Grief and Cheap Grace in ‘WandaVision’ | Sojourners

Grief and Cheap Grace in ‘WandaVision’

WandaVision poster. Disney+/Marvel Studios

Editor's note: This recap contains spoilers for the season finale of WandaVision.

Grief is a powerful, disorienting thing, as so many can attest this second Lenten season of a global pandemic that has claimed more than 2.5 million lives. “I’m so tired,” says Wanda Maximoff in the penultimate episode of Disney+ and Marvel Studios’ hit show WandaVision. “It’s just like this wave washing over me again and again. It knocks me down, and when I try to stand up, it just comes for me again. And I … it’s just gonna drown me.” Wanda is referring to the loss of her twin brother, Pietro, but the picture of grief is familiar.

Since we first met Wanda Maximoff in Avengers: Age of Ultron, she’s had the ability to make others hallucinate — to temporarily detach them from reality.  In the world of WandaVision, sitcoms feature prominently, and flashbacks show how Wanda used sitcoms to escape the trauma of her youth. When Wanda loses Vision, the love of her life, grief explodes out of her, rewriting reality for the town of Westview, transforming it into a series of literal sitcom settings. When Wanda was grieving Pietro, Vision had offered her comfort, asking, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” In Wanda’s new reality, she literally re-creates Vision out of her undying love for him. This new/old Vision is so fundamentally real that they are able to have twin boys, Billy and Tommy, giving Wanda the nuclear family she’s been mourning since childhood.

Going into the series finale, there were prominent questions remaining: What does it mean to create your own reality? At what point does denial become creation? After all, creation is often a tool for healing, while denial is not. Today’s finale finally resolved that seeming contradiction, albeit in heartbreaking fashion. Vision, Billy, and Tommy are not illusions, nor are they automata. Wanda has, against all odds, successfully created a real family through the sheer power of her love and her will. Her husband and her sons have inner lives, agency, souls. The hard truth Wanda is denying for the whole length of the series, and what she finally accepts, is that the context and setting for her new family life is built not just on lies, but also on the mental enslavement of every other inhabitant of Westview — oppression no less monstrous for having been unintentional and then unconscious.

But after Agatha Harkness, Wanda’s nemesis, helps Wanda shatter her denial and see that for everyone outside Wanda's family, it is a psychic prison — Wanda is out of excuses. The individual viewer must decide whether her trauma and grief exculpate her from the horror she wrought, but the finale focuses on Wanda's repentance and its cost.

The biblical meaning of repentance is not merely feeling sorry or ashamed. The Greek word metanoia, used in the New Testament, means to turn around and go in a new direction. In one sense, Wanda does this: She dismantles the barrier that keeps the town and everyone in it transformed and subject to her will. But the price she has to pay for that repentance is high, as it so often is for any of us when we renounce something that benefits us. The sacrifice demanded of her is that, real as they are, her husband and sons cannot exist outside of Westview. Their free will, their very existence, is tied to the theft of free will from thousands of others, a manifestly untenable situation. When the credits roll, Wanda is once again alone.

The plot points have been resolved (for now), but WandaVision leaves us with deeper questions. Is repentance sufficient without reparation for the harm done in your sin? And how genuine, or at least how lasting, was that repentance? Wanda gave the residents of Westview their lives back, but she can’t erase the days they spent in her thrall — and the show makes clear that they have no intention to forgive her. Perhaps even more disturbing from a thematic standpoint is the fact that there are reasons to believe that Wanda is set to benefit from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace … grace without discipleship.” Wanda had to sacrifice her created family, but it’s strongly implied that this needn’t be permanent.

First, Wanda’s created Vision restored the memories to his previous body that the fictional government agency SWORD has reassembled and animated — making it seem quite likely that apart from the cosmetic differences (he’s pale and colorless now instead of red and green), Vision is out there somewhere, as good as new, and their separation is therefore temporary. It’s to her credit that she appears not to know this when she decides to free the town, knowing she will lose her husband and sons — seemingly, in two heartbreaking final scenes, letting them go and achieving closure..

Second and perhaps even more significantly, the final post-credits scene shows her (or, well, part of her) regressing from that closure, determined to get her sons back, and willing to explore the darkest, most dangerous book of magic the world has ever known to make it so.

Ultimately, perhaps the lesson is that both grief and repentance are messy, difficult things and rarely follow linear paths. Even with breakthroughs, it is inevitable to encounter setbacks, backsliding, and re-traumatizing, which can and do hurt other people as much or more as the person going through it. Shortly before Wanda defeats her, Agatha taunts Wanda, telling her “The world you made will always be broken. Just like you.” Wanda saw the truth of the first part of that statement and paid a terrible price to unmake her Westview. The final moments of WandaVision unsettle us by showing the limits to her repentance, and leaving us to wonder whether the second part of Agatha’s statement may be just as true.