Warning: This theory is probably a) really insane, b) tremendously depressing, c) might require a little bit of basic knowledge about dystopian fiction (although I'll do my best to explain everything as thoroughly as possible), and d) really insane. (It's also purely speculative and not meant to be a be-all end-all analysis, just a different look at the world of Wizards canon.)
If you're a fan of Wizards of Waverly Place, whatever your ships or opinions on specific plot arcs are, you can probably agree on a few things: one, for as cute and fun and ridiculous as the show is, there are a lot of times where the writers seem to be making up the mythology of their world as they go along, and two, the Wizard competition, whether you think it's a fair or unfair rule, is one of those things that has always seemed prime to be leading toward revolution, whether it's something that will actually happen in the series or not. The world-building hodgepodge has only grown exponentially since the movie, with the introduction into what used to be a fairly simple world of wizards (with the occasional elf or fairy) of Juliet, Mason, werewolves, vampires, monsters, monster hunting, angels, angels of darkness, mummies, cucuys, levels in the wizarding competition, beasts, beast taming… well, you get the picture. Whether or not there's been any actual forethought in the world-building or whether Wizards started with the initial premise of "there are three kids and one day they're going to have to compete against each other to see who keeps their powers" and the writers just sort of pieced it together week by week from there on out is highly debatable—and not the argument here. This isn't a "prove Wizards is a hodgepodge mess of mythology" or a "prove Wizards has been thought out perfectly from the beginning" type of discussion; we're going with what we've been given and taking it at face value.
Which, even though it's a tween sitcom on the Disney Channel, jannika and I have long felt that it's very, very possible that what we've been given is a fairly complex dystopia.
According to Wikipedia, a dystopia is "the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian." In other words, it's a place where everything might look to be running smoothly and happily to an outside observer (or it might not), but there's a lot of fucked up shit going on underneath the surface, and whether or not everyone realizes it at first, they're all going to be miserable enough by about the halfway point of the story to rebel and overthrow whatever government or controlling force is making them miserable. Wiki says that "dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity has been able to evolve. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens." Dystopias can frequently touch on themes such as political turmoil, economic control, establishment and enforcement of caste systems, and oppression or abolishment related to common social institutions such as religion or the family unit. In nearly all of them, there's some sort of government that started running amok with its power, maybe initially for noble reasons or maybe as the bad guy all along, that's making everything really, really miserable for everyone involved but themselves.
While the concept of dystopian fiction goes back to classic works such as 1984 and Brave New World, dystopian fiction is a particularly popular trend right now in young adult literature, with trilogies such as The Hunger Games flying off of bookstore shelves and being made into major motion picture adaptations. The two dystopias that we're going to look at and compare Wizards to the most here are The Hunger Games and also Wicked, both the bestselling Gregory Maguire novel and the hit Broadway musical, a story that while not always particularly associated with dystopian fiction as strongly as some other works, features heavy elements of dystopia throughout. (If you're not familiar with either of them, again, basic explanations of the parts you need to know to come.)
If you're a more casual Wizards viewer, what's been set up with the world of Wizards is basically this: the wizarding world—which may be a catch-all term for the non-human "magical realm" of canon or may specifically only refer to the realm of wizardry, aka essentially humanoid magical beings like the Russos, Professor Crumbs, and other minor characters in the show—apparently has a finite amount of power supply, which is the reason wizard competitions are necessary among wizard families. Therefore, when wizard siblings reach a certain age and level in their training, they must compete in a display of their powers. The winner receives all the family's power and becomes a full wizard; the other siblings lose their powers and become, arguably, either fully human, or, what I'd argue is more accurate, some sort of "dormant" wizard without the ability to perform magic but who's still a part of the wizarding realm and has the ability to pass along some sort of recessive wizard gene or something that makes their kids wizard and not mortal. (This is what Jerry Russo appears to be—he's not his family's full wizard, his brother Kelbo is, so he can't perform magic himself, but Jerry still is active in the wizarding realm and is his children's teacher when it comes to the ways of wizardry.)
Even in this basic premise, there's a veritable Pandora's box of dystopian possibility that the show's unable to explore because of its genre as a tween sitcom—what happens if a wizard has illegitimate children who are raised as human and unaware of their powers? Are these children then not taught the ways of wizardry and then forced to compete against people they've never met in a skill set they've never been trained in, or is there some sort of law forbidding illegitimate children or governing that something else happens to them and their competition? What if a wizard has children before his or her family's wizard competition takes place, because the age of their younger siblings delays the competition until they're in their twenties or older? Again, are there rules we're unaware of that control this in positive or negative ways? Is the wizarding world somehow "perfect" and these kinds of issues don't happen (something that even Wizards canon has said isn't the case, as we'll get to later on)—or are they being oppressed and dealt with otherwise—in ways that seem much more like the ways a dystopian government would handle them than the ways a tween sitcom would?
Beyond specifically wizards, the mythological/fantasy characters that the show focuses on because of its protagonists, the wizarding realm (which I'm going to refer to as the "magical realm" from here on out to avoid confusion) appears to have cultural subsets of essentially every mythological, fairytale, fantastical, and supernatural creature, from those that have become comical, prevalent, or mundane in our society (leprechauns, vampires, werewolves) to those that appear to be regionally specific or historically encompassing (cucuys, mummies) to those that extend past the realm of what we typically think of as "fantasy" (angels, aliens). It's a fairly safe bet to say that even if we haven't seen it in Wizards canon, it probably exists in the magical realm—for every vampire and werewolf, there's probably a zombie or a dragon or a creature of some ancient legend on some tiny obscure island country in the middle of the Pacific. Wizards mythology appears to not just be a hodgepodge of random mythologies thrown together, but appears to be an umbrella construction of every possible mythology coexisting in one magical realm.
But the catch is, for as much as Disney can imply it, these cultural subsets don't exactly appear to be coexisting peacefully. There are angels of darkness that perpetually attempt to overthrow the balance of good and evil; there are werewolves who attempt to eat other creatures, both human and magical. More than that, though, there's a strange unease among those creatures established as more humanoid or closer to wizards and those established as "monsters." Justin's monster hunter arc in season three established that there are wizards—teenagers, even—who are trained by the magical realm to track down monsters off of the streets, pull them out of their homes and lives, and bring them into captivity for the "safety" of the magical realm. The most recent Wizards episode, "Beast Tamer," established an odd sort of rivalry between those monster hunters and beast tamers—who, again, can apparently be as young as teenagers, given that Alex's potential love interest Chase is one—who appear to be the magical realm's equivalent of gladiators or bullfighters, engaging in battle with semi-humanoid "beasts". The episode establishes, oddly enough, a sort of hierarchy where beast tamers are implied to be of higher status or talent than monster hunters, as Justin's subplot deals with him attempting to "prove" that monster hunters can in fact accomplish the difficult task of taming beasts as well—which seems strange, given that Justin's season three arc seemed to establish that monster hunting was a very difficult task treated with great respect, and beast taming seems to be little more than staged spectator sport.
The only way that we've been able to make sense of this (unless it's a continuity error, but even if it is, we're not debating the artistic and storytelling merit of Wizards here, we're taking everything that's presented to us at equal face value) is to draw parallels to Wicked. One of the main plot points in Wicked is that Animals (distinguished with a capitol letter in this sense) are, or previously were, of equal stature in society as Oz's more humanoid creatures, speaking and interacting with witches and others and holding positions of importance in universities and other social institutions. While the book deals with the topic more graphically than the musical, in both stories, the government of Oz has taken a dystopian turn in actively attempting to oppress Animals into, well, mere animals, removing them from positions of authority and power, limiting their powers of speech, and eventually caging them and turning them into what we know animals to be in our world. jannika and I have theorized that it's highly plausible that something similar is going on in the magical realm to some degree. Whether the "beasts" that tamers like Chase fight for sport are actually the captured monsters that hunters like Justin take off the streets (and I'd argue that this is highly, highly likely) or not, it seems that a likely explanation for why tamers would have higher status than hunters is because the work of hunters, while directly "respected" from the higher-ups in the magical realm, is kept more hushed or suppressed to the general magical realm society, because of the way it takes monsters directly out of their lives and homes and puts them into some form of captivity, whereas beast taming appears to be something that at most innocent is highly touted spectator sport and at most sinister is nothing short of outright political propaganda. One could argue that monsters appear to be a hindrance and safety concern for magical society, and therefore monster hunting is an important social duty, but we can't forget that there's something vaguely uneasy or sinister about the fact that Justin's entire monster hunting arc feeds directly into his relationship with Juliet—a non-aggressive, extremely humanoid vampire girl whose family owns a competing restaurant on Waverly Place—and that his monster hunting radar pings that he should capture Juliet and her family and turn them over into some form of captivity. It seems that we're dealing less with actual necessary public service here and more with the type of "public service" the Ozian government was doing its people with putting Animals in captivity—the kind of "public service" guise that one's likely to find in dystopian fiction.
Then there's also two of Wizards' most encompassing, and possibly most problematic, arcs: Stevie's attempted revolution that's thwarted in "The Good, the Bad, and the Alex" and the entire "Wizards Exposed" arc at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth season. In the former, a girl named Stevie Nichols befriends Alex and is later revealed to be plotting a revolution to overthrow wizard competitions once and for all; in the latter, Alex and Justin are "tested" to extreme lengths to make sure that they won't expose wizardry to the human world, and when they both fail and do, are set back multiple levels in the Russo family competition. The latter arc establishes that it is a big, big, big fucking deal in the magical realm that wizardry (and by extension, the magical realm at large) is not exposed to humans—Professor Crumbs actually stages an elaborately built hoax in which Alex and Justin believe their family, their friends, and their entire world are in danger of being destroyed by the government, and when they respond as one would expect teenagers doing the right thing to do and seek help from the general American population, the hoax is revealed and they're punished extremely severely by a wizarding court. The former arc establishes what I'd argue says that Wizards cannot plausibly end in any sort of revolution overthrowing the institution of wizard competitions: Stevie, a character who's extremely similar in circumstance and personality to Alex, has the support of thousands of wizard teenagers in overthrowing what's very arguably an unfair, if not outright corrupt process, yet she's clearly cast by the show's perspective as "evil" and is arguably explicitly killed (by being turned to stone and then shattered) for her actions—all the while a laugh track plays in the background. It would take a hell of a lot more plot maneuvering than I can see Wizards being able to figure out to justify why Stevie—essentially a mirror image of Alex in so many ways—would be killed and villainized for her actions and yet the Russo kids could somehow successfully later in canon rebel and revolt against the institution of the wizard competition (without, you know, trivializing and somehow weirdly justifying the murder of a teenage girl), so most likely, Wizards has established that it can't and won't go the route of revolution at any point in canon, and more importantly, that even a character like Stevie or Alex who seems perfectly cast to be a dystopian hero is for some reason incapable of functioning as such in the context of the magical realm.
Here's where The Hunger Games becomes an increasingly relevant touchstone for this discussion. The basic summary of The Hunger Games trilogy, if you're not familiar with the series, is that a series of wars and natural disasters in the future turned North America into a brutal dystopian dictatorship called Panem, a society ruled by a centralized Capitol and divided into twelve economically and societally dependent Districts. As a reminder to the Districts of an unsuccessful previous rebellion, the Capitol forces each District to present, via a lottery called the Reaping, two teenage children as "tributes" in the Hunger Games, a televised death match that's something of a sick and twisted version of the Olympics, where all of Panem is forced to sit and watch while the children fight and murder each other in a dangerous outdoor arena until only one Victor remains. You find out later that there's a lot of messed up shit going on in Panem, and it all ultimately culminates in war when Katniss Everdeen, a girl from the poorest and smallest District, volunteers to take her sister's place in the Games and starts a revolution with her tribute partner, Peeta.
There are a lot of plot ins and outs of the Hunger Games that aren't necessary to understand here (although it's pretty interesting, if you know both canons, to look at a lot about Wizards through the frame of reference of HG), but the most important parallels here, Games and wizard competition similarities aside, lie in the structure of Panem as a society. The Capitol is an indulgent, hedonistic society, something of a sick and twisted version of Oz's Emerald City, that controls Panem's every process and whim. Among the twelve Districts, which all function as segregated and independent cultural subsets, some Districts are held in higher esteem than others—1, 2, and 4 are considered "Career" Districts in that they treat participation in the Games with an honor equivalent to military service and train their children from a young age to beat their competition, and are therefore held in higher regard by the Capitol and treated better than some of the poorer Districts, most notably the Plantation South-esque 11 and Katniss and Peeta's home District, Appalachian coal mining 12. Within each District, there appears to be a Mayor who functions basically as our states' governors do today, along with various other Capitol liaisons, including Peacekeepers, who are military-esque guards trained by the Capitol to, well, keep peace and quash rebellion, often at whatever cost necessary. There are a number of intricate social conflicts at work in Panem—between the Capitol and the Districts, between the more respected and the poorer Districts, and even within the Districts, such as 12's distinction between the Merchant class and Seam workers in the coal mines.
Obviously, there's no brutal child-on-child violence going on in Wizards canon, at least not as far as Disney could ever show us, but the parallels between the magical realm and Panem are actually more and more surprising the deeper you dig. If we're presuming that Wizards canon could be a dystopia, then the class distinctions that we've been given between monsters and the more humanoid/wizardlike creatures can easily draw parallels to the poorer, less respected Districts and the Career Districts, in terms of their favor with the government or controlling force at work: wizards and the mythological creatures closer to them clearly seem to have higher status in that regard than monsters and the mythological creatures closer to them. As far as we know, no one's hunting wizards and pulling them off the streets into captivity. The unease between various subsets of magical culture and even within those subsets can be loosely equated to the unease among and within Panem's Districts.
The question, then, is who the metaphorical Capitol is in this dystopic equation.
The logical answer here is the higher-ups we've been introduced to in Wizards canon: Professor Crumbs and whoever else he works with or for at the top ranks of the wizarding world. After all, Professor Crumbs (and by extension, what he represents in canon and whoever else he works with) appears to call the shots on everything from the wizard competitions to WizTech instruction to the jurisdiction of punishment within the magical realm (or at least the wizard parts that we've seen have jurisdiction). But there's some sort of weird power imbalance going on there: if we're to say that a wizard or government of wizards controls all of the magical realm, then we're situating wizards as the absolute ruling cultural subset of the magical realm, which becomes odd and uncomfortable when one remembers that everything from aliens to angels of light and darkness would be governed by this ruling subset, which would, in essence, make Professor Crumbs into something of a godlike figure in this canon. That doesn't seem to fit, though, so it's more likely that Professor Crumbs and his cohorts slot more into the role of Peacekeepers and other District officials, if we're positing wizardry as the equivalent of a Career District on this HG-type society scale. It's not a perfect fit, obviously, because there are different types of complex governing going on here, but Crumbs appears to be more on the high-level branch/mid-level central government type of authority level than the one ultimate overarching authority in the magical realm.
Which, since we've never been introduced to anyone else in a position of equal or greater authority in Wizards canon, makes the metaphorical Capitol either a mysterious undefined "other" ruling everything—or another cultural subset that we have been introduced to in canon and know quite well regardless.
Because, if Wizards is every mythology ever thrown into one magical realm, then "we," the humans of Wizards canon (who are set up to be the humans of our real world) are the creators and dictators of those mythologies. We're the ones who believe in them or choose not to believe in them, we're the ones who pass down and change their stories over the years, we're the ones who have the interrelationship with them and use them for our own purposes. There are already jabs in Wizards canon at how the creatures in their verse parallel the development of these mythologies in ours—when Juliet makes the comment that younger vampires are working at being vegetarians and less aggressive and such, it's clearly a Twilight joke—so what if the slow descent into dystopia here is how our relationship with fairytales and legends and mythologies has evolved from more of a respectful interrelationship to what today is mostly entertainment value? What if the "limited power supply" in the wizarding realm that causes wizard competitions is something akin to how in Peter Pan, a fairy dies whenever a child says they don't believe in fairies—there's only a finite (and possibly shrinking) amount of power in the magical realm because we give it less and less fuel with our belief and imagination as time progresses forward? What if everything that seems like unfair and arbitrary dictatorship in the magical realm, all of that messed up dystopic stuff that Disney either isn't aware they're creating or can't resolve because of their genre, is the magical realm desperately (and futilely) trying to gain control of the world that their Capitol, the humans, are unknowingly slowly destroying?
Going back and looking at everything, then, that makes a lot of things make a lot more sense in this dystopia and in Wizards canon, most notably the sometimes-excessive amounts of fear and conformance to the status quo in everything from Justin's villainizing of Stevie in "The Good, the Bad, and the Alex" to Professor Crumbs' preventing-at-all-costs of the Russos exposing wizardry to the human world. It also sets up the bizarre and generally nihilistic paradox of Wizards as a dystopia: it's so perfectly constructed, so oppressively built and maintained without the direct knowledge of the oppressor force, that any potential revolution is pretty much doomed to fail to apocalyptic extents.
Because we've already established that it's very unlikely that Alex or the Russos could successfully enact a revolution, at least in canon: Stevie's been set up too much like a mirror to Alex and not enough like a foil to justify this. But what if that's not a case of unfortunate implications in Wizards writing, but the key to what the successful spark of revolution would need to be, an indicator of what our heroes would be revolting against, a hint as to who that hero would need to be? Because the magical realm, it seems, fears its oppressors enough that it would go to any lengths to keep itself contained, even destroying its own to prevent its exposing—so what if Stevie is more of a parable that that revolution has to come not purely from inside, but also from outside? What if, to borrow more Hunger Games parallels, we can't just have a Katniss, but our Katniss has to have a Cinna, in order for anyone to be a Mockingjay and not just another casualty?
Which is where Harper comes in.
Harper isn't the only human that we know of who is aware of the magical realm—in addition to Zeke, who also knows, Theresa is human, and presumably human/wizard marriages weren't entirely unprecedented before the Russos. Swearing humans in the know to secrecy is a big deal in the magical realm, though, and Harper is the only character we have canon evidence has ever done anything about it and not kept that vow of secrecy.
We know, from Future Harper, that Harper eventually writes a series of novels about the Russos' adventures in the magical realm. Future Harper tells us three key things in this episode: one, the human world in the future knows all about the magical realm; two, that was caused by one of Alex, Justin, Max, or Harper having a "really big mouth"; and three, Harper works in the future with one of the most powerful wizards of all time, presumably whichever one of the Russo children becomes their family's full wizard. Future Harper, however, doesn't mesh at all with so many things that have been established in Harper's character in the meantime in canon; most notably, Future Harper's still madly in love with Justin, whereas by season four's current canon, Harper's long over Justin and Zeke is pretty clearly established as her endgame canon love interest. But it's implied that Future Harper, through Alex, gives canon Harper the spark to eventually write those books about the Russos and the magical realm.
So let's posit two questions here for a minute. One, what if the writing of those books—and the subsequent exposing of magic that Future Harper implies to take place—is the successful action of outside/inside cooperation that eventually leads to the "successful" revolution of the magical realm dystopia? And two, what if Future Harper isn't actually real Harper from the future back in the present day, but instead an intentional device—most likely someone from a time traveler subset of magical society, because even though we don't actually see time travelers as their own people and culture in Wizards canon, we've established that all of our mythology should logically exist in the magical realm, and time travelers are either their own subset of mythology a la Doctor Who or time travelling is a power that wizards would themselves possess—an intentional device enacted in the future by the Russos and real Harper mid-rebellion, when they realize what we've theorized above, that the revolution cannot come solely from inside? What if, in the future of Wizards, when whichever Russo sibling becomes the family wizard and becomes one of the most powerful wizards of all time (let's say Alex, for the sake of most-likely-possibility argument), the Russos eventually do decide to attempt that rebellion that seems both necessary and unlikely to occur in canon proper—but realize while they can't do it, Harper can, coming from this dystopia's Capitol, and therefore decide to send back a version of Harper that would be recognizable to the season two canon characters to enact Harper on her journey toward writing those books that will expose magic to the world and therefore, theoretically, liberate the magical realm from its dystopic oppression?
The paradox with this, however, is its ultimate downfall: because this is a dystopia involving human mythology and beliefs, encompassing everything from fairytales to nightmare creatures to religious figures to hypothetical alien beings, while we're the ones with the power to free them from the oppression of how we manipulate them and use them and tell their stories in our society, much like the Peter Pan example, their very existence is also entirely dependent on our belief in them. If we're aware of their reality and not just guided by our imaginatively-led faith in them, though, we're forced to either believe in them all or believe in none of them. And by the very nature of mythology, we have to selectively believe: if we're bringing things like angels and aliens into the mix, it's impossible, for all logical intents and purposes, for us to believe in everything, pagan and Christian, good and evil, earthly and otherworldly, humanoid and beast.
Which leaves us with the paradoxical option of believing in none of them.
And if we believed in none of them, and if their existence is dependent on our belief in them, then they could no longer exist.
Which, jannika and I are fairly sure, means that a "revolution" that "liberated" the magical realm dystopia by exposing its existence to its human realm oppressors would, inevitably, lead to something like an apocalyptic destruction of that very realm. Which leaves the future of Wizards canon in a ridiculously destructive paradox: either keep with the status quo, don't fight the dystopia, and let the magical realm seemingly slowly crumble in on itself as its human oppressors unknowingly chip away at its foundation, or rebel in a scenario where success and liberation is your ultimate end.
Which is interesting, then, given Wizards' pointedly cautionary theme song lyrics, isn't it?
"When you can get all you want in your wildest dreams, you might run into trouble if you go to extremes. Be careful not to mess with the balance of things, because everything is not what it seems."