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WandaVision, in a word, is about grief.
You’re probably well-aware of this if you’ve spent any time at all following the week-to-week conversation surrounding the popular series, with social media downright inundated with this truism. That’s not to say it’s an inaccurate claim, to be clear, as even the most casual viewer could likely anticipate that Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) losing Vision (Paul Bettany) in Avengers: Infinity War would somehow figure into this idiosyncratic blend of superheroes and sitcom pastiche. If anything, that so much of the audience was on the same page about the show’s overarching theme only reinforces the notion that the writing team was telling precisely the story that needed to be told.
This post contains spoilers for WandaVision and its finale.
(How they told it might be a different matter. Throwing us headfirst into the black-and-white sitcom world of Westview with no context, combined with the choice to mystery-box its own premise until the penultimate episode, may have left far too much room for floundering viewers to baselessly speculate and complain in the early going.)
In many ways, WandaVision exemplifies the uniquely difficult pressures of translating a largely successful cinematic approach to a different medium altogether. Blockbusters, including more than a few in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, have an easier time skating by on texture alone and simply gesturing at Important Topics™ while doing little else with them. In television, the most effective shows are the ones that remain consistent and clear-sighted in their messaging from beginning to end, actively engaging with their themes every step of the way before bringing it all in for a narratively satisfying landing. When they fall short, well, just ask Game of Thrones.
But as much as the recent WandaVision finale tries, no amount of last-minute fisticuffs and formulaic energy blasts manage to distract from the haphazard treatment of its core idea. For all the talk about its unwavering focus on trauma and pain, “The Series Finale” proves that talk is cheap and systematically dismantles the series’ otherwise thoughtful examination of grief – all in the span of a single misbegotten scene.
Stages of Grief
In the aftermath of Vision’s battle with his SWORD-resurrected counterpart and Wanda’s defeat of villainous witch Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), Wanda tearfully says goodbye to her makeshift, conjured family in a pair of heartbreaking sequences. She’s finally reached acceptance, the last of the five stages of grief, and not even the relative inattention paid to some of the previous four throughout the season can entirely undercut the raw emotions of the moment.
Immediately after lifting her hex, Wanda solemnly walks away from the foundations of her dream home (with her black hoodie drawn up like a mourning veil, a neat visual shorthand for Wanda observing the funeral for Vision that she was denied) and marches through the remains of a newly-liberated Westview, silently enduring the hostile glares of the townspeople freed from her torturous mind control and psychological assault. The first person she seeks out? Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the superhero-to-be intentionally set up as the show’s moral center and a parallel to Wanda through their respective losses. At this point, WandaVision seems perfectly positioned to complete its thematic journey and confront hard questions about the nature of grief through the supporting character who most personifies that idea: namely, how much responsibility does a survivor of trauma bear for the pain they cause in others?
Now, this isn’t a call for fantasy characters to be strictly held to real-world standards. Nobody expects the now fully-formed Scarlet Witch to be hauled off by the FBI to face punitive justice or anything silly like that. But there must be a middle ground between the extremes of foolishly demanding that all media adhere to our personal sense of morality and dismissing any attempt to depict accountability in fiction just because, well, our favorite character didn’t mean to hurt anybody! (The latter mindset takes on even more troubling implications when it comes to superheroes, an aspirational genre that’s also notorious for presenting indulgent power fantasies with an uncritical eye.)
At this make-or-break moment of truth, however, WandaVision makes a choice that – considering the crucial point in the story in which it arrives and the sheer complexity of the subject it’s attempting to wrestle with – could uncharitably be described as cowardly. With everything on the line and our (anti?) hero only inches away from acknowledging her culpability in an act that the writers themselves took pains to depict in horrifying detail… Monica lets Wanda completely off the hook.
“They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them” is not only an incredibly tone-deaf sentiment to direct at the person who essentially enslaved them in the first place (not to mention Wanda’s “sacrifice” is further diluted by the continued existence of some form of Vision, as well as the post-credits tease that her twins might still be out there somewhere), but it comes loaded with an extremely disturbing undercurrent about how much helpless human beings are indebted and should be grateful towards the omnipotent Übermensch. Even Wanda’s seemingly penitent walk of shame through Westview takes on a more sinister, outwardly defiant tone in retrospect, as if her victimhood and hers alone matters – an idea that’s driven home even further when Wanda willfully condemns her defeated rival witch to additional torture as an unwilling sitcom character, despite the weirdly off-putting feeling that nothing Agatha does seems more villainous than what Wanda already did to the entirety of Westview. Wanda’s half-hearted response to Monica’s moral justifications, “It wouldn’t change how they see me,” isn’t nearly unequivocal enough to reject that suggestion and make this moment anything more than what it is: a shocking refutation of everything WandaVision had previously claimed to represent.
Removing herself from society and hiding out in a remote wilderness cabin could be seen as a suggestion that she’s cognizant of the harm she’s done to others, but isn’t this just a different way of avoiding a harsh truth and instead burying herself in yet another heightened dreamworld (further emphasized by her astral projection flipping through pages of Agatha’s Book of the Damned)? The MCU has made a living out of encouraging fans to “Wait for the next one!” to see how hanging threads and loose ends get tied up, but WandaVision is one case where that mentality just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s about more than just plot mechanics. Added together, these final scenes are a tacit admission that Wanda’s emotional arc is not only incomplete, but regressed.
Simply put, WandaVision isn’t a story about grief and how we navigate it, but a story about avoiding it. We go from a theme best epitomized by Vision’s insightful maxim about grief as the perseverance of love, to an equivocation that all but shrugs off the less palatable consequences of pain.
Punches Pulled and Lessons Unlearned
“You were pulling your punches.” In the midst of the spectacle-filled airport fight during 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Wanda interrupts Hawkeye and Black Widow’s playful sparring session and bluntly lobs this accusation at the mentor who recruited her to the Avengers in the first place.
On its face, at least, this is a funny and shrewd line that acknowledges what’s at stake. But this wry one-liner risks feeling hollow once you consider what immediately preceded it: Wanda pulls her own punch and merely throws Black Widow a few feet away, unharmed and incapacitated for only the briefest of moments. Not quite the mic-drop it’s clearly meant to be, is it? Looking back, it’s a very minor but typical example of the MCU trying to have it both ways – preemptively warding off potential criticism (“Why aren’t they taking this fight seriously?”) with self-aware, observational humor… but never actually addressing those issues in any significant way beyond the surface.
Five years later, this quick exchange and Wanda’s line in particular suddenly feel less like a microcosm of Civil War’s mixed ambitions and more like an eerie foreshadowing of Wanda herself; or rather, of the story WandaVision attempts to tell with the character. In terms of having its cake and eating it too, WandaVision reluctantly draws attention to Wanda’s flaws but bends over backwards to avoid alienating fans who love the character’s heroic ideals. Likewise, nowhere does the idea of “pulling punches” apply more than in the finale, in which this well-intentioned commentary on grief ends up taking its cues from Wanda’s own self-destructive behavior.
By backtracking on all of its progress and failing to address how the title character’s actions affect others, WandaVision ultimately commits the same sin as the Scarlet Witch herself: refusing to confront the hard facts of life, retreating into denial, and rejecting reality in favor of living in its own fantasy.
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