POP CULTURE ESSAY

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In episode four of WandaVision we gain our largest understanding of what has been happening to Wanda Maximoff and how she ended up in the town of WestView. As Monica tells S.W.O.R.D ‘it’s all Wanda’, we return to Wanda and Vision’s home and get one of the most jarring and upsetting scenes in the MCU yet. Vision enters the room and we finally see him for what he is, a 3D printed shell, an animated corpse. As Wanda, portrayed beautifully by Elizabeth Olsen, winces painfully before composing herself to see him again as she wants, we as the audience get to see inside her cracked psyche. This isn’t Wanda trapped, this isn’t Wanda hurting others, this is Wanda refusing to believe that death is a problem she can’t solve. 

After the blip, when the Avengers and half the world’s population returned, most of our superhero teams and their loved ones were reunited. Unfortunately for Wanda, she had no-one to return to. Her brother died long ago, as did her parents, and aside from perhaps two scenes in Civil War with Hawkeye and Cap, Wanda’s only connection to the world was through Vision – someone created from an all-powerful stone and the only living creature in the world perhaps more powerful than her and therefore not afraid. 

Wanda’s grief of Vision, her only hope of love, has led her down the dark path she is currently in, literally cocooning herself away from the world and casting out anyone who may challenge it. It’s a perfect example of the grieving process and one we see in other female led narratives from the last 12 months – Cassie in Promising Young Woman and Adrienne in Wander Darkly.

Whilst Cassie did not lose a lover, she has lost someone who was basically a sister to her. So instead of moving on with her life, becoming a doctor and growing into the promising young woman she once was, she retreats into a private world of anger and vengeance. Whilst Wanda seems to have chosen a light and fluffy sitcom world and Cassie a hyper violent revenge narrative, the pair have both chosen paths from their past, returned to their younger selves as the thought of growing up, of maturing and becoming new people without their person next to them? It’s too hard. We see Wanda living out the shows she would have watched on TV as a child. We see Cassie living in a pastel-coloured world of innocence, down to the ribbons in her hair.

As audiences begin to explore grief as a topic more openly, writers and directors are finding new and interesting ways to present the many nuances of one of the most complex experiences any human can live through. Even in less narratively clear films such as Wander Darkly we see Sienna Miller's character refusing to leave the memories of her past, every scene collapsing in on itself through the various timelines of her and her partner’s life together. The film is almost a home video montage of her life as she refuses to acknowledge the accident the pair have both lived through and the consequent grief she must face to move on. Instead, like Wanda, she chooses to retreat to the past, to imagine a smaller, safer world with her love by her side.

 

Within grief we can play make believe. We see this as Wanda confronts Vision's true form. We realise that this is who she sits with, who she kisses. She is pushing through that reality as her grief is so strong, the only safe retreat is in this fake existence. For Cassie, we never see her actually attack any of these men within the film. Everything within the film’s narrative leads us to believe she may be killing the men, but the only time we see her actually commit an act of violence it has shocking consequences. These women are not fulfilling fantasies but instead hiding within them.

Through the use of colour, the aesthetic stylisation through sets, costume, even visual text on screen in Promising Young Woman it’s as though Cassie has retreated into a video game, the ultimate source of instant and constant gratification. Wanda has chosen a slightly older version of this, the comfort of the safe nuclear family sitcom. It’s a typical trait of a grieving person to retreat to something simple and binary and hide from the world – for me it was Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It started just from wanting to look at their pretty vacations and then suddenly it became so much easier to live in this world of vapid fame and wealth with no real consequences to any actions. No talk of life and death, just gorgeous houses and vacations.

Grief makes us want to problem solve. For Cassie, it’s making sure what happened to her friend never happens again, that her memory means something to those left behind. For Wanda? It’s about finally living that normal life that everyone else gets to have, it’s being the picture-perfect girl the avengers so desperately wanted her to be, an all American housewife.

 

Her want is to be left alone, but she will never fit in and Sword will never leave her to it. For Cassie, she wants to rid the world of toxic men, but as a woman, is this even possible? These wants would never even be attempted if it wasn’t for the all-consuming grief and subsequent side effect of rage both women are going through, but as they go deeper into the rage their choices become more precarious and harder to ignore. In Adrienne’s case, her daughter receives a constant warning that she needs to come back from the brink, for Cassie, this is putting herself in grave situations that risk her own safety. For Wanda, it’s creating literal life that means having to confront the lifeless shell that once was her partner. 

 

Grief will either pull you down with it, or help you rise above. Of these three stories, one has a tragic end, another a positive and one that we’re yet to see. What the positive outcome did have was a strong support network that wanted to love the grieving person and needed her love in return. For Wanda? Only one person could ever reach her and he’s now the hollowed-out shell, lifeless on the sofa next to her.
 

One of the biggest complaints I have heard about the show is that there is no purpose to the characters, that the characters have no motivation and therefore until we find out the big conceit and get ‘down to Marvel business’, nothing is happening in these episodes. This could not be further from the truth. 

Setting WandaVision as a homage to sitcoms and as a literal sitcom running from Wanda’s head, we are giving all the information we need. As with classic sitcoms like BeWitched, Wanda’s motivation is to fit in. To fit in a town, be a perfect wife, a perfect mother and to be loved and accepted. We see it in episode 1 as she and Vision try to act normal in front of his boss. In episode 2 as she desperately tries to fit in with the other women in town, and even then, she is still the only one wearing pants – she can blend but she never quite fits. Even something as normal and natural as becoming pregnant, the classic role of a wife in these types of relationships she is desperately emulating, Wanda still can’t do normally. Her excitement to ‘really do this’ means her pregnancy lasts only a day. Her labour starts to destroy the town. Her desperation to do normal and be normal is so strong it is fuelling an entire neighbourhood. We know from Civil War that she desperately wants people to not be scared of her, to see she can be good. What better way to show the world how normal she is than to be a perfect sitcom wife?

FEBRUARY. 11. 2021.

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GRIEF AS FANTASY IN FICTION NARRATIVES

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(Spoilers for Promising Young Woman, Wander Darkly and WandaVision episodes 1-4)

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