3 Body Problem: What Happens to Will? Is He Dead?

Image Credit: Chris Baker/Netflix

In the first half of Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem,’ while his friends are busy figuring out the darker mysteries of the world, Will Downing discovers something bleak about himself: he has pancreatic cancer, it is stage 4, and he is going to die. While his friends try to convince him to try experimental treatments and not give up just yet, Will accepts his fate without any reservations, and this is what makes him a suitable candidate for the Staircase Program. He finally has a purpose, even in death, but things don’t pan out as expected. What does the probe’s journey mean for Will’s fate in ‘3 Body Problem’? SPOILERS AHEAD

Will Escapes Death, Only to Receive a Worse Fate

The Staircase Program started out as a probe that humans needed near the San-Ti fleet to monitor them. But they also knew that sending the probe wouldn’t mean anything as the San-Ti would easily destroy it. This is when they decide to send a human on the probe, believing that the San-Ti wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see a human in person and try to understand their brain, which is the only thing that is out of the San-Ti’s reach at that point.

But then, a healthy human would be too much weight for the probe, which means their only option is to send the human brain. It is believed that San-Ti’s tech is advanced enough to create a human-like structure to house the brain and bring the person back to life. It is an educated decision to assume that the San-Ti would do it because their curiosity about humans is too much for them not to take the risk of having the humans spy on them. Moreover, due to the Sophons, the San-Ti already feel there is nothing the humans can hide from them, so they have nothing to fear.

With this plan in mind, Will’s brain is taken out of his body, it is put in cryogenic sleep, and sent on the probe toward the San-Ti fleet. For all intents and purposes, Will is dead because his friends know that even if he is revived by the San-Ti, there is no way they will let him come back. But things get worse than this when the probe’s launch experiences a massive problem, and instead of being launched on its pre-planned trajectory, it goes off course and gets lost in space.

For all we know, Will’s brain will remain in cryo for as long as the probe’s lights are on, and it will keep drifting into the nothingness of space. When the probe loses power, the cryo will stop working, which will eventually lead to the brain dying for good. This means that Will, both body and brain, is gone and is dead. Or so it appears.

The Book Series Offers a Hopeful Answer to Will’s Fate

Those who have read Liu Cixin’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ series, of which ‘The Three-Body Problem’ is the first part, know that Will’s fate is more hopeful than what we see at the end of the Netflix series. For those who haven’t read the books, this is the time to turn away because there are major book spoilers ahead.

Will’s character in ‘3 Body Problem’ is based on Yun Tianming from the third and final book in the series, ‘Death’s End.’ Tianming and Will’s arc is the same in that both of them have a background in science, and both of them have terminal illnesses, which makes them the perfect candidate for the Staircase Program. The show also borrows Tianming’s relationship with Cheng Xin, on whom Jin Cheng’s character is based. However, the show gives more depth to their story by introducing their equation to the audience right from the beginning.

Like in the show, the Staircase Prorgam in the book also meets a tragic end. The probe is lost, and Tianming is considered gone for good. But there is a twist. While humans’ technology may have fallen short of putting Tianming’s probe on the right path, the aliens have the technology to intercept the probe and get their hands on it. The aliens knew what humans were doing with the Staircase Program, and they also knew what happened with the probe. But while it couldn’t come to them, they could go to it, which isn’t something humans had expected.

In the book, Tianming is found by the aliens, who bring him back to life by creating a new body for him. As was expected, he assimilates with the aliens and develops goodwill with them. However, by then, a lot of things have changed for him as well as humans on Earth, and the Staircase program still remains a failure, with a different path for Tianming. Considering this, it is safe to say that we haven’t seen the last of Will in ‘3 Body Problem’ just yet. He will return in the following seasons of the show, and it would be interesting to see how his arc plays out.

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