June 12, 2021

In the isolated grief of our pandemic bubbles, we are all Wanda Maximoff

This post contains spoilers for WandaVision Episode 8. 

Listen. I didn’t think I’d be relating to a mythically powerful witch from a comic book superhero show who created her own alternate reality TV bubble to stave off the grief and isolation outside of it. But a year spent in quarantine surviving a pandemic does strange things to a person.

In the latest episode of Marvel’s WandaVision, we finally got answers to exactly how Wanda Maximoff birthed an entire universe of illusions that exist under her control. Turns out it was through nothing more and nothing less than the uncontrollable power of her own loss, isolation, rage, (literal) magical thinking, and will to survive. 

It’s an answer that, unlike so many other Marvel plots, feels more human than it does magical (or rather, MacGuffin-y). 

After the singular, unprecedented experiences of spending the past year in varying degrees of COVID isolation, I understand the emotional mechanics of how and why Wanda did what she did. You probably do too. I mean, think of all the hobbies you took up that allowed you to create worlds of separation between you and the painful, frightening realities happening right outside your window.

To cope with the totality of what we’ve lost (and, no, you don’t need to have literally lost a loved one in the pandemic to be suffering from all the collective forms of grief bred from it), we found outlets that allowed us to escape into whatever alternate realities we could.

Wanda created a whole town, a new husband, and two kids in her isolation — Shakespeare WISHES

Wanda created a whole town, a new husband, and two kids in her isolation — Shakespeare WISHES

Image: Marvel Studios

Whether it was your newfound obsession with gardening and plants that transformed your apartment into a forest, the countless hours you sank into building a perfect Animal Crossing island or Minecraft server, or birthing delicious sourdough bread or other time-consuming restaurant food recreation to transport our taste buds — we grieved everything we could no longer have from the Before Times through bouts of compulsive creation. 

Maybe, like Wanda, you found yourself escaping more into other people’s creations instead, the TV serving as a window into other worlds where the imminent, unknowable, uncontrollable threats of our own reality were not allowed to exist. Likely, one of those TV shows is WandaVision itself, inviting a delectable layer of meta relatability to the conceit of the show, as we watch Wanda cope with her grief by watching TV that’s as grounding as it is devoid of her actual reality.

This is what the isolation of mourning does to a person’s psyche. 

In mourning, we create in order to fill the void of absence, that total loss of meaning that comes with the death of a loved one or an end to life as we knew it.

Joan Didion famously called it magical thinking in her famed memoir about losing her husband. Often, the inconceivability of the loss causes a grieving mind to spin illogical alternate realities and narratives rather than face such an unimaginable truth. Magical thinking is why Didion refuses to throw away her dead husband’s shoes, because he’ll need them when he comes back. It’s what gives Wanda the power to create a whole new Vision (the most sophisticated sentient AI ever) along with the house they’ll grow old in together, despite seeing incontrovertible proof that he is actually a lifeless pile of metal and exposed wires with her own eyes.

Grief-stricken magical thinking is why you need to believe that spending enough hours investing in the fictional worlds of a video game or TV series will keep the unending loneliness of quarantine at bay. Until it doesn’t. Or, for a darker example of the alternate realities people spun to cope with the pandemic, just look at all the batshit conspiracy theories in which so many folks lost themselves.

What I love most about WandaVision’s understanding of the relationship between loss and creation is how it dispels with the romanticized version of this universal experience. 

When we talk about the need to create while in the throes of grief, we don’t mean you’ll be writing your novel or painting a masterpiece. That’s the false, naive Shakespeare-Wrote-KingLear-In-Quarantine notion of coping via creation. Instead, the creations that grief begets are ones made from the instinct to survive, a testament to the power of the unconscious to build illusions of control that feel more real than an insurmountable loss your brain is not capable of processing. 

In mourning, we create in order to fill the void of absence, that total loss of meaning that comes with the death of a loved one or an end to life as we knew it.

Sometimes, you need that friend who will force their way through your defenses.

Sometimes, you need that friend who will force their way through your defenses.

Image: Marvel Studios

Wanda created her Hex, this ephemeral yet uncrossable boundary between herself and the outside world where the bad things happen. This powerful unreality is as much a comfort as it is a trap, both helping and hurting her through the stages of grief. Similarly, we put up our own defensive pandemic walls, these incorporeal yet concrete protectors to ward off experiencing the worst of this loss of normalcy and security. That is, until we don’t have the strength to keep them up anymore, and we crash headfirst into those pandemic walls with all the force of the denial that let us believe false barriers could keep us safe from the crises.

It’s not just Wanda or the Hex, either. Monica Rambeau’s experience of grief in the post-snap world highlights what a great metaphor the Blip is for the purgatory-like mourning of our COVID losses.

Like the pandemic, the Blip caused a collective, boundless grief characterized more by uncertainty than the finality of death. This “ongoing grief,” as it’s called, forces you to live in a world where everything is the same but also irrevocably changed forever. Yes, most people will come back from the invisible threat that blinked so much of life out of existence without warning. But no one survives any of it unscathed. Returning doesn’t negate the emotional fall out from what we left behind, who we left behind, or the parts of the world we can’t ever truly get back.

Marvel couldn’t have predicted or planned for how relatable WandaVision would be in an unprecedented moment like this. Actually, it’s only because of COVID-19 that WandaVision was even re-scheduled to be our first foray into Stage 4 of the MCU.

But by some sort of sorcery, we got WandaVision exactly when we needed its magical thinking most. 

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