We all know what grief looks like – according to most films and TV shows, anyway. It’s noisy, and messy, and full of soggy tearstained tissues. It’s all long and impassioned speeches about what that dearly departed person meant to you, and wearing black all day long, and lashing out at everyone around you.
It’s sadness on a time limit, essentially; one fine morning, you’ll wake up and smile into the sun, and you’ll feel completely and utterly fine. The grief will be over. The next chapter in your story (which, if you’re Sandra Bullock in Practical Magic, is falling deeply in love with a police officer from Arizona) can begin.
Of course, those who’ve suffered a loss will know all too well that Hollywood’s version of grief is starkly different from the reality. Because it’s impossible to know how someone is truly feeling from seeing them for a few minutes. Because the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. And because grief, above all else, doesn’t always look and sound the same; rather, it is messy and confusing and uniquely individual to the person experiencing it.
However, the writers of Marvel’s WandaVision – as in, yes, a Disney+ series about superheroes – are fully aware of this. And so, in a bid to change the narrative around bereavement, they have neatly sidestepped all of those tired old Hollywood tropes to offer us one of the most nuanced portrayals of grief and intense pain ever seen onscreen.
“This idea – this meditation on how you come back from loss – is really what the show is all about,” WandaVision director Matt Shakman explains to Collider.
“It’s about love.”
As those who have watched the Easter egg-filled WandaVision will know already, the series sees Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) trying to live out an idealised life in a suburban neighbourhood of Westview.
When we last saw them in Avengers: Endgame, though, Vision was dead and Wanda was desperately struggling to come to terms with her grief over the loss of her beloved. And so, as it turns out, she has been using her supernatural powers to hold on to Vision as tight as she can.
She’s recreated him based on her own memories and the love they shared. She’s denied herself the chance to reconcile herself to her loss, preferring to lose herself in the fantasy of what might have been. And she’s idolised the man she adored, focusing solely on the good and the perfect, and losing sense of any of the flaws that made him… well, him.
“I think what really resonated with me was the show’s literal portrayal of the denial and bargaining phases of grief, which I don’t think are talked about anywhere near as much as the more well-known stages, like anger and depression,” says Stylist’s Lucy Robson, who is every bit as addicted to the series as I am.
“Obviously most of us don’t have the capacity to create a new reality and replace the one we are rejecting, as Wanda does, but it speaks to the part of us deep down that so wishes, more than anything, that we could.”
She adds: “This fantasy may be easier for Wanda to live in, but it’s potentially harmful – and I really do think it shows us how absolutely crucial it is to overcome that denial stage of grief so that you can learn to live with your loss, or your ‘truth.’
“And that’s why, of all the shows that I’ve watched in the last year (and there have been many!), it’s the one I can’t stop thinking about.”
Denial isn’t the only part of grief that WandaVision explores, however. In one flashback, we watch Vision comfort Wanda over the death of her brother, Pietro.
“It’s just like this wave washing over me again and again,” she tells him. “It knocks me down and when I try to stand up, it just comes for me again. And I can’t… it’s gonna drown me.”
Vision replies gently: “No. No, Wanda. It can’t be all sorrow, can it? I’ve always been alone so I don’t feel the lack. It’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve never experienced loss because I’ve never had a loved one to lose.
“What is grief, if not love persevering?”
It is a line which has struck a chord with viewers in these dark Covid-addled times, with many relating to Vision’s wisdom and Wanda’s struggle.
“Towards the end of last year, I experienced grief for the first time,” says Stylist’s Hanna Ibraheem, another self-confessed Marvel superfan.
“After months of grappling with the emotions and struggling to explain to people how I felt, I, surprisingly, found some solace in WandaVision – particularly episode eight. I’ve spoken to loved ones about grief hitting you in waves and completely related to Wanda speaking about feeling like she’s drowning. But it was that line by Vision that set me over the edge.
“It gave me an entirely new perspective in how to channel my grief: love. It’s not something I have to ‘get over’ but something that will stay with me. I honestly think the show has done a brilliant job at unpacking the various layers of emotions that come with grief but that line really struck me.”
Shakman, speaking to IGN, agrees that this is the line that best sums up what WandaVision is all about.
“This is the moment where [Vision] provides the solace that she needs, a way forward, and that line is quite beautiful. But it’s also made especially beautiful by the line before it, when Wanda articulates what loss is like to her and he is able to give her a way forward. He is able to show her that love is the way through that,” explains the director.
“He is quite a wise person, Vision. Even though he’s not human, he seems to be more human than any of us. He has some of the best lines in the MCU, I think that one [about grief] written by [WandaVision writer] Laura Donney is gorgeous.”
It would do the writers a disservice to only focus on Vision’s line, though. Indeed, his oh-so-quotable quote only works so well because Wanda’s articulation of her grief – and her reference to those crashing waves – speaks to the pain of loss so beautifully.
“In the beginning, the waves of grief are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy,” reads one incredibly profound Reddit post. “They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float.
“After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function… [then], somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall.
“And while they still come, they come further apart, you can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.”
Over the course of nine episodes, Wanda has learned that it’s time to stop floating. She knows it’s time to let go of the fantasy world she’s created, the Vision she’s ideated, the family she’s imagined for them both. She knows it’s time to bid “farewell” to the dream she’s been clinging onto for so long.
But is it the end of WandaVision? Of course not; their love is persevering. And, unlike so many glossy Hollywood incarnations of grief, it’s made abundantly clear that heartache cannot be turned off with the ease of a light switch; rather, you can learn to live with it. You can embrace the gifts that the world continues to give you, and the new chapters it has in store for you, all while keeping an eye out for the waves on the horizon.
When we leave Wanda, she’s doing her best to learn more about her abilities. In a later post-credits scene, though, we see her working hard on the magical Darkhold book – which some have suggested means that she’s planning on trying to bring her two little boys back to life. A new loss, a new grief, a new ache in her soul to overcome.
Love is persevering – but grief is, too. And WandaVision’s honesty about this is what makes it so, so, so brilliant.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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