What is grief, but love persevering? Disney+’s WandaVision is one of the best series I can recall gracing the small screen in decades and that question posed by the Vision (Paul Bettany) captures so much about what allows the show to be profound beyond the strictures of either of its roots: classic sitcoms and Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Note: this article contains spoilers concerning key plot points through the entirety of WandaVision.
When I started watching the series back in mid-January, I tuned in not looking for a deep exploration of grief, but rather intrigued that it called back to the television series that I most love: classic era sitcoms. Some lighthearted, classic sitcom fare sounded perfect in the midst of the pandemic’s winter.
Too many sitcoms today strike me as a string of standup comedy lines stitched together between the laughter, missing the heart and the believability of a show like the Dick van Dyke Show that was partial inspiration for the first episode of WandaVision. Life is not a series of punchlines for an audience, but a fabric of conversations and actions woven with those around us. A series that harkened back to something different appealed to me.
Van Dyke himself was consulted in the process of creating the world of WandaVision and the series’ director, Matt Shankman, shared what the legendary actor said was “the number one rule” of his namesake sitcom: the plot had to be grounded in something that could actually happen.
WandaVision offers a taste of the earnestness of van Dyke’s show even as, at first blush, a plot centered on a superpowered witch who throws an entire town into a realm – “the Hex” – that morphs through the eras of TV sitcom history would seem to break that rule with wild abandon. Much like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, which episode 2 pays serious homage to, once you accept the central conceit of Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) supernatural powers, everything else plays out like our reality would should that one wrinkle be thrown in.
Keeping the normal superhero plotlines largely at bay in the early episodes allow us to see an incredibly human picture of a couple simply sharing in life, love and the normal joys and challenges of therein. From Vision carrying his bride over the threshold to their nervous excitement as expectant parents, these anything-but-ordinary characters live some of the most treasured moments of ordinary life.
Bettany and Olsen’s characters’ love for each other through those normal life situations is compelling. We as the audience cannot help but wish for them what we wish for ourselves: “happily ever after.” Vision’s death in a previous Avengers’ movie fixes a melancholic question mark over the otherwise idyllic setting; we wonder how it can be that he and his wife are granted a reprieve to domestic bliss.
The answer is none other than that poignant line uttered by Vision in episode 8: “What is grief, but love persevering?” It turns out love persevering is precisely what the entire show is the experience of.
The revelation in episode 6 that Vision comes apart when he tries to leave the Hex hints that the bliss is a façade woven out of Wanda’s grief. The show is our sharing of her experience of what should have been if tragedy had not torn apart her life.
These twin parts of the show – classic sitcom and study in grief – are what mark it as brilliant. Far from a punchline machine, it threads together the bittersweetness of human experience.
Rooted as it is in the “it could happen in your life” world of those golden era shows, we are invited into the Wanda and Vision household, a life perhaps a lot like ours or what we would like ours to be. By then turning the emotional connection we build in early episodes to the likewise universal experience of grief, it reminds us of the brokenness of this world and our yearning to make it right.
Given nearly unlimited power, but not unlimited knowledge – in other words, to be like Wanda Maximoff – what would we do? Monica Rambeau’s remark in the finale that she understood Wanda’s actions, because if she had Wanda’s powers, she would do the same thing to bring back her mom, are words she speaks on behalf of each of us.
The plot is a magnification of those moments when the visage of a loved one lost to death or time flashes by out of the corner of our eye or that person’s voice seems to float through the air. We grasp ahold of those moments even though we know the illusory nature of what we sensed.
WandaVision asks, “what if the illusion became real?” What if we could make that experience one we grasped, even for a moment (and, like Wanda, lacked awareness of any harm from our actions)? What would we do? We would tap the love persevering in our own hearts and replace the gaping hole of grief with the loved ones we have persevered for.
Just minutes after the flashback in which Vision poses the question about grief, we witness the creation of Wanda’s bubble, complete with the emergence of Vision from Wanda herself. Vision as we encounter him is that persevering love manifested into material form, something Wanda reveals to him in the very last moments she has before the fading Hex returns him to memory.
We have to delve headfirst into the world of superheroes in the final episodes of the series to connect all the dots that lead to that excruciating moment. That might seem the antithesis of van Dyke’s “it could really happen” rule, but the centrality of grief rooted in love lost makes the special effects and epic battles merely a statement of the strength of love. Wanda represents what almost all of us experience and know, just with her added ability to create – for a moment – a solution, relief from the ache. The Hex visualizes something we know is within us, just as concrete as it is for Wanda, if not as visible.
I desperately wanted the assurance that somehow the reanimated physical body of the Vision that had died, a.k.a. White Vision, would be Wanda’s Vision again. The meditative conversation between Wanda’s memory-made-flesh Vision and the initially unremembering body of the original Vision leaves us to question: who is the real Vision after all? The body or the memory? Can the two be brought in unity such that Wanda’s grief will be healed?
As invested in Wanda and Vision as I became over the course of two months and nine episodes, I wanted an answer to this question before the series wrapped up. I wanted to see a superhero style solution as the two Visions merged into one complete whole who could heal the hole in Wanda’s heart. We are left yearning for the star-crossed lovers living in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the tantalizing possibility of the solution dangling but no immediate relief.
Instead, WandaVision demands we simply remain for a time in grief, persevering for Wanda, and just as much for ourselves, for we too have grief as a companion. Even in this, the show holds up a mirror to real life, for we too grieve over our own lost loved ones while yearning for a solution.
I do not know if Wanda will be given that relief in some future story. I am, however, reminded that Scripture offers a certainty of a solution at the end of the agonizing yearning in our own lives. We await in life as we do right now in the story, but we await knowing that most powerful longing for the reversal of grief is promised.
Vision’s last words to Wanda are, “We have said ‘goodbye’ before. So it stands to reason…,” to which Wanda replies, “We’ll say ‘hello’ again.”
As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”