened when a nurse tells her she has been missing for five years.
This unsteadiness only grows as she reconnects with her team, and is assigned to travel to Westview to investigate another group of missing people. The team finds that everyone who enters the town disappears into the pixelated force field surrounding it. As they investigate further, they figure out they can get a signal on a CRT TV to display Wanda and Vision inside their town.
This display, though, is not just a real-time display of Westview, but snippets of the first three WandaVision episodes. Suddenly, both present-day actors and I are thrown back and forth between the real-time confusion about the town and reminders of the ways in which the show centers itself around a world condemned to dwell in the past.
Within these episodes, the team recognizes the missing people as the TV show’s “characters”: including Wanda herself. They lean into the TV and squint. When they see Vision, one character asks, “he’s dead, right?,” alluding to the fact that Vision was previously killed (or technically, disassembled and reprogrammed) in the main MCU.
So how could he be in Westview with Wanda? The team tries to find out by transmitting a signal to Wanda and asking, “Who’s doing this to you?”
On the CRT TV screen, I see Wanda pause when she hears this. She is unable to continue the conversation she’d been having — her discomposure mimicking the audience’s short-circuited feeling of past clashing with present. The present-day and Westview characters all seem to be asking, too, “Whose timeline can we trust?”
This question is particularly unsettling since the show seems to give audiences no choice but to use the present-day, “real-world characters” as a background against which to compare its nostalgic beginning. The scene is a reminder that I’d grown accustomed to WandaVision‘s ability to situate itself in the past, and the sudden introduction of the present forced me to untether myself from that world. I liked watching Wanda and Vision through my own eyes, and watching them through the eyes of these new characters felt voyeuristic. Even the episode title, “We Interrupt This Program,” is a reminder that it is quite literally an interruption to the show’s comforting monotony of late-90’s sitcoms — what had previously become its conception of “normal.”
Even more than an “interruption,” the episode constitutes a loss for Wanda and audience members alike. This loss feels like one to grieve; while Wanda’s life always felt peculiar, once it is filtered through the eyes of new characters, it becomes irrevocably eerie. I see her decade-hopping between episodes not just as a conceit of the show, but as a reflection of the instability of the world around her.
As for audience members? I wondered what else was going on in the story that I had missed. How often do I force my understanding of my own experiences into digestible “magic acts,” as opposed to actual acts of magic — the amorphous feelings I so often try to contain?
My pediatrician handed me the PHQ-9 and GAD-7, depression and anxiety screenings, and asked me to fill them out during my birthday checkup a little over two years ago. I swung my feet into the opening under the exam table, where the office stocked its tools of distraction: puzzles and games and that non-Newtonian fluid I used to call “Oobleck” — the one that resists pressure like a solid, but refuses to be carried.
When she suggested I begin taking Prozac, I wondered if she thought I was dwelling. She didn’t trust my brain’s ability to unstick itself from intrusive thoughts, to climb out of its own pixelated episodes and separate magic from reality.
And why should she try to fix that? Part of me knew my mind had been slowly suffocating the rest of me, while the other part was convinced I just wasn’t making good use of the air I still had left. Another part of me didn’t know how to balance my hope that most wounds would eventually heal in time, with the suspicion that others seem to need to be given permission.
I worried medication would slowly erase me. Like the way my middle school history teacher talked about boiling frogs: only aware of their oncoming death if the boiling water was felt all at once, wholly ignorant when placed in lukewarm water, the heat slowly rising until they have been boiled alive. I know this metaphor isn’t scientifically sound. But what if I stopped recognizing myself so slowly I never even realized it was happening?
Sadness has always had this ability to seep through space and get trapped in time. It is nostalgia for a normal that should never have existed in the first place; laugh tracks that suddenly feel off; the whiplash between stability and the fear that you have never been able to hold yourself like people are somehow supposed to know how to do.
I have always understood “wound-dweller” as an insult for not treating pain as transitory en route to normalcy, but I wonder if sometimes it is alright to be stuck. Maybe that type of dwelling isn’t a slow-burning death, but an acceptance of pain as permanent without allowing it to come to a boil.
Wanda’s comment about the magic show makes me wonder if I only attend to things — even magic — when they feel grounded in something “normal,” or when I can appropriately attach them to a timeline or narrative. It is as though if something is too far removed; an android-man flying without ropes, I am being chucked, still alive, into scalding-hot water — suddenly and irrevocably displaced from our understanding of the present.
Perhaps, though, what is even more terrifying is WandaVision’s slow, eventual fracturing of time and identity, in what postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson might call a “perpetual present.” The show lures us into its disjointed way of looking at the world, gradually making this fracturing feel whole and normal. By the time episode four comes around, with its sudden re-introduction to the present, I had something like time-dysmorphia — the sense that I had no real way of understanding what exactly I neglect from our own timelines or others’.
As the season continues, viewers learn that the first episodes of the show are not about Wanda’s “real” life at all. Or rather, the episodes are about Wanda’s life, but that life isn’t “real.” After Vision’s death, Wanda put a hex on Westview, transforming the town into an altered reality in which she can live with Vision and their children. Perhaps this is both a response to grief itself and a way of neglecting it: the loss of her family, her husband, her old life.
Thus, the core of WandaVision is pain and the way in which we dwell in it, or create our worlds around that feeling. Wanda craves some version of normalcy, and finds it in robotic, spell-cast neighbors and 50’s hoop dresses, and who can blame her? Her desire to surpass pain and re-enter a world in which she is in control — in which normalcy is simultaneously a way to pretend that everything is normal, and to serve as an opportunity to question what the word itself signifies — might be the most relatable aspect of the show.
Of course, as everyone might expect, the world for which she is nostalgic no longer exists (or never existed at all), and the clashing of present-day characters with those in Wanda’s world proves that.
In episode four, the show seems to suggest that even its present-day moments should seem just as offbeat as the show’s beginning. In fact, every time period has been tainted by the knowledge that Wanda’s pain is not transitory, as Leslie Jamison’s ex-boyfriend might want her to believe. Rather, in an attempt to transform pain into normalcy, Wanda has steeped the town in her grief.
In a wild in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.Jameson, 4
If I decide that some wounds are fertile, is it still fetishizing them, or growing from them once they are there? When am I deciding to be consumed by emotional sepsis, and when am I practicing the vulnerability that an admission of pain allows?
Perhaps the thing I struggle with most is that it is those times when I am trying to express struggle or disappointment or hurt that I end up dwelling. I worry that, by using words to avoid being consumed by pain or feeling, I will just give myself something concrete upon which to ruminate. Or worse, that I might inundate everyone else in my life with those same feelings.
It was comforting to me that Wanda seems to struggle with transitions, too: one episode glides into the next decade and the next. Yet, she always seems in control, always unfazed and moving through time as though everything is as it should be. Of course, underneath this is the struggle to maintain that same control, the kind of pain that is constantly threatening to make itself visible, to scream and be loud and be heard. It’s almost relieving when, at the end of the season, it finally does. The spell begins to shatter. Wanda’s neighbors surround her, begging her to let them out of Westview. When she starts to sob, they suffocate.
“Your grief is poisoning us,” they say. “We feel your pain.”
The scene is difficult to watch, and not only because it is a reminder of all the ways in which I could play chicken and egg with these concepts (what comes first: dwelling, or prolonged pain?). Maybe WandaVision is right that there is no “normal,” no style or statue to stand alongside in the world’s museum. Maybe upon interrogation, everything and every feeling we expect to be tangible comes to seem like an emotional composite.
Then again, a magic show is still fun to watch, even when you know it is fake. •