I was in a theater conservatory program in college. One day I was moving into a dorm in New York City’s East Village. A few days later I trekked across town to my first day of training in a nondescript second floor studio space amongst the warehouses and unmarked nightclubs of Chelsea’s meatpacking district. Our syllabus had the sorts of classes you’d expect from an acting school; Script Analysis, Movement, Voice, Speech, Performance Technique, but there was one class listed that I could not figure out: Repetition.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around what that could mean. Some kind of meditation thing? Well, I didn’t need to wait long, because it was my very first class. The class was simple: it revolved around playing a little game, the Repetition Game. You sit across from a partner, you look at them, and you say something about them (“you have brown hair” or “you’re upset”). Then, while maintaining a constant tempo, they say something about you. This goes back and forth, and ideally, you say something new about them each time. If you can’t think of something new to say, you repeat back at them what they said about you. Repetition.
The joke goes that the Repetition Game just devolves into the two players robotically repeating “You’re wearing a red shirt” over and over (it is always, always “you’re wearing a red shirt”). So what’s the point of this game? It’s been twenty years, so my memory might not be 100% accurate, but the point of the game is twofold: first, it demands that you place your attention off of yourself and onto your partner, and second, the tempo that it demands short-circuits your ability to second-guess yourself, making you speak before you think. These are very useful skills for an actor to have, in that they keep you from getting self-conscious about what you’re doing, and you stay honest. These are also things that make you vulnerable, which is catnip to an audience.
Now, you’re likely wondering, fascinating as this is, what the heck does it have to do with Tom King and Gabriel Hernández Walta’s (with Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles) The Vision? It’s simply this: in much the same way as The Repetition Game breaks down a player’s linguistic hesitancy, King uses repeated words and phrases in the mouths of both his synthezoid and human characters, often in times of great stress, in order to blur the lines between what we expect of biological and synthetic characters.
The most prominent example of this technique is in Virginia, Vision’s wife and inheritor of Wanda Maximoff’s brainwaves, and in my opinion, the protagonist of the comic. Her repetitions start in issue #1, following a visit from their neighbors, George and Nora, and they have a disagreement about Virginia’s description of them as “kind.”
Virginia and Vision go back and forth disagreeing about the fundamental meanings of the words they speak (and I should point out that, despite their theoretically having coequal status in their family, Vision takes on a decidedly patriarchal and didactic tone), but ultimately, Vision’s greater wealth of experience trumps Virginia’s naiveté and she capitulates, whereupon they have a conciliatory repetition of the phrase “they seemed nice.”
Toward the end of the issue, Eric Williams, the mentally ill brother of Simon Williams and the supervillain known as The Grim Reaper, breaks into their home and attacks Virginia and her children, Viv and Vin. He repeats the phrase “You are not real!” and the word “imposters” (Vision’s brainwaves began as a copy of Simon Williams’ and Eric has some issues coping with that fact). Eric’s repetition is an instance of the madness mantra trope (think The Shining’s page after page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” or Bart Simpson’s “Can’t sleep. Clown’ll eat me.”) After he injures Viv with his reaper’s scythe, Viv begins repeating the word “mother?” over and over.
Here, King and Walta juxtapose two kinds of repetition. Grim Reaper’s madness mantra serves to dehumanize him, to reduce him to the status of a malfunctioning machine. Note how Walta and Bellaire render his costume as a dull gray, with the metallic sheen of his scythe reflected visually in the stainless steel refrigerator in the Visions’ kitchen. Meanwhile, Viv and Vin are bathed in the light of the late afternoon sun, their skin a lively red, their clothing and hair a bright, healthy green. The repeated “mother?,” while literally the repetitions of a malfunctioning machine, evoke a strong sense of pathos, as Viv’s humanity supersedes any perception of her as a mere robot, a thing. When Virginia attacks Eric and kills him, she repeats “no! no!” over and over, and again, King’s writing blurs the lines between a machine in a mad loop of faulty programming and the desperation of a terrified mother.
In issue #2, Virginia tells Vision a rehearsed lie about the fight with The Grim Reaper, out of fear that law enforcement will see her as a dangerous machine if they learn the truth. Her speech is perfect, without a stutter or repetition, until Vision interrupts her by noting that The Grim Reaper’s scythe makes a buzzing feeling when passing through a phased synthezoid. Caught unaware, Viv amends her meticulously rehearsed speech with a repetition, “Yes. Yes, I noticed this. It buzzes.” It’s after this point that Virginia develops a stutter.
Before I go further, I want to explore the trope of the logic bomb: a computer or artificial intelligence is told something that’s illogical or fed contradictory instructions and then descends into a cycle of errors, mimicking madness, until it eventually self-destructs or explodes. Prime examples of this are several episodes of Star Trek, where Kirk outhinks a slew of supercomputers (Nomad, M-5, and Landru, just off the top of my head), but perhaps the most captivating version of this is 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL-9000.
Canadian actor Douglas Rain’s vocal performance as HAL is arguably the most memorable part of the film and almost certainly serves as a strong influence on King’s writing of his synthezoid characters. HAL’s words as he dies are heartbreaking, in that we recognize in them a fundamental and relatable humanity in a film that is largely sterile and impersonal. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it.” In HAL’s case, the logic bomb is set when he receives contradictory orders to hide important details from his ship’s crew, but also not to withhold anything from them.
In Virginia’s case, the logic bomb comes in the form of the competing imperatives that she protect her children, be a devoted wife, and above all, achieve “normality.” As each of these directives prove less and less achievable, her stutter becomes more pronounced, she has violent outbursts, and she becomes withdrawn and isolated from her family. By Vision #5, her actions have led to the accidental death of one of Viv’s classmates and she has put the killer, the boy’s father, into a likely permanent coma in order to protect her family. Her continual linguistic degeneration mimics both a broken-record style of computer glitch as well as echoes of The Grim Reaper’s madness.
Her erratic behavior isn’t just limited to speech. She smashes the dining room table while shouting “everything is normal.” For the Visions, the dining room is purely a space where they “review [the] day’s events,” as they don’t eat. When she is unable to communicate with her family due to her glitchy programming and because of her family’s increasing distance from “normality,” she removes the dining room as a locus for that normality, turning it into a site of trauma and dysfunction.
Later in the series, in Vision #8, The Avengers send Victor Mancha, Vision’s brother of sorts, to spy on the family. Victor is charming, he can pass for human, and Virginia, Viv and Vin all begin to idolize him. He doesn’t share the Vision family’s artificial appearance and, tellingly, Clayton Cowles gives him normal-style word balloons, indicating that his speech has no robotic elements to it. He gains the family’s trust, and each member begins to confide in him about their various traumas. What neither The Avengers nor the Visions know is that Victor is an addict. For him, the fictional metal vibranium gives him a narcotic effect, and the Vision family happens to have an entire piano made of the metal. Imagine giving someone access to a grand piano made of cocaine.
When Vin discovers Victor reporting back to the Avengers, Victor tries to reassert control over the situation, but in his narcotics-fuelled state only makes things worse, attacking Vin, repeatedly telling him to “shut up!” and “stop fighting!” After he ultimately kills Vin, the drug metaphor is in full prominence as he tries to explain to Vision what happened. He says “I was just using– I was holding–.” From a purely literal standpoint, he’s trying to explain that he was using his powers to hold Vin in place while he tried to salvage the situation, but his choice of the words “holding” and “using” echo the language of a drug addict in a way that’s hard to ignore.
In the final issue, after Virginia has killed Victor and left a confession with the police that (falsely) exonerates Vision of any wrongdoing, she drinks water from the flying water vase of Zenn-La, leading to her death. As she dies in Vision’s arms, they re-enact their argument about “kind” vs. “nice” in miniature.
At this, the end of Viv’s life, her repetitions have subsided to a certain extent. Still, King plays up her inhumanity in that the method of her suicide is to drink water, something that every human being must do regularly. But her motivation of self-sacrifice should be familiar to any parent (if not to the same self-destructive degree as Virginia), and her story ends on a note of renewed hope that her surviving family members, Vision and Viv, can move forward and lead productive lives.
A few days before the publication of Vision #12, my wife and I found out that we were going to become parents. Reading Viv’s summation of parenthood in the comic’s coda, “Parents sacrifice their lives for their children. Then children become parents and sacrifice their own lives,” it was something I immediately accepted, even realizing in the moment that I would not have grasped this idea only days before, at least not as fully. The Vision shows us that often we are at our most vulnerable, our most human, when we’re reminded that our minds are imperfect systems, housed in the imperfect machines of our bodies. King and Walta, in using science fiction tropes about robots, force us to re-examine what it is that sets us apart from their synthezoid family and how we can see those traits in ourselves when we’re pushed to our limits.
If this past year in isolation has taught me anything, with the threat of illness and death never far from my family’s door, it’s that this sacrifice isn’t necessarily a few grand gestures as in the case of Virginia Vision. It’s a continual self-sacrifice, whether it’s the psychic weight of evaluating whether it’s too risky to send your child to school against the horrific possibility that they might spend months without playing with another child. Like Wanda’s evaluation of the life and choices of Virginia Vision in the final pages of The Vision, you do the right thing, or you do the wrong thing. Or you just do what everyone does: you save what you can. And when you’re done, you’re done.