WandaVision Is Trying to Teach Us Something About Grief
There’s a lot more to Marvel’s WandaVision than meets the eye, but maybe that’s not surprising for a show about a reality-bending witch.
The show is only just starting to unfold on Disney+, but already you can tell it has a lot of ambition — both in terms of character arc and technical storytelling.
If you’ve tuned in to the first handful of episodes, you know it’s a slow burn — even confusing and odd at times. But the show creators knew they had a reserve of trust with viewers who have followed the Avengers through 22 movies, and they were building a foundation for a layered narrative to unfold.
Just look at the first line of dialogue: Vision walks into the kitchen while Wanda is using her powers to wash and dry dishes. A plate smashes on his head and he says, “My wife and her flying saucers.” She uses her power to repair the broken dish, and replies, “My husband and his indestructible head.”
The words and images here are an overture of sorts — the changing of reality to un-break something; the reference to Vision’s head, which is decidedly not indestructible. This exchange is pointing to what this show is about: loss and how we deal with it.
I think underneath all of the layers in this narrative is a theme of grief, but it’s going to take some digging to get there. Maybe the best way to expose those layers is to examine the different ways in which we can interpret the name of the series itself: WandaVision.
Level 1: It’s a TV show
On the surface, the show is clearly using old TV show conventions from different decades. The name, WandaVision, calls to mind some 1950s broadcasting outlet. It’s interesting to notice the change in aspect ratio for different elements of the story — the physical shape in which the narrative is presented changes to reflect the time period of its setting. When they are in a 1960s sitcom, the screen is square; when they shift into the current Marvel universe, it widens to a theatrical shape.
The dialogue, costumes, and characters — even the background elements — all reflect the time period of that part of the story. It’s an impressive array of television history to see the story jumping around between different narrative frames.
Level 2: It’s a marriage
Dig a little deeper and we notice that WandaVision is also a way to see the relationship between the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) and Vision. Put them together, and you have a name for their marriage.
Level 3: It’s Wanda’s way of seeing the world
Below that, we could examine WandaVision as a way to describe Wanda’s vision — the way she sees the world. Now that the show has made a turn, this is the most compelling layer to unpack.
In Avengers: Infinity War, Vision meets his demise at the hands of Thanos, who extracts the Mind Stone from his forehead, killing him in the process. Thanos then uses the Infinity Gauntlet to wipe out half of all living things in the universe — Wanda included. While that action was reversed in Endgame and Wanda returned, the Avengers were not able to bring Vision back to life because he was killed before the Snap.
All of which is to say: Wanda is grieving the loss of her partner, Vision. And because she can change reality, we’re coming to understand that she is creating an alternate universe where she and Vision share a life together — a fabricated reality drawn from television.
Here’s the deal with grief — it’s work. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that it takes time and energy to grieve their loss. You get tired and distracted. It weighs on you.
And there’s an element to grief that also feels surreal — intense grief feels like a dream, like it’s not really happening. After a sudden death, someone might say, “I feel like she could walk through the door any second.” A disconnect appears when life seems to go on for the world around you while your world seems to be falling apart.
I had someone once describe the “work” of grief to me as making sense of your story in a new way. You thought you were in one story with a certain set of characters. And then one of them — a crucial character, someone without whom you’ve never imagined life — is suddenly gone. The work of grief in that situation is to figure out how your story goes on without that person.
This appears to be the work that Wanda is refusing to do — she’d rather create her own reality where she and Vision build a family and live together. But even for the Scarlet Witch, there are limits to how much she can control. The concrete realities of the real world are unforgiving and relentless.
Level 4: Memory
The deepest level at which we can see this show operating (currently, anyway) is one where Vision clearly belongs to Wanda. His figure in the show is her version of him. She’s the director, and he’s the actor. In that sense, this is Wanda’s Vision.
This idea of memory raises another aspect of grief, however. When a loved one dies, our memories are all that are left of them for us. And as much as we want to ground those memories in our shared experience, they are still the version of reality that we perceived. No matter how perfect our memory — or even if we have video or tangible mementos — what’s left to us is a shadow, not a full person.
And this is the final loss we experience when a loved one dies. Death takes from us not only their presence, but even our own memory of their presence slowly rusts and erodes away. We let go of the rough edges that were hard to deal with and focus on the aspects of their personality that we want to remember. And then, over time, even those aspects start to fade, and we’re left with ashes.
This is the human experience of death — it is profound loss. Grief poses for us the ultimate question: where do we find meaning in life? If “we are dust, and unto dust we shall return,” what is the point of living?
It’s an important question to ask — one that we all must respond to. It will be interesting to watch how Wanda answers it.