If the global virus of the past year has been good for anything (other than billionaires), then it’s been good for the Marvel division of Disney’s entertainment megaplex. Not long after their ten-year story hit its climactic peak with Avengers: Endgame, the world got dropped into an enforced hiatus. As a result, instead of risking saturation of the market, Marvel got to take a break that Disney would never have allowed and instead begin its new era with smaller-scale TV offerings.
Moreover, those TV series themselves got rearranged in favour of those that could be filmed on closed sets, so instead of leading with the more traditional action offering of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel kicked off phase four with the much stranger, much more personal Wandavision. Which, as its nine-week run unfolded, proved to be a tale of trauma and the harm that can spill out from it.
In an era when binge-watching has faded from prominence, but in which people are as eager as they’ve ever been for new media to consume, Wandavision was discussed and dissected endlessly online across its run, not just among Marvel fans but among more casual viewers. It’s mostly great in my opinion, so if you haven’t watched it, don’t read any further, as I’m mostly going to be talking about the ending.
The key to Wandavision is that while it initially appears to be the story of Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, two survivors (?) of Endgame, it isn’t. It’s really just Wanda’s story, delving deep into her history and personality, exploring her sorrows and traumas and peeling back the surface of the unreal world she’s erected to protect herself from further hurt. The Vision she shares that world with is not the Vision who died twice in Avengers: Infinity War but rather a manifestation of her sorrow at his loss, real enough to have his own desires and needs but not real enough to exist without her.
This fact is not revealed until the climax of the penultimate episode, but already by that point Wanda’s carefully constructed sitcom world of Westview has revealed itself inadequate to the task of hiding her away from a painful world. The governmental forces of SWORD are massing outside, and her extravagant display of power has attracted a better-trained practitioner of the magical arts in the form of Agatha Harkness, eager to leech off Wanda’s untapped potential. Yet even without these threats, the whole edifice is fraying at the edges, speeding recklessly through the decades as Wanda tries to live the life she always wanted while denying what that life is costing everyone around her.
With the unearthed truth of Wandavision being that its entire concept has been born of Wanda’s lifetime of trauma and loss, the last episode faces the task of resolving her pain and setting her newly deepened character up for new adventures (already planned for the next Doctor Strange movie). And, for the most part, the finale manages that. Her strange family situation is resolved and Wanda gets a snazzy new costume and a new sense of purpose in the form of self improvement and self discovery.
And yet, and yet. For me at least, something about the last episode didn’t land right. Because while Wanda’s issues are resolved, with both external and internal threats faced down and her strange family resting easily in their nonexistent beds, the amount of harm Wanda has done in the course of her extravagant therapy session serves as little more than a brief distraction during her battle with Agatha before being shrugged away by Monica Rambeau, whose own manipulation at Wanda’s hands was much briefer (and ended up being empowering in its own way).
This may not have been the initial story plan. Interviews indicate that Agatha might have been more of a mentor than an antagonist, which could have left space for Wanda to come to terms with the harm she’d done as well as the unreal, ideal life she’d created. But we got a pyrotechnic final battle instead and the shrugged-off responsibilities for her actions.
Because, let’s be clear, what Wanda did was to trap an entire town of people as set-dressing for her sitcom world, their children lost in slumber and their identities overwritten to support the life she wanted. She may not have known that she was inflicting her nightmares on them, but she definitely knew long before the end that someone else was paying the bill for her dreams. The show itself made that clear, and while Wanda may not have been in her right mind, she’s never asked to make amends.
When you go to confession as a Catholic, you’re offered absolution. As long as you’re sorry for what you’ve done, your sins are forgiven. No act of restitution is required, only penance in the form of prayers. That’s what Wanda gets as she heads off to a forest retreat for some heavy reading, and it feels profoundly unsatisfying. Because absolution can only be bestowed by a higher power, and in the Marvel universe, that’s the audience. Some in the audience might feel that a Wanda at peace with herself has paid back her misdeeds through her suffering, but absolution requires no improvement or amends and gives nothing back to the world.
Different to absolution is forgiveness, which is offered by the wronged. It can’t be demanded and shouldn’t even be requested. Wanda receives it from Monica, but it’s in an oddly phrased way—“They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them”—that positions Wanda as the wronged hero of the story and glosses over any harm done. The people of Westview, the victims of the story, shuffle off stage, relegated to props with any genuine forgiveness negated.
Last of all comes redemption, which is centred on the offender. It represents an understanding of the harm caused, a sincere effort to make amends, and an awareness of the need to change into the kind of person who will not repeat the harm. It can’t earn forgiveness or absolution, but it can make the world better and it can make it easier for the offended to offer forgiveness and recover from the harm done to them. Needless to say, there’s no sign of redemption for Wanda in the finale. The threat she overcomes in Agatha is purely personal, and the trauma that she heals is entirely her own.
Which explains in some way, I hope, why I found Wandavision’s finale frustratingly incomplete. The series was all about its titular star, of course, but its unflinching focus on her didn’t serve it well as it came to a close. If Wanda started the show in the safe bubble of a world she’d created to protect herself, she ended it just as distant from that world. She’s gained self knowledge but not any greater connection to humanity.
Which, conversely, leaves me with a little hope. Wanda is due to appear next in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and there’s no indication yet whether she’ll be an ally or an antagonist. Self-improvement is a journey, and Wanda has just taken her first few steps. Hopefully the writers who steer her course will remain aware of that when she returns.