*Warning: This piece contains spoilers for episode four of What If…?*
After viewing this week’s episode of What If…?, it has become clear that maybe the show will have an overarching plot after all, but it will not happen shortly. What this episode does, however, is tease how The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) can indeed have a bigger presence in the timeline’s multiple stories and possibly intervene in the final (that’s the safest bet) episode. Already, when he says, “I do not, cannot, will not interfere,” you don’t believe it’ll last and, at some point, the weekly question may be “What If…The Watcher interferes?”. But for now, What If..? has been particularly uneven with its storytelling and importance in the wider spectrum of the MCU. However, this week’s episode, What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? is by far the best of the bunch: an emotionally impactful episode that doesn’t feel like a throwaway one and could have opened further ramifications for a potential multiverse of madness.
In this variation of 2016’s Doctor Strange, the titular character (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the love of his life, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), instead of the ability to use his hands, which plunges him into a world filled with darkness as he becomes Doctor Strange Supreme, instead of The Sorcerer Supreme. He is desperate to bring Christine back and doesn’t care whether or not it impacts the world at hand. You see, Christine’s death is what The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) refers to as an “Absolute Point” in time; where her death cannot be altered since it’s the reason why it caused Stephen to become The Sorcerer Supreme and fight Dormammu (which saved the world). To break the Absolute Point, Strange visits the library of Cagliostro and learns how to rift the timeline by absorbing all types of power from mystical beings. As he sucks into the power of these beings to save Christine, the Traditional Sorcerer Supreme, in another timeline, begins to experience disintegration of reality, with everyone slowly dying.
This is where the traditional Strange learns that The Ancient One used the power of the dark dimension to split him through two personalities: one that would absorb the power of mystical beings and create a cataclysmic event, and another that would stop him when the time comes. This leads to a thrilling battle between the two and a rather bleak finale that truly showcases how one different event can truly shift the course of the entire universe. Surprisingly, this episode contains Cumberbatch’s best performance as Strange, who seems more human than his initial character arc in Scott Derrickson’s 2016 film. In that movie, he only wanted to learn magic out of pure ego, whereas in this series, it’s to save the love of his life. It’s an admirable motivation, but one that won’t bode well for him in the end. And even if he becomes the most mystical and powerful being in this universe, his human core remains the same. Take, for example, the scene in which he transforms himself into a monstrous-like creature, believing he has finally resurrected Christine, but he is, in reality, left alone. Strange destroyed the entire world to spend one more day with Christine, akin to Wanda Maximoff creating an entire town and holding its real-life citizens hostage to spend the rest of her life with Vision in WandaVision. The parallels are there, and Strange, and Wanda will meet in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so it’s all connected.
As far as the animation goes, this is the best What If…? has to offer so far. The movement is fluid and works very well for the mystical side of Doctor Strange, whilst its central action setpiece is quite epic and on par with some of the MCU’s best setpieces in their films. This is mainly due to the episode’s emotional impact, where audiences are treated, for the first time, at legitimate emotional vulnerability from Strange. In the sacred timeline, he’s always been confident (and quite cocky, we may add…) at doing what needs to be done to save the universe. Still, as he crosses paths with The Watcher and begs him to change the course of the timeline, Strange learns the hard way that he will never be able to turn back time or fix it the way he wants it to, just as Wanda did in WandaVision. As a result, the world ends with a grief-stricken Strange, alone and isolated, pondering the greatest mistake of his life forever and ever.
As the previous three episodes of What If…? took familiar story beats and spun them around for a bit, it only felt like a novelty and a distraction from what is to come with the MCU’s latest projects. But the Doctor Strange episode turns everything around for the better, leaving the door open for more risky and ambitious stories inside ever-changing and ever-growing timelines. What If…? works best when it takes risks, not when it spins one element of a perfectly serviceable comic book film around, and if it takes even more risks by the finale and does something wholly surprising and original, such as having an overarching storyline that could shift even more things around for the MCU, then we’re in for an absolute treat.