Television

A Trauma Therapist on What WandaVision Gets Right

With I May Destroy You and The Flight Attendant, it’s part of a new wave of shows changing how we understand grief and recovery.

Wanda, in color, gazes at a black-and-white image of herself and her dead husband, Vision, smiling at each other and wearing 1950s clothing
Elizabeth Olsen in WandaVision. Marvel Studios

We all cope with trauma differently. Some of us drink, some of us doomscroll, and some of us imprison the residents of an entire New Jersey suburb in a hexagonal force field and make them enact decades of sitcom history against their will. OK, maybe that last one’s a special case.

WandaVision is replete with magical goings-on, but, stripped down to its core, the show is about a woman trying, and failing, to cope with the aftermath of an unthinkable loss. Even though Wanda can do extraordinary things, she still struggles with the nebulous and thorny concepts of grief and sorrow. And in the COVID era, in which living with constant trauma has become a painful reality for almost everyone on Earth, Wanda—a costumed superhero, married to an android, with the possibly unlimited power to shape reality to her will—has quickly become one of the most relatable characters on television.

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While Wanda is certainly touching viewers’ hearts at a necessary time, stories about trauma on the small screen have been changing for some time now. Where antiheroes who used their emotional baggage as an excuse to engage in bad behavior defined the Golden Age of TV (see: Don Draper, Walter White), the dawn of a new era is just beginning. As female and nonbinary creatives finally (!) receive more opportunities to tell stories on the small screen, many narratives have begun to approach trauma from a more compassionate and creative angle.

Along with WandaVision, recent female-led series like I May Destroy You and The Flight Attendant have centered on characters reckoning with devastating traumas. Each series accurately depicts the process as heartbreakingly complex. In The Flight Attendant, Kaley Cuoco portrays Cassie Bowden, a haunted woman with an alcohol problem who wakes up one morning next to her murdered lover. In I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel is Arabella Essiedu, a young, hip twentysomething Londoner who is drugged and raped in a bar one night. On WandaVision, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is a supercharged hero mourning the loss of her soulmate. These traumas are wildly disparate, but the thread that connects them marks the gnarled and nonlinear road toward healing.

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These new types of trauma narratives mark a refreshing shift away from treating trauma as a liability. Instead, they recognize that it’s something we all struggle with, in ways both large and small.

A hallmark of trauma is feeling a loss of control, so taking back control, even when the behavior is unhealthy, is often how people cope. The idea of delaying healing by using maladaptive coping mechanisms is prevalent in each of these series. Cassie drinks herself into oblivion to avoid thinking about her difficult childhood. Arabella dives headfirst into social media activism, and once she disentangles herself from that addiction, she is able to confront early memories about feeling abandoned by her father. Wanda, well—Wanda has essentially taken binge-watching to the next level, causing untold amounts of pain for the citizens of Westview whom she’s imprisoned. Yet, for the time being, she feels as if she’s in control. Spoiler: She’s far from in control.

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It feels counterintuitive that a being as powerful as Wanda would feel so inherently powerless to confront the darkness within. By exploring how the process of admitting weakness can become an inherent strength, Wanda’s story marks a refreshing, if temporary, departure from the usual comic book formula. With only one episode to go, there’s no overt Big Bad, no imminent catastrophe, and no cabal of superheroes gearing up to save the day. Instead of focusing on showy external battles, the series has chosen to focus on the intimate internal battles that we humans fight every day.

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Triptych of Elizabeth Olsen, Michaela Coel, and Kaley Cuoco in their respective shows
WandaVision, I May Destroy You, and The Flight Attendant. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO, HBO Max, and Marvel Studios.
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What sets these new types of trauma narratives apart is the emphatic insistence that there is no single way to recover from trauma, and that healing often requires an individual to experience more pain before they can feel relief. Often, difficulty in recovering from a more recent trauma occurs when an individual hasn’t dealt effectively with lingering issues that stem from childhood. The popular trauma-focused therapy technique EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, encourages individuals to tackle their “first and worst” memories as soon as possible so that they may process them effectively and move on to future traumas with a more stable foundation for healing.

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In WandaVision’s penultimate episode, “Previously On,” Wanda’s past traumas all finally come to light. Motivated by wanting to learn more about Wanda’s immense powers, super witch Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) heads straight for the “first and worst” as she guides Wanda through a clip show of her past traumas like some sort of deranged therapist. She takes Wanda to task by rattling off confrontational one-liners such as “You would rather fall apart than face your truth.” It becomes clear that Wanda’s psyche is a Jenga tower of unprocessed trauma, built upon a compromised foundation in early childhood, and then left to wobble precariously with the addition of each subsequent layer.

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So when we finally see how Wanda created the hex that enveloped Westview, it’s a moment defined by layers of cataclysmic pain. Wanda’s Jenga tower finally falls, and with it goes her sense of reality. As she hits the apex of her experienced grief, she gives in to her powers as they cloak her in a familiar bubble of safety and security, complete with her own version of her beloved Vision. Is Wanda in control here? It’s unclear. Will Wanda have learned anything from her trip down memory lane with Agatha? Tune in next week.

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What is clear is that Wanda is going to have to fully feel and experience her pain before she can make any sort of meaningful change. Back in an earlier episode, Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) noted that if Wanda is the problem, she also has to be the solution. Monica understands grief, as she recently learned of her mother’s death. However, Monica hasn’t really processed her loss either. The disclaimer from the Nexus commercial in Episode 7 hints that there will be great pain for many people in the future. As the ad copy states, one of the side effects of confronting the truth is, indeed, “possibly more depression.” Yet delaying healing can also cause serious issues. In Wanda’s case, her repression has ended up hurting others, and may even be endangering the fabric of reality. Man, SWORD really should have therapists on staff to help these über-powerful superheroes navigate all the intense traumas they face every day, huh?

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While Wanda’s story is not yet over—and, given its place as a table-setter for the forthcoming sequel to Doctor Strange, is unlikely to come to a definitive ending—we can revisit both The Flight Attendant and I May Destroy You as examples of effective depictions of moving forward after a traumatic experience. Much like WandaVision, both series play with the idea of alternate realities or imagined fantasies in which various possibilities can be explored. In The Flight Attendant, Cassie frequently escapes into her own psyche in order to chat with her murdered lover about what she’s experiencing. In doing so, she begins to unearth repressed memories of her childhood and is finally able to see them in a different light. And the stunning conclusion of I May Destroy You sees Arabella confronting various imagined versions of her rapist in order to make some sort of peace with her attack. Both of these narratives create human proxies that are piloted by their heroines so that they may cautiously and safely approach their painful memories while simultaneously exercising control over the situation.

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Even though Wanda may not have been ready to face her past, she does seem to have been humbled by the experience of finally bearing witness to her pain. She created a version of her beloved Vision in order to experience Happy Days with him, but it’s possible that he will serve a more crucial purpose in the end. Perhaps he will provide a safe space for her to work out her grief. Perhaps Monica will play that role. Or perhaps her unresolved trauma will end the world as we know it. (OK, that last one is a bit unlikely.)

Much like other recent trauma narratives, WandaVision takes time to infuse its story with hope. In one of the only uplifting segments of Wanda’s “This Is Your Life” tour, Agatha brings Wanda back to the time when she and Vision first bonded. When Wanda shares about her chasm of emptiness following her brother Pietro’s death, Vision counters with a lovely thought: “But what is grief, if not love persevering?”

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Of course, this idea isn’t revolutionary. Anyone who’s attended a grief counseling session will tell you that. However, the fact that a Marvel series—or any TV series— took an earnest pause to convey this sentiment is pretty fantastic. Providing catharsis and hope, however small, is the key to guiding us all through the shared trauma we’re continuing to experience in the COVID era.

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Representation for complex mental health issues certainly matters. When viewers watch characters grapple with trauma in a very real way on the small screen, it creates space for people to see and feel seen. These recent trauma narratives are not the kind of stories where everything can be solved in 30 minutes or less. People get hurt, they struggle, and they suffer, but they can also formulate creative solutions to their problems by finding ways to transcend the emptiness and make themselves whole again.  There is no way to avoid pain in the healing process, but there is a way to make the journey feel less lonely.

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