The heroines of WandaVision, the Marvel TV series whose finale airs on Disney+ Friday, and Nomadland, the Chloe Zhao film now streaming on Hulu, couldn’t be more different at first glance. Wanda, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is a young superhero who’s locked herself into a hermetic, TV-inspired existence, trapping the residents of a New Jersey town along with her. Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is a woman nearing retirement age, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, who can’t afford to stay in her longtime home and hits the road for a nomadic year in her rattletrap van.
But both are recent widows, and during Zhao’s acceptance speech during Sunday’s Golden Globes—where the beautiful Nomadland won Best Picture and Zhao won Best Director—I was struck by what Zhao had to say about the story her understated film has to tell.
“Nomadland, at its core, is a pilgrimage through grief and healing,” she said. “So for everyone who has gone through this difficult and beautiful journey at some point in their lives, this is for you.” Zhao then quoted her film’s character Bob Wells, a real-life nomad who runs a YouTube channel devoted to “cheap RV living”: “We don’t say goodbye, we say, see you down the road.”
The same weekend that Nomadland won its Golden Globes, a particular quote from Wandavision was making its way across Twitter. It’s a flashback from Friday’s episode, “Previously On,” in which Wanda and Vision sit in Avengers headquarters and discuss the death of Wanda’s brother. Vision notes that he can’t truly understand Wanda’s grief, but asks, “It can’t all be sorrow, can it?” Then he says the line that launched a thousand memes:
It’s easy to either belittle the line or laud it as poetry, but what is the line saying, exactly? What is grief? Is it, in fact, love persevering? In a year in which over half a million Americans have died of COVID, it’s a subject much on all our minds.
Different people experience grief in different ways: For some, the experience is a whirlwind of anger and resentment at the person who’s gone, for others a flood of unfettered, idealized love. For some, the days and weeks after a death are a period of numbness; for others, it’s a time of almost unbearable super-feeling, as if the volume on life is turned up too far. And for many the experience of grief includes all these emotions, plus others for which there is no name, because they are beyond words.
For Wanda, grief is love persevering—by the show’s supernatural premises, persevering in a manner that’s turning out to be dangerous. She’s held on to her relationship with Vision, recreating him based on her own memories and the love they shared: idealizing him, indeed ideating him, bringing forth a version of her lost loved one who’s so perfect as to be a fictional creature of a more innocent time. A TV screen is two-dimensional, of course. And all of Westview, this economically depressed New Jersey town, has become a victim of her persevering love: Its residents are trapped in the imaginary castle Wanda has built to keep Vision inside.
It’s not a web of red chaos magic that’s holding Fern, for her part, in Empire, the mining town where she and her husband lived for years at the beginning of Nomadland. But she’s stuck all the same, even though the mine has closed and the town is empty. In a conversation with the local employment office, she’s stoic and no-nonsense but still nearly begs: She needs a job, and she doesn’t want to leave. But there are no jobs, and the winter is cold, and so Fern finally hits the road.
While the nomads she meets along the way aren’t her prisoners the way Westview’s townspeople are Wanda’s, they still serve roles in her story. Bob, who leads the nomads and provides context and shape to their existence. Swankie, facing a terminal illness but unwilling to alter her plans to go to Alaska in search of earthly beauty. Dave (David Strathairn), who represents a second chance at love, and an opportunity to land in a new, more settled life. We see Fern, too, considering her late husband in two dimensions, via a box of slides and a handheld viewer.
The scene in which Zhao’s “see you down the road” line appears is a pivotal moment in the film, in which Fern opens up to Bob about the way her grief trapped her following her husband’s death. She stayed near Empire, she says, because “if I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed.” She recalls how happy her husband, Bo, was in Empire, but realizes she let that happiness define her choices even after he was gone. “My dad used to say, ‘What’s remembered, lives.’ I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering.’” In response, Bob shares a story of his own grief. He’ll see the person he lost down the road, he says, and Fern will see Bo. When she does, he adds, “you can remember your lives together then.”
I don’t think Bob’s telling Fern to forget her husband. But he is urging her to find momentum in her life separate from the life she once led with Bo. Nomadland presents movement as a kind of solution—not the only solution, but a good one—to the puzzle of grief. Our lost loves are on their own journeys, and only by moving can we ensure that their paths and ours will meet again one day, in Heaven or on some cosmic road. (Wanda, trapped herself in a hand-crafted universe that has its own gods and mythology, might not have the same hope for her and Vision down the line.)
I, like Vision, don’t have the perspective to truly understand anyone else’s grief. Not because I’ve never loved anyone, but because I’ve been lucky, and the people I treasure most in my life haven’t been taken from me yet. And though I find more that touches me in the gritty independent movie’s portrayal of loss than in the corporate popcorn version, when it happens to me, I feel certain I’ll be more of a Wanda than a Fern, messy rather than stoic in my flagrant bereavement. I can hardly bear to think of it now.
I love the Wandavision line, and understand why it’s easy to mock. The show is, of course, a canny piece of entertainment produced by a multibillion-dollar company, a widget in their assembly line of high-touch toy commercials meant to separate parents from their money. Yet like all those widgets, it was written by a person—in this case, Laura Donney—and it should be no surprise how potently the emotional moments in even the most crassly commercial cultural products can connect with all kinds of viewers.
Nomadland is elegaic in tone, Wandavision an action-mystery narrative. Nomadland is art, and Wandavision is pop. But within their genre limits—and both are genre works, in their way—each finds its heroine struggling to move beyond grief, to get to a place where she’s not spending too much of her life remembering. Fern is on her way there, it seems, and will always be on her way there. Wanda clearly hasn’t started moving yet. I’m hopeful that in its finale, Wandavision doubles down on the sentiment behind that much-mocked—but nevertheless quite lovely—Vision line, and helps her hit the road as well.