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Opinion ‘WandaVision’ punted on its most interesting idea about grief

Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) fights for the survival of her family in the final episode of “WandaVision.” (Marvel Studios/Disney Plus)

This column discusses the season finale of “WandaVision”; if you continue reading and complain about being spoiled, you shall be banished to the Hex by chaos magic.

In the eighth episode of “WandaVision,” the Disney Plus series featuring Marvel Cinematic Universe witch Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), her resurrected partner and android, Vision (Paul Bettany), and a lot of clever riffs on classic sitcom tropes, one line seems to have struck a chord: “What is grief, if not love persevering?” After a year of living under the threat of a pandemic, it seems viewers were looking for art that dealt with loss — and didn’t involve putting in the work of reading Russian literature.

But the rhapsodizing over that bit of dialogue concealed a larger, more difficult, point. In the end, “WandaVision” punted on its most interesting idea about grief: that wallowing in it can turn people into monsters.

Certainly, “WandaVision” makes the case that its titular character has suffered terrible losses. Wanda and her brother were orphaned as children and almost killed themselves; her brother died saving innocent people; and Wanda herself was later forced to kill Vision in an effort to save the world. But in “WandaVision,” Wanda is processing this trauma by taking an entire town hostage, trapping the people there in a variety of TV sitcoms as she tries to work through her grief by using magic to resurrect Vision and give them twin sons.

It’s a genuinely monstrous act, and for a moment, the show acknowledges that. Freed from Wanda’s curse by fellow witch Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), one of the townspeople begs Wanda to let her see her 8-year-old daughter again: The little girl has been locked in her home for the entirety of the so-called Scarlet Witch’s reign, a grotesque act of child separation. Another confesses he’s exhausted: She doesn’t let them sleep in natural cycles, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. When they are allowed to sleep, they suffer her worst nightmares. “Please let us go,” one character begs. And, failing that?

“If you won’t let us go, just let us die,” Sharon (Debra Jo Rupp) croaks after Wanda has literally choked them into silence.

And yet, the show feels the need to recast Wanda’s ultimate decision to give up her imaginary family, as well as her hold over the town, as an act of heroic altruism. “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them,” says Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), a secret agent turned friend of Wanda, in the final episode.

Rambeau’s line is a moral atrocity, an effort to recast Wanda as the hero of the show, the savior of all these little people. But it’s not what she did for the people of Westview that matters. It’s what she did to them. And what she did to them is horrifying, a form of mind-rape and torture that extended for weeks, maybe months.

The only character who has the correct response to Wanda is the acting director of SWORD (Sentient Weapon Observation Response Division), Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg), who calls in a drone strike on the monstrously wicked and dangerously powerful Wanda. Yet he is cast as a villain despite being the only person who recognizes the dangers presented by this overpowered war criminal. Longtime viewers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe know that this isn’t the first time Wanda has done something terrible: the onetime Hydra agent also induced the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to destroy a large part of a Third World city.

Yet Hayward — who saw how Earth struggled to stave off collapse after a previous supervillain snapped away half of all sentient life — is the show’s antagonist for trying to stop an atrocity. Rambeau — who missed all that drama and appears to have her position in SWORD only because her mother was friends with a superhero — is hailed as the hero despite seeking to excuse it.

This is precisely backward, and the Rambeau-Hayward dichotomy highlights the biggest weakness of “WandaVision.” Everything that takes place outside of Wanda’s fantasy is either unnecessary exposition explaining what’s happening inside or an effort to make Hayward look like a clown. It’s as if creator Jac Schaeffer understood just how horrifying Wanda’s behavior was and needed to conjure up a mustache-twirler to distract from — and detract from — the show’s more powerful message: that our grief can make us do terrible things.

By the show’s end, Hayward is frog-marched to prison for trying to set free a town of victims, while Rambeau lets Wanda off the moral hook. That the writers refused to lean into grief’s darker side and refused to have the character we are supposed to identify with most, Rambeau, condemn the Scarlet Witch for what she has done strikes me as remarkably pat — and remarkably cowardly. Those crowing about the treatment of grief in “WandaVision” should remember how badly they blinked when asked to confront the emotion’s dark side.

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