With the series finale of WandaVision, the MCU has completed their most ambitious foray into the realm of mental health and grief. The superhero storytelling juggernaut has, to the credit of various writers, producers, etc., stepped into those tumultuous waters before. Whether it was Tony Stark’s PTSD in Iron Man 3, Thor’s combined angry/depressed state in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the the despair fueled rage which drove Hawkeye to become Ronin following the loss of his family in Avengers: Endgame, or Prince T’Challa, in his own words, being nearly consumed by a desire for vengeance after his father’s murder in Captain America: Civil War. With Wanda, however, the format of television allowed for over four hours of development for both the character and audience to wade into the stream of suffering in a manner the previous movies did not (most notably was Clint turning away from his angry path after a mere two minute conversation with Natasha).
Building a House of Pain
There is no doubt that Wanda Maximoff, now officially recognized as the Scarlet Witch, has been through the ringer in her MCU life. Director Matt Shakman proclaimed, “Wanda has experienced more loss than anybody else in the Marvel universe.” I would suggest that, in the character of Thor, there is also a clear runner-up for that unfortunate title. A quick look at their histories reveals some stunning similarities: parents killed by outside invasion (Wanda’s claimed by a Stark manufactured missile and Thor’s mother killed by a Dark Elf invasion), siblings killed in combat (Pietro by Ultron and Loki by Thanos), and each has seen their homeland torn asunder by conflict (can Sokovia ever recover from the event of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Asgard was obliterated at the end of Thor: Ragnarok). Wanda (prior to WandaVision) saw her love, Vision, die twice (once by her own hand) while Thor was helpless to stop Thanos from killing most of the remaining Asgardians as Infinity War kicked off with an assault on our senses. Thor’s tally must include the death of his father, Odin while Wanda had to come to grips with the fact she was a victim of Thanos’ snap and then had to adjust to returning to life five years later.
I do not bring Thor into this conversation to steal any thunder from Wanda, but to highlight similarities in their response to the pain they experienced; for both characters built their own proverbial house of pain. Thor’s was a small hut in New Asgard where he wasted away for five years, drinking beer and playing video games. The walls that he erected were made of more than mere wood as few dared to reach out to him. Wanda, as befitting the power she wields, built walls (her hex) around an entire town, creating her expansive and, for a time, impenetrable house of pain.
This brings me to a purely speculative reason for bringing up Thor. As the two characters have endured so much loss and sorrow, will the duo share a scene in a future movie where they find mutual support and understanding? We can leave such conjecture behind and bid Thor farewell as we step into Wanda’s house of pain.
Sometimes the simplest of confessions are the most impactful. When Agatha Harkness released residents of Westview from Wanda’s control an incredibly powerful scene unfolded. Different residents shared their painful experiences, but let’s start with the straightforward proclamation, “I’m exhausted.” Being under Wanda’s thrall, as described by this individual, has been exhausting. Of course, it’s not one phrase alone that matters most here, but the collection that is instructive. Here is a sample of what was said.
“If I could just hold her.”
“Your grief is poisoning us.”
“…tell him I love him, and not to come back here.”
“We have your nightmares.”
This scene is the first time Wanda has truly witnessed the pain she caused the people of Westview. Sorrow can have the unfortunate impact of blinding us to the pain of others as we tend our own wounds – and Wanda is no exception. Worse, she is actively causing this pain with her power. In an earlier episode Monica beseeched Wanda not to allow Director Hayward to paint her as a villain. Wanda’s answer, “perhaps I already am,” took on an even more immediate meaning as Wanda beheld the crippling impact her pain and grief had on others and herself.
The mother speaking of her daughter expressed the wish to “just hold her” again. Wanda undoubtedly felt the same way about, not just for Vision whom she brought back, but her brother and parents. The emotional and psychological exhaustion that Wanda has built over her MCU career now forced upon others. It is little wonder one resident described himself as “exhausted.” Heroically, one of the residents makes it clear that, despite the pain of sharing Wanda’s “nightmares”, she still thinks of her loved ones, begging Wanda to tell her husband not to come home, thus sparing him this suffering. When Wanda pushes back the people fall to the ground, choking in the grip of what appears to be energy collars wrapped around their necks.
Seeing the residents suffer, acting in many ways as mirrors to her own interior turmoil and decay, pushes Wanda to free them. She does so despite the fact this process will bring an end to the family she created to soothe her grief. Grief, however, proves to be the most powerful force in the show – for it cannot be kept at bay by magic nor ignored out of existence. The only way out is through, and thus begins the dramatic final twenty minutes of the series.
“Power isn’t your Problem, its Knowledge.”
While Agatha’s line was thrown back at her (“Thanks for the lesson”) when Wanda utilized Runes to overcome the centuries old witch, it also speaks to how Wanda was able to – eventually – navigate her grief. The knowledge of, and the willingness to wade into, the pain she felt and shared caused her to change her course. Knowledge, as the old saying goes, gave her power.
The sixteenth century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila wrote and taught about the dark night of the soul. It is important to clearly note, despite the modern conception of dark nights of the soul being merely about pain, Teresa did teach that these dark times should not be conceptualized exclusively as times of tribulation and suffering. Dark nights can also be transformative (as Wanda become the Scarlet Witch). The pain pain experienced in the dark night is often the by-product of breaking unhealthy attachments (like the attachment to a past that you cannot bring back, even if your powers were augmented by the mind stone).
When writing about the dark night of the soul Teresa utilized two words – oscura and tinieblas – for two very different classifications of darkness. When utilizing oscura Tereasa was emphasizing the experience of one’s spiritual path being obscured and mysterious. The seeker of knowledge and truth is engaged in the quest but there was much they did not know. The path is not marked clearly and the correct way is blocked from sight. Therefore, the suffering seeker must proceed cautiously as they attempt to comprehend what is difficult to understand. In many ways our emotional and psychological recovery can be hindered by oscura, for who hasn’t been confused by their emotions or tricked themselves into believing the cracking ice beneath their feet was in fact sold rock? As we work through this obscuring darkness we become increasingly comfortable with the reality we don’t have all the answers but proceed, guided by wisdom gained and pulled by wisdom sought. When Wanda states, “I don’t understand these powers, but I will”, she is, in essence, speaking from the field of oscura.
There is, however, tinieblas – the word utilized by Teresa to communicate the sinister aspect of darkness. Ill intent, self-defeating attachments, selfishness, and, as Teresa is a Catholic writer, the manipulations of the devil (Mephisto, perhaps) lurk in tinieblas. Limiting beliefs and falsity attempt to trap us in tinieblas, just as Agatha attempted to manipulate Wanda by proclaiming her younger opponent would always be broken. Wanda pushed through Agatha’s manipulations, but Tinieblas, unfortunately, was still lurking as WandaVision ended.
When Wanda imprisoned Agatha within the character of the nosy neighbor Agnes, the centuries old witch protested, stating Wanda was, “Cruel.” As the accusation was uttered a smirk appears on Wanda’s face. Moreover, Wanda stated she was keeping Agatha in a place where she could be found in case she was needed as a source of knowledge (oscura). Wanda was merely imprisoning her for personal use, the roots of tinieblas digging deeper. As the final scene closes we see Wanda reading the Darkhold. I wonder, which darkness – oscura or tinieblas – will hold sway? Will Wanda, with her power and knowledge be capable of combing the two, transforming them as she did herself?
“…And There you Are”
Those words, spoken by Vision as (this version) looked upon Wanda for his last time, opened the door for the final, heart wrenching moments of WandaVision. It also opened a window to view the power of a word we don’t readily embrace, perhaps acknowledge is a better word, in the 21st century: ritual. In an essay titled Funerals: A Time for Grief and Growth written by Roy and Jane Nichols we read Roy’s description of his preparations for his father’s funeral. Roy, a funeral director for over ten years at the time, wrote he didn’t need to be a funeral director at this time, “…I needed to be a son; and I wanted to attend to the details myself – it was my dad, it was our love, it was my emotion, it was a son’s job.”
Over two thousand years ago the great sage Confucius emphasized the importance of ritual. While detractors lampooned his conviction, painting a picture of a stogy old man obsessed with details, the true power of ritual was clearly communicated. As religious scholar Huston Smith attests, Confucius believed following proper rituals deepened our humanity and relationship, helping to create life as a sacred dance with others and the endless mystery if life. As nature moved through rituals creating both seamless patterns and transcendent beauty, so too can human rituals align us with this mysterious dimension of our lives, even if it is…obscure to us.
In Wanda’s final acts with her family she is performing, with grace and strength, a mother’s and wife’s job. She lovingly created a final ritual, the funeral rite, that allows for the possibility of healing to take root. Was this, perhaps, a missing component of her healing process? She never had a single ritual to say goodbye to the litany of loved one’s she lost. How could she not stand at Tony Stark’s funeral and not feel the weight of her own loses which largely went unacknowledged (save a moment with Hawkeye at the pond).
Ritual allows us to slow down and feel the world and, if participated in fully, our shared humanity. While slowing the pace of her farewell Wanda (and my hat is off to the wonderful acting of Elizabeth Olsen) simultaneously touched the hearts of many viewers who witnessed the care she showed her family in their final moments as she prepared to survive them, yet again. There you are, Wanda…and thank you for being there.