Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

What If...? Episode 4 Explained

In Episode 4 of "What If...?," we see something we haven't seen in the series thus far. The story revolves around Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). From the get-go, it's obvious this world is different than the one we know from the MCU as Stephen is head-over-heels in love with Christine. In "Doctor Strange," it's evident there are feelings between the two, but Stephen's ego and narcissism often prevent their love from blossoming. In Episode 4, the duo appears to have genuine passion, which isn't hindered by his cockiness.

In the episode's beginning, the duo hops in Stephen's car, where they take off for an event where he's set to give a speech. After some chit-chat, it looks like they're about to be in a terrible car crash, but Stephen is able to maneuver his sports car, so they avoid the accident. Unfortunately, mere seconds later, they're hit by another vehicle from behind, which sends them spiraling off the road, and they eventually land in what appears to be a river. The accident is reminiscent of Stephen's from the character's introductory film, but he's not alone this time.

Christine dies in the crash, and the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) informs us that in this story, Stephen loses his heart and not his hands.

An unavoidable death

Just like in "Doctor Strange," Stephen travels to the Kamar-Taj, where he learns about the mystic arts to help deal with his grief. He experiments with the Eye of Agamotto as he learns time travel is possible but is warned by Wong (Benedict Wong) to not tinker with it as it can "weaken the very fabric of the universe." The episode breezes by the death of the Ancient One and Stephen's triumph over Dormammu as he becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. It also leaves out Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) entirely — a character essential to the plot in the "Doctor Strange" film. While these events fall in line with the ones we've seen in the MCU, what happens next is a complete left turn from what we know.

Stephen is still unable to deal with the loss of Christine two years after her death. He uses the Eye of Agamotto to travel back to the night of their car accident and maneuvers his vehicle differently to avoid the same crash. While he's successful, they're still hit by another car in an entirely different accident and land in the same spot, resulting in Christine's death yet again. Stephen continues to turn back time over and over — drastically changing the events of the evening to prevent tragedy. But no matter what he does, Christine dies every single time. One time she's murdered, one time she collapses from an unknown health issue, and another time she perishes in an explosion.

Why can Steven not prevent Christine's death?

It's here we learn from the Ancient One — who comes to intervene in Stephen's experiment — that Christine's death is an "absolute point in time." She explains that without the death of his loved one, he would never have mastered the mystic arts or outsmarted Dormammu, suggesting her death is necessary to save the universe. Stephen won't accept this and goes down a dangerous path of attempting to reverse this absolute point in time. He seeks answers at the Lost Library of Cagliostro — a name merely mentioned in "Doctor Strange."

Stephen learns at the library that he can obtain the power to reverse an absolute point by gaining the power of other beings through absorption. His dark path takes an even darker turn as he summons mythical beings just so he can absorb their powers by killing them. Stephen becomes incredibly strong and dangerous, even prompting the Watcher to consider intervening. Soon, we cut back to an earlier point in the episode just after Doctor Strange bests Dormammu — the moment just before Stephen reverts time. He puts off his time travel, and when he goes outside, he sees his reality slowly starting to wither away as buildings and people appear to disintegrate. The Ancient One shows up again, and we learn of a new twist.

The battle of two Doctor Stranges

It turns out the Ancient One split reality into two timelines the moment Stephen used the Eye of Agamotto to travel back in time using dark magic. This allowed two Stephens to exist in one universe simultaneously, and shortly after learning this, the Doctor Stranges come face to face. One fights for the sake of the universe, and the other fights to save Christine by reversing that absolute point in time.

It's a brutal battle between the two, with dark Stephen coming out victorious as he absorbs the power of his counterpart. He successfully stops Christine's death that night, but that choice ends up decimating the entire universe. This Stephen learns too late that reversing Christine's death changes everything — and in this new reality, everything crumbles, and he loses his love yet again. Stephen talks to the Watcher as the universe disintegrates around them and admits he's always felt his presence. In a last-ditch effort, he begs the Watcher to intervene and set things right, but the overseer refuses. The Watcher says interfering with time and events only leads to further destruction, so he watches the world crumble as Stephen and Christine perish.

The Watcher stands firm

As we learned in the three episodes prior, one decision can change absolutely everything. In Episode 4, it's more evident than ever as the Watcher explains that these choices can destroy the entire universe. Clearly, some choices bear more weight than others. Stephen's response to losing the use of his hands in "Doctor Strange" was substantially different from the reaction he had to the death of Christine. Both stories saw him triumph against Dormammu and become the Sorcerer Supreme, but his partner's death was too much for him to bear, which led to all-out destruction thanks to his always evident arrogance.

While the difference in this story was Christine's death instead of the destruction of his hands, it was ultimately Stephen's decision to reverse that absolute point in time which ended the universe. It was quite a horrifying ending to an already devastating story. Still, it successfully proved the Watcher's point that he has explained for four episodes now — one choice can change everything. We're still left wondering, will the Watcher ever intervene? This is the most we've seen him interact with a story thus far, and it was quite interesting to see him converse with Doctor Strange. If he wouldn't even intervene as the universe was being destroyed, what situation might we see that would force him to step in and do something?