Warning: Light WandaVision spoilers ahead
Any time someone tells me you have to “wait for the third episode for it to get really good,” I have to fight to suppress an eye roll. Who wants to sit through multiple episodes before a show gets interesting?! But here I am, eating—and repeating—those words: Give WandaVision a chance, if you haven’t already. What seemed like a cheesy superhero show has unraveled into a powerful allegory for living through loss and extreme trauma, and in some ways, it mirrors how we’re all coping with pandemic life.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Disney+ show, it follows two Marvel superheroes—sorceress Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (aka Paul Bettany), a very human-like android—and their newlywed life in the small town of Westview, New Jersey. The first episode is shot in black and white, with the set, fashion and plotlines all eerily similar to sitcoms from the 1950s, like I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver.
It taps into our love of nostalgia
You can sense something’s amiss. (Why are two Avengers focused on the trivial details of small-town life? Why is it the 1950s? What happened to Wanda’s Russian accent? Isn’t Vision dead, so how is he even in this show?! Is this the afterlife?) But no one really breaks character. And it continues like this, with the tiniest glimmers that Westview isn’t what it seems, for the next two episodes, each framed in the happy-go-lucky sitcom style of the next two decades.
Before long, fissures in this perfect world appear, and when things don’t go exactly to script for Wanda’s idyllic life, her anger—and telekinetic powers—flare up, and she tries to assert control. You start to realize this show isn’t a gimmicky play on shows from different decades; it’s the story of a woman who’s reached her breaking point, who’s grasping at any way to hold herself together as she copes with the crushing onslaught of all the pain she’s endured in her life. WandaVision picks up a few weeks after Avengers: Endgame, where we meet a woman who’s faced the death of her entire family, and now, her husband is gone too, leaving her totally alone. She copes by creating a fantasy world where nothing bad can happen to her or the people she loves, where the dead can come back to life, where the biggest problem you face is what to make for dinner when the boss comes over.
And makes us confront our own desire to escape reality
It’s a parallel on the grandest scale to how many of us feel in real life: “If you have ever spoken to a person who has lost a loved partner or spouse, most commonly, they will tell you how they feel after their loss that they are living in an ‘altered-reality,’” Dr. Jill A. Harrington, creator and editor of Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss, told Psychology Today. “People we love, especially our partners and/or spouses, bring meaning to our world. They connect us to our reality.”
Without them, we can lose sense of who we are. “The world can seem like a strange and scary place, in which one feels the need to control everything around them—to protect themselves,” she added.
In the show, Wanda puts physical walls up surrounding the town, preventing the outside world from entering, which are a lot like the psychological walls we can put up to prevent ourselves from confronting a painful reality.
“I think one of the reasons Wanda is generating these borders is to separate the traumatized self from the day-to-day self,” Dr. Scott Jordan, a cognitive psychologist at Illinois State University told Comic-Con Fusion. The only way she can see herself moving forward is to bury her traumatized self, ignoring it as much as she can.
But most importantly, it's a revealing look at complicated grief
Wanda’s facing cumulative trauma—the buildup of all that loss—and on some level, it reminded me of the past year, as we collectively faced the pandemic, financial instability, the Black Lives Matter movement (and our own internal reckoning with racism) and loss. So often, I heard, “I deal with sadness every day. Can’t people only post happy things online?” Or friends who normally loved gritty dramas and true crime switching to rom-com binges. It’s no wonder The Office was the most-streamed show of 2020; we’re all looking for comfort.
WandaVision points all of that out, while wrapping it in the entertaining, action-packed gloss of a Marvel series. It gently nudges us to confront the pain we’re feeling, making us ask questions of ourselves as we ask questions about Wanda. (Though, as the series progresses, it seems like she’s not the only one creating this altered reality—but isn’t that the case in real life, too? External forces influence us too.)
With two episodes left, fans have just one wish: “I hope they don’t simplify her situation,” Dr. Jordan said. “That, somehow, she has this epiphany and is out of it, because that’s not how trauma plays out, right? You have to reconstruct your world, and that takes work, and work, and work.”
It would be a disservice to the series—and to all of us who are trying to do the work ourselves.
New episodes of WandaVision air on Fridays at midnight PST/3 a.m. EST on Disney+.
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