April 12, 2021

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WandaVision’s grieving Elizabeth Olsen gave a world in pandemic exactly what it needed

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Spoiler alert! This story has important details about “WandaVision” so beware if you haven’t seen it.

In its 9-episode run, WandaVision was many things to many people.

The story of Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, reeling from the death of her other half, Vision (Paul Bettany), was a profound and unexpected exploration of the ways we cope with loss. And whether or not Marvel intended it, the trauma bubble she quarantined in became an apt metaphor for life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In WandaVision, we saw our own losses. We saw our own limitations. 

“It is uncanny how perfectly it aligns with the collective psyche of the last year,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “This really is a show about grief. .. It demonstrates once again that one can use this giant, generic construct (the MCU) that includes people with superpowers and do just about anything in it. And do just about anything well.”

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COVID-19 wrought a kind of universal claustrophobia and a grief of things both tangible and symbolic. WandaVision, which was conceived of and began filming before the pandemic, could not have been more timely. Wanda, a superhero who can manipulate energy, warps reality to cope with a loss she cannot bear. In her illusion, she and a resurrected Vision live blissfully in a world of classic television sitcoms, escaping to a place in popular culture where grief was never allowed.  

“That whole town is a perfect representation of life under quarantine,” Thompson said. “The people who live in that town are separated from the rest of the world by a powerful force that … if you try to play against the separation, it will kill you. It will disassemble you. It’ll invade you. It’s almost too perfect.”

For her part, Olsen recently told Grazia magazine in an interview, “I see Wanda as a victim of extreme trauma, who does not understand how to process it.” 

Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) have to say goodbye in the finale episode of Disney+'s "WandaVision."

Even more than a metaphor for the COVID era, WandaVision, as it was originally conceived, is an examination of grief, an experience that is at once universal and deeply particular. In Wanda’s case, her anguish over Vision’s death does not relent and her maladaptive coping has consequences not only for her own healing, but for everyone around her.  

Myths about grief

Grief is an emotional response to loss, though there hasn’t always been agreement on how a person should respond. The loss of a loved one, in particular, is among the most stressful events a human can experience. 

In 1989, psychologists Camille Wortman and Roxane Silver authored a paper called, “The Myths of Coping with Loss.” At the time, people largely subscribed to the Kubler-Ross model of loss, which argues grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Silver said the model was applied to every possible negative life experience: rape, cancer, death. 

But Wortman and Silver argued the model wasn’t a realistic characterization of grief. Some people feel intense stress for a very long period of time, others don’t exhibit or feel as much distress as one might expect. The two argued what best characterized responses to loss was variability. 

In other words, there’s no one way to grieve.

“It is more comforting to think that there’s a one size fits all response to grief, because then if there’s one way to respond, it’s easier to know what is abnormal,” Silver said. “Many people’s responses are influenced by events that they previously had in their lives. … Some people respond differently as a result of their measure of support.” 

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By the time Wanda has taken over suburban Westview, she’s experienced a litany of losses: the death of her parents, her twin brother and Vision. But in the American sitcom, Wanda can rewrite her story and script her bliss, however false it may be.

‘Excessive avoidance’ and a complicated grief

Wanda’s grief is intense and all-consuming, compacted by multiple traumas. While at first her alternate reality is unintentional, eventually she knowingly clings to it.

According to the American Psychological Association, complicated grief is “a response to death (or, sometimes, to other significant loss or trauma) that deviates significantly from normal expectations. … The most often observed form of complicated grief is the pattern in which the immediate response to the loss is exceptionally devastating and in which the passage of time does not moderate the emotional pain or restore competent functioning.”  

How many of us would avoid our grief if we had the power to conjure an illusion ourselves?

A 2012 study in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience said people experiencing complicated grief “resort to excessive avoidance of reminders of the loss as they are tossed helplessly on waves of intense emotion.”

‘It’s just like this wave washing over me again and again’

In episode 8, we explore Wanda’s pre-Westview, pre-Avengers backstory, getting glimpses of the trauma she’s suppressed. We see the American sitcoms she watched with her family before the bombing that killed her parents. We hear what it was like to mourn the loss of her brother, Pietro. 

“It’s just like this wave washing over me again and again,” she confides in Vision. “It knocks me down and when I try to stand up, it just comes for me again.”

While Silver stresses emotional reactions to loss are wide-ranging, this metaphor resonates.

“Oftentimes [people will] describe it as waves of emotion that just overwhelmed them when they were least likely to expect it,” she said.

In the same scene, Vision attempts to offer Wanda some comfort: “What is grief, if not love persevering.” 

While Silver says this definition is too narrow from a clinical perspective, it became one of the most talked about lines of the series.

“If I were watching a fine movie, that line, I have to say, would make me roll my eyes. It’s a beautiful line. It’s very perceptive, but it is like what you might find embroidered on a pillow in the mall at the Things Remembered store,” Thompson said. “But it did not strike me that way at all because when it’s uttered by a guy in a red metal face to a woman who’s got electric balls coming out of her palms in a setting that reminds us of I Love Lucy, then that line, instead of seeming eye-rolling seems incredibly profound.”

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In another one of Wanda’s memories, she stands in an empty lot looking at the deed Vision purchased for their home “to grow old in.” This is the moment that brings Wanda to her knees, unleashing a power that blankets Westview and ushers in her alternate reality.

“When people experience a loss of a loved one, it is often not only the present that they are grieving, but it’s also the future,” she said.

The superpower we wish we had

In the season finale, Wanda is forced to accept her reality.

Her decision comes at a time when many of us have been forced to accept the reality of our own unimaginable losses. Since last February, 500,000 people have died of COVID-19. Each of those deaths left behind attachments – people who, like Wanda, must now figure out how to survive.

After her alternate reality lifts, Wanda sees Monica Rambeau, the SWORD agent who’s been a fierce ally. Rambeau, who’s grieving the loss of her mother, offers Wanda absolution.

“Given the chance, given your power, I’d bring my mom back,” she said. “I know I would.” 

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