The emotional catharsis of ‘Wandavision’ in a year of grief

Warning: Spoilers for “WandaVision” follow.

There’s a moment in the penultimate episode of the Disney+ series “WandaVision” where our reality-bending superhero protagonist sinks to her knees and wails.

Standing in the skeleton of what would’ve been the home she’d share with her humanoid partner, Wanda Maximoff is completely alone. It’s a state she’s used to — her parents were killed in a bombing and her brother died protecting a member of the Avengers — but the loss of the Vision, perhaps the last being on Earth she felt understood her, is too much to bear.

She unleashes a field of glowing red energy that engulfs the New Jersey suburb around her and turns it into a 1950s sitcom safe haven, where Vision is alive, she’s a klutzy housewife and their superpowers serve as comedic plot devices, not weapons of destruction.

For all its fantastical trappings, “WandaVision” is perhaps the Marvel project most rooted in reality. Its depictions of trauma, of grief and loss — filtered through a mystery-laden, superpower-driven plot, natch — are moving and resonant.

Wanda built walls — a contained world, really — so she could drone out her searing pain with laugh tracks and pratfalls. Watching her slowly start to break them down has been cathartic for audiences living through a year of relentless loss.

Superhero stories help us confront death

Superhero stories are “safe way” for us to broach topics we’d hesitate to explore before — namely, death — because their pain is fictional, said Jill Harrington, a clinical social worker who specializes in grief and an adjunct assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, among other appointments.

Harrington quite literally wrote the book on superheroes as vehicles for understanding grief: “Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss,” the text she conceptualizes and co-edited, analyzes superhero films within theories of grief, bereavement and healing.

“Superheroes are our modern-day mythology,” she said. “We have this curiosity with our own birth and our own demise. Mythology has been a way for us to personify death in a better attempt for us to try to understand it.”

Tragedy is baked into every superhero narrative. It’s what forges heroes out of everyday high school students and billionaire orphans. It’s not until after Peter Parker loses Uncle Ben and Bruce Wayne watches his parents die that they assume their hero mantle.

“The transformative process they go through is one that we very much go through,” she said. “What they find is that they lean on the love they have in their grief and really emerge to use those powers.”

But Wanda’s story is especially tragic, even for the superhero genre.

Her parents were killed in a fictional war-torn Eastern European country. Her brother, gifted with super speed, died shielding the Avengers’ archer, Hawkeye. Wanda herself is forced to kill Vision to protect humanity and then watch him die again when supervillain Thanos rewinds time. Her layers of losses are not so easily surmountable.

“WandaVision” is particularly impactful because it doesn’t skip over the grief like much of superhero media does — viewers follow Wanda in real time, just days after the events of “Avengers: Endgame.”

Our protagonist doesn’t “get over” her grief in a tearful montage; she stuffs it away and doesn’t acknowledge the roots of her pain for a whole season.

Wanda exhibits several of the characteristics consistent with reeling from a sudden, violent loss, Harrington said, including deep preoccupation with her deceased loved one — so deep, in her case, that she recreated Vision again from memory.

“They’re unabashedly moving through the pain, and I think very realistically,” she said.

It portrayed grief poignantly in a year full of it

Wanda’s bleak past makes her a grayer character among the black-and-white supes she stars alongside, and a more compelling one.

While the rest of the Avengers trade quips and talk smack, Wanda stews. She makes mistakes, often grave ones, like accidentally killing civilians in an explosion. And while the rest of the world celebrates the return of the people they lost during “The Blip” — or the genocide that happened when Thanos snapped — she’s left alone.

The result is a weird, moving and resonant work about grief and trauma and the nonlinear path of navigating both.

“For a fictional show, they’re giving a very realistic portrayal of profound loss and grief,” Harrington said. “And I think it’s created a dialogue — a much-needed dialogue — because we live in a society that wants us to suppress our grief.”

And this year, grief was everywhere but couldn’t be shared. Unmoored by loss after loss but kept from communing with others who felt our pain, we were made to tuck our grief away so we could function as employees, partners and people.

“We’re kind of living in loss right now,” she said. “We try every day to keep our losses in our peripheral vision to survive the day.”

And yet, for the past two months, it became a weekly ritual for many to watch “WandaVision” every Friday, then furiously identify Easter eggs and find the episode’s best meme fodder.

The series was uniting in that way, like the way other series and works of art have inspired spirited debate and connection while the world’s been separated, said Sarah Harte, a clinical social worker who leads The Dorm, a treatment center for young adults.

“Finding those ways of sharing in a piece of art and then talking about what that art brings up for us, what our emotional reaction to it is, is a completely cathartic experience,” she said.

“WandaVision” also likely gave viewers the words to describe their complex feelings, she said, particularly in one (widely lauded, heavily memed) scene where Vision comforts Wanda in a flashback.

Wanda, mourning the loss of her brother, Pietro, tells Vision that she’s so tired, like she’s swimming against a tide that keeps trying to drown her.

Vision, who at this point in the Marvel timeline just recently became sentient, utters in response:

“What is grief, if not love persevering?”

It’s a line that ranks among the best in the Marvel canon (which so far includes thinkers like “That’s America’s ass” and “I am Groot“), surprising in its gravity and revelatory in its truth, Harrington said. It’s an idea she reiterates to the clients she counsels after their losses — grief is the way they carry their lost loved ones with them.

The finale isn’t the end of Wanda’s journey

“WandaVision’s” final episode hews most closely to the Marvel blueprint: There’s a bait-and-switch battle, the general triumph of good over evil, plenty of unanswered questions left up to future films.

The finale does not mark the end of Wanda’s mourning or her completion of grief’s five stages, a model Harrington says is outdated and overly rigid. But it sees Wanda realize that at the root of her grief is inextinguishable love.

As the world she created collapses in on itself, she says goodbye to Vision for a third time. This time, though, the solitude won’t bother her.

Vision tells her, “We’ve said goodbye before, so it stands to reason …”

“… we’ll say hello again,” Wanda finishes.

When it’s all over, and Wanda’s show-within-a-show is permanently canceled, she’s left standing in the skeleton of the home she built to play out her dreams of the family life she’d never had. She throws up her hood and jets off far from her suburban fantasy.

It’s never as easy in life as it is in fiction to cut the ties of grief’s painful grip. It’s harder still to welcome it as a memory of a loved one. “WandaVision” is just one series, nine episodes, of a fictional witch in crisis. But it gave viewers the words to acknowledge their own grief, and the space to feel it.