First things first: this is the first episode of What If…? that I would have to deem “not fun.” Much like Doctor Strange’s MCU film outing, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, a couple of big issues, and not really enough time to work them all out.
But it does tease out an interesting part of Strange’s personality that hasn’t been explored as much in the MCU, and personally, I love it when people face consequences for their actions (“In fiction” they added, nervously) and the real title of this episode could be “What If…Doctor Strange’s Ego Wrote Checks His Magical Ass Couldn’t Cash?”
In this timeline, Stephen Strange and Christine Palmer are still in love, and she goes with him to the awards ceremony on The Night of The Accident. Rather than Strange veering off the road because of texting, he attempts to pass a truck recklessly, corrects the mistake, and then gets rear-ended anyway. He survives, and so do his beautiful hands, but Christine dies in the accident.
His mystical quest is not a last ditch effort to find a solution for a physical problem after science fails him, it is, from the outset, an attempt to reverse, or make sense of, a tragic death.
This changes the story a little. But seemingly all the events of Doctor Strange still unfold as they did in the film. On the two-year anniversary of her death (which I suppose feels like much later to Stephen) he sits in the Sanctum Sanctorum drinking whiskey and dwelling in the past. (Boy, same.) After a stern warning from Wong, Stephen obviously uses the Eye of Agamotto to travel back to the night of Christine’s death, over and over, trying to change it and always failing. The show does this with a grim Groundhog’s Day sequence of car wrecks, an inexplicable collapse during the gala, a fatal robbery at the pizza place they go to instead of the gala, and, finally, her whole apartment complex burns down.
I have a lot of thoughts about this that I’ll get into below.
Finally, the Ancient One shows up and tells Stephen that Christine’s death is an absolute point. She has to die so he’ll become Sorcerer Supreme, and in turn save this timeline. When he argues, she says, bluntly: “There is no hope here.” But Strange is gonna Strange, so he goes on a second mystical quest, this time to the Library of Cagliostro, where he picks up a different Superior Sorcerer of Color Who Helps Him For some Reason, and dedicates himself to acquiring enough power to bring Christine back.
We get a second montage of Strange summoning mystical beings and absorbing them, and, well, if you’ve ever wanted to watch Dr. Strange eat a magical screaming lawn gnome, this is the What If…? episode for you. He even senses the Watcher. In the end, we learn that he’s his own final boss, because the Ancient One secretly split the timeline (???) in the hopes that Good!Strange could defeat DarkPath!Strange, or at least talk him out of his doomed journey. But since DarkPath!Strange has spent literal centuries reversing and stopping time to grow more powerful, Good!Stephen doesn’t have a chance. After a long fight, he too is absorbed, and the new version of Strange, full of power he can barely control, succeeds in bringing Christine back… just long enough that the universe can collapse around them, and he can watch her die again.
He cries out to the Watcher, but of course the Watcher can’t interfere in the timelines he observes. So Christine dissolves, the universe collapses in, and all that’s left is Stephen Strange in a tiny magical bubble moaning “Nooo!” and “I didn’t mean for this to happen!”
I’m so happy we got a timeline that ends in irrevocable tragedy! Seriously, it’s fantastic that the writers aren’t afraid to show us the real stakes.
Apparently the Ancient One can just pop in and out of timelines, and create sub-timestreams, or split the timestreams? She can come back to talk to Stephen as an “echo”? We spent half an episode watching Stephen Strange in this timeline, only to find out that there was a different Stephen Strange going about his days in the Sanctum Sanctorum, and then, I guess a few centuries later (???) the part of him that was split off came back to try to ally with him? I love how twisty this episode gets, but I can’t help but think it would have worked better if we’d known Stephen had been split in half earlier. I also love that Wong’s last ditch effort is to cast a protection spell on Good!Stephen, which is then the final spell to give way during the final fight. Also that it’s a memory of Wong that snaps Good!Stephen out of a trance? I didn’t think this episode worked as well as the last two, but any development of Wong’s character is a step in the right direction.
Okay, now let’s talk about Christine Palmer.
On the one hand, this episode has more fridges than a goddamn Norge museum.
But on the other hand, I love watching emo people being tormented by fate?
And on a third hand, I think this is more screen time than Christine Palmer got in the movie.
But on a fourth hand, it’s not like this is character development? And yes, this is Stephen’s story, not Christine’s—but here’s why this gets frustrating to me. The title is “What If Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” with the implication being that Christine is his “heart,” but also that her loss irreparably breaks his sense of humanity to the point that he becomes a monster. Which is really objectifying the shit out of Christine. Once again, she’s not a person, she’s a symbol and a plot device. She is what keeps him human, what attaches him to reality. And again, if you read this as “Stephen Strange is an arrogant, power-hungry egotist, who needs only the slightest excuse to go Dark!” then that simultaneously means that lots of things could push him over the edge, and it’s just Christine this time, where it was the loss of his hands a different time. Which, again, is really doing a disservice to Christine as a character.
I’ve seen the “man is redeemed by the love of a woman/driven mad by the loss of a woman” story SO MANY TIMES. Wouldn’t it make that story better if she was a real person? If we knew and missed her along with him, instead of watching him miss her?
I’m always conflicted about this, because I love “person is naturally dark/angry/sarcastic but works to become better.” There is a part of me that values Stephen Strange’s effort more than, say, Peter Parker’s general inclination to be good. Peter is naturally sensitive and empathetic—Aunt May and Uncle Ben raised a very good boi who always tries to help. Stephen Strange is an asshole. And this isn’t fair, but maybe I think his struggle to rise above asshole-ness is worth more than other hero’s immediate impulses to save the day. I only wish that we’d checked in on a thread of the multiverse where it wasn’t just about a woman’s catalytic death.
Having said that. I really enjoyed how over-the-top Christine’s deaths got. The fact that Stephen still didn’t take the hint after his meddling led to her whole apartment building going up in flames was hilarious to me, and I do like it when comic book adaptations choose to go super operatic. I also appreciated that the episode balanced all the emotion with humor.
This is another thing I’m a little conflicted about—I’ve gotten frustrated with how quippy the MCU is, because it flattens all the stories into a stream of references and callbacks that don’t work for each character. Not everyone needs to be “snarky comic relief” or “overly literal comic relief.” (I guess it’s better than “exasperated female character”?) But having said that, I really like “Stephen Strange, Amused Wizard Who Just Raised One Eyebrow.” It plays to Benedict Cumberbatch’s strengths, it’s a nice contrast with all the magic, and I think it actually works for a character who has technically been alive longer than anyone else, watched Thanos murder thousands of people across time, and spent centuries getting iced by Dormammu. That guy finds all of your silly human troubles hilarious, but he’ll try to help you while he wears a comfy sweatshirt. I was pleased that they tried to carry that aspect of the character into this iteration.
On a purely positive note, I thought it was fun that part of the battle between the Stranges turned into a fistfight, given that in the usual timeline the great tragedy is the loss of STEPHEN’S BEAUTIFUL HANDS. I also loved the variety of magic users that DarkPath!Strange steals power from. And on a less positive note, I continue to wish that people writing Strange stories would let their imaginations go fully, child-on-a-sugar-bender wild. We’re dealing with magic! Strange can do anything, visit other worlds, bend time, create illusions, anything! Slip the foul bonds of our dumb reality, writers!
One more thing: I’m always intrigued by the idea of fated deaths, fixed points in time, and DEATH as the final wall that magicians beat their heads against. Doctor Strange didn’t really fight this battle in his film—Stephen wants a simple solution to his hands being shattered, and finds a mystical work-around. It’s Kaecelius who wants to conquer death. The film portrays him as a straightforward villain from his first scene, and it’s only the power of Mads Mikkelson that elevates the character. In the end, the only reason Strange tries to conquer time is to undo Kaecelius’ damage, and that immediately results in Mordo turning evil.
I think it could be argued that in the main MCU it’s actually Tony Stark who fights this particular anti-death battle (which is neat, and a nice underscore for his ongoing war with Thanos) so I was surprised to see that this was the path What If…? took for their Doctor Strange episode.
- Wong: “You’ve switched to the cheap stuff?”
- O’Bengh: “Death is part of the plan.”
DarkPath!Strange: “I can’t accept that!”
- Stephen Strange: “Now I have an evil twin?
Ancient One: “More like… misguided?
- Strange to Misguided!Strange: “Your marbles are long gone.”