WandaVision and the Fantasy of Return
Spoiler warning: WandaVision, season 1, episodes 1–6
Millions of people have lost someone they love to covid-19 in the past year, and millions more have lost someone they love to causes that don’t make headlines. Watching WandaVision offers a rare glimpse of complicated grief that younger adults (not to be confused with “young adults”) experience all too often and seldom appears on screen: the loss of people who we didn’t yet have a chance to build entire lives with, but also bonded with for far too many years for the loss to be casual or something we can promptly “get over” in prescribed amounts of time.
Plenty of us can identify with Wanda, the protagonist (and potentially the antagonist) of the show, and her longing for her deceased loved ones to return. In the Avengers timeline, Vision has already died yet somehow in the reality she’s created, he is back and has no recollection of ever being gone. At the end of episode 5, we unexpectedly see her deceased brother Pietro return, and in episode 6 he also seems to have no recollection of being dead. Yet for both Vision and Pietro, something isn’t quite right.
WandaVision taps into many fantasies, even before the audience can be sure what, exactly, is going on. The set and costumes change in each episode, but consistently use a conceit of adopting the tropes and trappings of a different decade of sitcoms. The fantasies of Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, and Growing Pains are immediately obvious. The deeper fantasy presents itself more gradually: the fantasy that deceased loved ones could return, as though nothing had changed.
Generally, and particularly in Western cultures, it is considered taboo to even utter the possibility of such a fantasy. Movies, self-help sites, and prominent systems of morality quickly shut down the conversation before it begins: of course, wishing for someone deceased to return would be tantamount to playing God. Worse yet, ignoring their wishes in favor of our own personal comfort is indefensible, ghoulish, and terribly selfish.
As anyone dealing with grief will tell you, though, some of grief is, inevitably, about selfishness. More of grief is about love, and a feeling of being bereft without the person or people who have gone. In pandemic times, the story that remains largely untold is how huge communities wracked by grief can heal when we are largely still restricted against gathering to stand together and mourn.
One of the most memorable scenes from the Avengers movies is when Wanda reacts to her brother Pietro’s death. She falls to her knees, unable to stand with the weight of the pain, and screams without us hearing a sound. And then rips the metal heart out of Ultron.
Pietro’s return in WandaVision is far from this wrenching aesthetic, though. Pietro’s face and voice are similar, but different. His affection for his sister is still intact, but what should be familiar has become stilted in some ways. Acknowledging this, as with Vision, would end the illusion and so Wanda tries her best not to push. Still, uncertain and mildly suspicious of how he returned, Wanda asks her brother questions and tries to figure out who he is now. This could be a plot point building to a larger reveal, but for now it feels more resonant as a sign of the problem with the fantasy of return: even if a deceased person we love could return and did return, they wouldn’t be the same. Something would be missing, or different, and it wouldn’t add up. “Returning,” of course, means we know they were gone and have come back, whereas undoing their departure altogether would mean they never left at all.
If that sounds complicated, it is. Approaching the seventh anniversary of my friend’s passing from rare cancer, complexity has become a deeply familiar aspect of grief that returns like clockwork every year in the weeks leading up to March 16. This year, a few weeks after March 16 will be the first death anniversary of my friend who passed from covid-19 on April 5, 2020. (Oddly sandwiched between the two death anniversaries is my birthday.)
What’s far less familiar is the chance to see a character like Wanda and complicated grief represented on television. Death and destruction are common on television, of course, but grief and the unexpected ways people process — or resist processing — it are far more rare to find, least of all on popular streaming platforms. As we enter the second year of the covid-19 pandemic and the continuation of unresolved grief for people who leave too soon, WandaVision offers some solace for those of us who quietly identify with Wanda’s growing fantasy that her loved ones who have passed might one day return, and her gradual acceptance alongside her engulfing sadness of the impossibility of it all.