WARNING: Major spoilers for What/If season 1 ahead.
Netflix’s What/If season 1 ending raises questions about fate and free will. Early on, the neo-noir drama styles itself as a throwback to ‘90s erotic thrillers, but ultimately transforms into a commentary on big business and relationship ethics. Set in San Francisco, What/If season 1 demonstrates that seemingly well-meaning people have different interpretations of how a moral compass should work, especially after it’s broken and re-built.
What/If season 1 follows the personal and professional relationship between venture capitalist Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger) and biotech entrepreneur Lisa Ruiz-Donovan (Jane Levy). Early on, What/If’s inciting incident transpires when Anne implies that she’ll fund Lisa's company Emigen in exchange for one night with her husband Sean (Blake Jenner), a moment that references the 1993 erotic thriller Indecent Proposal. What/If season 1 presses harder with its psychosexual themes while exploring the romantic conflict between Lisa’s lawyer brother Marcos (Juan Castano) and his boyfriend Lionel (John Clarence Stewart). Overall, What/If season 1's subplots complement the Lisa-Anne storyline, as characters learn to not only accept their life decisions, but attempt to gain some personal insight for the future.
What/If season 1 marks the beginning of an anthology series, so the character conflict is mostly resolved by the end. Here's a breakdown of the major character dynamics, and what they mean for the story.
Anne & Lisa: Information Is Power
Lisa grows up believing that her parents were killed in a fire. As an adult, she uses inheritance money to create Emigen with her friend Cassidy Barrett (Daniella Pineda). That’s where What/If season 1 begins. Despite showing enormous potential as a businesswoman, Lisa appears naive and needs more money. Early on, Anne recognizes Lisa’s “innate prowess,” and proceeds to make the aforementioned "indecent proposal." For the erotic thriller premise, this dynamic creates a palpable amount of drama and informs the audience about character motivations.
Midway through What/If season 1, Lisa manages to overcome her insecurities about her husband's relationship with Anne. Incidentally, she forms a genuine bond with her business mentor, which sets up the series’ climatic events. By episode 8, “What Secrets,” Anne and Lisa appear to be on solid ground and manage to better understand each other as women. But it’s revealed that Anne has been plotting a strategic business move, one that she’s not necessarily thrilled about making. Anne will take bids from “Big Pharma” for Emigen and attempt to gain full control (for multiple, financially-motivated reasons). As a result, Lisa will lose her "baby."
The penultimate episode of What/If season 1 highlights Anne's true motivations, as she's revealed to be Lisa’s biological mother. She details her backstory and how a traumatic event led to an unplanned pregnancy, resulting in Anne giving away her newborn for money. In What/If season 1, Anne's original business proposal wasn’t simply about power and sex, it was fundamentally about Lisa fulfilling her potential as Anne's daughter. Unsurprisingly, Lisa doesn’t quite understand Anne's personal motivations, nor does she fully believe that Anne is her real mother, but she does understand her business strategy. In the What/If season 1 finale, Lisa stays one step ahead by using personal information as business leverage. She now understands that her Emigen concepts can’t be patented, and decides to leak her “propriety technique.” This derails Anne’s billion-dollar deal with Big Pharma.
What/If season 1 ends with Lisa giving Anne a taste of her own medicine. She plays dirty and uses insider information to gain a moral victory. Anne is subsequently labeled as a “#PharmaBitch” on social media, and she later posts a suicide audio clip on Twitter upon burning down her former home (which proves to be another strategic move). In the final scene, Lisa discusses her non-profit organization on television, along with her relationship with the seemingly-deceased Anne. It’s not a matter of what she learned, Lisa notes, but whether she understands her mentor. The final image of What/If season 1 shows Anne relaxing at a beach, staring directly at her daughter’s face on television. There’s a sense of mutual understanding, twisted as it may be.
Sean: The Truth Will Set You Free
As the primary male protagonist, Sean is presented as a loving but deeply flawed husband to Lisa. From the beginning, he’s manipulated by Anne and forced to confront his dark past. Sean agrees to the “indecent proposal” and then becomes gaslighted into believing he’s a monster. This concept is highlighted in the eighth episode of What/If season 1, as he turns himself into the police for beating a man to death years before. Anne then bails him out, which essentially sets up a Frankenstein moment: Anne becomes the mad scientist, and Sean becomes the submissive monster.
By the penultimate episode of What/if season 1, Sean seeks redemption. In addition, Anne’s long-time protector, Foster (Louis Herthum), also seeks redemption. Both men understand what needs to be done. So, Foster provides Sean with access to Anne’s private ledgers. This moment sets up narrative resolution for both characters in the What/If season 1 finale. Sean brings the files to Lisa, and they decide to forget about all their problems for one night. Soon thereafter, Sean appears in court for a moment of truth. Much to his surprise, Lisa’s brother Marcos shows up to defend him and pleads for a manslaughter charge, as Sean had been defending his then-girlfriend when the incident in question took place. Sean receives 20 months in prison and reunites with Lisa in the What/If season finale. He's re-born and able to start anew.
As for Foster, he finds salvation through death. Through flashback sequences, What/If season 1 reveals that Anne gave Foster purpose. Still, he's skeptical about Anne’s treatment of Lisa. Foster believes that just actions are the most important, so he provides Sean with secret ledgers, and provides Anne with legal documents that will allow her to escape; a contingency plan. In the What/If season 1 finale, Foster is confronted by Liam Strom (Julian Sands), the Big Bad who is responsible for taking advantage of Anne’s “suppressed humanity," and thus unleashing her wrath onto the world. At Anne’s former home, Foster kills Liam but takes a bullet in the process. He understands that he must die while protecting Anne. There’s no other way. For Sean and Foster, the truth will set them free.
Angela & Todd: Mercy and Acceptance
In What/If season 1, Keith and Samantha represent the themes of acceptance and mercy. Early on, it’s revealed that Samantha is cheating on her long-time partner Keith. And her side-piece, Ian, is revealed to be obsessive and jealous. This subplot takes a dark turn when Ian spies on the couple and sends them a pig heart. For Samantha, she’s concerned about her newly-discovered pregnancy, but finds relief when Keith is revealed to be the father. Meanwhile, Ian consistently berates Keith for a perceived lack of masculinity. This all connects to Keith’s childhood and a difficult relationship with his father. Ian represents the bad boy, whereas Keith is the prototypical nice guy, one who nearly enters the “friend zone” in his own marriage.
During the What/If season 1 climax, Ian kidnaps Samantha and takes her to a rural cabin. Keith tracks them down and vows to prove himself as a man. The two men engage in hand-to-hand combat, and the scuffle ends when Ian gets caught in a literal trap. Samantha empowers herself by taking control of the situation and decides to treat Ian’s wounds, but only if he agrees to own up to his behavior and actions. Ultimately, Samantha kills Ian when he continues to threaten the couple's safety. Despite not being entirely relevant to the primary Lisa-Anne storyline in What If season 1, this particular subplot effectively explores themes of empathy, masculinity, acceptance, and mercy.
In What/If season 1, Lisa evolves into a confident and self-aware businesswoman. She learns to love again by forgiving Sean, and by witnessing the trials and tribulations of her brother Marcos, a character who forgives himself for setting a fire that killed Lisa's birth parents. Marcos realizes that he must love himself before he can truly love someone else. And that exact concept applies to the collective supporting characters of What/If season 1, all of whom struggle with the concepts of fate and failure.