What is Grief? (Wandavision, 2021)

(I originally wrote this on April 15th, 2021 as the last post of a series of essays I wrote for my Patreon watching every Marvel movie as a way to escape lockdown part two. Rereading it as lockdown part three rears its head, I found a lot of it still …well, I hesitate to call my own writing “moving,” but it was certainly interesting to read. The more things change, etc. Anyways—)

I got on a plane and went to New York City on my birthday, January 7th, 2021. Wandavision (2021) Aired its first episode eight days later. I had no intention of watching it. Seeing trailers for Wandavision (2021) was one of the last new constants I associate with my time living at my parent’s house in Albuquerque throughout most of 2020. It looked proud of itself for being “weird,” tracking in an idiot’s version of challenging television.

Of course, saying “I got on a plane and went to New York City” is eliding most of that experience. I wore two masks (before that was just what you were supposed to do) and a face shield and wore latex gloves and jeans for the first time in two years and three jackets, because it was winter but mostly because I was terrified of any surface touching my body.

I was going to New York City to “find myself,” I think. 2020 was plainly bad for literally everyone, and I was very lucky to be able to spend it in the comfort and care of my parents’ house. I was also there instead of in the apartment I lived in because I was extricating myself from what had become the traumatic experience of the abusive relationship I was living in. I spent a lot of 2020 in what I realize now was a post-traumatic semi-fugue state, which was just a great place to experience the everyday tragedies 2020 relentlessly offered.

The way I slowly crawled out of this shell-shocked shell was by watching movies with friends online. Weekly Zoom meetings became the most important ritual of the summer. There were old friends there who were happy to see me, something I thought was impossible (look what abuse does to you!), and new people I had not previously met who were interesting and somehow interested in knowing me, too? Whatever movie was watched became secondhand to the new friendships I felt I was developing through a screen. One person even reached out to start talking outside of the weekly meetings.

I guiltily visited a friend in Los Angeles during Election Week. I didn’t want to be “at home” for that event. The thought of a house full of yelling in every direction sounded like too big of a nightmare. I didn’t tell many people I was leaving, because I felt bad for going. I spent the drive over texting this new Zoom-friend, sending photos at every rest stop, texting jokes at night in the hotel room. Sometime between election night and the election being called, another friend I had met in the movie night zoom group emailed me a wild offer. They were leaving town, and wanted to know if I wanted to sublet their apartment in New York City.

An important thing to know here is that I spent my entire time living in New Mexico waiting to leave. It had become a visceral hell, and I spent most of the time there blaming it on the location instead of my immediate circumstance, something I did not realize until much later. Here, though, with this email, was the exact thing my mind wanted to hear — an out, an escape, a crazy thing I could pass off as a whim, a reclamation of “self control,” a life, again. I accepted the offer without really thinking about it. I also doubled down on communicating with someone I had yet to meet in real life. What started as a new Zoom-based friendship turned into what in hindsight was just a long-distance relationship, something I didn’t quite realize until it was almost time for me to leave my parents’ house. So I arrived in New York City, on my birthday, January 7th, 2021, and immediately began quarantine-dating someone I had yet to meet in real life.

Exactly one month later, I broke up with them over Zoom.

I am not going to get into the exact details of that, other than that obviously my completely broken post-abuse head and heart were not ready in the slightest for another relationship. There’s more to it than that, of course, because two human beings are infinitely complex and that’s how break-ups work. Immediately before I made this Zoom call, one of the people in my friend-pod tested positive for The Virus, and I had to go back into lockdown, one month into my “new future.”

So there I was, one month into “my new life,” newly broken up, newly locked down, realizing how deep my trauma actually ran, with once again, the feeling of no one but myself to talk to. I am saying all this to sketch a wildly over-descriptive picture of where I was, mentally, emotionally, on February 8th, 2021, when I decided, for a lack of anything else to do with myself, to attempt to “watch every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” while also recounting my personal memories of where I was in life when these movies first came out.

Which… I did.

You can see a lot of the confusion and anger I was feeling in the early posts. Writing about Iron Man (2008), I was clearly giddy at seeing with fresh eyes the many faults the movie had. It wasn’t perfect; in fact it was kind of bad. This made me happy, because I wanted to hate these movies for what they did to “modern culture.” But what did that mean? Why was I mad at “culture” for liking Marvel Movies? Why did I retroactively decide I hated every single one of these movies?

Mostly because of the way people were starting to yell about Wandavision (2021).

The thing about Wandavision (2021) is that it was fine. In the end, it was not great, it was not awful. But the way it lit up the internet made my blood boil. The conversation, as I perceived it, was centered around what felt like a gatekeeping of joy. Who is allowed to enjoy Wandavision (2021)? Should you enjoy it? What does that mean if you do? Are you a moron?

This is what it felt like to be online as Wandavision (2021) aired, from January 15th to March 5th, 2021. A weekly re-ignition of a ridiculous argument — should you like the show or not, and should we make fun of the people who do? The answer, as I kept reading mean tweet after mean tweet — before I even watched the show myself — was “…no, we shouldn’t dunk on people for this.” Certainly, some people took their love of the show too far, but you know what? That’s fine, mostly. If someone thinks Wandavision (2021) is the greatest show ever made, well, who am I to deny them that? I obviously disagree, but who cares? Let people enjoy what they like, and let them be loud about it. Frankly, after an entire year of public grief, it was genuinely refreshing to see people excited about something, anything again. It was nice to talk about something unimportant, even if the danger was there that people were trying too hard to make it important.

Certainly there are many reasons to be critical of Marvel and Disney. Wandavision (2021), in part, exists mainly as an extended advertisement for Disney+ subscriptions (I mean… how do you think I have watched these movies). It is important to be at least a little skeptical of media from such giant companies. This ignores, however, the fact that it still takes people to make these shows. Jac Schaeffer and Matt Shakman, the two main creative forces behind Wandavision (2021), are people, not faceless corporate AIs. They made a show within the strict confines of the corporate mandate, within a very narrow (despite how many Marvel Movies there are) range of available choices.

Perhaps obviously, Wandavision (2021) is at its best when it pushes the furthest against the grain of what we all know as a Marvel Product, and it was easy to be disappointed at the show’s near-immediate descent into “just another Marvel Movie.” The climax was awful CG nonsense, and the show’s early forays into “being weird” were all feints that we all took way too seriously. Most ruinously, it reduced the incredible, unstoppable, shockingly brilliant Kathryn Hahn (honestly, I’m happy this show was made just because now we’ll probably see a lot more Kathryn Hahn in the future — that feels like a win, no matter the cost) into just another angry villain on wires in front of a green screen.

I often said that Wandavision (2021) was “Twin Peaks for Babies,” and I still think that’s true. But the other half of that statement is this: if someone sees Wandavision (2021), and loves it, and someone else says “well, it’s just Twin Peaks for Babies,” and the first person says “what is Twin Peaks” and then watches Twin Peaks and loves that, then how could I be mad at Wandavision (2021)? The thing about works of art that are in hock to greater pieces of art is that eventually they help with the discovery of the greater art.

Which is dangerously close to entering the other loud and obnoxious conversation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is “are they art or content.” Well, first — I don’t care. Engage in what you want to engage with. If it brings you joy, so be it. That’s art enough, even if it was designed as content. Maybe it’s all a happy accident that these movies are mostly pretty good when you divorce them from the larger context of the conversations we keep having about them. Yeah, a big, uncaring machine hungry for money made these things, but most of the time it was easy to forget that. It was easy to just enjoy them. It was occasionally be easy to even be truly moved by them.

Wandavision (2021) struck a chord by accident of timing. Everyone needed something to latch onto, and Wandavision (2021), it turns out without fully meaning to, had something for a lot of different people to latch onto. Whether it was Kathryn Hahn, or costume enthusiasts, or the many secret hunters who yelled about Reed Richards or Mephisto or The Real Pietro — there was something for everyone here, because it had been so long since anything like this had aired. So many people were so sick of only having death tolls and Trump speeches to latch onto. After a year (or four) of that, I can understand why watching a twenty minute youtube video about how every appearance of house flies obviously means Mephisto is the next MCU Big Bad makes sense.

It just so happens that the show was actually… never about any of that. In hindsight, it wasn’t really about anything. Sure, it was nominally about “grief,” but in a way the show’s framework of “start with a puzzle box, end with explosions” squeezes most of the impact out of the ways Wanda’s grief is portrayed. It puts the entirety of the idea “the show is about grief” into one single line.

And of course, we yelled about that line. People yelled because it was beautiful, and people yelled at them because they thought it was dumb. The fact is, it is a good line. It’s a good line because it’s a television line, it’s a line that distills the entirety of a human emotion into a simple sentence that fits into a sitcom. It’s perfect for a show that also claims to be about sitcoms. It’s a line that’s so good that I’m not sure it even matters that I don’t think it’s even true. I don’t know if grief is actually just “love persevering.” But it feels right, in the moment of the show, and to juggle around your head right now.

We’ve all experienced pretty much exclusively grief for so long now, and it doesn’t actually look to be letting up soon. In this way, hearing someone say “what is grief if not love persevering” is a hopeful thing. It allows love back in to the conversation. It implies there’s more than just the constant hate that modern life is drowning in. Love, persevering. That sounds nice! I don’t care if it’s untrue. It sounds nice.

The fact that it is said by a pink robot in a sweater underlines another important fact about the line — it’s fantasy. It’s escapism, which is A) just fine and B) all these “content drops” were ever supposed to be. And I genuinely think it’s okay to take your escapism seriously sometimes. We can learn things from media, no matter what that media is or who made it. Sometimes you can be a fuller, better person, because one day, when you were sad and tired, a pink robot said something beautiful that you wanted to believe in, so you took it to heart.

I am not saying this is what happened to me. But I’m happy to believe that it happened to somebody. Again, like the potential person who discovered Twin Peaks through Wandavision (2021), I’d like to believe in someone using a mediocre piece of art as a gateway into becoming a less mediocre person.

I guess I’m saying all this because while it would be a step too far to say that watching all twenty three of these movies “healed” me, it would also be untrue to say that they did nothing for me. Placing them, as I did, in the context of my life turned out to help as much as it was painful to relive a lot of the worse times in my life. These movies have been around for a long time. But you know what? So have I. That’s a powerful thing to remember, these days. It was moving to revisit a series of movies (and next time, I’ll rank ‘em), popcorn or no, that were a constant presence for over a decade of my life.

It’s also hard to write a conclusion to this series. Part of that is because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is obviously not over. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) has two episodes left to air as I write this, and Loki (2021) will come soon after that, and eventually the theaters that are left will reopen, and the great cinematic machine will lumber on once again. But it’s also hard because I am not “concluded” either. My story remains in motion. For an extremely present-day example, when I began this series, I was still dead-set on never returning to Albuquerque. I still considered it a huge source of all my pain over the last three years. I… don’t believe that now. It was not that place, but my circumstance within it, that’s led me to have to work through this trauma. It was a hurt person that hurt me that made me hate my life, not a city.

I’m leaving New York City in about two weeks. First I’ll be in Philadelphia for a little bit, then I’ll have a ten-day “goodbye tour” of Chicago (I imagine I will have a lot more to say about that later). Then I’ll be going to Albuquerque. I am not saying “going back” there, or that I’ll be there “again.” It feels, once more, like the first time. It’s a new thing, where I can be a new person, or at least closer to a true person.

(And yet, as I look at this now, I realized after spending two weeks in Albuquerque in June trying fruitlessly to find a place to live and wondering why my trauma hadn’t magically disappeared, was that while it might not be specifically a place that hurt you, the power of that hurt can permeate a place. I told someone recently, sitting at a bar in Albuquerque, that “this is where I almost died,” and I meant it. Sometimes you have to live in the place where you lived. Which is why, after all my hemming and hawing, I wound up back in Chicago).

Eventually, if I ever decide to do another run of essays like this, the parts in the past, the parts in italics, will be about living in New York City in the top half of 2021, while nursing a break up. They’ll be about what it was like to move to a giant city at the *knock on wood* tail-end of a pandemic. I called this series “A Movement Towards Stasis” because it was a timeline of a series of films that wound up being hellbent on ossifying.

The thing that kept changing instead, year in, year out, was me. The movies never changed, but I always did, I was always growing and changing. This series was much about checking in on a set of past selves as it was checking in on a series of movies. There’s no section in this post in italics, no check-ins on the past because there is no past, now — I’ve caught up with myself, and in doing so, was able to see how far I’ve come since 2008, or 2018, or even just since the beginning of 2021.

So yes, there’s no end here. Just me, persevering.

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