What If …? has explored many different scenarios in its first four episodes. Those scenarios have featured many different characters with no connection to each other, and the stories themselves have been presented in an anthology fashion – nothing is linear. Despite that, though, there are a few things connecting the worlds of What If …?
The first and most obvious one is, of course, The Watcher. His presence as the narrator – and in the case of the fourth episode, titled “What if… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” the voice of reason – cannot be understated. But the last episode of the show also made clear there are a few other things connecting the universes that have been shown so far. Or, at least, a few things other than the green monster that has been featured in two episodes already.
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If there’s one thing the latest episode of What If …? focuses on it is grief, and not necessarily in a relatable way. Loss is normal, Strange’s reaction to it – to become Strange Supreme and sacrifice anything and everything, including the entire universe, to get Christine back – isn’t. But that the show is exploring the more destructive side of grief shouldn’t really be surprising. Grief has been a common theme in all the episodes of the show so far, albeit explored in different ways.
The first episode, titled "What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?" didn’t really focus on Captain Carter’s grief, at least not until the last few seconds. But fans know from the Captain America movies that the grief for what was left behind is one of the running storylines for the Steve Rogers version of Captain America. Everything is set up for it to be a major one for Peggy Carter too. Not all What If …? storylines are built the same, but considering it’s already been confirmed Captain Carter will be a recurring character in future seasons of this show, it’s likely her grief can and will be explored in the future.
Grief plays an even bigger role in episode two of the series, titled "What If… T'Challa Became a Star-Lord?,” almost as if the show were building up the theme. T’Challa is a happy person who’s done a lot of good to the galaxy, but when he comes across a Wakandan ship, the grief for what was lost is still there. In this case, grief doesn’t turn destructive, however. It only pushes T’Challa to go back, where his family is still waiting.
In the third episode, titled "What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?" grief has even more of a presence. If the world ends up losing its mightiest heroes, it’s because of grief. Hank Pym’s entire revenge scheme is tied to his pain over losing his daughter Hope – and his need to find someone to blame. In this reality, one man’s grief literally dooms the world, as the consequences of the lack of Avengers, which are only tangentially touched upon, look to be dire. Captain America and Captain Marvel might start a new team, but they’ve got their work cut out for them.
The latest episode of What If…? hammers the theme home. Strange’s decision, which ends up being the catalyst for the destruction of an entire reality, is based on grief. He cannot handle the loss of Christine, and because of that, he turns increasingly volatile and later, destructive. Marvel had previously explored how grief can turn into good – like with T’Challa – but in this episode, it firmly sends the message that grief can also blind someone enough to make them evil.
What If…? is not nearly close to done, but if the episodes that have been released so far send a message it’s that there’s no force more powerful than love – and loss. Every decision that has deviated from what fans know can be tied directly to emotion. From Peggy’s decision to protect Steve, Yondu’s decision to not just keep T’Challa, but lie to him about his family, without forgetting Hank Pym’s revenge quest and Dr. Strange’s use of the time stone to bring back Christine, it all leads back to the same thing. Like in the main MCU timeline, these heroes are still people. They live and they love, and their grief can indeed move mountains, and change timelines.
The Watcher is a fun narrative device, a character who is always there and who has all the answers. The possibilities raised by the interdimensional tentacled monster are intriguing, particularly after two appearances. But if What If…? was going to find a common narrative thread, they could have done worse than center the entire show on emotion. Grief – and love – are two things that transcend time and space. Everyone can relate. And the decision to center the storytelling of What If…? on them means most people will.