When Grief Makes You the Villain: Last Week on WandaVision

My Own Take on the Show: The Unexpected Tears Rolling Down My Cheeks after the Finale

Bryan J. / 3.10.21

Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery, and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased.

The Big Book of AA, “How It Works”

It wasn’t until the eighth of nine episodes that everything became clear in WandaVision. The initial premise — that the Avengers superheroine Wanda Maximoff and her deceased lover Vision are mysteriously reunited (trapped?) in a classic screwball sitcom — brought forward more questions than answers.

But as the show progressed through TV decades, complete with genre-specific theme songs and set pieces, the big revelation from episode eight is that WandaVision is not a show about television, but a show about trauma and grief. This theme is not lost in the critics circles either. USA Today, Slate, and CNN (among many others) all praised the show for its insights on mental health. 

My own take on the show could be summed up in the unexpected tears rolling down my cheeks as the series finale drew to a close. And, when I looked over to check in on my wife, the tears streaming down her cheeks affirmed my abreaction. I imagine that anyone who has experienced loss, or, more broadly, anyone that fears loss, will certainly connect with this tragicomedy comic book adventure mystery that became this season’s must-see-TV hit.

Spoilers Ahead

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a number of therapists had joined the writing room while WandaVision was being crafted, assisting with the high wire act of creating a sympathetic villain in Wanda Maximoff. That is, after all, the premise of the show: a woman with magical powers, crushed by a lifetime of trauma, has a debilitating breakdown. She uses her magic powers to overtake a New Jersey suburb, forcing its residents to play bit parts while she recreates classic sitcom magic for herself. It’s a little unsettling that so many of the WandaVision essays, including the three mentioned above, miss this key element in the show: Wanda’s magic literally enslaves an entire town to do her bidding. Her grief, we discover, manifests itself in control. The Guardian has the best take on the matter, with Hanna Flint reflecting on a long tradition of superheroes processing their grief:

But what if the victims of a superhero’s grief are innocent bystanders? That is the conundrum faced in WandaVision, which is the first production in which the MCU has explored the issue meaningfully with a female character from the films. She checks all the boxes for the trope. Not only was she orphaned young, but also her losses have piled up since. Her brother, Pietro, was killed in action and she was forced to kill her lover, Vision, only for time to rewind and force her to watch Thanos do it again seconds later. (Superhero problems aren’t always relatable …)

Wanda also has her alienation to deal with — a former bad guy, no natural allies, not from the US. Loneliness causes her to transform an existing town and all its inhabitants into an idealised suburban existence — inspired by her favourite sitcoms — and keep it separate from the rest of the world so she can live happily ever after with a version of Vision and two children she magicked into being.

So, Wanda has found solace, but only by becoming the villain. It is torture and it cannot be sustained — she is the hero, after all. With each episode, the facade slips further, as outsiders attempt to get Wanda to confront her pain.

I’m no Wanda Maximoff, but I understand how grief can manifest itself as control like it did for her.

In the winter and spring of 2016, I experienced a profound professional failure. The short story is that the startup side project I had poured my soul into for four years finally collapsed. This project was not only fun, but it contained life-long hopes and dreams for myself and the team I was working with. I was longing for the day I could switch over and make this side-project my full-time passion, trading an unfulfilling but stable desk job into something with deep spiritual and practical significance. But when the project didn’t materialize, when I came to understand that my longed-for future would never come, I recognized it was time to lay down my labors and end the project. 

So I closed down the project. And I immediately began a DIY renovation of my kitchen.

You can imagine how that went. My wife quickly grew tired of crock-pot and propane grilled dinners as my work rendered the kitchen unusable. I was disappearing for hours at a time to go to the hardware store, making decisions about paint color and floor type without taking her input to heart. Money was hemorrhaging out of our bank account to pay for new light fixtures and take-out. The pile of gutted floorboards and rusty appliances in the front yard from “demo day” got me a nasty letter from my town’s code enforcement officials. By the time I was done in the kitchen, we had a decent kitchen, to be sure. But I had gained 50 lbs in takeout weight and my wife (rightly) demanded I join her in couples therapy.

In the grand scheme of things, I was a real villain in my marriage for a span of eight months or so. I was trying to control my surroundings in an emotional bargain for stability. I was angry at my wife, at my job, at God, at myself. I would numb myself with junk food and retreat to my side of the bed to oversleep when everything became too overwhelming.

While it’s generally acknowledged that there is “no right way to grieve,” what’s not often articulated is that “some ways of grieving are better than others.” Or, perhaps more controversially, “there are wrong ways to grieve.” And whether you experience this through an anger-filled kitchen renovation, or through watching Wanda Maximoff succumb to her grief in WandaVision, the results are still villainous, no matter how sad her story is.

It reminds me of the essay from the Mockingbird Magazine titled “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin,” in which Simeon Zahl articulates how medicalizing the hardship of the world limits our understanding of its damaging scope:

What about the fact that my depression also means that during these periods of personal darkness I am an absent father to my small children, and I am simply unable to care about their needs as much as I otherwise would? Saying my brain is broken doesn’t change the fact that the children get hurt, feel unnoticed and unloved, and wonder if it is their fault. Likewise, what about anxiety? The fact that it can be and often rightly should be called a disorder does not mean that it doesn’t make life miserable for the people who have to deal with the anxious person. Or what about the devastation in many lives that can be caused by the addictions of one?

That’s the big takeaway I think most people have missed in their critical assessment of WandaVision: it is entirely possible for grief to compound on itself. With the final fight against secondary villain Agatha Harkness finished and the Hex shrinking away, Wanda resigns herself to reality. But as she says goodbye to her charming sitcom lifestyle, she experiences one final trauma, the goodbye scene that put my wife and I to tears. She tucks in her two sons, bidding them goodnight, knowing that they will be gone when her magic spell disperses and she will never see them again. And she says goodbye to her husband, Vision, again, as her world literally collapses around her.

Wanda’s grief is not just for the life she wanted. Wanda’s grief is compounded because she created that life she always wanted and lost it all, traumatizing an entire town in the process. Although Monica Rambeau offers Wanda a word of grace as the episode concludes, the piercing eyes of the formerly enslaved citizens of Westview are much less forgiving. Not only did I have the grief of losing out on my side project – I also now had the added grief of dragging my wife through an eight-month long kitchen renovation she didn’t ask for. It’s a dynamic straight out of The Big Book of AA, as referenced at the beginning of this essay. Only God has the power to sit in the director’s chair of life.

Part of the power of Holy Week, which is quickly approaching, is that it presents to us a Jesus of Nazareth who does more than simply express sympathy to villains, though he certainly does this. Central to the concept of the Resurrection is that Christ will indeed bring back to the world something beyond consolation. As the loud voice from heaven proclaims in Revelation 21:

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

To my eyes, the promise of God is an end to grief, and an end to its compounding nature. Giving people space to grieve, and helping them grieve in a way that doesn’t traumatize others, is a blessing and of utmost importance on “this side of the Jordan.” Jesus Christ offers to us, however, a vision where love doesn’t just persevere: it conquers. He will end the cycle of trauma that Wanda Maximoff experienced her whole life as well as the compounding trauma that Bryan J. caused back in 2016. These are indeed the former things that will pass away because of the gift of Holy Week and the promise of the God who sitting in the director’s chair. 

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3 responses to “When Grief Makes You the Villain: Last Week on WandaVision

  1. JT says:

    Good reflection. I just finished WandaVision this evening. Your insights are apt. Btw….was there a pun intended here, “Jesus Christ offers to us, however, a Vision where love doesn’t just persevere: it conquers…”

  2. CJ says:

    So good, Bryan! This is one of the gifts of low anthropology. It allows us to tell the truth (Wanda WAS a villain) but also have compassion (for her, for us). TBH I am no Marvel guy, but I loved where this show went. V powerful.

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