Jaxton Kimble

Jaxton Kimble

- making stuff and rambling about it -

WandaVision at a Remove

Abstract image made of various photo portraits stacked in a staggered fashion atop one another to create the impression of a single person made of many faces.
Image credit: Gerd Altmann

I suppose I should have feelings of one sort or the other about WandaVision’s Emmy noms, but honestly, as interested as I am in how things get made, I’m fundamentally horrible at saying how award-worthiness is or should be achieved. Mostly I’m glad the noms give me an excuse to pull out the disjointed notes I scribbled after watching the show but never turned into anything cohesive.

Part of why all those notes sat around is because there was already so much conversation going on about the series (in my field of view, at least), and I wanted to gnaw on that as well as the series for a bit. Partly it was how little I could find talking about what I was seeing in the work, and I wanted to gnaw a little on that, too. And just like I’m a slow reader, apparently I’m a slow gnaw-er (or is it a gnaw-mond? Let’s just not go with masticator). By the time I felt comfortable with what I thought and why I thought it, the ephemeral cultural moment most MCU events have had passed.

But hey: award season means brief new relevance. Let’s talk WandaVision and dissociative, well, episodes.

Before you waste any more time on my blather, you should take a look at Maya Golden Bethany’s excellent “Wanda Maximoff, Trauma, and the Power of Dissociation” over at Black Girl Nerds. It’s an excellent analysis, has a load of great resources, and helped confirm that I wasn’t reading the text of the show in a way completely at odds with all other critical responses.

What I tended to see were critiques along the axis of Abigail Nussbaum’s deep dive into the ways WandaVision does and doesn’t work. For her, the promise of the show was in the possibility of an anti-villain, as “Wanda, in a fit of grief and loneliness, has created a fantasy world where Vision still lives, and where he and she can have the life that they were denied in reality.” This is also the promise left unfulfilled, as well, when the show refuses to engage with Wanda’s problematic grief and instead provides an ending which declares Wanda “[s]omehow blameless in acts that she freely committed, with full knowledge that they were wrong and hurtful to others.”

This isn’t an unfair critique, especially given that most of the press and interviews about the show lean on ‘this is a show about Wanda’s grief.’ If this was about grief alone (or about neurotypical permutations of grief) then absolutely, 100% Wanda is a villain whose evils are being hand-waved Because Good Guy.

For me, that isn’t the story the bulk of the show winds up telling. Given the language used most often in press about the show, I’m not convinced the showrunners intended all the elements I’m about to suggest, but if WandaVision isn’t a show we can use to discuss stories we don’t mean to / don’t realize we’re telling, I’m hard pressed to think of a better one. Intentional or not,  the creators gave us a show that is, yes, about grief, and about trauma, and about the damage those two things cause. It is also a pretty SFF-classic example of literalizing and externalizing a cerebral concept. In this case: dissociation.

In addition to Bethany’s WandaVision article, The Mayo Clinic has a fairly low-jargon breakdown of the three “major dissociative disorders.” Take a look at those and other sources (please, no one use my lit-crit applications of psychology as a primary source on mental health. References and experts are your friend!), but I’ve boiled things down for the sake of this particular critique:

  • Dissociative Amnesia: “[M]emory loss that’s more severe than normal forgetfulness and that can’t be explained by a medical condition. You can’t recall information about yourself or events and people in your life, especially from a traumatic time.”
  • Depersonalization-derealization disorder: “[A]n ongoing or episodic sense of detachment or being outside yourself — observing your actions, feelings, thoughts and self from a distance as though watching a movie (depersonalization). Other people and things around you may feel detached and foggy or dreamlike, time may be slowed down or sped up, and the world may seem unreal (derealization).”
  • Dissociative Identity Disorder: “Formerly known as multiple personality disorder […] Each identity may have a unique name, personal history and characteristics, including obvious differences in voice, gender, mannerisms and even such physical qualities as the need for eyeglasses.”

My choice of excerpts probably make it obvious where I see parallels in the story WandaVision is telling. I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply all three elements above to various aspects of the story and the people who inhabit it. And while I still agree the show doesn’t earn the ending it seems to want, I’m not sure that — when viewed through this particular lens — it’s quite as easy to declare villainy.

With a dissociative reading, WandaVision’s opening episode, wherein she and Vision don’t remember anything prior to their opening credits — and even then things are fuzzy — isn’t artifice. Her later conversation with NotPietro, and still later walk down memory lane with Agatha, backs this up. In the moment when the world washed out and Wanda Maximoff trotted across the floor in pristine happy homemaker cosplay, she became quite literally unable to remember the events which lead her to that moment.

Wanda has a momentary flash when she sees a transformed federal agent climb out from a manhole at the end of the second episode, and her vocalized denial is certainly an exertion of will. The nature of that will is such that derealization isn’t a metaphor, but a metaphysical manifestation. Time shifts in ways it’s not supposed to, and in hindsight I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe, when Wanda subsequently asks Vision “is this really happening?” that she’s not play-acting for him. In SSFnal tradition, Wanda’s mind and powers are tangled up in one another. The trauma response walling off her memory is buttressed by reality-warping magics that not even centuries-old magical expert Agatha fully understands.

And from Wanda’s perspective, she’s in a world that has much stricter limits than she’s consciously aware of. Given that, it’s logical for her to dismiss “I just changed the entire fabric of reality and reversed time” as, well, not to put too fine a point on it (too late): the label “magical thinking” certainly wouldn’t go wrong in the discussion here.

It’s also relevant that this moment, the first in which Wanda enacts her conscious choice upon the world, is the same moment she becomes pregnant. Part of that is another dissociative coping mechanism (we’ll get to that), but also, whether she’s allowing herself to remember it or not, Wanda had a brief glimpse of her agency. And (look, I’m sorry, but these metaphors are just sitting there staring at me) the nature of her new reality has taken root in her. Her power in all this, her power over literal life, is manifesting.

About that new dissociative element: Vision is a person borne from Wanda. She’ll later tell Vision that he is “my sadness and my hope. But mostly […] my love.” Wanda needed someone to give her a reason to hope and love again. This Vision (W-Vision?) became that person. He sprang forth in a magical explosion which established Westfield, however, before the dissociative amnesia that protects Wanda formed. That protection cracked at the sight of, apparently, a beekeeper. In order to avoid shattering things further while building more protective infrastructure, Wanda’s mind and magics have to find a less sensational method of bringing in reinforcements.

In case I’ve gotten too vague, here’s where I make a case for the third dissociative category: that Wanda’s family are a manifestation of dissociative identity disorder. The show makes clear, over and over again, that Vision, Billy, and Tommy aren’t puppets or automatons. Their will isn’t being subverted in the same way as the victimized residents of Westfield. However much Wanda’s family may have grown from a need to protect / help Wanda with a trauma, once they breathe life, it’s a life of distinct individuals.

That autonomy is actually pretty essential, especially in the case of Billy. As he tells us when visiting Agatha, Billy finds his neighbors “really noisy” inside their heads. Given he mentions this as a contrast to Agatha (who, at this point, is only pretending to be subject to Wanda’s magic), it’s clear Billy can feel the emotional turmoil of his neighbors, even if his inexperience leaves him unable to properly identify what his telepathic powers sense. He knows there’s something painful happening inside his neighbors, but he doesn’t know the source of that pain is his mother.

Wanda, meanwhile, has come to consciously recognize that her powers have affected the residents, but what she can’t do is feel their turmoil. The characters in the show decide that Billy inherited Wanda’s gifts in the way Tommy got Pietro’s. But that doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate. When Vision is in danger, it’s Billy, not Wanda, who senses his emotional distress. And while we might argue that Wanda was distracted at the time, she was distracted by NotPietro, whose own false self she couldn’t telepathically detect. Even when Billy tells her what to look for, Wanda still needs him to tell her where and in what danger Vision was in.

Which brings us back around to the moment Billy was conceived. Her spontaneous pregnancy is part of Wanda’s first slip into self-awareness with regards to Westfield’s nature and her part in it. In generating her magical retcon, it’s reasonable to suggest Wanda also bifurcated her mental abilities. She retained the projecting elements of her telepathic gifts, but Billy was born in part to keep Wanda’s telepathic senses separated. Which means Wanda only has her own experience to draw on. When she arrived in the first episode, she knows she was genuinely happy, and everyone else matches the shiny milieu of the worlds they’re progressing through the same way Wanda does. Given her dissociative amnesia, it’s entirely reasonable for Wanda to assume that, whatever happened and however she did it, she provided the citizens of Westview with the same separation from their pain and trauma that she’s experienced. 

None of this is meant to handwave culpability altogether. Billy and Wanda are keeping secrets from each other, and while that may be partially a function of the dissociation from which they sprang, I don’t think it’s unfair to allow that their failures to communicate — however well-intentioned — hurt people. Badly. I do think, however, those failures are relational / interpersonal rather than individual. And  recognizing the hard divide their separate embodiment creates leaves us with a very a different timeline in regards to what Wanda knows and when she knows it.

This feels like the place to mention another criticism of the show’s worldbuilding, which is that there’s no good reason for WandaVision the show to be broadcast outside the hex Wanda’s hiding in. If the point is to hide away from the trauma of reality, why on Earth would Wanda transmit the goings-on to the outside world?

Again if our framework is “this is Wanda intentionally hiding from her grief,” then no, this absolutely doesn’t work. If, however, we consider the series itself as a sequence of dissociative episodes, it’s not illogical for another dissociation on Wanda’s part to be pieces of her psyche working at cross purposes. Inside the hex, Vision starts to do this quite early on, questioning the veneer of Westfield even as Westfield tries to keep him from recognizing the veneer. Also part of that, I have to assume, is the transmission.

Wanda has suffered a severe mental health crisis as the result of trauma piled upon trauma. And also the result of, let’s be honest, her external support system being pretty damn useless. Seriously, I suppose I can see how the Avengers who survived the snap would have dulled the immediate horror of what Wanda had to do to/for Vision in their own trauma over the intervening 5 years. That still leaves all those people for whom Wanda having to murder the man she loves — and then having to watch him come back to life and die a second time, effectively rendering their mutual sacrifice moot — was just a few days ago. There were a lot of folks who should have been there to help Wanda at the end of Endgame, but other than a brief pat on the back from Hawkeye, nobody did.

(You don’t even have to look far: MCU Sam Wilson — whom Wanda worked with from Age of Ultron, through Civil War, and into the offscreen build up of her relationship with Vision as part of Cap’s underground Avengers crew in the space before Infinity War — is canonically experienced dealing with / aware of the lasting impact of trauma and supporting PTSD survivors. I enjoyed the budding bromance of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, too, but Sam knew Bucky for all of a hot minute before he wound up on ice, so if he’s going to make time to help someone recover…)

The WandaVision broadcast inside the MCU Disney+ series WandaVision is a literally-broadcast cry for help. It’s hidden, like so much of the world of the Hex, to protect Wanda much like her dissociative amnesia is trying to shield her from the whole picture. Like Vision, however, this other part of the system (network?) she’s now part of knows there’s more to the world than what exists in the restrictive 4:3 box Wanda’s trying to survive in (Yes, the aspect ratio is an homage to the shows made using them, but I’d argue this is one of the ways it’s also doing narrative work).

Speaking of Vision, a dissociative reading of the show lends an even stronger resonance to the much-ballyhooed Ship of Theseus debate which plays a role in the final episode of WandaVision. Wanda’s primary arc for the show arises from the fact that she has (unconsciously) jettisoned her life experiences in an effort to find happiness. Wanda at the start is her own, easily-imprinted-on shell. She slips from one paradigm to the next as programming updates, until the point at which she agrees to take on the parts of herself she had previously rejected. It’s at this point that she becomes … still not exactly Wanda. It’s meaningful, if also a ham-handed naming backstory, that Wanda’s rise from her dark night of the soul moment sees her assume a new identity, as The Scarlet Witch is made from all the pieces of herself previously lost.

Sadly, for all that the bulk of the series trades in the language of dissociation, the whole thing begins to disintegrate in multiple ways once Agatha Harkness officially enters the picture (with a catchy tune that nevertheless reminds me of the opening gag of How Star Trek Into Darkness Should Have Ended).

After all the layered elements of a complex, troubled system have entered the world, the show gives us Agatha, who has all the nuance of a vacuum. The show is ultimately only interested in her as ‘greedy person trying to take Wanda’s power,’ and partially, as others have pointed out, as a way to say ‘Wanda’s not that bad.’ I agree with the suggestion — in comments on the Nussbaum essay I linked to above, though I’m not sure that’s the only place — that there was a painfully missed opportunity in having Agatha be actual factual, instead of yet another layer of Wanda’s dissociation, a last-ditch effort from her mind to alleviate her culpability in the harm she’s done.

There’s a way Agatha still works with the dissociative / mental health model, insofar as Agatha is the permanent embodiment of what Wanda has temporarily become: a person bereft of empathy, a person who does not recognize the layers of humanity in any human who is not herself. Agatha has been self-aware of that part of herself, however, for hundreds of years.

And Agatha as object lesson does nothing to earn Wanda’s blithe declaration that she’s effectively innocent because she “didn’t know what she was doing.” That lets her off the hook far more easily than the breadth and depth of harm she’s caused. I want to make clear that, as much as I think looking at the show through the lens of dissociation changes the context in important ways, I don’t believe Wanda’s dissociation leaves her utterly free of responsibility for the harm her magically-enhanced coping mechanisms wrought. The victims of Wanda’s power are not freed of the trauma of it by knowing “she didn’t mean to.” As I tried to allude when discussing the Billy / Wanda disconnect: mitigation isn’t abrogation. In any show which wants to meaningfully discuss trauma and mental health, it’s a fundamental failure to insist that intent negates impact.

In point of fact, the reason why Wanda’s dissociation cannot continue, unlike beneficial dissociative responses which trauma sufferers have developed in order to manage their trauma internally, is her impact. Wanda’s episode(s) are externalized. She is salving her pain by subjecting others to it. That’s not therapeutic. It’s maladaptive.

And this is the biggest stumbling block the series has. Like with Agatha, the showrunners (or the MCU corporate hivemind; it’s worth recognizing that no one takes on one of these projects without dozens — at least — of different hands in the mix) opt for simple over complex. They want the trappings of dissociation without plotting a course that requires the very real work Wanda needs to do to avoid that dissociation harming others again. She can’t work to prevent that outcome without finding the agency to do so, and she can’t properly claim that agency without owning responsibility for the outcomes that result when she — intentionally or no — cedes it.

I suppose someone could argue that Wanda’s “I’m the Scarlet Witch” moment is meant to be the flashy magical equivalent of profound therapy. I even noted above that it’s not about Wanda going ‘back to normal,’ but about her embracing a new identity and shouldering the power that comes with it. Setting aside the tired magical cure trope (in and of itself no easy task, but for the sake of argument…), we’re still left with Scarlet Witch Wanda, whose previous actions have been absolved via ‘she didn’t know,’ then knowingly using that very same tactic on Agatha.

If you’re trying to convince me that Scarlet Witch Wanda has come out the other side of this ready to do the hard work of making sure her dissociation no longer harms people, I’m at a loss for how intentionally causing the very same harm is meant to alleviate my concerns.

In my headcanon, the end credits scene might serve as the foundation for what WandaVision’s finale left undone. We see Wanda sipping a warm drink and trying to find some measure of peace and introspection – a way to avoid the catalysts of future harm. And we see another member of the Maximoff system — Scarlet Witch — working to solve the magical problem of how to reclaim the lost parts of their family / system – a way to control and inhibit the vector of potential harm. 

Then again, that’s just as likely to be me imposing my own narrative on things, which itself feels like learning the wrong lessons.

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