In simple terms, the narrator is the one that tells the story to the audience. When we say this word we might think of a wise man with Morgan Freeman’s voice that narrates incredible tales while everyone else sits around a bonfire and listens.
But what if the wise man was drunk, or naive, or biased? That would make him an unreliable narrator. And if that’s the case, what would happen to the story he was telling?
Let’s see how the writers of Marvel’s Wandavision created the perfect example of an unreliable narrator through Wanda Maximoff.
What is an unreliable narrator?
An unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller, he/she distorts the events of the story (intentionally or not), leading the audience to draw the wrong conclusion.
Wanda Maximoff is a great example of an unreliable narrator because of two things:
we see the story through her eyes
what she shows us is not always true
It sounds simple enough but let’s break it down anyway.
We see the story from her point of view (in the first episodes) because she’s the one “broadcasting” it. The first three episodes of Wandavision are also the first three episodes of her “sitcom”, so what we’re seeing is what our narrator (Wanda) wants us to see.
And speaking of what Wanda wants… well… she doesn’t want us to know the truth.
We, as part of the audience of the show, are thrown into an unfamiliar reality without an explanation (aka the story begins in medias res). Everything we see is fake and real at the same time, just like this version of The Vision.
Wanda Maximoff, not fully knowing the extent of her powers, has manipulated reality to resemble some of the sitcoms she used to watch with her family. But, even if the 70’s hairstyles are technically “part of reality”, the characters and storylines she has fabricated are not real.
What the audience sees is a microcosm of Wanda Maximoff’s imagination. Half-truth, and half-lie.
Wandavision and Point of view
The first sign of an unreliable narrator is the point of view of the story. Right from the start, we are seeing things through Wanda Maximoff’s eyes with the occasional aside from Vision.
The neighbors of the happy couple don’t get to say their opinion on what’s happening, they don’t get their own subplots and act like NPCs in a video game the whole time. It’s not until episode 4 that we get the perspective of people from the outside.
After episode 4, the story still revolves around the mystery of how this new “reality” came to be. Was it Wanda Maximoff? Was it the generic evil government guy? Is someone else controlling the Scarlet Witch from a distance?
What makes Wanda a good example of an unreliable narrator is, in part, the way she manipulates the audience through the story.
Everything we experience in the first 3 episodes (from the aspect ratio to the colors, the set design, and even the opening sequences and the end credits) it’s all “manipulated” by Wanda.
We, as the audience, think that we’re solving a puzzle but in reality, we’re being lead through a myriad of red herrings that are meant to distract us.
Control the source of information
But if the point of view of the protagonist makes a narrator untrustworthy, what makes Wandavision different from other MCU stories? What makes Wanda Maximoff an example of an unreliable narrator?
Spider-Man far from home is told from Peter’s point of view, so isn’t that the same thing?
Well, Peter is not an unreliable narrator because his story is told as it is. The audience knows what Peter and the other characters know. The real difference between an unreliable narrator and a reliable one is how information is given to the audience. And, most importantly, which information is NOT being given.
If we’re talking about a story that’s told from the point of view of the protagonist, like Wandavision, we can say that the protagonist itself is the source of information.
And what makes Wanda Maximoff an example of an unreliable narrator is precisely the fact that she can control that information.
In far from home Peter doesn’t “choose” what we can see and what we can’t, but, in Wandavision, Wanda omits the part that comes before the “sitcom world”, she can “cut” whenever something doesn’t go her way.
She’s the one telling the story and he’s the one deciding what story she’s telling.
The intentions of the narrator
As I said before, Wanda doesn’t want us to know the truth. She wants to live her blissed sitcom family life without being disturbed by the outside world, so she intentionally “lies” through the storylines of her show.
Does this make her untrustworthy? Yes, she lies very often. Sometimes to Vision, sometimes to the audience, and sometimes to both.
So this brings us to another important aspect of the “unreliability” of the narrator: her intentions.
Is she hiding things on purpose, or is she just a victim of circumstances? Is she genuinely trying to tell us the true story from her point of view, or is she manipulating us?
When the unreliable narrator loses control
Usually, the narrator has complete control over the story he’s telling.
He can choose to tell us what the other characters say, do, think, want etc… and it’s up to them to decide if they’re going to report what actually happened or a fictional version of the fact.
Wanda Maximoff goes a step further: she forces the characters to live out the stories she wants to tell.
But what happens when this control starts to fade?
In stories with a different example of an unreliable narrator when the cracks start to show the audience begins to put everything into question.
In Wandavision, however, not just the audience, but the characters themselves begin to investigate.
Vision realizes that the people around them aren’t acting like normal neighbors, so he functions as a surrogate audience member who is trying to figure out the truth.
Meanwhile, Monica Rambeau is the unrefutable proof of Wanda’s lies.
Ultimately, the loss of control brings us the core message of the story about moving on from grief.
While she was the one in charge of “the show” Wanda Maximoff, being an example of an unreliable narrator, could change the narrative and the theme of the show however she wanted.
But after episode 4 she doesn’t have that kind of control, which means that someone else is in charge of the show.
Wanda tries as hard as she can to bring things back to the way they were, but an external force (in the form of Agatha) keeps her from restoring the status quo.
And here’s where Wandavision’s writing is so good: the message of the writers of the show (the real ones) is in conflict with the message of the unreliable narrator.
Wanda wants to live in a world of fiction to avoid facing her grief, while the writers want her to face the painful reality of her losses and move on. This conflict creates a tug-of-war between Wanda Maximoff and the writers for who gets to take control of the narrative.