Episode Analysis: What If... the Watcher Broke His Oath?
The first season finale of What If...? ties everything together and shows how stories like this can be done.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for the entirety of What If...? and the MCU. Read at your own risk.
I liked it! I genuinely liked it. What If... the Watcher Broke His Oath? wasn't exactly a shocking plot twist when the advertising for the show revealed that it was going to happen before the show even aired. But, as always, if a story is written well a spoiler doesn't have the power to ruin it. I thought this was written and handled pretty well.
Of course I have some quibbles because hi, it's me. But as with other episodes the quibbles are minor and not me hitting the ep with a huge stamp marked "FAIL!"
Because of that I'm also going to take some time to go over the season as a whole and how I rank everything, and of course round it out with our last discussion about voice actors (until such time as either season two or another show makes me have that discussion).
Let's get to it.
What If... The Show Did a Good Job?
I'm abusing the title format for nostalgia's sake here. As I say I do think this was a great ep. By definition it's not an episode that can stand on its own, which I'll talk about more when I get into ranking the eps from this season. But it was an episode which stood nicely on the shoulders of what came before it regardless of whether or not those individual episodes were as strong as they could have been.
The episode was written by AC Bradley which is no surprise given that it's both the season one finale and also a plot point heavy ep. But credit where due, AC's style of rapidly checking off plot points instead of dealing with character motivation is exactly what's needed for an episode like this. Other than one moment in which I wish we did get some character beats (more on this in a sec) there really wasn't time for anything like that. This episode needed to be brisk and efficient and that's exactly what AC is good at.
Of course an argument can be made that the episode could've used more time. But on the other hand I don't know that it needed to. If anything I could see a few moments where a few seconds could've been trimmed here and there (we get it, Party Thor didn't get into Asgard University on an academic scholarship, please stop beating that eight legged horse to death now). Beyond that the pacing was so good I didn't feel like we were lacking for anything, or not anything significant enough to have been worth adding an extra 10 or 30 minutes.
For those who might not be in the know the one thing we were robbed of is the episode which explained what in the tapdancing fuck Tony and Gamora were doing together, let alone with Gamora wearing Thanos's armor. That was the "What if Tony landed on Sakaar?" episode which was scheduled for this season but got pushed to season two because of covid. Can't hold that against anybody, can only sigh that we have to wait and see how that story plays out. Frankly if anything I was happy for the reveal that Gamora in the armor was unexplained, because my concern had been that they'd try to shoehorn in her plot into this episode. So color me relieved that her story is getting plenty of room of its own, even if it requires me to be patient.
Given my many, MANY complaints about the repetitive "they punch each other then punch each other some more" fight scenes allow me to give a shout out to the creativity that we finally saw in this episode. It started with Batroc, where blessedly the animators remembered that if a guy is known as "the leaper" his fighting style by definition is not arm heavy, and then continued to everyone fighting Ultron and landing in different types of attacks based on fighting style. THANK you, yes. More of this please.
Let me also pause to acknowledge that Strange Supreme's episode did have some creativity by having the two Stranges attack each other with spells, and spells with some clever animations at that. But the problem there was that the fight had exactly zero stakes. We knew going into it that there was no way Strange Supreme could lose, so the only reason for the scene to exist or the audience to watch was for the animators to show off their future sizzle reels.
Well done fight scenes - animated or otherwise- have to be interesting to look at, reflect the characters' individual personalities, and have the audience unable to tell who is going to win. And if you want a prime example of that I think you'd have a hard time doing better than the Captain America: The Winter Soldier highway fight scene. Natasha doesn't fight like Steve who doesn't fight like Bucky who doesn't fight like Sam. Not just that but you could put this scene down in front of someone who has never met these characters before and they would immediately be able to guess things like Nat, who darts in and out of battle and picks her hits wisely, is probably an assassin or a spy while Steve, who charges head on and attacks directly and with the hope of taking control of things, is an accomplished fighter and a leader.
The status of the battle also changes with balanced pacing of who is winning at any given time and how that status changes at any moment. We don't know how this will end until it ends. The whole thing is geared to make us understand the characters, care about the characters, and care about the battle.
The list goes on but you get my point. Even with characters who in theory only have a skillset geared towards punching, like a super soldier, you can bring a lot to the table of what a fight scene is showing us. Strange vs Strange had a lot of flash but no substance. Every other fight we've seen so far may or may not have had some characterization or stakes but nothing interesting to watch.
All of which is to say it's always my goal to compliment things that are well done as much as it is to shake my head when they aren't. And the fighting in this episode was well done, so thank you to everyone involved for that.
Also in terms of pacing and stakes I want to give a tip of the hat to the moment zombie Wanda showed up. It was a good use of the zombies in this ep (I had fear the zombie ep callback for the finale was going to be something like Scott's talking head yet again) plus I loved how it was a twist on the "we have a Hulk" joke by having it be Wanda instead. That's the kind of creativity with humor I cry for with a running gag. Don't keep repeating the same punchline over and over again like a second grader who just learned the "orange you glad I didn't say banana?" joke. Take what worked the first time and figure out how to make it fresh the next time you use it.
What made it even better is that we were primed for Hulk to show up since the last we saw the zombie pile he was being overrun by them. His story was left on a question mark of what would come next, so there was an unconscious expectation given to us that, upon seeing the zombies again and "what came with them" it was going to be the answer to what happened to Hulk. Showing Wanda, then, was a surprise and a double oh shit moment since we both remembered how dangerous she was and we have the implication of how much more dangerous she is since where the fuck is Hulk anyway?
So yeah, loved that.
I also want to shout out the beauty of the ending. Having the Nat of the Ultron-destroyed world come over to the world of the murdered Avengers was a great touch in terms of giving a callback to that episode but also to the death of Natasha in MCU canon. Who among us, when hearing that this was a universe that lost its Nat, didn't immediately think of the movies? Yes, this particular universe isn't the MCU but the idea that a Nat who lost everything could find a home in a place without a Nat was sweet, and earned. And that they understood it should be Nick Fury of all people who recognized her for who she was and welcomed her to her new place was just chef's kiss.
I cried, I'm not ashamed to admit it.
I do have some quibbles, as I said, but they are minor. First up I get that Killmonger dismissed T'Challa as "not my cousin" but I still would've liked at least some initial reaction from Killmonger seeing a living T'Challa in front of him and Star-Lord T'Challa discovering who Killmonger was (since this version hadn't learned about what happened to Killmonger and his parents). I get that the episode didn't have much time for it and I'm not saying we needed to sit down and go deep in it, but a few frames of animation of the two of them looking at each other with surprise would've gone far here.
Second, why in the fuck was Party Thor there? I get that for us he's there because he was in this season. But there is exactly zero reason to pick him out of the infinite multiverses of Thors. The only skills Party Thor brought to the, well, party are that he wields Mjölnir: first to throw lighting to summon Ultron and second so Strange Supreme could do the spell to summon a giant ball of them. Literally any Thor with a Mjölnir could have done this and many of them would've been skilled at fighting too! Party Thor didn't even bring drinks with him, which is arguably the one skillset he has!
What's kind of funny for me personally is that leading into this I tried to come up with ways the show would solve this problem. My first assumption was that Strange Supreme would have a "Shut the hell up everyone" scene of his own and say that in all the variations he looked at the one where they used Party Thor is the only one where they succeeded.
Then my next guess was based on me making an offhand joke of "What, was Party Thor just standing there when the fight started?" then realizing that could actually make sense and tie to the end of Thor's episode when we see Ultron show up. The What If...? Avengers form, they go after Ultron, Ultron happens to be on Party Thor's Earth at the time, boom! Done!
So for me it was actually a funny if unintentional on the show's part running gag when instead of using this or any other explanation, they actually repeatedly made it a point to say that Party Thor was kind of useless and it was entirely Uatu's doing, no it doesn't make sense, just happened, yup there it is, being a dumb idea.
(Have Thor summon Ultron with another party! Which is the other thing I thought they were going to do when Thor said he was known for attracting attention! But nope! Just some lightning! Nothing special! Literally any Thor with a Mjölnir could do it!)
To be clear the inclusion of Party Thor doesn't make me tear my hair out as much as constantly screwing up the Dora cue. I get on a meta level he's included because he was in this season. So it genuinely amuses me that they just went fuck it and leaned in to how it didn't make sense.
(Also? They didn't fuck up and use the Dora cue this ep! THANK BAST.)
The Voice Acting
We didn't have anybody new this episode so nobody new to rate. I mean yes Cynthia McWilliams with Gamora but she didn't really have enough lines to judge. We'll save that for next season's Sakaar ep.
I will say that Jeffrey Wright did better this week than last though I think it was helped that Uatu was back in attempting a slightly more impartial mode compared to last week with his supposedly frantic pleas for Nat and Clint to notice the Zola file.
Beyond that let me take a moment to give MVP to Lake Bell who adeptly demonstrated why you want a skilled voice actor in the job. Note how in this episode she was not only voicing Natasha and doing a passable ScarJo imitation while she did it, but she was doing two Natashas. One Natasha of a, other than the presence of Captain Carter, canon compliant world up to the start of The Winter Soldier, another a battle scarred sole survivor of an apocalypse who had just lost the one person she had left.
Not only that but you can tell the difference between the two versions. And what I particularly loved is that the episode gave us the gift of the perfect example: both Nats reply to Peggy's "I've got the shield, you've got the sword" line. Put aside the sight difference in wording from daggers to arrows. If you listen to the first Nat you can hear her saying the line smoothly. This is a Nat without extreme stressors on her life doing a practiced call and response with a woman who is her closest trusted companion. With the second Nat her voice is rougher. She doesn't know the line or this Peggy as well but she can still respond to it with something resembling humor, albeit the tired humor of someone who's had a very long however it's been since Ultron's rise.
That is the kind of shit a voice actor does and does with nothing but their voice. You can close your eyes and listen to the two Nats and still understand the differences in their lives and the tweaks that their individual universes have made to their personalities.
And look not to pick on the poor boy who is a perfectly lovely actor when you can see him but in the same way you can see how fucking amazing an Olympic athlete is if my uncoordinated ass tried to do any of the events, notice how not only was Sebastian Stan unable to give different versions of Captain Carter Bucky vs zombie world Bucky, frankly the only thing that made you believe he was Bucky was that he plays the character in the movies. Dude's line readings were flatter than my chest before fifth grade.
Again, I'm not knocking the guy! He's got talents and I compliment accordingly when he does a great job, like the look of betrayal when Okoye removed his vibranium arm, which was excellent face acting. But it was face acting. SebStan's skills, much like Jeffrey Wright's and Mark Ruffalo's, are too closely tied to his physicality. Like many actors, he didn't automatically have the innate skillset to translate what his character was doing into a purely vocal form. (And I maintain that he and all the other actors were severely disadvantaged by working with a director who has no prior experience with anything except storyboarding, seriously, for real, what the actual fuck with that decision?)
So yeah, great job Lake Bell and thanks to the show for giving me this perfect setup for the discussion. And for old time's sake let me tip the hat to Cree Summer to round out this season's recap list of skilled and hard working voice actors.
Ranking The Eps
As promised last week, I'm going to give my attempt at ranking the episodes of this season. Having given it some thought, though, I feel like doing a list of one through nine, best to worst, doesn't do them justice.
Reason being that while I thought this episode was great, it can't exist without having watched the other episodes. Which in terms of a number ranking means I'd need to put it lower since it can't stand on its own. Likewise there are episodes which are good but not great, or bad but not horrible, and many which aren't really better or worse enough to be worth a different rank than another episode of similar quality.
So instead I'm going to do like the cool kids from at least two years ago and make it more of a grouped ranking. I'm too lazy to translate all of this into one of those graphs with the letters on the side so you're getting text. Cope.
Also I'm skipping the official titles and going with easier identifiers.
Top Tier, Best of the Season: T'Challa Star Lord, What If Avengers
Pretty Good Even If Not the Greatest of the Great: Captain Carter, Zombies, Killmonger and Tony Fucked Each Other But Sadly It Was Offscreen
Not Great, Not Terrible: Hank Pym Kills the Avengers, Ultron's Rise
Meh: Party Thor
Sit In The Corner With Loki And Think About What You've Done: Strange Supreme
As always, things that don't fit anywhere else.
- Shout out to all the people who, upon meeting Captain Carter in the first ep, immediately leapt to start shipping her with Natasha. Congratulations on eating well tonight.
- Seriously, Peggy and both versions of Nat had far more chemistry than Peggy and any version of Steve. You cannot change my mind on this.
- I loved how Peggy knowing the name of all forms of Nat's family was both a great shorthand for how well she and Nat knew each other, why Nat from the Apocalypse world would immediately trust Peggy, and was also shady as fuck towards MCU canon Steve who was on the run with Natasha for years and didn't even know she had a family.
- Seriously if Tony Stark has more emotional intelligence than you you know you've fucked up.
- All that being said the mid-credit scene means I'm still holding out hope for my idea that in Captain Carter's world Steve is the one who became the Winter Soldier.
- I wasn't a fan of Peggy putting the shield away to fight Batroc. I get that it's a callback to when Steve did it and took his helmet off but personally I love the, until Peggy did it, leitmotif that female heroes never engage in this kind of bullshit posturing because they have more important shit to do.
- When Peggy was staring at Strange in his tentacle mass form I thought the ending was going to be a twist that Strange Supreme was the monster Hydra summoned which forced Peggy into the future thus creating a massive time loop. I'm not mad it didn't go that way. Just throwing that out there for anybody who feels like writing the fanfic.
- I loved that T'Challa Star-Lord was immediately on top of and fixing the Ego problem. Is there anything he can't handle?
- There was going to be a T'Challa Star-Lord spin off series. Just in case you weren't feeling heartbroken enough.
- Back on the idea of creativity in fights, I wasn't mad about the stretch where we were focused on the stone while the fight happened in glimpses in the background. Reason being it worked symbolically - the stone was the reason for the fighting and the focus of the character's attentions even if they weren't actively looking at it - but also it wasn't the entire fight. It was one visual tool of many to break up the monotony. If the fight had been nothing but the stone I would've called shenanigans.
- I have a lot of questions about Gamora's stone crusher but I assume those will get answered in her episode. So I'm not holding any stone crusher related plot holes against this ep until we find out more.
- That being said, while I get that Uatu's plan was always to get them to the point where Ultron and Killmonger were locked in tug of war over the stones, what exactly happened until then? Like it looked like they killed Ultron and the stones but they... didn't? So was that an illusion? Did they do it but Ultron reformed? Other?
- Speaking of questionable logic, while it made a kind of sense that Nat and Clint would put Zola into an Ultron drone so he would have a wifi connection to send a "shut down" signal to Ultron in last week's episode, it's a little hinky that Nat of all people wouldn't see the potential downside of giving a fucking Nazi direct access to the Infinity Stones.
- I want the scene of Uatu and Strange Supreme workshopping the "Guardians of the Multiverse" name. Though probably more likely Uatu came up with it on his own and Strange Supreme just facepalmed and reminded himself even his immortal life is too short to argue about it.
And there we are! If I may indulge myself a moment - and once again I'm not writing this on a livestream and there's no comment section so you can't stop me - I'd like to thank everybody for their patience during this run since it was the first time that my health issues put up a significant obstacle to getting these episode articles up on what passes for a schedule around here. Everyone was very understanding and it doesn't seem to have messed anything up so much appreciated for being there for me as that happened.
We gained a lot of new subscribers here so for those who don't know at the very least I'm planning on reviewing Hawkeye when it comes out. On the Pop Culture front there are also some other shows I have my eye on but I don't know yet if I will do writeups of them. Or, if I do, if those writeups will appear here or as Ko-Fi Member exclusives (coughShamelessPlugcough).
Likewise the downtime in between TV series is when the other categories get more love so there will be articles coming up in the near future about disability and other related topics. As I mentioned in the recent Behind the Scenes for paid subscribers (coughAnotherShamlessPlugcough) the way my health works is that I can typically top out at one article a week, so if I'm working on a series it's harder to do anything else. Again I appreciate everyone's patience and understanding with that.
And there we are! Thanks for joining and I appreciate everyone's support, be it through free things like retweets, hearting Instagram posts, and signal boosting and/or through the stuff like donations which are also a big help.
See you next time!
Get access to exclusive reviews, essays, and more by treating yourself to a Ko-Fi membership. Memberships help to keep the site running and free to all readers. Thank you for your support!