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Marvel’s ‘WandaVision’ Echos Our Lasting Pandemic Grief

Addressing pandemic-induced topics such as loss, grief, and mental illness, Marvel’s ‘WandaVision’ serves as a metaphor for life in the time of COVID.

WandaVision
Jac Schaeffer
Marvel Studios / Disney
15 January 2021

The director, Hayward (Josh Stamberg), sends her to investigate a missing person in Westview with FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park). They discover that no nearby resident thinks Westview exists, and an energy field is protecting the town. Monica is sucked in, and Hayward sets up a SWORD base of operations near the hex. Astrophysicist Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) examines the energy and discovers the ‘WandaVision’ broadcast embedded in the energy. They can watch the show Wanda is producing. After SWORD fails to contact anyone inside, Monica is ejected. Monica confirms that Wanda is not being controlled, that she is the perpetrator of the hex.

In episode five, “On a Very Special Episode…”, Wanda’s show has reached the ‘80s in the style of Family Ties (1982-1989). Wanda and Vision struggle with the twins until they magically grow to age five. The boys find a dog, Sparky, and grow to age ten to be old enough to care for it. These sudden changes, and Wanda’s less cautious use of magic concern Vision, so Wanda sends him to work. Later, Sparky is found dead, and Wanda teaches the twins an important lesson about grief and the limits of her powers.

Meanwhile, Hayward declares Wanda a dangerous villain and tries to kill her, over the protests of Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy. Wanda comes out of the hex to threaten SWORD, ordering them not to interfere. In the hex, Vision confronts Wanda, but they are interrupted by the arrival of her brother, Pietro (“recast” from Aaron Taylor-Johnson to Evan Peters).

Episode six, “All-New Halloween Spooktacular”, is a late ’90s/early ’00s sitcom in the style of Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). On Halloween night, Vision rejects Wanda’s control and investigates the town while Wanda and Pietro take the twins trick-or-treating. As Pietro and the boys get into mischief, Wanda and Pietro question each other about his appearance and Wanda’s hex. Meanwhile, Monica, Jimmy, and Darcy discover that Wanda is rewriting matter, and Monica’s trips through the hex are altering her DNA. Vision finds most of the townspeople frozen on the outskirts of town. He tries to escape the hex but he starts to fall apart. To save him, Wanda expands the hex, encompassing the SWORD camp and turning it into a circus.

These episodes reveal the mystery of the show and alter its nature. It definitively reveals that Wanda created the situation and is controlling the town. But it also calls into question exactly how and why she is doing it: Is she in pain (as Monica believes) or has she simply broken bad (as Hayward believes)? Episode four also fully breaks from the sitcom format to give the background on Monica and SWORD, and the show cuts back and forth between the sitcom and the outside world moving forward. This accentuates the different aspect ratios and production techniques being used in each.

It also introduces the wider MCU into the proceedings. Besides Monica appearing as an adult version of a character from Captain Marvel, Jimmy last appeared in Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018) and Darcy appeared in Thor (Branagh, 2011) and Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013). Their roles call for a law enforcement agent and an astrophysicist. Marvel smartly opted to use pre-existing characters rather than new ones, helping the MCU to feel more interconnected and cohesive. The casting of Peters was especially interesting. He did not portray Pietro in Age of Ultron, but he did play a version of the character in the X-Men films. This was intended as a riff on sitcoms recasting roles, but it took on an added metatextual layer through the casting of Peters and launched hundreds of online fan theories.

The death of Monica’s mother during “the blip” allows her to act as a sympathetic foil for Wanda. Monica’s grief, which she processes and works with, stands in contrast to Wanda’s epic avoidance of her grief. These episodes begin to bring Wanda’s feelings to the foreground.

After she ejects Monica from the hex, Wanda briefly sees Vision as a dead version of himself. The birth of the twins reminds her of Pietro, and then she is confronted by a live version of Pietro. Her grief is bubbling just beneath the surface and it is getting hard to ignore. Pietro is later revealed to be a trick by Agnes/Agatha to nudge Wanda out of her illusion. Pietro even chides Wanda that his job is to “give her grief”. If the first three episodes represent Wanda’s Denial of grief, these episodes represent the Anger and Bargaining as circumstances that force her to confront her issues.

Wanda is angry at SWORD’s interference and threatens them. She is also angry with Vision’s relentless questioning of everything, and she tries to sideline him. She even rolls credits over their argument, but he refuses to stop. Then, when a man who is clearly not Pietro appears and claims to be her brother, Wanda convinces herself that she brought him back to life somehow. These episodes posit that one can only avoid coping with grief and trauma for so long. It always gets deep into our minds and comes forward in ways we cannot expect or control. Wanda is losing control on all fronts and the hex is breaking down.

The commercials even reflect this. The very first commercial is a Stark Industries toaster, which beeps like the Stark missile that failed to kill her and Pietro. The second commercial is for Strucker brand watches, named after the leader of Hydra who gave Wanda her powers. The third commercial is for Hydra Soak, a bubble bath that allows one to escape reality. But in these episodes, there are Lagos brand paper towels (“for cleaning up unexpected messes”) with the same name as the name of the country where Wanda accidentally killed innocent people. And then there is the profoundly weird stop-motion-animated Yo’Magic yogurt commercial, in which a boy on a desert island cannot open his yogurt and wastes away into a skeleton. This last one subconsciously warns of Agatha’s plans to feed on Wanda’s magic, but also speaks to Wanda’s dark state of mind.

In terms of commentary on sitcoms, these episodes represent an era that was far less rosy and optimistic. Married couples in family sitcoms of the ‘80s and beyond did not seem to like each other very much, particularly compared to the earlier decades of the form. By the ‘80s, there was far more bickering and jokey insults. By the ‘90s and ‘00s, snark and attitude had all but replaced the loving connection of the ‘50s. In WandaVision, this coincides perfectly with Vision’s discoveries about the town and his skepticism regarding Wanda’s innocence.

Sitcoms in the ‘80s would frequently air more sombre, serious episodes, where the laugh track took a pause as characters dealt with real issues. This is referenced in the title of episode five, “On a Very Special Episode…” In these stories, not everything was solved or set right in 20-minutes, as the death of the dog was dealt with. The filmmakers once again use this to reflect Wanda’s situation, as her issues rise to the surface and she becomes increasingly unable to avoid them.

Episode six reflects a harder-edged type of sitcom. The episode features handheld single-camera setups, characters talking directly to the camera, and cutaway gags. The hijinks become more mean-spirited and destructive. Wanda has transitioned from a perfect, loving, supportive suburban housewife to an exasperated mom struggling to keep a semblance of control in her life. This struggle breaks her down as WandaVision enters its final sitcom era.

WandaVision Goes Full MCU

Episode seven, “Breaking the Fourth Wall”, begins as a take on the faux documentary-style sitcoms like Modern Family (2009-2020) or The Office (2005-2013). Wanda has entered the Depression stage of grief, feeling guilt about everything including expanding the hex. Her powers are glitching, causing elements of the house to switch between eras. Agnes arrives, senses Wanda’s struggle, and offers to take care of the twins for the day. Wanda is left alone for the first time since she started the hex.

Her testimonials to the camera attempt to stay true to the jokey internal commentary of Modern Family, but Olsen perfectly conveys the deep sorrow inside. Meanwhile, Vision finds Darcy in the circus, frees her of Wanda’s control and they rush back home. Wanda throws obstacles in his way, which Vision responds to in testimonials until he realizes the absurdity of talking to the camera wearing a lapel microphone. By mid-episode, WandaVision ends the sitcom conceit. Its final use offers a perfect mechanism to get into Wanda’s head as she hits rock-bottom. For the last two-and-a-half episodes, she will be forced to drop the illusion, confront her trauma, and reach Acceptance.

At this point, WandaVision fully becomes a contemporary drama/superhero show in a race to the finale. Despite the danger to her DNA, Monica passes through the hex barrier for a third time to help Wanda. She gains powers of some kind in the process. As she appeals to Wanda, Agnes invites Wanda to her house. Agne’’ house is creepy, and the twins are not there. In the basement, Wanda finds some kind of magical stone ruin. Agnes appears and introduces herself as Agatha Harkness.

Agatha was a witch in the days of Salem, over 400 years ago, but she was condemned by her coven for stealing magic and tapping into dark forces. She was drawn by Wanda’s hex, in which Wanda has been controlling thousands of people and rearranging matter to the finest detail. Agatha has been trying to get Wanda to drop her guard and reveal how she achieved such a feat. She contains Wanda in a room with runes that allow only Agatha to perform magic.

In episode eight, “Previously On”, Wanda is forced to confront her trauma. The episode plays like an interactive therapy session, coercing Wanda to process her grief and bring her to Acceptance. Wanda relives the missile that killed her parents. It happened as the family was watching television, learning English from American sitcoms. Agatha deduces that Wanda used magic to stop the missile. She was born with her abilities.

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