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A Vision of the Reality We Wan(da)t Part 2: How ‘WandaVision’ Uses the Sitcom Format to Explore Trauma and Grief

In my previous analysis, I talked about how WandaVision uses the study of nostalgia. More specifically, I explored the different theories around nostalgia, such as why people become nostalgic, the different types of nostalgia, and how nostalgia can be harmful when you use it as the answer to your problems, not a tool, a jumping-off point, or a means to an end. Now, we continue that conversation and see how WandaVision uses nostalgic beloved sitcom TV shows, and with them, their tropes and unique characteristics, to explore trauma and grief.

Origin and Purpose of the U.S. Family Sitcom

The rise in popularity of family sitcoms from the 1950s to 1970s was because Americans wanted to come home from work to the suburbs and distract themselves from their problems. With a few conflicts, exceptions in sitcoms rarely “rocked the boat” in terms of moral lessons or themes, and their conflicts were contained within one episode. They reflected society and did not seek to question anything unlike modern sitcoms and TV shows today.

As TV historian Saul Austerlitz writes, “the family sitcom, which emerged at the tail end of the 1940s, alongside television itself, bore witness to the conformism borne of the horrors of the Second World War. They reflected people’s yearnings for stability and normalcy, inventing the narrative form we now call the family sitcom, situating the action in a white middle-class, nuclear family, with a husband as patriarchal breadwinner, and a wife as a happy homemaker.” However, very few people had what was shown in family sitcoms, whether it be a happy, healthy family life, wealth, or unchanging lives. Regardless, the shows reflected Americans’ wish that their lives were peaceful, prosperous, and eternally unchanging.

Similar to Americans’ obsession with sitcoms to take their minds off of real-world problems, Wanda living in an actual sitcom is her refusal to confront years of trauma and grief. Instead of dealing with it, she uses sitcoms as coping mechanisms. Wanda learned this at a young age. In episode 8 where Wanda is forced against her own will to finally confront her trauma, the audience sees Wanda’s parents turning on The Dick Van Dyke Show to distract their family from the violence and civil war going on outside of their home.

In fact, throughout the eighth episode, we see that with each life-changing event, growing up in a war-torn country, her parents getting killed in a missile strike, her exposing her powers to an infinity stone from human experiments by Hydra (Marvel’s fictional version of the Nazi Party), the death of her brother, and her first superhero mission failing in Lagos, she watches sitcoms to cope with the events.

“It’s not that kind of show”

As stated above until recently, sitcoms reflected society; they did not shape society. Moral lessons have always been the backbone of sitcoms. Most sitcoms upheld societal norms such as “obey your parents” (Father Knows Best) to universally accepted ideas like “what makes hard work worth it is the relationships you build with your coworkers” (Parks and Rec, The Office, etc). On the otherland, drama shows were the place to question norms, from shows like The Wire, Orange is the New Black, Black Mirror, Mr. Robot, or This Is Us. Traditionally sitcoms were episodic, not serial storylines. In other words, everything goes back to normal in episodic sitcoms. Conflicts are played out for comedic effect because consequences lacked any real lasting effect and stakes were low.

Wanda herself recognizes the difference in stake for a sitcom versus a drama show. In episode 8, in a flashback, Wanda and Vision are watching Malcolm in the Middle after her brother Pietro has died. In the sitcom, a terrace falls on top of a character on screen. As a sentient robot, Vision is visibly concerned for the character, not knowing “Hollywood logic,” and asks Wanda if the character is hurt. Wanda reassures Vision that the character will be fine. Vision asks how Wanda knows. Wanda replies, “It’s not that kind of show.” Wanda understands injuries in sitcoms are played for comedic effect and do not hurt the character. The sitcom world is uneventful and without consequence. Wanda craves a boring life as seen in sitcoms because “sitcom stakes” are low compared to what she has dealt with in her life. Wanda has massive amounts of PTSD starting when she was 10 years old. Therefore, switching to a world where the stakes are  “impressing your husband’s boss by cooking a home-cooked meal” instead of her reality where the stakes were “only you can save the universe but to do so you have to kill your soulmate” is appealing. In fact, there is evidence that there is a link between trauma, grief, and conflict avoidance.

Filming Techniques

Like in real life, grief seeps in when you least expect it. Throughout the season there are weird moments in each episode that don’t belong in the historical sitcom world. During the sitcom-based episodes, the filming techniques match the decade featured. Tracking shots, laugh track, color, and commercials are all used to comment on the perseverance of grief.

For example, the first episode is set in the 1950s. The creators only used 1950s filming techniques which included basic medium shots and static shots. They rarely include any movement, and switching between perspectives was limited due to limited editing technology. When reality leaks into the world,  the camera picks up more modern-day filming techniques like multicamera tracking shots, close-up angles, and zooming in. There is no laugh track or music, just silence. In fact, throughout the season, the laugh track disappears when Wanda is reminded of her painful past or her hopeless present.

Commenting on the moments where reality seeps into Wanda’s World, actress Elizabeth Olsen compares the series to The Twilight Zone in the official behind-the-scenes documentary, commenting on the jump off the genre-blending in the 50s and 60s episodes. In order for the audience to get a sense that something is off in Wanda’s world, we take camera tricks from The Twilight Zone to make you feel off-kilter. Paul Bethany, who plays Vision, comments on the camera tricks, saying, “It’s so much fun to have gone through all these multi-camera sitcom stuff. You’re shooting in a very familiar way, right? Very static cameras. And then suddenly, when you cut to an angle that should be there or a camera move that would never appear in sitcoms of that certain decade you really feel the cognitive dissonance. It’s a great storytelling tool.”

Now in Color

The disappearance and reappearance of color serve as an indicator of Wanda’s grip on the world. When Wanda creates her sitcom world, the only figure in color is her. Then, she sees Vision alive and welcoming her home with a smile, like a loved one welcoming a soldier home from war. In one of the most heartbreaking scene changes, we see Wanda, swallowed by years of untreated trauma, surrender herself to her fantasy. We see Wanda wearing colorized modern clothes, eyes red from crying, and a sad look on her face. Then, we see a black and white high-heeled foot stepping into the sitcom frame as the camera pans up to show a black and white Wanda dolled up as a 1950s housewife with pinned-up hair, pearl earrings, and a classic pearl necklace with the biggest smile on her face.

Color reappears in the form of a blinking red toaster light, a red toy helicopter, and blood from a cut on a neighbor’s hand. Color acts as a warning to Wanda and the audience of what’s missing. The third appearance of color, blood, is especially important because the neighbor gets a cut on her hand from smashing a glass. The neighbor smashes the glass in surprise after Wanda receives a radio transmission from the world outside of her sitcom world, directly reminding her of the reality she left behind. After these three glaring objections to her simple black and white world (both in a literal and metaphorical way), Wanda makes her world into colors similar to how 1960s sitcoms changed to color. On a deeper level, now that Wanda’s sitcom reality is all color, blood and pain won’t be a sign that she’s living in a fantasy world.

The Season Finale: A Wedding to Oneself

Sitcoms and comedy TV shows often end in big, climatic weddings or romantic gestures. This goes back to Shakespeare, which serves as a storytelling foundation for many western stories. As anyone who has studied the playwright knows, Shakespeare comedies end with weddings, while tragedies end with funerals. What makes WandaVision’s finale so unique is that its romantic gesture is a funeral because WandaVision is a tragedy disguised as a comedy.

Wanda is forced to confront her lifetime of grief in the second to last episode. It is in that episode where audiences discover that Wanda created her sitcom reality after discovering Vision had bought an empty plot for them to grow old together in Westview, NJ. While standing in the empty plot thinking of the long life with Vision she was denied, she finally confronts the deaths of her parents, brother, and soulmate. Because Wanda has not properly processed each one and has an entire lifetime of grief bottled up, grief overwhelms her. She unintentionally creates her sitcom reality. For 8/9 episodes, Wanda clings on to this alternate reality to fulfill Vision’s last wish for them to grow old together, hence each episode is set in a different decade.

In the final episode, Wanda accepts her past and therefore owns her identity fully embracing her powers. By embracing her identity as a superpowered individual, Wanda takes responsibility for the mess she created. And because she is a hero, she sets things right, freeing WestView from her sitcom reality. In turn, she sacrifices her life with Vision and her kids as they are tied to her reality.

One of the ending scenes of the season finale is Wanda looking out from her homes as the walls that confined her reality close in on her and turn everything back to normal. The walls move slowly but steadily, surrounding her as if to mirror how grief can’t be escaped. It comes slowly, and then all at once, boxing the grieving person in. After the walls of her reality finally come crashing on her the audience sees Wanda standing in the once again empty plot in the exact same stance before she creates her sitcom reality. Having these two parallel shots reveals that the show is arguing that grief literally freezes people in time. It is only through addressing grief that one can move on.

In conclusion, audiences may have tuned into WandaVision to preview what’s in store for MCU Phase Four, but instead got taught a powerful lesson that grief is like a wave. Grief comes to the shore no matter how hard you try to stop it. No amount of superpower will help. You can either get swept up when it returns to the ocean, or use it to refresh your mind and body. Loss is tragic, but what’s more tragic is the avoidance of acceptance and responsibility to regain faith in oneself. And as Vision tells Wanda, what is grief if not love persevering?

Emily Berg

Seattle U '21

Hey all! My name is Emily. I'm a marketing major. I just came back to Seattle after participating in the spring 2019 Disney College Program and then studying abroad in London the following semester. On campus I am a writer for Seattle University’s HerCampus chapter and the president of Women in Business. When I'm not on campus, you can find me cooking up new dishes, learning a new song on the piano, or seeing the latest movie or theatre show. I love going on new adventures whether it be in my hometown of Portland, in Seattle or the newest city I visit.
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