What If…? – Season 1 Episode 4
“…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?”
What If…? delivers an alternate take on the events of Doctor Strange with changes that put the universe itself in danger.
At this point What If…? is settling into a formula of sorts at least in terms of how the episodes begin. Uatu’s voiceover reminds the viewer that they’re about to see a different take on something familiar before introducing what the familiar element is and starting to showcase what the change will be. It works as a quick introduction and gives the viewer a clear indication of what to bear in mind as they watch. In this case the events of Doctor Strange are being altered to produce a very different sequence of events.
I’ve mentioned previously that the comics this series is adapted from were often an excuse for writers to play with established events and propel them onto absurd conclusions because there would be no impact on established continuity. This episode more than any other features this idea in its purest form though doesn’t do so at the expense of providing poignant tragedy.
The initial divergence is simple, instead of being in an accident by himself that renders his hands no longer useable as a surgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in an accident with Christine (Rachel McAdams) who loses her life. From there he still trains under the Ancient One, defeats Dormammu and becomes the Sorceror Supereme but remains motivated by pain and grief. This consumes him and he cannot move on from it so decides to use the Time Stone aka The Eye of Agamotto to return to the night of Christine’s death and prevent it.
In a poetic twist, Stephen traps himself in a time loop where he can do nothing to change the outcome. Without knowing it he puts himself in the same sort of unresolvable situation that he trapped Dormammu in but he’s so blinded by grief that he can’t see what he is doing to himself, at least at first. No matter what he does Christine dies. Eventually the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) appears to inform him that Christine’s death is something that can’t be changed as it’s a necessary event to put Stephen on the path to defeating Dormammu. In essence she’s telling him that death is inevitable and he has to accept that there are things even their seemingly boundless powers can’t change. It isn’t explicitly addressed in this episode but it’s a lesson the Anicent One herself struggled to learn but eventually was forced to accept. Despite this fact she remains compassionate and urges Stephen to honour her by doing good things with his life. One thing this episode does brilliantly is ground the increasingly outlandish plot in believable emotion that expertly maintains the momentum.
Despite the Ancient One’s wisdom, Stephen refuses to accept the inevitability of Christine’s death and looks to the past for answers. Added to his grief is desperation and any attempt to help him approach the situation rationally falls on deaf ears. Stephen refuses to believe that saving her is impossible because he has quickly learned that things he once believed to be impossible are very possible. As established in the Doctor Strange movie, magic requires energy and breaking Christine out of the nexus point created by her death will require massive amounts of energy to accomplish so he summons various creatures to consume their energy to make himself more powerful. It’s the classic example of a good person doing bad things out of a desire to do good things.
In this case he sees Christine’s survival as a good thing because she is a good person and doesn’t deserve the various tragic endings that he was unfortunate enough to witness. There is an air of selfishness to his motivation to bring her back as he is doing so for himself. He states that she makes him happy, he loves her and wants to be with her so even though her being alive is obviously a good thing for her and everyone she is close to he is still doing this because he can’t handle her loss. It isn’t explored but it does beg the question of whether he could accept saving her life if it meant he could no longer be around her. That isn’t the point of the episode but it’s an obvious connection to Stephen’s emotional journey that would have been interesting to ponder if only for a moment.
The biggest misstep in the episode is with Christine. Like in the film that this jumps off from she is less of a character and more of a function of the story. In the film she served a purpose that propelled that version of Stephen on his journey with the suggestion of her being a supportive presence despite the tension in their relationship. This version of Stephen sees her as the most important person in his life -or his heart, as the title points out- and will stop at nothing to keep her in his life. She is utilised as more of an objective than a character which dampens the emotional connection somewhat because we mostly see the impact of losing her on Stephen rather than what made her special to him in the first place. There are some cheesy romantic platitudes uttered by Stephen in various loops but it’s far from her being fleshed out. The pace of the storytelling and not having time to properly establish important aspects appears to be a recurring problem with this show as the episodes are too short to fully detail everything it needs to. Rachel McAdams’ role is about as thankless here as it was in Doctor Strange though her performance in Christine’s final scene is both powerful and moving. It’s the only time the connection between these characters is felt even if it does come too late. This shortcoming is offset to a degree by making Stephen’s obsession more of the focus than their actual relationship but it was difficult to fully invest in.
Stephen’s obsession completely isolates him as highlighted through is various interactions with O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) who is charmingly reminiscent of Wong (Benedict Wong) in how sarcastic he is. The most striking scene that they share is when O’Bengh is on his deathbed highlighting that he chose to live his life and experience all it had to offer where Stephen stagnated in pursuit of an impossible goal. The obvious point being made is that life is always going to have its ups and downs but it should be lived and appreciated for what it is. This is something Stephen has lost sight of and his reaction to O’Bengh’s attempt to impart that lesson makes it clear that he has no desire to learn it.
Following Stephen giving into his darkest impulses the episode curiously cuts back to immediately before the time loop segment began before revealing that the Ancient One splintered Stephen into two versions of himself. It’s an obvious yet effective way for Stephen to confront his darker side along with the potential that exists within him to succumb to obsession and become addicted to the pursuit of power. Noble intentions or not he still has the potential to become destructive to himself and the world around him. The magical battle where the two Stephen’s try to outdo each other with their spells is visually impressive but ultimately uninteresting as very little is done with Stephen confronting this unsavoury part of himself. He does try to convince his dark doppelgänger to see the error of his ways but fails and is eventually destroyed. Once again it’s a metaphor for him being consumed by his grief but not enough is done with the implications of splintering Stephen off into two distinct parts of himself. Beyond the half baked exploration of the potential to become a malevolent force it serves no real purpose beyond an action beat that is admittedly impressive.
Christine being terrified of what Stephen has become in the name of saving her and that being the catalyst for him realising the error of his ways is a strong moment that escalates in a surprising way. In his pursuit of saving Christine he loses himself before having to lose her all over again and then destroys the world on top of that. In his final moments he acknowledges that he is responsible for this and asks that he be punished so that the world can be spared. He recognises his mistake far too late to fix it and the regret weighs heavily on him. Benedict Cumberbatch’s vocal performance is generally excellent but never better than when Stephen realises where his obsession has led him and the widespread consequences of that. It’s a poignant character arc with an impressively tragic ending that feels completely justified within the framework of the episode.
This episode marks the first indication that Uato is tempted to interfere in events rather than simply watching them play out. He points out earlier in the episode that he considers interfering but answers Stephen’s plea with a declaration that he would save the world and punish Stephen if he could but can’t. The use of the word “can’t” is striking because it suggests there is something preventing him from taking action that dwarfs his own powers. Perhaps he is cursed only to observe though talking to Stephen constitutes a form of interference albeit with no consequences since the conversation takes place in the moments before this universe is completely obliterated. It’s more likely that “can’t” actually means “won’t” and he’ll find it more difficult to maintain his distance as the episodes progress. It’s curious that he takes such an active role in this episode albeit in an inconsequential way and it adds a strong sense of finality to Stephen’s obsession dooming an entire universe.
An excellent episode with a poignant and impressively tragic character arc that makes strong use of an alternate take on Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange being propelled on his journey towards becoming the Sorceror Supreme by the loss of Christine instead of his hands sets up his emotional journey and plays out in interesting ways. Trapping himself in a time loop just as he did to Dormammu and not realising it at first was an impressive poetic twist that highlights how strong his grief is as he fails to realise what he’s doing to himself. Christine’s death is proven to be inevitable but he can’t accept that so looks to find another way to get around it which causes him to descend further into his obsession with preventing this event. This does bring in one of the major missteps of the episode where Christine is more of an objective than a character but she does have a final scene that is both powerful and moving. A recurring problem with these episodes is the pace of the storytelling and not having time to fully establish the necessary elements. The exploration of Stephen’s obsession is excellent with things like the justification of doing terrible things for what he believes to be good reasons and isolating himself from the life that he should embrace.
The two versions of Stephen are ultimately unnecessary and only exist to create an action beat that is entertaining to watch but gets in the way of the character journey. Forcing Stephen to confront his dark potential is a good idea in theory but the episode does very little with it and it’s far more effective to see him realise the error of his ways as he begs to be punished rather than the universe be destroyed. Christine being terrified of what he has become and the regret he experiences in that moment is brilliantly handled with an excellent performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. The indication that Uato is tempted to interfere in this case sets up ongoing difficulties maintaining his distance that will no doubt come into play as the episodes progress. It’s curious that he takes such an active role albeit in an inconsequential way and it adds a strong sense of finality to Stephen dooming the universe.
- Stephen’s poignant and impressively tragic character arc
- the depiction of how he is consumed by grief and obsession
- trapping himself in a time loop but failing to realise it
- a powerful ending with an excellent vocal turn by Benedict Cumberbatch
- the development of Uato
- Christine being more of an objective than a character
- the pace of the episode meaning that some of the necessary elements aren’t fleshed out
- the unnecessary addition of the two sides of Stephen Strange
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