What/If
Everything has a price, if you're willing to pay for it. (Illustration by Lily Kim Qian, Parsons, The New School)

The Netflix Original ‘What/If’ Asks What You Would Do to Have It All

This callous billionaire asks: What price would you pay to have it all?

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What/If

This callous billionaire asks: What price would you pay to have it all?

Netflix’s intense and dramatic new series, “What/If,” captures viewers’ attention from the very start, from the trailer all the way to the Season 1 finale. Renee Zellweger stars as the series’s ruthless billionaire, Anne Montgomery, who is well-known for encouraging individuals to strive for success, no matter how high the cost.

In the trailer, Montgomery gives viewers some insight into her entire ideology of success: “Everything happens for a reason,” individuals must be “willing to make the hard choices … do the unpleasant things” and that “sacrifice” is the ultimate necessity one must make in order to attain “true success,” which “comes at any cost.”

Even before watching the pilot episode, viewers are clued in to Montgomery’s ideas and practices, which form the core of the entire show around which all the events — subplots included — develop.

The series pilot begins with young Lisa (Jane Levy), the founder of a struggling startup that focuses on cancer research. Lisa believes her company is doomed to failure until the successful and all-powerful Anne Montgomery walks into her life.

The drama begins its slow burn when Anne offers Lisa a very sizable investment in the young woman’s company; there is a catch, however: Anne gets to spend a night alone with Lisa’s husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), and both Lisa and Sean have to sign a nondisclosure agreement that forbids either of them from speaking of said night’s events. Failure of either partner to abide by the agreement will end in Montgomery becoming the sole owner of Lisa’s company. After careful consideration, Lisa and Sean accept Anne’s offer.

However, their journey with Anne does not end here. Things only get worse for the young couple. While Lisa’s company takes off the ground at full speed, her relationship with her husband deteriorates as Anne continues to meddle in their personal lives.

Throughout the season, “What/If” hints at Sean’s violent past, but it is not until Anne makes it her mission to reveal the truth that viewers — and Lisa — learn the full story. Anne manipulates Sean into turning himself into the police; when the extent of his crimes finally comes to light, there’s shock over Sean’s vicious history, and sadness for Lisa’s emotional devastation in the wake of his revelation. The moments around the arrest itself propel viewers into a whirlwind of emotions, creating a sense of pain, sadness and excitement all at once.

There’s more. The show reveals more dramatic discoveries through the end of Season 1, when they finally learn the truth of Anne and how she came to live her life so cruelly. Throughout the series, viewers get a glimpse of small snippets of Anne’s childhood. They can piece together enough to know that her father was not around, her mother was neglectful and abusive and that young Anne was a timid, shy girl.

Not until Lisa confronts Anne do viewers learn the full truth of something that ties them together, something from long before the callous billionaire first walked into Lisa’s struggling business. The thrilling discovery reveals Anne’s keen interest in Lisa’s life, not only in terms of her professional career, but in her marriage as well. Here, viewers learn why the master manipulator is pushing Lisa so aggressively to cut all emotion from her life — to make the “hard choices” in order to find her own success.

In addition to the saga of Anne and Lisa, “What/If” offers up equally dramatic subplots. For instance, viewers feel significant drama within the marriage of Todd (Keith Powers) and Angela (Samantha Marie Ware), two friends of Lisa and Sean. They learn that Angela is cheating on Todd with her boss, Chief of Surgery Dr. Ian Harris (Dave Annable).

Here, viewers are not only fed more drama, but they also see Anne’s words of wisdom being practiced unknowingly by average people uninvolved in her schemes. Enthralled audience members watch a young woman who is forced to make the difficult choice between two paths: a successful career as a surgeon at the price of submission to her male superior, or giving up that success in order to save her marriage. She must choose success at one thing while sacrificing another.

Viewers also see Anne’s ideas in the narrative of Lisa’s brother, Marcos, and his boyfriend, Lionel. As “What/If” progresses, viewers see that their relationship is not as picture perfect as it initially seems. We see both partners, perhaps unknowingly, enacting Anne’s ideologies: “[doing] the unpleasant things.”

In learning that Marcos feels too boring and unadventurous in his current life, Lionel decides to make a sacrifice and brings another man into their relationship in order to improve Marcos’ perception of himself. Lionel sacrifices his sexual exclusivity with his boyfriend — the love of his life — in order to achieve the greater reward of Marcos’ happiness.

Not only does “What/If” captivate its audience with copious amounts of drama, causing viewers to soak up every ounce of its juicy plot line, but it also challenges the audience to wonder: Is Anne’s philosophy worth considering — despite the brutality displayed by her character and the horrific acts she imposes on others with no remorse? Perhaps she is right. After all, haven’t viewers watched her doctrine play out in both the Anne and Lisa’s lives, as well as in the lives of others?

It’s certainly plausible that the main point the show’s producers are attempting to illuminate is that sacrifice is inevitable. Everyone makes them, whether they are a multi-billionaire, a significant other or a 20-something climbing toward their career goal.

Everyone might not be as ruthless and cold-hearted as Anne Montgomery, but everyone must pay a price in order to succeed.

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