WandaVision and Grief’s Monstrous Tyranny

WandaVision and Grief’s Monstrous Tyranny

Stop all the Clocks

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W H Auden “Funeral Blues”

Grief’s Monstrous Tyranny

Stop all the clocks Auden declares, put out the sun. Now that he is gone, I want the world to end. I want time to stop moving. My entire existence has narrowed to this absence and bereavement.

My beloved is gone and I want to retreat into the past, into endless reliving of memory, endless drowning in the what if, in the possible future that never was. All the world should stop, should come to a screeching halt. All the world must be grief-centered, grief focused. And I want to make everyone feel the same shock and horror and devastation that I do. 

Grief like this is poetic and powerful when distilled into a verse. But it has the potential to become monstrous if given free rein. Grief has in it the capacity to devour everything. It can manifest as a desperate, hunger, an all-consuming need, a black hole that wants to suck everything in to its vortex. It can manifest as a desire to make the entire world revolve around its tyrannical dictates.

But most of us don’t have the power to actually do any of these things.

At best we can remove ourselves from the stream of life, stop living, stop inhabiting the present, escape to a dream world. Lie on your bed, turn your face to the wall, and refuse to move or engage. We can try to make everyone around us bow to the needs of our grief, becoming a tyrant to our families and friends. But usually they will only put up with so much of that. Usually real life intrudes with its demands. And eventually our friends and loved ones and the rest of the world insist that we meet our obligations, that we rejoin the human race, that we restart time. That we heal.

What if you had the power to actualize all of grief’s monstrous demands? This is the question that WandaVision begins with.

But What Exactly Is Going On?

Because the series plays out as a bunch of sitcoms— that being watched by Darcy— it’s really hard to piece together what is actually happening. So in some ways the structure illuminates and in some ways it creates these narrative gaps that never quite get filled in. It’s clever storytelling that works thematically, but when I try to piece together what’s really going on I’m left with questions.

At first the series seems to be pure escapism, Wanda hiding in a fantasy of denial in happy saccharine sit com land. And yet she doesn’t leave her problematic powers behind and from the first episode the threat of death intrudes as Vision’s boss almost chokes on his dinner, and his wife responds with the sinister, monotone repetition of “Stop It.” Somehow she knows that Wanda is responsible for his choking. Wanda, who can’t bear that her fantasy undergo too much scrutiny. However she’s doing this it seems partly subconscious? As if she’s partly in a dream of fugue state? His questions threaten to make the past intrude and she desperately needs to shut out the past. But we don’t quite know that yet and so we wonder: What exactly is she demanding that Wanda stop? Is this is a slippage in Wanda’s power? Is she demanding that Wanda stop making them act as supporting characters in her drama?

As time goes on it becomes more and more clear that Wanda isn’t as in control as she’d like. Things keep slipping. What exactly is going on? Is Wanda experiencing internal conflict, is she stretching her powers beyond their limits? Why does her control keep slipping?

The revelation of neighbor Agnes as Agatha, a witch, perhaps offers an explanation. But it also raises more questions than it answers. How did Agatha get into Wanda’s sealed world? Did she walk in like Monica and hide in plain sight as the nosy but helpful neighbor? Is she somehow responsible for pushing Wanda to create this world in the first place? Or is she merely piggybacking opportunistically and giving Wanda nudges here and there to try to tease out her secrets?

Externalizing Internal Conflict

Agnes seems an unnecessary complication.Many of my friends thought that internal conflict would be neater and more narratively satisfying. Why bring in a villain when Wanda’s own internal drama is more than enough? And if you need external actors, then you’ve already got the narrative of Monica, Darcy, and Jimmy Woo trying to solve the mystery and then to get in to rescue Wanda’s hostages.

Viewers might well be as disturbed as Wanda at the forcible intrusions of the outside universe into Wanda’s island of grief. Agatha’s advent is jarring, bringing in a new mythology— which some critics argue is just baggage from the comic source material that only serves to tickle the fancy of the fans. I’m hearing this especially those viewers who aren’t really into the mythos of the MCU, who are enjoying the show without a rootedness in they mythos: why do we need a new, unnecessary villain that suddenly changes everything, and not for the better of the story? If it turns out that it was Agatha all along, that this hasn’t been only about Wanda’s grief, that it’s also about mind games being played by a hidden enemy, then what does that mean about Wanda’s inner battle, are we just giving up on that story as not interesting enough? Abandoning it? Instead of having Wanda experience a metanoia, a change of heart, repenting and deciding to let the people of Westview go, we get big flashy superhero conflict complete with red and purple fire… and it’s pulling us away from Wanda’s psychodrama and more importantly letting Wanda off the hook for her actions. Or is it?

I think Agnes/Agatha actually serves a deeper narrative and symbolic function beyond mere fan service. Yes, she disrupts the carefully constructed narrative of Wanda’s grief processing, and her episode introduces a new genre into Wanda’s tour through sitcoms: suddenly we are out of sitcom land and back in the superhero genre. But I’m not at all convinced. I’m not convinced that we ever left the superhero genre, frame narrative notwithstanding. And I’m not convinced that Agnes’s appearance lets Wanda off the hook. Wanda has clearly known for some time that she is inflicting suffering on the innocent people of Westview— known and decided to continue doing so. She doesn’t care. It isn’t at all clear to me that Wanda is just Agatha’s puppet in the same way that the Westview residents are Wanda’s puppets. Wanda still has agency and the ability to make choices. Agatha has just been nudging her somehow.

And this trope: externalizing the hero’s internal conflict, is a key trope in the superhero genre. Superhero villains are the hero’s dark side made visible. They function almost like an allegory, splitting up a person into component parts. Tony Stark’s PTSD is symbolized by the Iron Man suit which in Iron Man 3 literally comes flying at him in a simulated attack every time he puts it on, flinging him here and there violently and consuming him piece by piece. It’s a brilliant image of his trauma, his internal conflict made visible. Agatha represents Wanda’s tyrannical grief and trauma magnified and externalized. 

Who Is the Real Monster?

What the reveal does makes clear is that Agnes has been acting as an emotional vampire all along, using Wanda’s pain and trauma for her own ends. And that… feels true to life to me. One of the potential traps for any person lost in grief are the false friends who seem to be supporting the mourner’s interests, but whose actions serve not to help them process their loss and trauma, but to keep them stuck in an endless cycle of self-indulgent wallowing. Agnes has first been reveled as having been a false friend all along, one of the forces holding Wanda back. Perhaps she’s not responsible for Wanda’s actions, but it’s clear that her influence has made a bad situation worse.

Moreover, I think Agatha can be read as the embodiment of a couple of real, related temptations that face the grieving and traumatized person: First, the temptation to shift blame onto an external cause and to externalize one’s trauma rather than to take responsibility. Second, the temptation to hide away from the world and absolve oneself from responsibility because my pain is more important than anyone else’s pain and if I have to suffer, then everyone should have to suffer.

Also Wanda’s drama is a microcosm of the greater drama that is affecting the entire world at this point in the greater MCU story arc, as Monica’s subplot reminds us: after the return of all the vanished who have suddenly been restored after five years absence, the world is full of grieving people, people in trauma, and people whose lives have been thrown into chaos. Wanda’s story represents their trauma and grief externalized as well. And with the world in chaos, there isn’t time or space for Wanda’s grief to be a personal matter. She cannot hide away in her bubble forever. With great power comes great responsibility is one of those key MCU themes and it is the advent of Agatha that is where Wandavision really takes up that theme. Paradoxically it is the antagonist, Agatha who successfully breaks the spell where Monica and Vision could not and forces Wanda to step outside of her bubble and acknowledge her share in the worldwide trauma that everyone is experiencing.

Yes, Agatha does offer Wanda an out: the bargain she offers, give me your powers and I will let you keep living this idyllic life forever, confirms Wanda in the illusion that her pain is all that matters. But Agatha also acts as a catalyst. She forces Wanda to relive the past that Wanda has been avoiding: to live through the death of her parents in the bombing in Sokovia, to relive receiving her powers and being manipulated by Hydra, to relive the death of her brother, to relive her killing of Vision, to relive Thanos’ killing of Vision. And she connects the dots, not only for the audience but also for Wanda, between the television fantasy world that Wanda has been inhabiting and Wanda’s past traumas. Thus in seeking information about the source of Wanda’s powers, Agatha has Inadvertently forced Wanda through some pretty intensive exposure therapy.

Her greatest enemy might actually be her greatest ally, accomplishing what neither Vision nor Monica could: forcing Wanda to confront her past but also to confront an external crisis that Wanda can’t ignore: an existential threat that paradoxically, by threatening Wanda’s fantasy family, forces Wanda to fight and ultimately to choose between fantasy and reality.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Wanda’s powers give her the ability to bend the world to her will. She can enslave an entire town, she can incarnate, at least within her bubble, not only her lost beloved but the life she wishes they could have had together. Wanda’s powers allow her to create and give apparent life to the perfect fantasy family— mom, dad, twin children— that has been so cruelly ripped from her not once but over and over: with the death of her parents, the destruction of her home, of her city, the death of her brother, the two deaths of Vision himself, and finally her own death.

Her incredible powers —and Vision’s— attract powerful enemies: both Agatha/Agnes and the SWORD Director Hayward. They remind the viewer, caught up in Wanda’s grief, that we really can’t forget that Wanda is really a super-powered woman whose powers have never been trained, disciplined, or understood. She was kidnapped and experimented on by Hydra, used as a weapon, recruited into a war. She’s never had the space to find out who she is and even now she doesn’t have that luxury. Even when she attempts to wall out that world, to forcibly eject it from her bubble of grief, it intrudes. Intrudes not only in the form of drones and in the intrusions of spies and would-be ambassadors like Darcy and Monica, but also there was an enemy present all along, manipulating Wanda’s grief, trying to probe and understand her powers while Wanda tried to minimize and hide them and pretend they weren’t a real force to be reckoned with. Her powers are not the benign powers of Bewitched and I Dream of Genie. They never have been, though she in her television fantasy tries to pretend they are.

Agatha is an external power but she’s also the icon of what Wanda is becoming: Wanda isn’t a monster yet, but she is doing something monstrous in the name of love and she is in danger of becoming a monster. Agatha is the image of that monster, the vampire witch who sucks power and life out of everyone around her for her own selfish ends. Wanda has this great capacity for compassion— she was the one who most clearly saw Vision as a real person— but her grief at Vision’s loss, at all her losses, is strangling her compassion. She refuses to see the humanity of those she has enslaved, she refuses to acknowledge the pain she is inflicting. She herself is becoming an emotional vampire, living off the lives of those around her. And Agatha is this tendency distilled and embodied. Agatha is pure selfishness, pure greed for power, pure self-interest. She’s an uncomfortable intrusion, but self-knowledge always is. Now Wanda’s existential situation is made clear: we can see the two poles she’s caught between: Agatha’s selfish lust for power and Vision’s selfless laying down of his life for others represent Wanda’s dilemma.

Agatha is the enabling friend who doesn’t want Wanda to heal from her trauma or to emerge from her bubble. She encourages Wanda’s self-deception. She will gladly absolve Wanda of all responsibility to the outside world, take all her powers from her, and let her live in her dream bubble with her fantasy family forever. Vision, on the other hand, demands that Wanda sacrifice her fantasy, allow him to die yet again. Because that is the only way she can be fully human. She must pop the bubble, give up the fantasy, take up her powers, and learn to live with her grief and also learn to use her powers for good. Agatha may stay in the bubble of her own making but Wanda must escape and learn to live with her pain.

Finally, Agatha is a Mephistopheles character, offering a Faustian bargain: lay down your power and responsibility and in return I’ll let you live in your fantasy world with your illusory family. Agatha offers the illusion that Wanda can pretend that she has no responsibility for what is done with her power. But we all know that if Wanda accepts Agatha’s bargain Agatha will be powerful beyond almost anyone’s ability to control, and that she, unlike Wanda, will have not even the slightest vestiges of compassion to rein in her abuse of that power.

Love Calls Us to the Things of the World

Previously Wanda had made a choice to throw in her lot with the Avengers, to be a force for good and not for evil. But she made that choice under duress of ongoing conflict, she made it while in the midst of unresolved trauma. Now Wanda has come to another moment of reckoning. She must face her trauma and the destruction it is wreaking, she must dispel the illusion and reenter the real world. Monica offers her a way forward: she is a real voice of compassion and understanding. Vision offers a way forward, the way of sacrificial love, once again demanding that Wanda accept his sacrifice and allow him to lay down his life to save the innocent.

Ultimately Wanda rejects Agatha’s offer and accepts Vision’s bargain. She says goodbye to her children and to Vision himself and she locks away Agatha’s temptation to trade her power and responsibility for the illusion of comfort and security. But there are a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions. And it’s incredibly unsatisfying that she apologizes to Monica and not at all to the citizens of Westview. But… perhaps she’s not ready yet to acknowledge her responsibility?

I hope in the future we will see her continue to grow and revisit Westview when she is ready to make restitution. But I think had she done so now it might have felt a little cheap, a little rushed, after all she’s been through. She still has mourning to do, having lost Vision for a third time, and the illusion of her brother and the dream of having children, a family, a home.

I love the way the series ends: Wanda retreating to a real solitude, a beautiful cabin by a lake in the mountains, far far away from everywhere and everyone— as opposed to the fake bubble of Westview— to a place where, hopefully, she can heal and deal with her trauma without inflicting it on innocent bystanders. It reminds me very much of Bucky living in his shepherd’s hut in Wakanda.

Wanda sits on the porch of her dacha making tea, we hear the kettle’s whistle call her in, such an ordinary, homely sound. She’s wearing simple shirt and pants of undyed wool, she’s kind of a blank slate, no more costumes, no more pretend.

Yes… there are still many questions left unanswered. The ending is not unambiguous. What to make of the second image of Wanda as witch avatar floating in the air in the back room, reading the forbidden book? On the one hand, perhaps we can read it as that she is learning about her powers, the first step in taking full responsibility for them for the first time? It still remains to be seen what she will do with them. And the voices of her children calling to her suggest that at least a part of her— the part with the dangerous powers?— still hasn’t let go of the dangerous fantasy world.

Grief is Love Enduring

But the image of a woman enjoying a hot cup of tea at a peaceful cabin on a lake is to me an icon of hope. By retreating, self-isolating, she’s implicitly acknowledging her solitude and the danger of her powers. She’s giving herself space to grieve

Vision offers Wanda an image of self-sacrificial love and the hope of resurrection. I’ve come back to you from death twice now, he says. Who’s to say it might not happen again?

Vision’s first death was at Wanda’s own hand. He begs her to kill him to prevent Thanos from getting the mindstone. His second death is at the hand of Thanos who undoes his sacrifice and destroys the world anyway. It would seem the promise of resurrection is flawed: it is not true that death will have no dominion. And yet Wanda herself is proof of the possibility of resurrection, she is one of those who died and has been brought back. But she was brought back to a world changed, a world without her brother, her beloved Vision. Lacking Vision, she lacks faith and tries to force a resurrection under her own power, her own conditions.

But that is not how true love works. In creating a false Vision out of her memories, Wanda denied her own suffering, refused to make space to grieve, and refused to walk her own way of the cross. Her redemption lies in putting away the fiction for reality, denying herself the fantasy world of her simulacrum family, and stepping out in faith. Perhaps some day she and Vision will be reunited again. Grief is love enduring Vision offers. Wanda must learn to endure her grief, endure her sorrow and isolation and to endure her fears. Only through endurance of real pain can real love be found.

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