WandaVision and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Are Having a Spellbinding Conversation About Nostalgia

Wanda Maximoff and Sabrina Morningstar.
Wanda Maximoff and Sabrina Morningstar.
Screenshot: Disney+, Netflix

Dramatically different as Wanda Maximofff and Sabrina Spellman’s respective paths to the small screen were, the most recent seasons of both Disney+’s WandaVision and Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina have been particularly keen on telling stories about our relationships with television and nostalgia.

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Unlike WandaVision—with its conceit about characters from all across Marvel’s Cinematic Universe being trapped within a warped sitcom realityChilling Adventures of Sabrina took a more circuitous route to framing television as a medium, and nostalgia, for some of the series’ Big Bads. After multiple seasons of coming into her own power as she dealt with demons and other witches from hell, Sabrina Spellman became something of a near-deity in the series when she managed to cause a time paradox that created two distinct versions of her. One, Sabrina Morningstar, chose to become to the queen of Hell, while the other, the Sabrina Spellman we came to know, elected to live among mortals as a powerful teenage witch.

Illustration for article titled WandaVision and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Are Having a Spellbinding Conversation About Nostalgia

The sheer scale of the threats facing the Sabrinas and the residents of Greendale increased exponentially in Chilling Adventures’ fourth and final season. The series introduced the Eldritch Terrors, a group of malevolent, primordial, magical beings older than existence who were first teased back in the show’s second season. The threat that the Eldritch Terrors pose to the universe makes all of Chilling Adventures’ fights and squabbles prior to their arrival seem like petty and unimportant distractions from the real danger at hand (not to mention something that likely would have been teased out more elegantly had the show lasted a bit longer).

The eight Eldritch Terrors represented a kind of Endgame territory in the sense that each evil was meant to hype viewers up to the series finale in which Sabrina faced the Void, the all-consuming terror with the ability to gobble everything in existence. Terrifying as the Void was meant to be, the most fascinating of the Terrors ended up being the Endless, an entropy-averse entity who fashions an alternate reality vaguely modeled after ABC’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch series from the mid-‘90s.

Much like Wanda Maximoff’s journey into Westview, Sabrina’s trip into the void is an exercise in multilayered nostalgia aimed both at its characters and at the audiences who watched these shows. Beyond its lighter tone and canned laugh tracks, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s biggest nostalgic plays came in the form of Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, who reprised their roles as Aunts Hilda and Zelda Spellman within the Void alongside a talking, animatronic cat version of Salem (here voiced by Luke Cook).

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What’s fascinating about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and WandaVision’s forays into meta-storytelling is how the two series found different ways to turn the nostalgia we feel into the very literal menaces threatening heroes we’re meant to cheer for. When Sabrina first steps into the Endless’ sitcom universe through a mirror, the show’s comedic callbacks to its ABC predecessor mean little to her because she’s got no real frame of reference for them outside of her own reality. To Sabrina, the Endless’ inescapable TV set and her aunts being portrayed by women she doesn’t recognize is the sort of mildly concerning twist of fate she’s grown accustomed to encountering as she flits across dimensions. To audiences, though, it was all meant to be a set of silly in-jokes harkening back to the days when millions of people made a point of watching whatever blocks of programming ABC aired on Friday nights.

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Sabrina meeting the actresses who portray her aunts in an alternate dimension.
Sabrina meeting the actresses who portray her aunts in an alternate dimension.
Image: Netflix

WandaVision’s most recent episode, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular” not only aped that same sort of TGIF energy, but also made its go at recasting jokes by way of Evan Peters’ inexplicably resurrected Pietro, who acknowledges the strangeness of his existence even within the larger context of the Westview Hex. Because WandaVision’s been drawing from the stories of Marvel’s comics and real-world sitcoms like Bewitched, Growing Pains, and Malcolm in the Middle, the nostalgic spell it’s attempting to weave is somewhat more multifaceted than Sabrina’s, of course, but the core ideas about the dangers of losing one’s self to notalgia are not only present, they’re more pronounced. They’re also clearly intended for viewers to internalize to an extent because of the feelings we bring to the viewing experience from what we know from the real-world about episodic storytelling.

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One of the more puzzling critiques of WandaVision to come out just after the show first released a whole four weeks and five episodes ago, was that, by leading with Wanda and Vision living fully in the thrall of the Hex without much explanation, the show wasn’t doing enough to keep people interested. The trailers we were given, and the nature of how mystery stories unfold, should have been clues that actually watching the show week-to-week would end up being a pretty important part of appreciating the story. However, part of what the show is up against in the modern era of streaming is that many viewers have grown accustomed to consuming entire seasons of content in a single sitting the moment they drop.

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Like most of Marvel’s projects, WandaVision’s absolutely littered with a bevy of Easter eggs carefully placed throughout each episode in ways meant to enhance the textual story and to wink at the characters’ classic arcs that fans have trained themselves into diligently hunting for. There is no one “right” way to consume a show or movie, but to focus only on finding WandaVision’s tricks and ties to the larger MCU is to wholly miss the time and energy the creators put into exploring Wanda navigating her trauma and embracing a level of agency largely missing from her previous appearances in Marvel’s media.

Binge-watching (a term we should perhaps reconsider using in the grand scheme of things) WandaVision might make it infinitely easier for “those fans” to quickly catalog every single nod or reference to the different, beloved half hours of television that shaped millions of people’s ideas about what family and belonging mean. But to what end? Part of what WandaVision has ended up doing is inviting viewers to conceive of a reality where the warm, fuzzy feelings of familiarity that people can get from losing themselves in television can be a profound kind of arrested development. That’s part of the subtext that’s present whenever Wanda or whoever WandaVision’s “true” villain alters Westview to look and feel like yet another fictional program that they’ve hit the remote to shift to. It’s also present when Sabrina eventually realizes which of her co-stars is actually the Endless’ physical form.

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Pietro and Tommy showing up as Quicksilvers in WandaVision.
Pietro and Tommy showing up as Quicksilvers in WandaVision.
Image: Disney+/Marvel

Sabrina’s multi-episode encounter with the Endless served as Chilling Adventures’ way of finally weaving in elements of the ‘90s series that had previously been passed over in favor of the Netflix series’ darker, horror-focused tone. Even though the series doesn’t build out on its version of a TV reality as much as WandaVision does, by the time Sabrina realizes the Endless took sitcom Salem’s form in order to riff on the idea of a never-ending show, many of its important points about nostalgia had already been made just in time for the series to come to a close.

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It’s difficult to say just how much of Chilling Adventures’ time spent dabbling in meta-narratives really resonated with viewers, but it feels safe to say that much of what the show was trying to do with the Endless went somewhat glossed over. This is in part because people might not have been expecting it, but also because it was tucked away at the tail end of a show audiences have been encouraged to rush through since it began streaming.

Regardless of how one feels about WandaVision, it’s difficult to deny that its weekly format has given people reason to keep watching and the time and space to sit with, break down, and appreciate the many concepts that it’s working with: chief among them that burying oneself in fantasy in order to disengage with reality is deeply unhealthy.

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This is likely only going to continue to be the case as WandaVision’s final three episodes bring the series to a finale that has the potential the change everything about the MCU’s future going forward. Even if it doesn’t, the journey was worth it.

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Charles Pulliam-Moore is an NYC-based culture critic whose work centers on fandom, pop culture, politics, race, and sexuality. He still thinks Cyclops made a few valid points.

DISCUSSION

katiekeys
katie_keys

Regardless of how one feels about WandaVision, it’s difficult to deny that its weekly format has given people reason to keep watching and the time and space to sit with, break down, and appreciate the many concepts that it’s working with: chief among them that burying oneself in fantasy in order to disengage with reality is deeply unhealthy.

Yeah but it’s all I have right now, mid-pandemic.

It’s a really weird time to be watching such a show.

Anyway, the only thing the weekly installments do is build anticipation and keep Disney+ subscribers around.   It’s plenty possible to sit with and break down tv shows and enjoy them on several levels even with a binge show.  For example, the seven or eight times I watched Daredevil S1 or even the three times I viewed The Witcher.