The Unbearable Grief of WandaVision

The Unbearable Grief of WandaVision

Because of my own inability to process time as it is currently happening, I went into the penultimate episode of WandaVision thinking that it was the finale. Though I dropped this misconception after realizing that it wasn’t, knowing full well that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not let Wanda, Vision, and their world go gently without a CGI blowout showdown between superheroes, I was still struck by the genius of the show’s sensitivity. Wanda’s grief is the true star, the reason the show exists in the first place. What could’ve been a schmaltzy, sappy mess blew my expectations out of the water, by presenting an accurate representation of the isolating, all-consuming nature of grief.

Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t seen the show, you should not read this!

Making the comparison to Wanda’s nightmarish grief manifestation to our current collective grieving process, as the world slogs thru the dregs of the pandemic, is pat, easy, and a little too on the nose, but worth mentioning for how obvious it is. Wanda Maximoff is a superhero who only inhabited the true depths of her powers after experiencing the monumental loss of her entire family and then being forced to kill her lover, Vision, to prevent a power-hungry purple giant from taking the stone implanted in his third eye. Superhero stories traffic in high drama that borders on camp, and so it is no surprise that as a result, WandaVision felt like melodrama at times. But if you strip away the sheer ridiculousness of the finale, which saw Paul Bettany as Vision battling himself while Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Agatha (Kathryn Hahn) fought for control over the former’s chaos magic, what’s left is a deft exploration of how it feels to be tremendously sad—the fictional worlds we create in order to impart control on a situation that is largely beyond ours.

By now we know that Wanda’s world, Westview, was created in part as a coping mechanism for the unbearable sadness of losing everyone that was important to her. Unfortunately, a side effect of her process was imprisoning hundreds of innocent people in a picture-perfect sitcom world that allowed for her dead lover, Vision, to be alive, and for her to live out an idyllic albeit fictional life in a universe entirely of her own creation. The depth of her sadness is such that she summoned her powers to erect a glowing red force-field around a forgotten town in New Jersey so that she could create a world that was entirely hers to control. It was never going to last, and by the end maintaining the illusion was almost more work than actually inhabiting the grief. The cracks were evident from the first episode and only continued as the show unfurled, running through TV history via magnificent set dressing and costumes, racing through a timeline to which only Wanda was privy.

There was something off about her neighbor, Agnes, the whole dang time, and her other friend, Monica (Teyonah Parris), seemed to know something that Wanda did not. But the full weight of the world that Wanda had created and how it was all going to collapse was revealed in the eighth episode, where we finally got the backstory, thanks to Agnes, née Agatha Harkness—an old-ass witch with powers of her own who led Wanda through a Christmas Carol-esque tour of her past traumas, explaining finally the true depths of her sadness, and what led her to do what she did. Nothing about Wanda’s process is particularly healthy, but sadness and reason are not friendly bedfellows. Grief feels so large because often, it is the direct result of an outcome over which you had no control, and sometimes the only way out of that mire is to find something you can control, no matter how big or small. For some, that’s a new hobby or a dedicated hydration regimen involving a motivational water bottle. For others, it is creating a fictional world where your dead lover is still alive and everyone you’ve imprisoned in that world is absolutely miserable, but grinning through it because they have no other choice.

Wanda has suffered a loss so great that she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Again, there’s a comparison to be drawn between Wanda’s self-imposed isolation and our current state of delayed motion, but the timing of this show’s premiere and the pandemic are nothing more than coincidence. Still, it was nice to see someone else’s sadness on TV every week when it was too painful or simply too irritating to really acknowledge one’s own. For me, WandaVision evoked a tiny bit of happiness—the mythical serotonin that everyone is chasing—every Friday evening, when I had something to look forward to.

At first, the sadness that the show has dealt with so well sailed right over my head, if only because I am inured to large emotions and my baseline for what moves me to tears or anything else has changed. Nothing makes me feel on the level that I am normally capable of feeling; The Notebook, a movie that has made me cry reliably for years, would probably look something like a comedy now. But there was a moment in the eighth episode that cracked the surface of my own personal reserves of grief and sadness, a line that, in different lights, would be corny, but at the moment, was just the ticket. As Wanda continues along her trauma tour, she is confronted with the memory of Vision comforting her after her brother’s death. He is a synthezoid made of Vibranium, and has never had anyone to lose, therefore lacking the references most humans have for experiencing loss.

“What is grief, if not love persevering?” he asks Wanda—the sort of line that will make it into epigraphs of novels about the pandemic in years to come, but a nice way of flipping the hell that is sorrow into something a little more positive. Like Wanda (I’m sorry), we are all mourning in large and small ways, every day, but the fact that the grief continues to be acute is a good sign. It shows that we are still capable of love.

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