Spoilers follow for WandaVision episode nine, “The Series Finale.”
In a couple of weeks, Marvel will debut The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, its second Disney+ series. But I can’t get my mind off of WandaVision.
Part of that is due to my fundamental belief that witchcraft is much sexier than two dudes wanting to save the world. But it’s mostly because I can’t stop thinking about WandaVision’s finale.
And the more I revisit that episode, the more I realize it’s because a show I really liked left me cold.
I tuned in to WandaVision each week because I loved the way the show wanted to explore things like our relationship to television, the power of escapism, and the wonder that is Kathryn Hahn. It simultaneously existed within and pushed against the boundaries of the very rigid Marvel machine. But most of all, it took a character who is so criminally minimized in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wanda Maximoff, and gave her the space to tell a story about grief and loss, stasis and movement. In Wanda’s case, she manifests her grief through recreating the old television shows she once watched with her family.
That WandaVision debuted after a year of social distancing and isolation made it even more emotionally resonant.
So much of the series is focused on what it means to mourn, on how we persevere, and on the desperation humans feel to avoid the pain that accompanies grief. But surprisingly, in its spectacle-driven finale, the show flexed emotional amnesia, trading away its exploration of humanity to complete its mission of (literally) empowering its heroine and laying the foundation for the next chapter of the MCU. In doing so, WandaVision attempted to give us a hero to cheer for and, at the same time, ultimately deprived Wanda of the growth necessary to get there.
WandaVision showed the lengths humans take to cope with grief
Let’s get this out of the way: WandaVision was great. I wrote in my initial review of the series that I hoped the story would eventually give us a payoff that was equal to its style. It delivered that.
The show was packed with some blockbuster moments like Agatha’s reveal, the fake Pietro (Fietro) cameo, and the arrival of Wanda’s twin boys — in the comic books, these boys will eventually become superheroes themselves. But my favorite thing about WandaVision is how it used all these moments and all of its Easter eggs to tell a deeper story about Wanda Maximoff — a character who, for all her appearances in Marvel’s movies, was previously relegated to a one-note role.
That singular note was visually kind of cool, as it usually involved Wanda getting mad and then subsequently using her crimson-hued telekinesis to beat up bad guys like Thanos. Who didn’t love seeing her lift the Mad Titan into the sky in Avengers: Endgame and crunching his armor and bones little by little?
But playing that role over and over again — before Thanos it was Ultron, and in between Ultron and Thanos it was Tony Stark’s Civil War team — flattened Wanda into an avenging, glass cannon.
Wanda has faced as much loss, if not more, than any other Avenger: She’s lost her parents, her twin brother, and her synthezoid soulmate Vision. Unlike her colleagues, Wanda never really had a chance to say goodbye. Pepper Potts got to have last words with Iron Man. Thor was able to tell his mother he loved her. Captain America saw Peggy on her dying day in one timeline, and he time-jumped to be with her when given the opportunity.
Wanda hasn’t had the same luck.
What makes WandaVision so special is that it shows how, despite her losses, Wanda survives. When we first meet her in the series, Wanda (who’s played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen) is a bubbly, smiling, and happy wife in a knockoff version of The Dick Van Dyke show. Her lipstick, her hair, the hem on her dress — it’s all perfectly in place. In the first episode and subsequent homages to Bewitched and The Brady Bunch, the audience starts to piece together that what we’re seeing is Wanda coping.
Her sitcom life is perfect because her real life is anything but.
Monica Rambeau, a character who is coping with her mother’s death and with herself having been blipped away by Thanos’s snap, explains to S.W.O.R.D. and the audience that Wanda is mourning, By episode five, Wanda’s struggle to keep everything just so gives way to menace; at one point, she even starts rolling the credits when Vision asks her what’s happening. That same episode sees Vision piece this together, and reveals — by way of a mind-zapping — that the extras in Wanda’s sitcom are there against their will.
In episode six, after previously being asked where all Westview’s children are, Wanda allows them to have Halloween. It’s ominous. She is separating families while she’s essentially playing a game of Sims with real-life people.
Wanda’s fantasy has human consequences, and the show suggests that what she’s doing is actually painful. After being zapped out of Westview, Monica explains that she was conscious but overwhelmed by Wanda’s unstoppable grief. We’re led to believe that Wanda is forcing everyone in town to experience her pain, and that everyone is aware of what’s happening but helpless.
During this middle portion of the season, we find out that S.W.O.R.D.’s director Tyler Hayward is partly responsible for what Wanda is doing. He pushed Wanda’s grief buttons in his attempt to revive Vision, and he intends to frame her. But it’s not as though he’s directly influencing her. He opened the door to her sorrow, but the fantasy sitcom she created in response was her own choice.
Similarly, WandaVision is careful to have Agatha drop into Westview only after Wanda’s hex is established. Agatha extends Wanda’s fantasy, bringing in the fake Pietro and other hijinks in the hope she’ll be able to sniff out the source of Wanda’s magic, but again, it’s made clear that the agony of this town is primarily Wanda’s fault — a revelation that belies Agatha’s catchy song.
No one in Westview asked to be part of Wanda’s television show trauma, and WandaVision grapples with the idea that grief makes all of us, superheroes included, do things we wouldn’t normally do. It confronts how we, like Wanda, might fail to realize how actions that are driven by our pain can affect other people. No matter who or what causes our trauma, it’s ultimately our own responsibility to recognize it and not pass it to other people. While Agatha and Hayward both push Wanda, Wanda is terrorizing the people of Westview and she is the only one who can make it right.
Wanda Maximoff has all the power in the world, but none of it can help her withstand the loss she’s had to face, the heartache, and the trauma of being a superhero. None of her chaos magic will help her learn how to be and act like a hero.
Why Monica Rambeau giving Wanda a pass is so unsatisfying
My problem with WandaVision’s finale is that while the lead-up to the episode showed us that Wanda is capable of awful things, it very quickly asks us to forgive Wanda and forget what she did. Just a few minutes after people in the town plead with her to “just let us die,” explaining that “your grief is poisoning us” and that “when you let us sleep we have your nightmares,” Monica absolves her.
“They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them,” Monica tells Wanda as she leaves town, implying that Wanda giving up her imaginary life would somehow justify the pain she caused.
“It won’t change how they see me,” Wanda replies.
Wait, what? What??
The idea that people who participated in your live-action roleplay against their will; people who were terrorized, tortured, and separated from their families and children; and people who were almost killed in a witch-on-witch battle are somehow in the wrong for resenting Wanda is baffling. Even sillier is the idea that any Westview resident would think Wanda appearing to beep-boop her imaginary family out of existence is an act of heroism, or that Wanda is doing herself harm by not telling the residents what she sacrificed for the good of the town of Westview?
Wanda absolutely hurt these people, but she’s more concerned about being a social pariah.
Granted, Monica could be an unreliable narrator. But WandaVision has consistently been painting her as a hero and asserted that she is a good and trustworthy person. Her hunches about Hayward were correct, and she’s consistently been the most vocal character in maintaining Wanda’s innocence. Her decision to risk her life and her job for Wanda isn’t questioned (though maybe it should be). And her judgment calls throughout have been good calls, so it seems like if Monica sees Wanda as a hero, then we should too.
Are Wanda’s feelings more valid because she is a superhero? If WandaVision is a show about how easy it is to unknowingly inflict trauma and grief on others, then what has Wanda set off in all these people?
Wanda’s last act in the finale is to zip away, seemingly without understanding how she’s hurt so many people. With this ending, WandaVision undermines Wanda Maximoff’s evolution into the Scarlet Witch or any closure she has with Vision. She’s written to be more concerned with Westview citizens’ glares than understanding the emotional place they’re coming from. And while Wanda Maximoff will get a new beginning as the MCU rolls on, it comes at the expense of the expendable residents of Westview.
It’s not that superheroes can’t be myopic or mimic the pain and trauma inflicted on them in unhealthy ways. Characters like Tony Stark, Bucky Barnes, and various members of the Guardians of the Galaxy are all guilty of this. It doesn’t make me think less of them, and maybe makes their heroism even richer.
But painting Wanda’s actions as sacrifice and punishment, especially as Monica essentially lets her off the hook, shortchanges the complexity of the character and the journey she’s taken. A simple exchange — say, if Monica had told Wanda that if she runs they’ll never forgive her, or asked Wanda if she wants to be feared (like Vision does in Captain America: Civil War) — could have gotten at the same ideas of empathy without exoneration.
Because WandaVision feeds into Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (“Multiverse of Madness” could be shortened to m-o-m) there might be more emotional reckoning ahead. Perhaps Wanda will finally apologize or come to a greater understanding of what she did in Westview. But that still doesn’t help WandaVision’s finale.
Or perhaps she’ll really lean into her evil destiny, as evidenced by WandaVision’s post-credits scene where we saw her astral projection reading the evil book known as the Darkhold, and this entire discussion about “sacrifice” will all be forgotten.
In Marvel’s comic books, Wanda Maximoff has done similarly rotten stuff like wipe out the mutant race. She’s still considered an Avenger, but she’s not universally loved nor is she trusted, especially by mutants. Mutants see her as a threat, and especially in the current House of X continuity, their views are valid. The MCU has the potential to go in that direction.
Throughout WandaVision, Wanda herself explains how she loved sitcoms because every problem, no matter how bad, was always fixed within 30 minutes. After living through each episode of her own sitcom, she comes to understand that she’s chasing an unsustainable fantasy. Having learned this lesson, what Wanda would think of her own ending, of the sitcom-like suggestion that her selfishness was actually sacrifice and quickly forgiven? I wonder if she’d be as unsatisfied as I was.