It would be easy to attribute WandaVision’s high viewership, critical success, and title as the most popular TV series in the world (at the time of research) to the 18-month-long drought Marvel fans experienced thanks to COVID-19-related filming and production delays. However, WandaVision departs from the cookie-cutter Marvel storytelling clichés, opting for a twisted mysterious version of The Truman Show and The Twilight Zone, wrapped in the dressings of a classic family sitcom show. The story follows two Avengers, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019). Suddenly, and without explanation, we find Vision alive once again, with the pair now married and living in an eerie pseudo-reality reminiscent of classic American sitcoms. Starting in the 1950s, each subsequent episode of the miniseries draws heavy inspiration from its respective hit family sitcom of that decade. Wanda and Vision attempt to adjust to suburban life despite their growing suspicions that something is seriously wrong with their new home.
While the show is Marvel’s biggest creative risk, Marvel’s first TV series still attempts to comment on society in ways that previous Marvel films have, including Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor Ragnarok, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. However, instead of commenting on the U.S. military-industrial complex, race, immigrants, the myth of American exceptionalism, or capitalism, WandaVision explores a topic close to everyone: trauma and grief.
On its surface, WandaVision is an ode to television history and family sitcoms; but in reality, WandaVision beautifully and painfully captures the way trauma and grief change who you are, and how you can’t change the past no matter how hard you try. Its creators discuss trauma in two ways: (1) through Wanda and the audience's nostalgia for sitcoms as discussed in part one, and (2) through the sitcom format and filming techniques.
Note: Spoilers for season one of WandaVision. The article is also heavily inspired by Implicity Pretentious’ YouTube series about the connections between trauma, nostalgia, identity, imagination, and meaning.
What is Nostalgia and When/Why Do We Feel Nostalgic?
Nostalgia is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” There are many theories on why we feel nostalgic for “the good old days”' and view the past with rose-colored glasses. Some experts view the psychological phenomenon as a mental weakness signifying fear of change and progress. Others view it as a form of escapism, a feeling people enjoy because it takes them away from reality and back to their youth. Recent studies suggest that reflecting nostalgically on the past is a common and healthy experience that helps people find the inspiration and confidence needed to move forward in life.
Regardless of which theory you believe, nostalgia does not cause stress. Instead, distress causes nostalgia. External cues such as seeing an old photo or remembering an old memory can trigger nostalgia. When it comes to internal psychological triggers, people tend to experience nostalgia in response to feeling sad, lonely, meaningless, and uncertain about where they are in life. In Wanda’s case, she experiences all four psychological triggers due to her soulmate, parents, and brother's deaths.
Nostalgia and Identity
Nostalgia is centered around identity and memory. As Emily Keightley and Michael Pickering write in their book Mnemonic Imagination, “The remembering subject engages imaginatively with what is retained from the past and, moving across time, continuously rearranges the hotchpotch of experience into relatively coherent narrative structures, the varied elements of what is carried forward being given meaning by becoming emplotted into a discernible sequential pattern. It is that pattern which is central to the definition of who we are, how we have changed, and how we move forward.”
In other words, memories are units of meaning that compose our identity. They are like scenes from a movie for the reason that when they fit together, the scenes become one thematic story. Likewise, when we string memories together and process the past healthily, we can understand who we are, process the past, and imagine a future. We have a consistent story and sense of self-identity.
However, trauma acts as scissors on a film reel, forcing the individual to live with missing scenes. Trauma breaks up the continuity and cohesive story. The cohesive story shapes one’s self-identity too. Therefore, trauma also destroys self-identity. The life of a traumatized individual is unconsciously directed backward, and you are stuck in a never-ending cycle between yearning for a rose-colored past that never existed, but at the same time unable to move forward because of those “missing scenes.”
Wanda has experienced this non-continuous story. Her life is defined by the traumatic events that cut up her life and interrupted any opportunity for self-growth or identity formation. To survive so far, she has defined herself in relation to others, whether it be a daughter, sister, team member, or partner. However, in WandaVision she has lost all of those identities and has no sense of self or purpose in the world.
The Past is a Story
To make matters worse, another common problem with nostalgia is that a nostalgic person is often reflecting on a time that does not exist. You see, the past is always perceived and colored by the present. You often don’t remember or downplay the bad experiences and feelings from the past. This is because past memories have time and relativity on their side. Past problems often always seem less stressful compared to the present problems because you aren’t dealing with them currently.
Scientifically, your brain has processed and ordered past experiences to form an identity around them rather than the chaotic uncertainty of the present. It’s why in such times of confusion, doubt, or any negative feeling, we desire to go back to the past but forget that the past also had its unique set of problems, uncertainty, and chaos. It is only through remembering the pain can one view the past with nostalgia positively.
As previously mentioned there are studies (two mentioned above) that suggest nostalgia can help us move forward. In fact, the villain in WandaVision forces Wanda to remember her painful past in the second to last episode, justifying her actions to Wanda by saying “the only way forward is back.”
To make matters worse, there is scientific evidence that the more you recall a given memory, the less accurate it becomes. This is a big problem for Wanda because her solution to addressing her reality is recalling old memories. For Wanda, she keeps reaching for the past to try to fix the present: one can see how this becomes a downward spiral. The more Wanda references her past to try to find identity in the present, the more the past becomes distorted. The more the past becomes distorted, the more her present identity becomes based on twisted realities. Eventually, it becomes so twisted that her reality and sense of self snaps.
Restorative Nostalgia: When the Past Becomes an Obsession
An article about nostalgia in the National Geographic cites literary scholar and professor Svetlana Boym, who defined two types of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. According to another expert in nostalgia, Hal McDonald, the difference comes from how these two types of nostalgia look at the past.
“Restorative nostalgia looks back longingly—even jealousy of the past, and desires to re-create or relive it in the present,” McDonald says. Restorative nostalgia, therefore, allows people to get caught in the past and long for it in a way that is self-defeating and potentially harmful.
Restorative nostalgia is damaging. A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that when people with “strong worry habits” were exposed to some kind of nostalgic stimuli, the people exhibited “enhanced symptoms of anxiety and depression” compared to people in the control group.
Krystine Batcho was one of the first people to study nostalgia in the modern era with her Nostalgia Inventory. The results helped set the stage for more scientifically sound research on nostalgia, and gave insights on the psychological benefits of nostalgia. Batcho says it is unlikely that nostalgia causes depression or anxiety, but “a person who is clinically depressed or is challenged by an anxiety disorder might be more likely to ‘get lost’ in nostalgia, becoming trapped in nostalgic reverie as an escape.”
Connection to WandaVision
Restorative nostalgia is what Wanda is experiencing. Because of this, she got caught up in the past and created a reality where she can live out the past in the present. As McDonald said, this is hurting the people she loves and the townsfolk of WestView.
For Wanda, the theory that there is a connection between nostalgia, memory, trauma, and identity fits perfectly. For the majority of Wanda’s life, she was someone that was slowly buried under more and more unprocessed grief caused by traumatic events. What alleviated and exacerbated the toxic cycle was sitcoms. Her four core memories (her parents dying, accelerating/activating her powers through human experimentation, her brother dying, and Vision dying) are subtly centered around the growing influence of the TV.
When she was a child, sitcoms gave Wanda an activity to share with her family and thus, the identity of someone who is valued and loved within a community (in this case a family unit). But when she is alone, getting experimented on, she watches sitcoms to substitute human connection. During her time imprisoned with Hydra, her parents have died, and she was separated from her brother. By watching sitcoms in her prison cell, she can pretend that her family is all still with her. When her brother dies, Vision actually restores the missing human connection by simply not letting her be alone and watching sitcoms with her.
When Wanda creates her sitcom world and brings Vision back to life, it was her unconsciously restoring that continuity of sitcoms to feel not alone. In fact, she reveals that she does not know how she created her sitcom world, she “Only remembers feeling completely alone. Empty. Endless nothingness.” And in that nothingness Wanda began to write her own sitcom: a TV series that begins based on a twisted version of reality and therefore consequently ends in a heartbreak and loss.
To conclude part 1, WandaVision explores grief and trauma through the study of nostalgia. It paints a picture of one of the most powerful Avengers coping with a very human struggle and coping mechanism. We get nostalgic when our present life is tumultuous. We turn to the past to remind ourselves who we are and how to move forward. However, Wanda gets sucked into the past and seeks to live in the simplicity of the past because she already knows the outcome. It’s dangerous to get stuck in the past because science tells us that the more you try to remember the past, the more inaccurate it becomes. For Wanda, this creates a dangerous storm wherein the only way out of this painful cycle is more trauma. When reality leaks into her nostalgia filled sitcom reality, Wanda naturally fights to preserve her idyllic life. The creators of WandaVision trust the audience's knowledge of TV history and tropes, and use it so the audience can figure out the twists. But that’s for another “episode” of this WandaVision analysis.