In the World of “WandaVision,” It Has Been Grief All Along

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, left, and Paul Bettany as The Vision in WandaVision (Photo credit: Disney+/Marvel)

When Disney+ announced a new series about Marvel superheroes Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) in April 2019, some people immediately dunked on the title: WandaVision. Fans tweeted their fair share of jokes, called the series title “atrocious” and “lazy,” and demanded that Disney+ give the show a new name. Two years later, WandaVision has captivated streaming audiences and proven that its title is anything but silly. Yes, “WandaVision” is a combination of its two main characters’ names and a pun alluding to the show’s structure—the first seven episodes pay homage to American sitcoms from the 1950s through the early 2000s—but the title also underscores what the show is really about: Wanda’s interiority, which, until now, was unexplored and underdeveloped. The series is smart and experimental, seamlessly introducing new characters, expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and celebrating the history of TV. But beyond the endless MCU easter eggs and esoteric depictions of television’s past, WandaVision is ultimately a meditation about grief and the true origins of Wanda’s power.

It’s clear from the outset that WandaVision is a departure from what fans have come to expect from the MCU: The pilot episode uses Marvel’s iconic opening sequence to lull audience into a false sense of security before abruptly thrusting them into 1950s Westview, New Jersey, where newlyweds Wanda and Vision have bought their first house—a picturesque two-story complete with a white picket fence. Though this is suburban paradise, something feels off: Every scene is in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio; there’s a laugh track; and most importantly, fans know that Vision died (twice) in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Each episode pushes the audience forward in time, taking inspiration from sitcoms of different eras, including I Love Lucy, Bewitched, Full House, Malcolm in the Middle, and Modern Family, but the show doesn’t initially offer many answers about what’s really happening in Westview.

In the penultimate episode, fans finally receive more information about Wanda’s past, the events leading up to the creation of this uncanny valley, and the intentions of intelligence agency S.W.O.R.D., which has been monitoring the hexagonal field of radiation surrounding Westview. Viewers are led through Wanda’s most painful memories by the titular heroine’s nosy neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), who has just revealed herself to be Agatha Harkness, a powerful witch who first appeared in the Marvel comics in 1970. Together, the women revisit the deaths of Wanda’s parents, her time in HYDRA custody, the death of her brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the beginning of her relationship with Vision at the Avengers Compound, his deaths, and the events immediately preceding the genesis of the anomaly. It is, in short, a lot. We now know that Wanda is responsible for transforming Westview and birthing an alternate Vision. WandaVision is doing the most: It has an unconventional and ambitious structure and a nonlinear plot, but there’s something human at the heart of this superhero series—a woman’s trauma.

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“The whole show has really been about Wanda processing grief,” director Matt Shakman told Entertainment Weekly. “The story is about how to process loss—and how do we learn to move on from that?” Shakman continued. “That is the through-line that carries through everything.” WandaVision makes ample space for the chaotic, destructive entirety of Wanda’s grief, something that wasn’t granted to her after losing her brother and the love of her life, respectively. We learn in Episode 4 that S.W.O.R.D.’s duplicitous director, Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamber), doesn’t empathize with Wanda at all. Instead, he lies about Wanda stealing Vision’s body from S.W.O.R.D. headquarters in order to mount increasingly violent attacks against her and justify developing new weaponry. While Hayward is, in astrophysicist Darcy’s (Kat Dennings) words, “a dick,” his impulse to destroy Wanda (literally) is worth examining because it raises important questions about women’s grief: Are women allowed to mourn in ways that may seem ugly and painful?

In the finale, Westview residents awaken from Wanda’s control, noting that her grief is literally poisoning them—she did, after all, enslave a town. Her actions aren’t blameless. But Wanda isn’t the only grieving woman on the show; Monica is also grappling with loss. After disappearing during the Blip in 2018, she’s revived to discover that her mother, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), died from cancer during her absence. Like Wanda’s, Monica’s grief is disruptive, and her pain compels her to enter the Westview anomaly multiple times, rewriting her cells and setting the stage for the introduction of her superhero identity. (Though which one the MCU will choose is anyone’s guess—Photon, Captain Marvel, Pulsar, or Spectrum?) As Monica pushes through the barrier in Episode 7, she hears the voices of her loved ones and revisits her memories. She relates to Wanda because they’re in the same boat. Once inside the hex, she confronts Wanda, “I lost the person closest to me, too. The worst thing I can think of has already happened to me…I can’t control this pain anymore.” These characters’ parallel journeys converge to showcase the multidimensionality of grief and the ways in which it can warp a person’s sense of reality.

Beyond the endless MCU easter eggs and esoteric depictions of television’s past, WandaVision is ultimately a meditation about grief and the true origins of Wanda’s power.

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“We were not interested in a portrayal [of Wanda] that made her seem like her powers were too much for her, and she was crazy,” WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer told Fandom. “The sort of crazy lady narrative is tired so I would hope as fans continue to watch the show what they will see is a nuanced portrayal of a very complicated woman.” Though this can be a hard line to toe, Schaeffer does it well, no doubt in part due to WandaVision’s intentionally diverse writers room, which is majority women. And, through a slight rewrite of Wanda’s past, the showrunners make it clear that our heroine is more than just her trauma. In the comics, Wanda and Pietro are portrayed as mutants, and their backstory and parentage are changed multiple times. Because Fox controlled the rights to the X-Men franchise, Marvel originally shifted the origins of the siblings’ powers, explaining that they were the result of experimentation with the Mind Stone in the HYDRA facility. Now that Disney owns both Marvel and X-Men, fans are hoping the MCU will integrate the two universes, and WandaVision indicates they will.

When Wanda travels through her memories with Agatha, the witch notices things Wanda had forgotten or blacked out: When Wanda and Pietro’s parents are killed, the children hide for two days close to a nearby Stark Industries bomb, hoping it won’t go off. It doesn’t, and earlier Marvel movies attribute that to luck. However in WandaVision, young Wanda can be seen casting a spell, which Agatha calls a “probability hex.” The witch then suggests Wanda’s time interacting with the Mind Stone in HYDRA custody amplified powers that were already there. Of course this alteration of the past is a clever plot device employed in service of expanding the MCU, but it also confirms that her trauma alone is not the source of her power. The show is sending an important message: You’re not defined by your suffering, nor are you better for it. Wanda’s magic was always inside of her—as Agatha says, she’s the Scarlet Witch—which raises exciting questions about her parentage (Magneto?), revelations about her ethnicity (Are we getting a Jewish and Romani superhero?), and her future in the MCU. Though WandaVision is at times overly sentimental and even cheesy—I’m sure you’ve seen memes of that Vision quote making the rounds—it can also be profound. The MCU has never done a show or movie like this before, and it expands the possibilities of what the superhero genre can be. As an ode to television history, a superhero origin story, and the launch pad for an even bigger cinematic universe, the series works. But, ultimately, what is WandaVision, if not a show about grief?

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Kathryn Hahn’s name (03/08/2021, 8:11 p.m. PST)

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by Rebecca Long
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Rebecca Long is an editor, writer, and individually-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Current AffairsVICE, Slate, Polygon, and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @bex_long or visit her website.