We don’t want justice in a story. We want the authors to know what justice might look like.
Wanda Maximoff has done a very bad thing.
As the finale of WandaVision, the Marvel TV series that bears her name and airs on Disney+, wraps up its story, the superpowered witch has begun to realize the extent of the hex she cast over the town of Westview, New Jersey. The citizens of the town, wholly innocent and unsuspecting, have awakened from a dreamlike state that lasted several days and caused them to reenact old sitcoms, for the amusement of an audience who didn’t really exist. (Well, technically, we were the audience, but I sure hope nobody in Westview knows about us.)
Notably, when the hex was established, Wanda didn’t realize the extent of what was happening. She was as trapped by her sitcom world as anybody else. But then she slowly began to understand the truth, while also realizing the hex was directly tied to the existence of her husband (the synthezoid Vision, dead in “actual” reality) and her children (wholly inventions of the hex). And she kept the whole thing going because she couldn’t bear to lose them.
In the finale, Wanda finally sees the pain she has spread, as the citizens of Westview plead with her to kill them, to free their children from the bedrooms the kids had been imprisoned in for the sake of a fake TV show, to make sense of what she had done to them. Wanda doesn’t know how to say anything. “They hate me,” she offers, and, yeah, probably.
Though both the series and Wanda seem to realize she’s done something horrible, the former seems determined to justify her motivations, if not her actions. Her grief at a life where everyone she loved was ripped away from her is so all-consuming that of course she imprisoned a bunch of people in a sitcom. Who wouldn’t?
“They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them,” says Monica Rambeau, the closest thing WandaVision has to an audience surrogate (a character designed to reflect how the audience is probably feeling about things and subtly direct those feelings in certain ways). This is true. I doubt anybody could understand what it means to have your magically created husband and children simply dissolve into thin air. But it also so privileges the emotions and drives of the show’s protagonist over those of any other characters that it feels as though WandaVision is writing off the very obvious horrors Wanda visited on this town.
I’m not really here to relitigate the finale, which has been endlessly argued about. I think WandaVision was deeply irresponsible in how it handled this plot point, creating a scenario where it all but sidled up to telling an abuser that she’s okay because her motives were okay. It didn’t cross that line, but that it came close is unsettling.
But many of the arguments about the finale have centered on what should have happened to Wanda, as though she were a real person who must be brought to justice. And because Marvel is telling one giant interconnected story with every movie and TV show it releases, it can, in theory, have Wanda face judgment for these actions years from now and retroactively seem to justify the storytelling choices made here.
I think these arguments are missing an important point. Wanda is a fictional character. By definition, she cannot face actual justice. But increasingly, we struggle to talk about fictional characters within the fictional contexts they exist in. We debate the military strategies of Game of Thrones characters and argue about the morality and political positions of all sorts of superheroes.
Yet these characters are all created, and they exist in universes that are constructed. Within those universes, the storytellers who create these stories are, functionally, gods. When we say we want Wanda Maximoff to face justice, I think what we’re really saying is that we want the storytellers to show us they know what justice would be, even if she doesn’t face it.
We want, in other words, story karma.
Story karma, defined
I first encountered the term “story karma” in talking to Joel Fields, the co-showrunner of The Americans, in the wake of that show’s series finale. As the writers of The Americans were deciding how to end their story, they had to grapple with the fact that their main characters — Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a pair of Soviet super spies posing as a married American couple — had both killed lots and lots and lots of innocent people and figured out a way to avert tensions in a way that allowed for continued rapprochement between the US and USSR. Though their story played out on a much larger scale than yours or mine, they had been responsible for very bad and very good things.
What true “justice” might have looked like for Philip and Elizabeth was going to prison. They did, after all, murder a bunch of people, no matter how pure their motivations might have seemed. The two probably would have considered themselves soldiers in a war without end, and the rules of traditional morality get bent in a war. Yet few of the people they killed were other spies. Too often, they were just people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the characters were also the protagonists of their series, and viewers had seen them fall in love all over again. We had watched them care for their kids and form a friendship with the FBI agent across the street. We had seen them at their most human, so many viewers found some part of themselves wanting them to get away with what they had done. Yes, they had done terrible things, but it often seemed like they felt bad about it. That counts for something. Right?
When Fields mentioned story karma to me, this is what he was talking about — how do you find a way to punish Philip and Elizabeth for their sins without punishing them too much? (Karma within Hinduism or Buddhism is a more layered concept than a simple binary between good and bad behavior or punishment and reward. I’m using the term in the colloquial sense of good actions or bad actions being repaid in kind, but you should feel free to think of this concept as “story justice” or whatever makes the most sense to you.)
To my mind, the solution The Americans came up with (which I won’t spoil here) was an elegant one. You might disagree because we’ve all got different ideas of how to balance these moral ledgers. But I think we’d agree that the writers of The Americans clearly thought long and hard about what “justice” might look like.
The protagonist of any story takes both moral and immoral actions across the course of that story, and the storyteller’s responsibility is to understand which actions are which — and, more importantly, to signal to the audience that they have actually thought about this. We will go along with the worst, most venal protagonist alive if we know the storyteller knows their protagonist is awful. The second that level of understanding starts to slip, however, it becomes much easier to doubt the storyteller knows what they’re doing. We want our gods to be just. We know they aren’t always. But we want them to know when they’ve screwed up.
The use of story karma differs from story to story. In some cases, an exact balancing of the moral scales is called for. (Star Wars, with its very clear-cut good-versus-evil binary, might be a good example.) In others, good or innocent people will be asked to suffer endlessly because that is what the story requires of them. (Think of the Stark kids from Game of Thrones.) In still others, horrible people will get away with horrible things. (Think of Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad’s Walter White.) In all of these cases, the storytellers tipped their hands to say, “Yes, we know what’s going on,” which made it easier to just enjoy the ride.
I would also argue that narrative proximity is a key part of story karma, especially in long-form serialized narratives, where viewers will only sit with something awful for so long before they start to turn on the story. For instance, in the second season of Breaking Bad, Walter White commits a grievous sin: He lets Jane, the girlfriend of his meth-making partner Jesse, choke to death on her own vomit. He doesn’t directly kill her (as he does several other people throughout the show to that point), but her death is straightforwardly a product of his inaction. We know Jane. We know what she means to Jesse. Walter’s lethal idleness hits us hard.
Breaking Bad doesn’t provide direct retribution for Walter’s actions for many, many episodes. But in the episode immediately following Jane’s death, it still tips its hand. Jane’s father works as an air traffic controller, and in his grief over her death, he gets sloppy. Two planes collide in midair. People die, and the debris from the crash rains down over Walter’s backyard. It’s as clear a sign imaginable from the gods — a.k.a. the storytellers — that Walter’s sins are considerable, and he is going to pay for them. Maybe just not yet.
A lack of story karma can make a story deeply unsatisfying
Now, Breaking Bad is maybe the best-balanced TV series in history in terms of story karma. I don’t love that show in the way that some do, but it was always clear that its writers knew what was good, what was evil, and when a good motive might excuse an evil act. Most importantly, they knew that even if Walter’s original motives for cooking meth were pure — he wanted to provide for his family after his death — those motives didn’t absolve him of the horrible things he did.
Compare Breaking Bad to WandaVision, a series that seems trapped by its refusal to acknowledge its protagonist’s culpability in events beyond having her feel really bad about what she did, you guys. The loss of her husband and children, which should theoretically offset her karmic ledger, doesn’t hit as hard because it’s a direct consequence of her immoral actions. Sure, she’s sad, but that loss is an offshoot of her original sin.
What many WandaVision viewers are waiting for is that plane crash in the sky, that reassurance from the show’s storytellers that they know what she did was just that awful. In that case, Wanda could get away with far worse, and we’d all breathe easier, knowing that somebody somewhere had their eye on the scales of justice.
In saying this, I’m aware of how easy it would be to interpret all of the above as “A character has to pay for their bad actions somewhere down the line, ideally pretty soon after they commit those actions.” But I don’t mean that at all. The Sopranos spent season after season allowing Tony to chalk up an ever-increasing moral debt that it never, ever bothered to collect on.
Yet it was incredibly clear throughout that The Sopranos’ writers knew just how bad the guy could be, and they nodded, frequently, to something we all know to be true: Sometimes, horrible people get away with stuff. What’s more, they tied Tony’s awfulness to the smaller, pettier sins any of us commit in our lives, when our selfishness or envy blinds us to the harm we cause to others.
Where our tales of the fantastical, particularly superhero tales, fall short is in their frequent struggle to understand that even if their stories involve larger-than-life characters and situations, the moral framework we expect them to exist within is basically the same as our own. The further we get into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, the harder it becomes to ignore the way it nurtures a near-fascistic sense that a powerful being should be allowed to do what they want, so long as they feel kinda bad about the collateral damage at the end of the day.
Mistaking (what the protagonist assumes to be) good motivations for good actions is perhaps the most deeply American thing about Marvel’s cinematic storytelling, and they’ve proved wildly popular worldwide, because all of us can twist any given bad thing we do into a good thing if we think hard enough about all of the reasons we might have done it that aren’t motivated by our own worst qualities. Wanda Maximoff lived under the weight of considerable grief, and in that grief, she did something awful. We’ve all had some version of that in our lives. But that doesn’t excuse our bad actions amid that grief.
That’s why WandaVision’s finale made me finally give up on the idea of the MCU ever understanding the stories it’s trying to tell beyond the most superficial level. Many of these movies are entertaining, but beyond Black Panther (which at least tries to wrestle with the weight of colonialism and the ways in which the affluent have responsibilities to those without) and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (which has a go at talking about legacies of familial abuse), none of them do more than pay lip service to complicated ideas.
Most of us are first introduced to stories as simple tales of moral instruction, in which our parents and teachers tell us tales meant to provide us with a firm understanding of what is right and what is wrong. As we grow, we understand that not all stories have to have tidy morals at the end, but we never quite lose the sense that stories have a moral dimension. When we hear a story, we don’t always need its gods to be just, but we do want to know they exist.
Author: Emily VanDerWerff