“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
I loved “WandaVision.” (Spoiler alert—I will give crucial plot elements away.) The show is the first television foray for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It tells the story of Sokovian Avenger Wanda Maximoff who, unaware of the full scope of her power (she’s really The Scarlet Witch), imprisons the whole town of Westview inside her desperate attempt to raise her husband Vision from the dead. Vision was killed by Thanos, and before that by her. Wanda resurrects her mate so they can live a family-sitcom-worthy version of a happy-ever-after American life. Of course, things go awry.
The Cultural Relevance of “WandaVision”
I am neither Avenger-savvy, nor an MCU completist. Wanda and all her cohort were new to me. My take on this show has nothing to do with how “WandaVision” fits into the Marvel universe or the criteria by which Disney rates its cultural impact (like, for instance, the proliferation of social media photos of “WandaVision” drag brunches). I got a permission slip from the literary criticism principle of intentional fallacy—how we experience a piece of art is just as relevant as its creator’s intention. No offense to the artistic and cultural intentions of Disney, Marvel, and the “WandaVision” writers, but what intrigues me is how “WandaVision” fits into my life right now. Beyond how it touches me personally, I’m also intrigued by what it has to say about our collective moment in history.
Take Agnes, Wanda’s opponent in the show. It is the name I’ve given to one of the voices in my head. You know all those inner critics and supporters with their running commentary? My Agnes is a source of wisdom and discernment, my inner witch. To name her, I scoured that rich list of female power names, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, a feminist art installation from the 1970s built around 1038 women of herstory and myth (there is controversy and reevaluation around Chicago’s inclusivity and I am disappointed in her white-centricity, but the list of names remains a resource).
Agnes showed up multiple times and grabbed my attention for its saint-or-sorceress ancestry. The writers on “WandaVision” apparently didn’t know the name’s witchy credentials—Agnes is simply a portmanteau for Agatha Harkness, the Marvel character’s true identity. Yet, even absent intention, the name enriches the character.
And if I hadn’t already felt like the show was plugging into my psyche, there was the final episode. When two witches battle it out for dominance with different colored geysers of lightning pouring out of their palms and chests, I had the eerie feeling that the writers had been with me on my recent medicine journey (a voyage I made before I watched the show, in a hybrid vessel of MDMA and psilocybin, psychological and psychedelic). For part of my trip, I was plugged into the universe and the universe was plugged into me. I had swirling rivers of energy flowing from me into other people. I was shown a specific image of the power of offering my energy as a resource to others. Wanda and Agnes’ electric duels looked like my experience, minus the maleficent battle for dominance. Netflix felt a lot less passive. What was the show trying to tell me?
The Importance of Restraint
The finale answered that question, too. One of the last things that happened on my medicine journey was a word. Delivered by the universe.
Just that. One word left with me to fester or flourish, depending on how I received it. My first impulse was to resent the word restraint—isn’t that what women have been asked to do for ages? Labour in the shadows. Keep things going. Give with grace. When do we get to be powerful?
“WandaVision” made me realize that restraint is not just a message for me. How self-centered. It’s a message for all women; not just for women, for all oppressed people, even for people in positions of power. This is a TV show for our times.
Here’s Wanda. She has no idea how powerful she is. Unrestrained, she is wreaking havoc on her corner of the world, without even realizing it. At the beginning of the show, the title seemed like an awkward unification of Wanda and her dead-and-not-dead husband Vision’s names. By the end, we realize the title tells us everything—what we have been watching the whole time is Wanda’s vision, gone badly wrong.
“WandaVision” lands in a moment of deep division when an outpouring of anger and grief has been uncorked after long repression in movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. At long last, the wanton abuse of power, the human cost of American exceptionalism, of capitalism run rampant, which has wreaked havoc on our society, is being exposed for what it is. As much as we want to self-medicate by consuming everything from goods to entertainment, we are living inside a vision poisoned by its own power.
When the season ends, Wanda has retreated until season two to work on restraint. I’m just guessing here, but I bet her superpowers will only grow stronger when restrained. Harnessed. Deployed with intention. I can’t wait.
“WandaVision” unlocked the last piece of my journey and connected my experience to the broader context of our current challenges. Restraint is a message for now.
If we want to repair the damage and evolve as a society, we are all called to a higher standard of empathy for ourselves and others. Twisted by grief, Wanda imposed her power to meet her personal need to raise her husband from the dead, at the expense of the whole community trapped inside her faux-sitcom. A made-for-television example of Dr. Martin Luther King’s reckless power without love. The way through such rage and grief, Wanda’s, mine, yours and ours, is with Dr. King’s power and love, neither abusive nor anemic.
The Next Chapter: Wanda without Vision
Restraint is the key to unleashing each one of our superpowers and the even greater collective force of a beloved community. Each of us has the power to correct what stands against love and to implement justice. To neglect or even deny our power (as Wanda does, or, for example, as the CEOs of global companies do each time that they are called to account for their crushing influence) is avoidance. And avoidance is not the same thing as restraint. Restraint is an invitation to use our energy wisely. Not that the MCU has asked me, but the wise use of energy is what Wanda should be honing during her time away.
Oh, also, it would be nice if in season two Wanda was motivated by the force of her own character and not just by her relationship with a man. Technically, “WandaVision” passes the Bechdel Test: The show has at least two named women, who talk to each other about something besides a man. The test originally appeared in a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (if you are a woman who runs, practices yoga, or has any interest in fitness, check out her fabulous new graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength). Yes, Wanda does have a few conversations unrelated to her husband, but in a broader sense, the whole show is only about the impossibility of Wanda without Vision. As she becomes more skilled in how she wields her power, as she practices restraint, let’s hope that her intentions can broaden to include more than hanging onto the past.
Wanda could demonstrate restraint as the practice of paying attention to our passionate intentions so that we can share our own flourishing in the service of others. I know, that’s a tall order for an MCU TV show and for our wounded society, but imagine …