With its sixth episode, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular!,” WandaVision crossed into the 21st century, replacing the laugh-tracked reality created by its all-powerful heroine with the single-camera format that has come to dominate TV throughout the past two decades. But while the series tipped its hat to sitcom evolution with its opening credits (a riff on Malcolm in the Middle, which debuted in 2000), another of the series’ influences passed by unremarked. The movie theater in Westview’s town square may be playing a double feature of The Incredibles and Lindsay Lohan’s remake of The Parent Trap, but there’s no questioning which movie’s world Westview is actually in: 1999’s The Matrix.
In A Glitch in the Matrix, a new documentary centered on people who believe that what we see as reality is actually a computer simulation, one subject describes his recurring vision: He’s wandered outside the active area of the simulation to find figures frozen, body stiff, arms outstretched, in a T-pose—the default position for 3D animation, the resting state to which computer characters return when the program stops giving them instructions. That’s the same version of reality that Wanda’s husband, Vision—or whatever we’re supposed to call the figure that looks like him and seems to carry his consciousness—finds when he wanders toward the edges of Westview, the bubble that Wanda has created to shield herself from the truth of Vision’s death. With Wanda’s attention captured elsewhere, Vision strays into areas that haven’t been prepped for his arrival, where he finds people frozen in place or trapped in a loop, repeating the same actions over and over again.
In The Matrix, these repetitions—specifically those of the black cat that Neo sees cross his path twice—are evidence that the simulation has been rewritten, like the overlapping edges of a drawing that’s been ripped up and taped back together. But in WandaVision, they’re more like an instance of what video game designers and computer animators call frustum culling, the practice of removing objects as they slip outside the player’s or the camera’s field of vision to reduce the processing power needed to render a scene. (If you’ve ever moved a video game controller too rapidly and watched the terrain shift from amorphous blocks of color to a more detailed environment, you know the phenomenon already.)
Simulation theory often seems like it lies on a continuum between philosophical exercise and intellectual masturbation: If the simulation is so convincing and inescapable that we can’t tell it from our reality (whatever that might be), then everything we do or feel within the simulation has as much weight as it would if it were real in the first place. But this concept takes a darker turn when a person places themselves at the center of the simulation, the axis on which the virtual world turns; they can’t verify the existence of other people, but surely they exist themselves.
“Even in The Matrix films, most people are actually tethered to a body in a pod up there someplace,” Glitch director Rodney Ascher explained, shortly before the film premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January. “But there’s other conceptions of the world where another person is more or less the same as a chair or a car. It’s just lights and numbers flickering around you, and that assumption can have enormous consequences.” (One of Ascher’s subjects is Joshua Cooke, who killed his parents after coming to believe he was actually living in the Matrix.)
Wanda knows that the other people around her are real (or at least many of them are), but she doesn’t appreciate being reminded of it, especially when confronting the unsimulated deaths of her husband and brother. During a flashback to their childhood in the fictional war-torn country of Sokovia from Wanda’s twin brother Pietro’s perspective, gunfire rings in the background, as the twins beg for Halloween treats; when Wanda questions his recollection of the event, Pietro responds, “You probably suppressed a lot of the trauma.” Simulation theory is founded in computers’ ability to create an increasingly convincing version of the real world, but this theory is just the latest iteration of an idea that goes back as far as Plato’s allegory of the cave, driven by a sense that there is something wrong with the world, and that it might be preferable to inhabit a different world entirely. In her grief, Wanda has rewritten not only her reality but also her own mind, to the extent that she doesn’t remember who she actually is. But as the series moves on, inching ever closer to the present day, it’s become clearer to her, and to us, what she’s done to her world, and to the other people in it.
With the possible exceptions of Vision and Pietro, the inhabitants of Westview are real people, their minds and bodies hijacked as they’re unwittingly cast in Wanda’s reboot of reality. Sometimes they don’t seem to know what’s happened to them, ignorantly inhabiting a two-dimensional world akin to The Dick Van Dyke Show or Family Ties as if it’s the only one they’ve ever known. But when the simulation cracks enough to let their real consciousnesses through, what Wanda’s human playthings experience is anguish and terror. It’s one thing when everyone’s stuck in the same simulation; it’s quite another when the simulation is programmed from the inside, like a video game in which only one player has the cheat codes. Living in a sitcom seems like a laugh, but for those who can’t escape, it’s more like a laugh-tracked version of hell.