Watching WandaVision was a humbling experience.
The Disney+ streaming spinoff series, coming after the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) just ended an era of Avenger movies, met an eager audience of viewers still homebound during a pandemic. Starting January 15 of this year, it soon became the most-watched show of any title across all major streaming platforms that month. Its season finale released on March 5 left fans with many feelings, and it’s fair to say some of the uncomfortable feelings were consistent across the painfully slow release of each episode each week. Given the series’ major themes of trauma, I’m fairly certain the show’s creators were going for just that.
Trauma is a great thing to artistically explore!
I thoroughly enjoyed WandaVision through all the frustrating awkwardness of its opaque first few episodes to its dramatic and over-explained final ones. And that’s because it hooked me based on the ever intriguing topic on which its writers chose to center the story. (Spoilers to follow!)
Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), was raised in war-torn Sokovia before her parents were killed by an explosive, and she and her twin brother were spared. The two joined a terrorist organization in rebellion, and after participating in experimentation, they both developed superpowers. The first of Wanda’s powers that viewers of the MCU learn about is that she can sense and alter what a person is thinking, but later we learn she can move things with her mind and shoot fireballs from her hands. Ultimately, Wanda turns from her terrorist ways and joins the Avengers in the fight against evil.
Along the way, however, Wanda faces her share of suffering over the course of MCU films. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, her brother Pietro dies, and in her devastation she rips out the robotic heart of that film’s villain. In Avengers: End Game, after Thanos kills her romantic partner, Vision, Wanda comes close to single-handedly defeating the greatest villain of the universe, who had acquired an all-powerful gauntlet of six mind stones.
After the death of her parents, her twin brother, and now her soul mate, Vision, there are a lot of unresolved feelings Wanda has accumulated over the years. The final straw comes in WandaVision, when she visits a plot of land Vision had bought for the two to live their final years happily together. And something inside her snaps.
Ultimately, WandaVision is a thought experiment of what might happen if a superhero of Wanda’s power were to mentally snap. And while it’s just a fantasy comic-book series, I would say it highlights real-life aspects of possible trauma responses, magnified to ridiculous, superhero proportions. This not only makes for an intriguing storyline, but it also paints huge, unmissable lessons about the dangers of unresolved trauma.
“Please stand by”
Fans of the MCU have noted a bunch of uncomfortable and frustrating aspects of the show. The first few episodes are set in the style of classic sitcoms from different decades and feature entirely confusing plots. Viewers watching as each episode was released were befuddled as Wanda appeared to be a fish out of water in her day-to-day activities, only to reach the end-of-episode credits, still with no clue what was happening. I found it to be so uncomfortable, I needed to wash it down with a different program afterward, only to desperately long for the next week’s release and be just as disappointed.
As the series progresses, a more disturbing issue emerges. It turns out Wanda has enslaved an entire New Jersey town of people to play backup parts in her fantasy life with her dreamed-up version of Vision, all neatly wrapped up into old-fashioned TV scripts. Suddenly, our hero appears to be a villain herself, and a creepy, controlling one at that. What’s more, viewers are hard pressed to think of who could possibly stop her.
Weird things keep happening around town, and Vision, who appears to be the only person not controlled by Wanda’s mind, starts to press her about it. Wanda also appears to be realizing what’s happening, and that she’s responsible for it. But now that she’s again living with the love of her life re-animated—now with their two on-screen children—she appears to double down on clinging to the fantasy at any cost. As the series’ end approached, I was hanging on every Friday for the next episode to drop, certain that something had to break this bubble to return her to reality—just not knowing if it would be with her participation, from properly processing her grief and trauma, or from a more dreadful conflict by force.
All the things that made us feel uncomfortable about WandaVision . . . SHOULD!
For anyone who has experienced trauma, or knows a loved one who has, many of the ugly elements in WandaVision may sound familiar. Brushing under the rug the uncomfortable reality that you don’t want to face emotionally; immediately rejecting those who call you out if you’re not ready to face it—these are signs of unresolved trauma. And, the longer trauma remains unaddressed in a healthy way, the more likely it is that it will lead to hurting people around you. Lest we forget, there’s no way in life to truly avoid suffering without going through it, and anything that tempts us to think we can sidestep that reality is really just an avenue to transfer our pain to others.
But WandaVision is not just a show to make you feel affirmed for ever thinking of a loved one, “Please, please, PLEASE will you go to therapy?” It provides an empathetic perspective of Wanda’s plight as well. She appears quite glassy-eyed and confused as she tries to go through life in the first few episodes, and it’s tragic after you think about it; she’s trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but she is lost in a fog and doesn’t know down from up. Monica Rambeau, an investigatory agent on the outside who accidentally gets sucked into Wanda’s fantasy town, explains later that when she was being controlled by Wanda in the story, she was overcome by feelings of pain, loss, and grief. Later, Monica embraces radical empathy for Wanda, almost ignoring Wanda’s participation in the problem. “I know what Wanda’s feeling” Monica says, “and I won't stop until I help her.”
In the end, Wanda does face the music willingly, ends the mind control of the townspeople, and attempts to make things right as much as she possibly could. It doesn’t undo the wrongdoing and suffering she caused them, however. While she makes some sacrifice in letting go of her fantasy life with Vision and the growing brood she’d hoped for, and fighting to free the people she enslaved in her dome of grief, the final episode makes clear that this isn’t enough. The only ending that could bring true justice for what Wanda’s done would be for Wanda to be locked up. But of course, this is a comic-book story, and superheroes fly off without apparent consequences.
I think this sense of grave unfairness with which the series ends is meant to sting the viewer. Sometimes people can’t make amends for the pain they’ve caused us in their failure to healthily address their own issues. We can’t speed their healing along—only they can—and watching the slow moving train wreck can be torture. If and when they finally find their way back to reality and healthy coping skills, the damage may already have been done. Some relationships can be rebuilt and begin again, while others remain forever in the rubble. And that’s just a sad fact, from the vantage point of both the victim and the recovered perpetrator of the harm.
One hopes that from this point on, Wanda will maintain her mental bearings and try to double down on the good she can do in the world; we can only wait and watch to find out. But now that I’ve finally digested the final episode of WandaVision, I feel the show’s writers weren’t bonkers after all. I think they decided to lean into all the ugly challenges of grief and trauma in real life, to the extreme.