The following contains spoilers for episodes three and four of 'What If...?'
There’s a Twilight Zone episode I’m particularly fond of called “A World of His Own,” where a writer discovers that everything he speaks into his dictaphone comes true, and he can undo it by simply burning the tape. By the end, even narrator Rod Serling is shown to be a creation of this character’s imagination, making this one of the few TZ episodes where the fourth wall is firmly broken. It took an entire season for that classic program to feel comfortable enough to play around with its format and premise like that. However, we’re only on the fourth installment of What If…? and it’s employing similar tactics, though with a less comedic tone.
The first two episodes of What If…? revolved around a simple switch, trading one character for another and seeing how things play out as a result. Last week’s hinged on a minor change — Hope Pym joining SHIELD — that spiraled out with huge consequences. This week shows us a simple substitution again, putting Dr. Christine Palmer in the car with Stephen Strange and killing her off in the accident that in another timeline, destroyed the gifted surgeon’s hands instead.
Her death ends up being the catalyst for Strange studying the mystic arts, and the events shown here pretty much follow the same lines as they did in the film. It’s kind of unlikely, given that a motive to fix one’s injured hands is small peanuts compared to an attempt to undo death. But we still see Stephen training in Kamar-Taj, learning about the Eye of Agamotto and eventually fighting Dormammu. As far as the timeline is concerned, everything is pretty much the same.
Except Stephen, who can’t get Christine’s death out of his head. He ends up going back to the moment of the crash and trying to save his girlfriend’s life, only to fail again and again. Since her death was the catalyst for him to learn magic, he can’t use his powers to save her. She is a fixed point, an unchangeable event (something Doctor Who fans will be well acquainted with).
For the viewer, this raises a big question: If Christine’s death is really such a concrete event in the time stream, how did we end up with “our” Stephen Strange back over in the regular MCU timeline? Here, the episode inspired an intriguing possibility: that perhaps this Doctor Strange will succeed in changing the timeline so that Christine isn’t in the car and he destroys his hands, in fact making this episode a prequel to the 2016 film. That would have been a rather mind bending twist that certainly would have made this series more important, though still not essential, to the MCU.
Alas, it was not to be, with Strange descending further and further into his obsession to the point where even our narrator is concerned. And for the first time, a character becomes aware that they are being observed and actually calls the Watcher out. Like in the Twilight Zone episode, the sequence is intended as a demonstration of power, showing that Strange has reached the level of awareness to notice the fourth wall. But still his powers are limited; he’s not cognizant of the audience (though Uatu the Watcher is, having addressed us directly earlier in the episode) and his pleas for assistance ultimately go unheeded.
Compared with the first three episodes, this one ends on a dark note. That’s actually truer to the original comic series the show is based on where, freed from the constraints of long-term continuity, the writers could take the story in whatever direction they wanted. If they wanted to kill everyone they could and would, since the main timeline was to go unaffected and future issues of What If…? would just hit the reset button.
Whether the animated version will go the same way remains to be seen, but with the fourth episode an underlying sense of continuity has started to develop: The tentacled creature from "What If... Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?" makes a reappearance, and Uatu acknowledges to the audience the stories he’s already told, which at the bare minimum hints that these episodes are meant to be viewed in a specific order. What If…? may be a diversion, but there seems to be a destination on the horizon.