‘WandaVision’ explores Wanda Maximoff’s grief

This essay was originally written in February 2021 and edited for May 2021 publication. It contains spoilers for WandaVision.

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Unable to cope with the overwhelming loss and suffocating heartbreak of losing Vision (Paul Bettany), Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) breaks down in agony and unleashes her powers, which conjures up WandaVision — a sitcom beginning in the 1950s, and moving through decades, where we are reintroduced to Wanda and Vision as a newlywed couple who have just moved to the suburban town of Westview. WandaVision’s early episodes create a powerful juxtaposition of pain and humour, which perfectly combines elements of lighthearted television from the 50s, and the more tragic television found in our current era of “feel bad” television. This also reflects Wanda’s sinner struggle of easy-going escapism vs. distressing reality. Episode one expertly sets the tone for this dynamic during the dinner Wanda and Vision have with Vision’s boss and his wife, which first told us that something was seriously askew in this seemingly perfect world.

In episode two, Wanda breaks character upon seeing a man from the outside rise up from the sewer. She says, “No!” and the episode rewinds and ends on a much happier note with Wanda finding out she’s pregnant. Wanda edits the footage, controls what makes it on her show, and directs the narrative to keep everything running smoothly. Wanda understands that this isn’t her true reality, but she doesn’t know how it happened, which she makes clear later in the series. How it happened, however, doesn’t seem to matter to Wanda as long as she is able to live out her fantasy in which Vision is still alive and she can prevent bad “storylines” from occurring. Westview is a safe space for her because it’s something within her control.

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One of the biggest breaks in Wanda’s reality is when Geraldine aka Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) makes a blunt comment regarding Ultron killing Wanda’s twin brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who Wanda “recast” in WandaVision as Evan Peters). After Wanda boots Geraldine out of Westview, Vision enters the room and Wanda sees him differently for a few seconds — the vibrant red colour drained from his face, and a big hole in his forehead where the Mind Stone once sat. It’s a sudden, disturbing flashback for Wanda that is in line with PTSD. Wanda quickly recovers as Vision returns to normal and everything is happy once again.

Wanda will stop at nothing to maintain her idyllic lifestyle, but the reality is that Vision is dead. She might not know how to came to be here, but she’s here to forget, which is a great demonstration of how trauma survivors, as a natural safety response, often try to escape and block out what happened to them. Wanda’s initial lack of awareness could be due to suppressing her reality and dissociating, but Wanda is clearly triggered by certain incidents — such as when people ask her direct questions about her past and seeing messages from the outside world trying to make contact — and because she doesn’t feel ready to face her painful reality, she continues to ignore it.

After it’s revealed that it was “Agatha All Along” (Kathryn Hahn) stirring up events in town, episode eight shows us that Wanda’s love for sitcoms actually began in her childhood and was a way for her to escape trauma — particularly during the death of her parents. The series highlights how Wanda, a little girl who grew up in the impoverished war-torn Sokovia, found comfort in sitcomised versions of the “American Dream” and how her desire for safety in a community and a home are all subtly told within the confines of the sitcom within the series. The idea of the “American Dream” serves as a source of light for Wanda — the one image that comforts her in times of great distress, especially when she has no family left to help with this.

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Wanda revisited sitcoms while recovering from her time as a volunteer test subject for Hydra and also while grieving Pietro’s death (which took place during Avengers: Age of Ultron) when she is ordered by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to remain at the Avengers Compound. While Pietro wasn’t mentioned during Captain America: Civil War, this is where Wanda and Vision developed romantic feelings for one another and WandaVision fills in some gaps. In one scene, a depressed Wanda is joined by Vision who suggests that she talk to him because he read that it can be helpful and comforting. Wanda, however, says the only thing that would bring her comfort would be seeing Pietro again. To get him to understand the depths of her grief, Wanda explains that she feels like she keeps being knocked over by a wave, and when she stands back up, it just comes for her again. It feels endless. Vision then says to her, “What is grief if not love persevering?” which seems to have a profound effect on Wanda, though she doesn’t say anything.

This flashback shows that Wanda is like during grief and that remained consistent when she was trying to grieve Vision — she doesn’t talk to anyone about it and instead creates WandaVision (even if unintentionally) so she can see Vision again, as it’s the only thing that would bring her comfort. It’s a way for her to cope with the pain she feels — of her love persevering and preventing her from being swallowed whole by grief.

Wanda is initially painted as the bad guy as SWORD director Tyler Hayward (Josh Samberg) leads us to believe that Wanda broke into SWORD and stole Vision’s body. However, we later learn the truth when Agatha and Wanda explore what happened. Wanda demanded to see Vision and expressed that it’s her right to at least be able to give him a funeral. She’s eventually taken to Vision, where he’s split into parts. Hayward explains that Vision is being dismantled because he’s an expensive and powerful weapon. He also tells Wanda that she cannot have him, because he was never hers to begin with. Naturally, this angers Wanda and she breaks a glass barrier and moves to Vision’s side. She doesn’t take his body, however, but leaves with a note from Vision — a deed to a house. Wanda drives down to the house which happens to be in Westview, only to see that the building was never completed (likely due to Vision dying and Wanda disappearing for five years). Wanda’s pain becomes so overwhelming that her power creates the life she didn’t get to have out of all that anger and grief — the perfect house with Vision, and two children, Tommy and Billy. Vision, however, was created from her and not from his body parts, because love does persevere.

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Both Agatha and Monica represent the two routes that Wanda can take with handling her grief: embrace her reality and be composed like Monica (whose mother died of cancer during the same Monica vanished in the Snap), or be disastrously monstrous like Agatha. In the end, Wanda chooses her own path, which is a combination of both, as the series tells us that Wanda’s trauma didn’t make her stronger — she was strong all along, and both Agatha and Monica helped point her in the right direction. Wanda tells Agatha, “I don’t need you to tell me who I am,” because deep down she already knows.

Although Wanda never had any malicious intentions, she had to accept responsibility for her actions, which resulted in Westview residents becoming hostages. Wanda was in denial for a long time because she didn’t believe that she could or would ever cause harm to others, and never understood how much one’s own grief could affect those around you. Mostly, she just didn’t realise that she was powerful enough to do something like create WandaVision, or that an emotion as strong as grief could allow her to tap into that power. Despite everything, Wanda made an active choice to do the right thing, knowing that the residents would still hate her and never truly grasp what they did for her and what she sacrificed for them. While superheroes are typically presented as “all good” or “all bad,” Marvel’s superheroes are often presented as complex human beings, capable of both good and bad, with various motives, and Disney’s slate of MCU television series do an excellent job at exploring this concept with more depth than their films.

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WandaVision is an exceptionally clever and entertaining series that explores the devastating impact of complex trauma and grief. Wanda’s grief isn’t just about Vision — it’s about everyone that she’s ever lost, her entire family. Her superpowers protected Wanda from her own pain by enveloping her in a protective sitcom bubble, as her brain had learnt that it was a safe place to escape to. Our minds do wonderful things to protect us, and I guess when you’re a superhero, your powers join in. WandaVision has a lot of depth because it’s not just us watching a superhero using their powers to go on a raging warpath, although that would be an understandable response considering, but instead it serves as a deeper look into how Wanda runs away from her trauma to live in a sitcom, and how various aspects of his manifest as complex PTSD — her past coming back to haunt her.

There are moments when Wanda’s sitcom world appears to be falling apart, mostly due to Agatha messing with her, but it’s also indicative of the façade falling. You can only suppress trauma for so long before it breaks through, demanding to be felt. Sooner or later, Wanda was always going to have to face and accept her heartbreaking past and present. Despite Agatha’s sinister intentions, it seems that she actually helped Wanda process her trauma by forcing her to confront it. Wanda coming into her true powers as the Scarlet Witch at the end of the series is Wanda finally allowing herself to feel all of her painful emotions without crumbling, and accepting herself — the good and the bad— for who she really is.

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Toni Stanger

Freelancer writer on mainly film and television, but sometimes dabbles in celeb culture. Covers mostly horror and female-led media for Screen Queens.