[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for the ending of “What / If” Season 1, streaming now on Netflix.]
What if the ending to “What / If” was bad? Not in the “so bad it’s good” way that drives the first season to juicy, melodramatic glory, but the normal kind of bad, where expectations aren’t met, disappointment ensues, and enraged fans take to the internet demanding a remake. Doubt hung over the middle of the season like the stubborn cloud casting permanent blackness over Imogen’s offices. (Seriously, I know they were about to go broke, but were light bulbs too expensive?) After getting so caught up in Mike Kelley’s throwback thriller, what if all that time watching was for naught? What if the payoff couldn’t match the buildup? What if “What / If” was just another twisty bit of fun that ran out of gas at the finish?
Those who’ve made it through the 10 episodes know this not to be the case. Benefitting from an anthology structure that allowed for a fixed ending, “What / If” came to a dramatic, ridiculous, and altogether gratifying conclusion. And Kelley pulled it off even though the season’s biggest twist was also its most predictable — actually, he pulled off a great ending in spite of any anticipation, which isn’t so easy to do when you’re trying to land a gonzo cat-and-mouse mystery.
As a quick-as-possible refresher, here’s everything that goes down in the wild final few episodes. (Note: Spreading the payoffs over multiple episodes instead of cramming them into one hour helped give each twist its due and balance the emotional throughlines so nothing felt rushed.)
• Dr. Ian (Dave Annable) kidnaps Todd (Keith Powers), and when his prisoner escapes, the overtly misogynistic surgeon takes Angela (Samantha Marie Ware) up to his cabin and makes her play housewife until the vengeful hubby shows up for a macho, mano a mano showdown. Todd tricks the doc into stepping on a bear trap, and then Angela shoots him in the head after Ian convinces her he’ll never stop coming after them. (Dumb move, Ian, you dirty old man.)
• Marcos (Juan Castano) confesses to lighting the fire that killed his parents (and Lisa’s adopted parents). This makes him all the more attractive to his dream boyfriend Lionel (John Clarence Stewart), who proposes that very day. The two wed during the second-to-last scene (with their stripper friend/threesome partner Kevin officiating), thus completing a C-story that was always extremely… normal? Sure, Marcos felt guilty about his old pyro habits, but other than that, the couple’s biggest problem was redecorating the living room (and I’m with Kevin — Marcos’ Day of the Dead painting looked good).
• Cassidy (Daniella Pineda), after being run over by Anne’s nemesis, comes out of her coma and lives happily ever after with Avery (Saamer Usmani) — that’s right! “What/If” even had a coma/amnesia plotline!
• Sean (Blake Jenner), after coming clean about murdering his ex-girlfriend’s would-be rapist nearly a decade prior, goes to prison for 20 months, and gets out in time to meet Lisa (Jane Levy) by their bench. He’s learned his lesson (no more murdering, Sean!) and she’s learned that love is the only thing separating her from her psychotic, badass mother. So they get back together and, I dunno, he plays baseball again and she starts another once-in-a-lifetime medical company?
• Finally, Anne (Renée Zellweger) gets a somewhat happy ending thanks to her loyal enforcer (and murky moral compass) Foster (Louis Herthum). After being ambushed at her childhood apartment by her “Uncle Liam” (Julian Sands), Anne is saved by Foster’s quick thinking — he throws a knife into Liam when he’s not looking, and gets shot before Liam succumbs to his injuries. Cradling Foster in her arms, Anne is told to take her new passport and flee. Instead, or so it appears, she burns down the apartment with everyone inside — including herself…
Of course, the last shot of the series shows a now-brunette Anne sunbathing in Spain, but that’s expected. (How is anyone supposed to believe she’s dead when Jay Jackson, aka Perd Hapley, reads the news report about the fire? Nice touch, Kelley. I see you.) In fact, much of what happens in the end feels inevitable — Marcos getting married, Lisa and Sean getting back together, rich people staying rich. Even the biggest twist was probably plenty of viewers’ first guess:
In Episode 9, “WTF,” Anne Montgomery (real name: Rebecca Tanner) is marched into her childhood apartment and tells Lisa her origin story. Turns out when Anne was a teenager, her prom date cheated on her and she fled to the only man in her life, a handyman played by Josh Kelly. The older authority figure took advantage of her fragile state, and she got pregnant. But when she went to the abortion clinic, her doctor gave her the number of a family who would pay her to carry the baby to term and adopt it when she gave birth. Anne took the money and kept tabs on her child… who later lost her parents in a fire… and was adopted by her nanny!
That’s right! Anne is Lisa’s birth mother. The only reason she inserted herself into Lisa’s life now, with Imogen on the brink of bankruptcy, was to teach her daughter the lesson Anne lives by: Men are the f’n worst, including Sean, her lying hunk of a husband. Without any loved ones to hold them back, without any stupid men, the mother and daughter could forge a future with “limitless potential” — rich, powerful, and diabolically smart, there’s no stopping them.
That’s not entirely fair. Anne’s dictum isn’t exclusive to men, but all attachments. Her life philosophy boils down to Robert De Niro’s in “Heat”: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds, flat, if you feel the heat around the corner.” But the point is, this reveal gives Anne the missing motivation her villainous turn needed while humanizing her at the same time. Yes, by targeting her own daughter, she’s being hypocritical — technically, she could’ve bankrolled and stolen anyone’s company in order to make enough money to escape her “Uncle” — but it’s easy to understand how she justified that choice: She wanted to become even more powerful, with a partner she could trust, even if what she really wanted deep down was to connect with her daughter.
This kind of mindset is nothing short of operatic. It’s exactly the kind of extravagance “What / If” thrives on, which makes it a fitting grand reveal even if it’s also the most expected one. As soon as Lisa said her parents died in a fire, any experienced soap viewer would start waiting for one, if not both, of her folks to show up. Skirting over the fact she was adopted is a nice way to throw folks off the trail, but Anne needed a good reason to target Lisa, and being her mother is a safe first guess, even if you can’t fully explain how it could be true.
But who cares? Even if you guessed the ending, look at all those other plots! An evil doctor kidnaps both members of a couple separately, and then gets shot in the head while he bleeds out in a bear trap! And that’s a secondary plot! Lisa and Sean never even find out it happened! Mike Kelley gives viewers so much to chew on over 10 hours, even if they guess the prime twist, there’s 50 others to keep them hooked. Moreover, all that drama serves as a distraction so viewers don’t spend too much time trying to solve the puzzle. They’re just trying to keep up with all the ostentatious absurdity being thrown in their faces.
“What / If” isn’t reliant on one twist because it’s got a million, but it also benefits from a more wide-ranging structural approach. Kelley, who cut his teeth writing episodes of “The O.C.” and broke out with the ABC nighttime soap “Revenge,” makes the most of his anthology format. Instead of being forced to delay his big reveal until a finale years down the road, he knew Anne’s story was over after 10 episodes. That allowed him to pack everything he wanted into one season. His team effectively spread out the reveals, episode by episode, to keep viewers hooked and steadily built toward a definitive climax. The best endings provide closure, and that’s easier to provide before your character arcs balloon out of control over multiple seasons and you strain the audience’s patience by delaying your biggest twists until the last possible second.
Anne Montgomery’s story is over, and perhaps the best answer it provided was to, “What if a broadcast soap got to wrap up in 10 hours instead of 100?” Sure, the experience doesn’t last as long, but that’s what Season 2 is for — Kelley gets to start from scratch with a fresh cast and a story aiming to top Anne’s. That’s certainly a tricky task, but after Season 1, fans should have far fewer doubts.