The character, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, is an all-knowing cosmic being who observes and guides us through the show’s various alternate realities, essentially serving as What If…?’s Rod Serling stand-in. He’s a disengaged, wry narrator meant to remain an observer and nothing more.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear just how much The Watcher struggles to maintain that distance. As various tragedies and betrayals unfold in front of him, the character’s desire to help those he’s watching has become palpable.
Now, the series’ latest episode gives us reason to believe the Watcher may break his oath before What If…?’s first season comes to a close.
The Role of The Watcher — The Watcher’s appearances in early episodes of What If…? were, for the most part, fairly subtle and easy to miss. Usually, he was shown as a faceless silhouette standing in the background — sometimes even blending in with a scene’s respective environment or locale (see the above image).
This was a clearly deliberate choice on the part of the What If…? creative team, one that made The Watcher feel more like a part of the universe than an actual inhabitant of it.
That pattern has changed recently, with The Watcher’s physical features shown more explictly in recent episodes. Nowhere is that more apparent than in What If…? Episode 6, which shows The Watcher not as some faceless figure observing from afar, but as an easily distinguishable being looking on with disapproval as yet another timeline takes a dark turn.
It’s a subtle but effective visual trick. And it doesn’t just make The Watcher’s growing struggle with remaining an impartial cosmic observer explicitly clear; it also lays the groundwork for the character to become more active in the multiverse sometime soon.
Stepping Into the Spotlight — In the final moments of What If…? Episode 4, a dark, alternate reality version of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees The Watcher observing his reality’s destruction from afar and begs him for help. It’s a major moment — the first time that a character in What If…? actually notices and addresses The Watcher — made more noteworthy by the fact that The Watcher actually responds to Strange.
Propelling himself briefly into the crumbling reality, The Watcher tells Strange that not only can he not help him, but that he wouldn’t — even if he could. “I’m not a god. And neither are you,” The Watcher says. “Honestly, if I could fix this, if I could punish you instead, I would. But I can’t interfere.”
The scene marks the first time we actually get to see The Watcher as more than just a silhouette with glowing eyes. It’s the moment at which The Watcher becomes a tangible, physical being; ever since, What If…? has leaned less on depicting him as some shady, indiscernible specter.
Instead, the series has brought the Watcher into the foreground more and more, making us aware of both his presence and of his growing desire to take a more active role in the universes he’s watching over.
The implication is clear: watching the destruction of Strange’s universe marked an emotional shift in The Watcher, one that could very well lead to him intervening in a future episode (presumably What If…?’s Season 1 finale) — as many fans have previously speculated.
The Inverse Analysis — What If…? has made bold and unexpected moves across its first six episodes — some of which have proven more successful than others. But the show has done a consistently good job of both introducing The Watcher into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and communicating his thoughts and emotions, even with just a handful of lines and key narrative decisions.
The show’s treatment of The Watcher is especially clever in its sixth installment. The episode manages to use nothing more than the character’s physical presentation to visually set up the major turning point What If…? has been building towards ever since its first episode — the moment when The Watcher finally decides to step up.
What If…? is streaming now on Disney+.