How Meta Sitcoms and The Truman Show Shape WandaVision’s Stages of Grief

Once WandaVision’s sitcom conceit was established, it seemed likely that Wanda Maximoff’s decade-by-decade tour through the medium would culminate in a meta homage to Modern Family and other modern series in which the studio audience has been replaced by a documentary camera crew. After all, what more obvious format than the self-aware sitcom to show Wanda reaching the realization that all of this was her doing?

Yet WandaVision made sure that this inevitable confrontation was still surprising… because when Wanda started talking to the cameras, they talked back. That is, it was Agatha (all along) behind the lens, weaponizing the meta sitcom format in order to interrogate the younger witch about how Westview came to be. But Agatha’s breaking of the fourth wall isn’t what popped Wanda’s sitcom bubble—the Avenger-turned-TV-archetype undermined herself when she first created this world of reruns in which to grieve the loss of Vision.

Because Wanda never accounted for the presence of an audience.

Spoilers for WandaVision.

Like many immigrants, Wanda learned English from television. Sitcoms are literally another language to her, not just in vocabulary but also in terms of diction—which explains why for so much of WandaVision she speaks in the stilted but accent-less style of the all-American housewives she’s emulating. Yet despite Wanda’s clear affinity for the medium and the hyper-detail with which she transforms Westview, her scope is incomplete. Yes, there are hundreds of sitcoms, and Wanda has clearly fixated on the subgenre of family-centric series—so shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, despite their Avengers-esque found families, are automatically out—but even so, the homages hit a hard stop before things get too contemporary… or too self-aware.

The Westview in which Wanda wants to hide with her family is modeled after the classic sitcoms that the Maximoff family watched together: episodic stories populated with familiar characters, that staunchly maintain the status quo—“by the end of the episode you realize it was all a bad dream,” young Wanda tells Pietro in a memory, “none of it was real.”

Wanda can certainly communicate in this language, but she hasn’t attained fluency, or on a subconscious level she refuses to do so. What she seeks is a self-perpetuating world of reruns, a comfort watch to return to where the characters remain in exactly the same place—a narrative that, while technically “filmed before a live studio audience,” doesn’t have to acknowledge those viewers. At first this seems an odd choice for Wanda, having been on the other side of the television set—but that’s grief, irrational and specific. Wanda creates a bubble in which to grieve privately, away from the other Avengers or people reuniting after the Blip.

And while Wanda’s intent is to fill this bubble with the sitcom formula that comforted her through childhood trauma and loss after loss, it’s worth noting that the construction of the Hex brings to mind a different yet parallel influence: The Truman Show, screenwriter Andrew Niccol’s late-1990s psychological dramedy about a man who spends his entire first thirty years in front of hidden cameras, the unwitting star of a show revolving around him. Despite creating this world, Wanda doesn’t anticipate that anyone will tune in, nor the ways in which having an audience—SWORD, Monica, Agatha, Westview’s residents, and even Vision himself—will force her through the stages of grief.

 

DENIAL
1×01 “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”
1×02 “Don’t Touch That Dial”

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show denial

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

It’s obvious that Wanda has no idea how she has gotten here, only that she and Vision must carry out the premise: A newlywed couple just moved to town / A regular husband and wife, as the snappy theme song (from Frozen team and married duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) croons. Their love story, while bizarre, has undeniable heart; their motivations are clear-cut: How will this duo fit in and fulfill all? / By sharing a love like you’ve never seen. They wholeheartedly embrace this premise while deliberately not asking nor answering any questions about how they came to be in this situation(-comedy).

Each episode’s urgent dilemma—“don’t let the neighbors find out we’re superheroes”—also provides them with plausible deniability: This is the secret most worth protecting, and nothing else outside of it matters—not a SWORD drone in the bushes, and certainly not a SWORD employee creepily popping out of the sewer. Instead—oh, look! Wanda’s pregnant! And the focus turns back inward.

 

ANGER
1×03 “Now in Color”
1×04 “We Interrupt This Program”

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show anger

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Despite her protestations, Wanda is at least subconsciously aware of what she’s done, seeding in subliminal messages to herself. The commercials, initially clever MCU Easter eggs, grow more pointed with Hydra Soak: Escape to a world all your own, where your problems float away. When you wanna get away, but you don’t wanna go anywhere. Hydra Soak, find the goddess within. Yes, there’s a supposed Hydra soap that could insert false memories into people—but also this ad is literally describing Westview, and even hinting at the Scarlet Witch.

Then there’s the episode itself: The accelerated pregnancy plotline is a dig at familiar sitcom tropes in and of itself, even before adding on the layer of Wanda trying to hide her condition from Geraldine through the use of roomy coats and conveniently-placed bowls of fruit—a nod to the unintentionally-meta practice of TV shows trying to write around their stars’ unexpected pregnancies.

But at the same time, SWORD is actively trying to breach the barriers of the Hex, hopping on radio frequencies and forcing Wanda to cut and edit the broadcast to hide them. Each time, Wanda’s hackles are raised as she must abandon her cheery denial to acknowledge that, even if she doesn’t know how this world was created, she doesn’t want the “series” to end.

Her anger finds a specific target in poor Geraldine, a.k.a. Monica Rambeau: Following the twins’ birth, the SWORD agent comes back to her real-world self enough to mention Pietro, and Ultron, and Wanda’s life outside of Westview. Note that this is the first time that Wanda drops the sitcom voice, as her Sokovian accent comes through as undeniably as those radio messages. Even as she forcibly propels Monica out of the Hex, Wanda has lost the ability to retreat into denial; she has no choice but to keep moving through the stages.

Making it worse is the fact that Vision is starting to notice that things are off in Westview. Early on in “Now in Color,” before he confesses that “I think something’s wrong here, Wanda,” Vision glances ever-so-briefly at the camera—a moment that I only caught upon rewatching, and that made me scream almost as much as when the Hot Priest does it in Fleabag season 2. In both cases, it’s the love interest doing what had previously only been available to the female lead—following her gaze to whatever it is offscreen that provides an exit from this (fabricated) world.

“Now in Color” ends on another one of those jarring cuts, where the broadcast goes straight from Geraldine’s last line and Wanda’s mama-bear protectiveness to the happy couple with their new additions beaming over the end credits. But “We Interrupt This Program” shows us what didn’t make it to air: After embracing her anger and removing Geraldine, Wanda’s own illusion is briefly shattered when she looks at Vision and sees him in his true form, as a corpse. It’s only a brief moment before she recovers enough to change his appearance back to looking “alive,” but it’s clear at this point that this is just mental spackling.

 

BARGAINING
1×05 “On a Very Special Episode…”

1×06 “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!”

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show bargaining

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

With Wanda’s control over Westview shaken, the theme songs take on a more desperate note, even as they reiterate the need for this unconventional family unit to take care of each other and somehow figure everything out along the way:

Crossin’ our fingers, singin’ a song
We’re makin’ it up as we go along
Through the highs and the lows
We’ll be right, we’ll be wrong
We’re makin’ it up as we go along

Wanda is reaching full self-awareness; the commercial for Lagos paper towels (Lagos: For when you make a mess you didn’t mean to) makes it clear that she’s reflecting on past catastrophes and realizing just how badly she’s messed up with the Westview anomaly. Yet Wanda does not seem ready on her own to give up her fantasy home.

So Agatha forces the issue, with a Very Special Episode.

In sitcom history, the Very Special Episode was an early attempt at meta-outreach to viewers, with episodes tackling of-the-moment issues (such as addiction, eating disorders, and abuse/pedophilia) in an effort to encourage awareness and discussion between families watching at home. Often, the episode would be preceded by a title card warning of the content therein, or a brief message after the story was resolved. In the latter case, a cast member might address the viewers—often on set or in costume, a mix of in- and out-of-character—sharing information about suicide hotlines or other resources that might be necessary after watching these scenarios.

While the Very Special Episode trend peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, it counts among its examples Family Ties, the inspiration for WandaVision episode 5 and a series which had—wouldn’t you know—a landmark episode about coping with grief. Now, Alex P. Keaton didn’t have to watch his beloved die twice (once by his own hand), but he does suffer from survivor’s guilt after a petty fight saved him from a fatal car crash.

Agatha knows that it’s too soon for a Very Special Episode about losing your synthezoid soulmate, so instead she goes for the dog. RIP Sparky, but his loss prompts an important talk with the twins about not aging themselves up even if “the urge to run from this feeling is powerful.” Wanda is trying to bargain with her children about being present in grief and following rules, which is a laughable return to her own denial in episode 1: “I’m trying to tell you that there are rules in life. We can’t rush aging just because it’s convenient. And we can’t reverse death, no matter how sad it makes us. Some things are forever.”

Then SWORD brings a missile drone to the bargaining table.

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

SWORD’s breaking of the fourth wall is unconventional in that it’s the viewer seeking a way into the fictional reality rather than the program reaching outward to its audience. Wanda has no choice but to match that break with her own, literally passing through one of the Hex’s six barriers to confront Hayward and Monica. The manner in which she strides out in full Avengers!Wanda garb, dragging the puny SWORD drone (that has been transformed into a child’s toy) and sternly warning them—in full Sokovian accent, stripped of the jokey sitcom patter—brings to mind those Very Special Episode endings, except instead of offering a hotline she’s trying to cut all communications with SWORD.

The visual is also bizarrely reminiscent of The Truman Show’s inciting incident, in which one morning a star drops from the sky—a spotlight plummeting to false earth, prompting Truman Burbank to look up at what he does not yet realize is the artificial dome encapsulating his entire thirty years of existence. Written and set in a world that had not yet fallen under the spell of reality television, Niccol’s cautionary tale constructs an entire cheery, classic-Americana town called Seahaven Island, where life revolves around its unsuspecting star. From the womb through adolescence to his first questioning looks into the mirror, Truman’s entire life has been documented for an audience that remains mostly invisible (save for a few attempts to break the fourth wall) to him.

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show

Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

Yet at the same time, an in-universe behind-the-scenes documentary reveals to movie viewers that the entire world is in on this social experiment: that Seahaven Island is a massive dome squatting in the Hollywood Hills, staffed by thousands and overseen by the genius mastermind Christof, who spends most of his time watching over Truman—and keeping him in line—from the artificial moon mounted high up in the dome. Wanda throwing the drone at Hayward’s feet looks less like puzzled Truman cradling a fallen star and more like steely Christof confronted with an interloper trying to breach his narrative. She doesn’t need to bargain with SWORD because in that moment, she has all the power; like Christof, she literally controls the elements and borders of Westview and what happens outside the Hex, turning Hayward’s guns on him with a gesture.

And then, like Christof retreating to his base in the moon, Wanda walks back into the Hex. Because—and here is key—she is still not mentally or emotionally ready to break the fourth wall within Westview itself.

One of my very favorite moments in WandaVision is the “end credits” in “On a Very Special Episode…”: Wanda trying to utilize this sitcom convention to shut Vision up for the night, and instead he just talks over them, stripping them of their power. It brings to mind Adult Swim’s genius sitcom parody Too Many Cooks so vividly that I half-expected to see the killer lurking on the stairs in the background.

And then, of course, they’re interrupted by something that Wanda didn’t do: the return of her supposedly-dead brother Pietro. Both his recasting, with the X-Men movies’ Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and the crossover he represents between the 20th Century Fox movies (now subsumed into Walt Disney!) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are more nods to subtle meta moments in sitcom history. When Darrin was recast on Bewitched, there was also no explanation; a new face took over a familiar role, and viewers were just expected to go along with it. Similarly, TV crossovers grew out of an external need for network cross-promotion, these implausible or ambitious storylines dictated by ratings requirements.

By the time we get to the 1990s/2000s by way of “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!”, the theme song doesn’t even pretend like it’s anything but frantic damage control. Gone are the cheery introductions, and it’s just a hysterically upbeat plea:

Don’t try to fight the chaos
Don’t question what you’ve done
The game can try to play us
Don’t let it stop the fun

Some days it’s all confusion
Easy come and easy go
But if it’s all illusion
Sit back, enjoy the show

Let’s keep it going
Let’s keep it going

The shift to Malcolm in the Middle also takes the control out of Wanda’s hands, albeit in a red herring fashion, since it seems as if her and Vision’s superpowered children are the ones reframing the narrative. Like Malcolm and his brothers, they break the fourth wall in inconsistent bursts, addressing the viewer to comment about how things seem off. Yet being children, it’s not Westview they’re questioning, only their parents fighting: Vision and Wanda talking around their issues, him bargaining with her to “Be good” even as she’s doubting the limits of her control.

Vision’s eerie encounter with Agatha at the edge of town seems an even more obvious Truman Show reference, especially her bleakly droning, “Small towns…” to Vision, with the unsaid never let you leave, and especially knowing in hindsight that Agatha was just pretending to be glamoured by Wanda—she probably planned that little homage herself! Not to mention the fact that she probably knew how appropriate the reference was, as The Truman Show came out in 1998 and could have been playing in the Westview theater at the time of the episode.

When it’s Vision who unsuccessfully tries to break through the Hex, its electromagnetic waves beating against him like the storm that would rather drown Truman than let him escape Seahaven, Wanda keeps him alive by expanding Westview’s borders. In the same way The Truman Show, after ten thousand episodes, has maintained its relevance by establishing a Truman Bar selling the show’s beer and other merch, Westview necessarily must keep encroaching on the real world in order to stay functional. Honestly, once WandaVision established that Vision will die outside of the Hex, I’m surprised that the series didn’t have Wanda grappling with whether to just keep expanding Westview until it took over an entire country, or continent, in order to give Vision more of a world in which to exist.

What the expansion does do is prove that Wanda’s capacity for bargaining is breaking down, and that this creator and showrunner needs to get some pushback from her audience—and so, finally, Agatha breaks the fourth wall.

 

DEPRESSION
1×07 “Breaking the Fourth Wall”
1×08 “Previously On…”

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show depression

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

“Previously On…” makes a point of confirming each specific sitcom homage, from the Maximoffs’ trunk of DVD box sets featuring Bewitched to The Dick Van Dyke Show stored in a secret compartment, to The Brady Bunch playing on Wanda’s TV in her Hydra cell, to laughing over Malcolm in the Middle reruns with Vision at the Avengers compound. But Modern Family is never mentioned, despite the show being seven years into its run at the time of Captain America: Civil War. Sure, there’s always the chance that Wanda watched it while jetlagged in Edinburgh before the chaos of Avengers: Infinity War kicked off, yet that’s never corroborated. So when she appears in a pitch-perfect Claire Dunphy impression, seeming confused at how her house keeps cycling between sitcom eras, it becomes clear that Westview is no longer under her sole control.

Think closely about the premise of Modern Family: It’s a mockumentary in the style of The Office, except instead of a workplace it’s ostensibly depicting a contemporary clan in all their diversity and idiosyncrasies. And while it purports to be filming for posterity, there seems a clear bias toward, well, mocking them. For all that Wanda claims to be taking a rest day for her powers, she’s clearly as subject to the glitches in this world as anyone else; milk and furniture shapeshift around her like a cruel trick, and she can only react. Agnes weaponizes this meta filter to solve the mystery of how Wanda did all this—what more perfect use of the confessional format than to interrogate the beleaguered housewife using the conceit of documentary?

Agatha, who was never under Wanda’s control and played the nosy neighbor role to perfection.

Agatha, who has lived through every single sitcom era depicted.

Agatha, who is appalled that Wanda doesn’t even know the basics of witchcraft. Magic is another shared language between them, one in which Wanda has yet to pick up basic phrases, let alone attain fluency. By luring Wanda to her basement, in which she traps her with runes and forces them into a clip show of Wanda’s memories, Agatha finally establishes the series’ much-needed context—for the sitcoms, yes, but most crucially as a fellow witch.

Confronting the empty living room sets and staring into a studio audience devoid of viewers should push Wanda into the final, inevitable stage of grief that is acceptance—but first, there has to be an epic MCU battle.

 

ACCEPTANCE
1×09 “The Series Finale”

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show acceptance

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

What does feel inevitable about the WandaVision series finale is how Wanda uses Agatha’s runes against her—how she escalates Agatha’s warding of the basement into warding the entire Hex against the other witch, so that Agatha becomes as powerless as any other Westview resident. But where Agatha succeeds is in keeping Wanda from starting the stages of grief over again and hiding back in denial: She gives all of the Westview people their voices back, so that they can beg Wanda to reunite them with their lost loved ones, or to simply let them die rather than keep playing out her twisted reruns.

No longer can Wanda convince herself that this was all a victimless crime, that it was only her grieving in private. When Agatha arrived, when SWORD tapped in, when Vision became self-aware, it became public. Wanda couldn’t play out a fantasy in front of imaginary cameras without acknowledging the people who, like her younger self, watched from the other side and were affected by her story.

The Truman Show ends with Truman willing to die in the storm if it will get him that much closer to the edge of his world. Even when he stands in front of the door that will irreparably break the fourth wall, Christof pleads with him: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world that I created for you. The same lives, the same deceit, but in my world, you have nothing to fear.” Not so for Wanda—Monica and Agnes have both confronted her unwillingness to engage with the truth of her existence, and convinced her that it is more worthwhile to embrace that difficult truth than to pretend like the Westview fiction can replace it.

With Truman’s departure, Seahaven Island becomes an artifact of an experiment that ultimately ran its course. But Westview cannot similarly remain as a shell because (save for the house) it was not created out of nothing. Part of Wanda’s acceptance is erasing every sign of her presence, reducing WandaVision to something akin to an episode of a TV show that a few viewers caught once, in the late hours, so fleeting that they almost think they dreamt it.

WandaVision five stages of grief meta sitcoms The Truman Show

Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

And while Truman’s parting words to his creator are a final sign-off of his ten-thousand-day catchphrase to loyal viewers—“Good morning! And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”—Wanda and Vision’s goodbye is private. The broadcast has long since been cut, so they are allowed to process this moment of finally letting go between just the two of them, with the hope that they are meant to meet again, in which “we’ll just keep saying hello to each other.” It’s not the promise of a rerun, but the possibility of a reboot.

Natalie Zutter still wants to see the Avengers as the cast of HIMYM, but in the meantime, talk WandaVision and other meta TV with her on Twitter!

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