Superheroes WandaVision

Sharing the Stage with “Real Persons,” Not “Characters”: Reflections on WandaVision, Episode 4

WandaVision goes mega-meta with its fourth episode, “We Interrupt This Program,” and raises questions about empathy’s importance.

WandaVision goes mega-meta with its fourth episode, “We Interrupt This Program.”

Much of the action revolves around the S.W.O.R.D. response team stationed outside Westview (and forced to stay outside by a mysterious energy field) huddled around screens and monitors, watching the series’ previous three episodes and trying to make sense of what it all means—just like we’ve been doing.

Intentional or not, the team’s intense scrutiny of the strange transmission from Westview is a parody of the way fans will spend great amounts of time and energy absorbing their favorite content, combing through it for details and clues they’ve missed, speculating about its deeper significance, and growing attached to the alternate world it presents. As Dr. Darcy Lewis (played again by Kat Dennings with stupendous snark) tells FBI Agent James Woo (delightfully reprised by Randall Park) when he gives her a sideways glance for calling the birth of Wanda’s twins a “twist,” “What? I’m invested!”

If deliberately done, the episode’s teasing of fans seems affectionate. I certainly count myself among those whose noses are being lovingly tweaked. I watched the episode three times myself before writing this blog post! I recognize firsthand the S.W.O.R.D. team’s behaviors: looking up who plays what role (see the previous paragraph)… scribbling down notes and questions (though I don’t use a big whiteboard to do so)… spinning hypotheses on the fly (as Woo does regarding the surveillance drone’s transformation to toy helicopter: “To go with the production design?”). And my investment in the Marvel universe is only a fraction of my longer-term investment in the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars.

But even if this ribbing is good-natured, I can’t help wondering whether there’s a word of caution here, too—for everyone, not just for fans.

Westview as a World Without Empathy

As Dr. Lewis watches Wanda talking with Dottie in episode 2, she tells Agent Woo Wanda is “with another character.” Woo gently pushes back: “Real person.” He remembers everyone in Westview is a missing persons case.

The way Woo corrects Lewis’ word choice seems worth more than a chuckle. It also raises a question about how she relates to the events she’s watching.

At some points—her initial recognition of Vision, and her acknowledgement the transmission’s decade-shifting “can’t be purely for my enjoyment”—she remains aware the people she’s seeing on screen are “real persons.” But at other points—her studio audience-like reaction to Vis and Wanda’s kiss at the close of episode 1, her engrossment in the “plot” (“I can’t believe Wanda and Vision are having a baby!”)—she does relate to what’s unfolding on screen primarily as entertainment.

If, as I suggested last week, WandaVision reminds us we all assume we’re the “stars” of our own ongoing “shows,” it may also be asking us to consider those around us as more than our “supporting cast,” present only to entertain us or make us look and feel good.

Last week, Vision suggested Billy as a baby’s name in tribute to William Shakespeare, then quoted As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players…” (II.7.139-140).

In its original context, the line begins a monologue musing on human life’s fleeting nature. But in WandaVision it could offer a thematic key.

Like each one of us, the people around us are all stars on their own stage. They are not, or at least ought not to be treated like, “merely players” on ours.

This assertion doesn’t seem especially deep or profound. But it does require we exercise a certain amount of empathy toward those around us, and in recent years, empathy has been on the decline.

Westview could be a metaphor for declining empathy’s inevitable outcome: a closed-off, almost completely insular world where we, like Wanda, “have everything under control.” In these self-created, sealed-off existences, we relate to others only as they reinforce our sense of self and of reality.

And woe to those who challenge it! It’s no accident Wanda forcibly ejects “Geraldine” as soon as the latter mentions Ultron—a reference to an outside world Wanda has rejected (presumably because it holds too much pain for her: Pietro’s death, Vision’s death, and losses of which we may not yet know). When “Geraldine” asserts, however haltingly and partially, her actual identity as Captain Monica Rambeau, agent of S.W.O.R.D., Wanda rejects her:

You’re not my neighbor. And you’re definitely not my friend. You are a stranger and an outsider. And right now, you are trespassing here. And I want you to leave.

The magical push Wanda gives Monica out of Westview only reflects the emotional push Wanda has already given, a push her lack of empathy for one she regarded as “neighbor” and “friend” makes possible.

A few caveats: We may learn Wanda has excellent in-story reasons for having created Westview. By questioning her potential for empathy, I’m not suggesting there are never any circumstances in which protecting ourselves, physically and emotionally, must be our first priority.

And my reading of this sequence doesn’t readily account for the distrust we saw Herb and Agnes express over the wall to Vision about “Geraldine” in episode 3. Nor does it help us understand why we’ve seen sequences in Westview from other people’s points of view—Vision’s day at the office in episode 1, Dottie and Phil’s exchange during the power outage in episode 3. (Perhaps when we discover who or what is controlling the transmission—ooh, shades of The Outer Limits!—all will become clear.)

But I’m still intrigued by Westview’s potential to represent the way our lack of empathy can shrink our world (much as the collapsing warp bubble in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Remember Me” can serve as a parable of our temptation to create “universes of one.”)

Laugh With, Not At, Agent Woo

Westview may be the culmination of an empathy deficit. The episode also shows us seeds of how such a deficit begins.

On several occasions, Agent Woo attempts to make meaningful connections with those around him, only to be rebuffed:

  • When he tries to tell Monica Rambeau about his childhood interest in law enforcement (“Other kids had Michael Jordan Posters on their walls, but I had Eliot Ness”), she shuts him down. She only wanted to know why they, unlike the police officers, were aware of Westview.
  • When Tyler Hayward suggests someone “back in Quantico” must miss Woo, Woo assures him no one does because “softball season’s over,” suggesting the FBI only values him for his athletic skills.
  • When Lewis asks Woo if he “wants any,” he assumes she’s talking about children, when she only meant potato chips and doesn’t want to know about his dreams of giving “a tiny little FBI badge” to a son someday.

I know these moments are only meant for laughs. And I did laugh! But I also felt sorry for Woo.

Maybe he’s not the most skilled at reading social situations. But does he deserve to be scoffed at, sighed at, and silenced? Neither Lewis nor Hayward laugh at him—but couldn’t they at least laugh along with him?

Instead, Lewis’ remark to the chemical engineer in the S.W.O.R.D. “clown car” seems to sum up her attitude about others: “No one cares.”

“No one cares”—a succinct definition of empathy’s absence, and possibly a motto that leads to threats and disasters for everyone. We shall see, as the mystery of Westview continues to unfold.

What are your thoughts about WandaVision so far? Let’s chat in the comments below!

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